Brown bagging it

workingman's lunch

“Lunch for the workingman” as shown in the Homemakers’ Cookbook (1946).

We all know there’s no better way to cut the food budget and the calories simultaneously than to pack a lunch for work or trips. (If you’re dead clever it can also be a great way to use up leftovers.) But, like any other frugal or homey skill it takes practice and know-how to pack a lunch that’s worth eating, let alone carrying.

I mentioned this in passing in my article on airing laundry, but since home economics classes have all but vanished it seems like a lot of household management skills are taken for granted. Though your parents were employed full time and you had no classes that covered the subject in school you are expected to instinctively know how to do things like make a bed, balance a checkbook, plan a menu, or pack a lunch. For five years now I’ve been packing my own and Matt’s work lunches, as well as snacks and picnic lunches for trips, and I’m finally starting to get the hang of it.

Before you run out and buy a snazzy new lunch box there are some variables to consider when pacing your own or someone else’s lunch. (These tips are all good for picnics, too, but I’ll be focusing on the dreaded lunchpail.): Is a microwave available on site? (If yes, you have gajillions of options. If no, don’t send anything that isn’t palatable cold or at room temperature.) How about a can opener? Will the eater’s hands be dirty? (Yes? Then “diaper” all foods with napkins or waxed paper.) Will the eater be eating standing up? (In which case you want the food to be of the hand-held variety as opposed to the kind that requires a plate or bowl, like salad or soup.) Needs to watch calories? Likes to share? (Pack extra or they will seek respite in fast food or vending machines!) Will flatware or napkins be required? What’s the weather like or what is the atmosphere like in the workspace? (Is it too windy for light foods like chips? Matt is a machinist in a big drafty building and welcomes a hot thermos of stew on a winter’s day – but our friend Mose works in a big foundry where the interior temperature is mind-boggling even in December.). Is there food (via vending machine, cafeteria, or nearby cafe) available on-site that may constitute a portion of the meal (meaning that what you pack will just supplement it)?


This is the little tin lunchbox I used to tote to work. When we rode the steam train in September I packed a picnic lunch in it of beef pasties, ploughman’s pickle, white cheddar slices, and sparkling apple juice

Next, consider yourself. Do you have time to make a lunch from scratch? Assembling Matt’s lunch takes me about ten minutes in the morning after breakfast, but that doesn’t factor in the time I spend baking bread and cookies and crackers. If you are busy or new to this game don’t be ashamed to pack a lunch comprised solely or largely of foods that come ready-packed in individual servings (single-serving puddings and yogurts, pre-chopped fruits, packaged sandwiches from the grocery store deli, etc.). When you have the time and/or inclination you can ramp up your involvement in the making of the makings – but even if you don’t you can rest assured that you’re still saving money and belly fat over a daily drive through the drive-thru! Your first baby step off the all-convenience packed lunch is to buy the big container of whatever and re-portion it yourself into baggies or other small containers. From there you can move on to the snap-apart-and-bake cookies and from there to scratch baking.OK, now that you’ve worked through that dizzying array of questions you probably have a good idea of how much you need to pack and whether or not it needs to be kept cold or hot. That will tell you what kind of lunch box or bag to buy or make. Thrift stores are bursting with good, sturdy Igloo-type boxes such as Matt uses. Antique stores are a good source of the dome-topped tin ones I prefer. And the internet is awash with brilliant ideas for sewing ingenious bags – some of which fold out into placemats and whatnot.

Most lunches out there are built around sandwiches. Less often, packed lunches are built around hot or reheatable leftovers or soup, but when most people think “lunch box” they think “sandwich.” (Outside of Japan, that is, where lunches to go are a freaking art form.) So, sandwiches: You have a lot of fillings and a lot of breads to choose from. You can switch it up with a roll, bagel, or wrap. Or try pasties or calzones for a hand-held option that needs no bread. Skip the mayo and sub your favorite salad dressing or pesto or aioli. Pair horseradish sauce with roast beef or pastrami. A schmear of cream cheese will add an indefinable extra lusciousness to any sandwich – sweet or savory. Slice or shred leftover meat from last night’s dinner. (I am a connoisseur of meatloaf sandwiches.) Don’t forget about good old egg salad, tuna salad, and PBJ – personally, I consider these “poor relations” to be comfort food. Try to recreate your deli favorite. Use sprouts instead of (or in addition to) lettuce. I like to very lightly coat the insides of my bread with butter if the filling is extra juicy or if the sandwich will be traveling quite far, as it prevents the bread from getting soggy. Matt, though he likes his soup so full of crackers that it must be reclassified as a solid material, prefers his sandwiches to be sloppy and damp, and forbids the use of butter. It takes all kinds.

And then there’s everything else that goes into a lunch – the side items and snacks and what have you. Pretzels, chips, crackers, vegetable sticks, fruit (washed and whole or cut up and bagged), chocolate bars or other candy (give them “fun-size” bars if they just need a little something), yogurt, cottage cheese (with fruit or honey or jam), string cheese, cookies or granola bars, hand pies, trail mix, hard-boiled eggs (or deviled!), and you can supplement a sandwich with soup, stew, or hot leftovers in a vacuum container.

If you’re short of ideas check out some of these great menu suggestions from my vintage cookbooks:

Lunch Box Menus for Industrial Workers from Homemakers’ Cookbook and Guide to Nutrition (by Esther L. Gardner, M.A. et al, 1946)

Menu 4.
Baked bean sandwich
Avocado and egg sandwich
Celery curls, radishes, and green onions
Individual picnic pie

Menu 5.
Baked beans
Boston brown bread with butter
Celery stuffed with cottage cheese
Creamy rice pudding
Tomato juice

Menu Suggestions [for the school lunch] from The American Woman’s Cook Book (by Ruth Berolzheimer, 1943)

Menu 3.
Cream cheese sandwiches
Tomatoes and rice (in vacuum container)
Custard with jelly and graham crackers

Menu 4.
Boston brown bread sandwiches with cottage cheese filling
Cocoa (in vacuum container)
Apple sauce
Graham or oatmeal crackers

It’s not a coincidence – all my cookbooks from this period were really pushing the cottage cheese and the Boston brown bread (zweiback and rusks, too). Nonetheless, I remain intrigued by the concept of a baked bean sandwich.

In parting, I offer you the two basic menus that I use to pack Matt’s lunch.

Hot Weather:
Big sandwich (homemade bread, meat from deli counter, cheese sliced from brick, Ranch dressing, tomato slice)
Pretzels (Bought in the big bag and broken down into serving sizes in baggies)
Cookies (homemade)
Crackers (sometimes homemade sometimes storebought)
Mixed nuts or hard-boiled egg
Chocolate bar
Powdered drink mix for him to reconstitute at work in a Nalgene

Cold Weather:
Small sandwich
Vacuum container of soup or stew
Nuts or egg
Chocolate bar
Thermos of coffee

I realize that this has been quite a long post, but that’s because I have a lot to say on the subject, and it’s rather a broad one. I’m not the only one who thinks so, either – there are whole books devoted to the subject of portable meals, such as The Brown Bag Lunch Cookbook by Miriam Jacobs.


— Amanda


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