We’re teaming up with fellow food bloggers to host a Brown-Bag Challenge, a month-long initiative to eat consciously and save money by packing a lunch each weekday instead of eating out. Join us here and share what you’re eating on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #brownbag.
Cara Eisenpress and Phoebe Lapine are the bloggers behind Big Girls, Small Kitchen (BGSK), a food website of accessible recipes and easy entertaining, and Small Kitchen College, a guide to cooking, eating, drinking, and living on- and off-campus. Their first cookbook, In the Small Kitchen: 100 Recipes from Our Year of Cooking in the Real World, features a foreword by Ina Garten, contains lots of recipes and twenty-something anecdotes, and is in bookstores now.
Back in July, they hosted a Brown-Bag Week of their own on Small Kitchen College to get readers—and themselves—eating homemade food on the go. We checked in with them for lunch-packing tips, since we’re right in the middle of our own such challenge.
HE: What made you decide to do brown-bag challenge?
BGSK: We are big believers in the benefits of bringing your lunch with you to work (we have a whole chapter about “packing the quarter-life lunchbox” in our book!). We wanted to try and get the college set in the habit early. So we decided to challenge post-grads starting first corporate jobs, undergrads doing summer internships, and office-bound “old hats” like our fellow twenty-somethings to share the contents of their lunchboxes with us. And we would do the same.
HE: What was the best lunch you ate on the challenge?
BGSK: Phoebe, who recently became gluten-free, packed these great Nutty Quinoa Cakes. They taste great at room temperature, and are a substantial and healthy alternative to the everyday sandwich. Cara packed perhaps the most tasty sandwich standby, the Curry Chicken Salad Wrap. It’s full of flavor and protein, and the nuts and dried fruit in the salad balance out the hint of mayo.
HE: You did the challenge for a week in July, do you think you could have done it for a month?
BGSK: Absolutely. We both work from home, so we’re used to preparing our own lunches, even if we don’t actually have to transport the meal in a brown bag. But I think our readers who commute to an office have a much harder challenge, especially when lunch takes on a social aspect—co-workers eating out at lunchtime will pressure you to join them. It’s definitely worth a shot though, and you can always try a reverse strategy: pressuring them to join you in brown-bagging.
HE: Were you tempted to dine out during your challenge?
BGSK: Convenience is what makes dining out tempting. So we just made sure to plan ahead. We either take our lunch with us when we we’re on the move during long days of meetings around the city, and we had the luxury of moving our own meetings to our apartments—which means we can cook at home.
HE: What was the most important thing you learned during your week of brown-bagged lunches?
BGSK: That you have to take into account the afternoon snoozes. Until after-lunch napping becomes accepted, it’s worth trying to put together a balanced meal and one that’s slightly on the light side . . . if only for the sake of keeping one’s eyes open during important afternoon activities. Some of our favorite wake-me-up lunches are Roasted Beet Salad with Ricotta Salata and Pistachios; String Beans with Mustard Dressing & Cured Shallots (add some grilled chicken breast); Quinoa Tabouli; Spinach Salad with Avocado, Red Onion & Toasted Pecans (add some goat cheese or smoked tofu).
HE: What’s your favorite budget-friendly lunch?
BGSK: Eggs, either hard boiled or made into a frittata, are great cheap protein. Beans are substantial and easily varied. Many soups cost little more than a can of tomatoes to make (e.g. tomato soup). To up the ante on a plain-ish soup, top it with pine nuts, sunflower seeds, or a crumble of goat cheese, and add pretzels or baby carrots and you’ve got a meal: cheap, filling, with a pleasant aroma. (In summer, consider eating that soup cold!) Some of our favorite budget-friendly lunches are: Vegan “Cream” of Broccoli Soup with Leeks and Scallions; Celeriac & Sundried Tomato Frittata; Hard Boiled Egg Sandwich; Sweet Potato Black Bean Burgers; Cold Pea Soup with Lemon, Basil, and Ginger.
HE: The fallback lunch for many people is the PB&J – any ideas for a twist on the peanut butter sandwich?
BGSK: We’ve actually been working on some variations in the Small Kitchen College test kitchen! We’ve been canning some of our own jams, which definitely steps up the flavor quotient of the PB&J; a homemade peach jam and almond butter sandwich is likely in our future. Which brings us to our next point: sometimes it’s best to change up the butter part: try almond or cashew butter. Both pair well with less sweet jams or marmalades and are great spread on grainy breads.
HE: Have you ever had your lunch or snacks go missing from the office ‘fridge?
BGSK: Never! But there were times the poor mini fridge was too packed to for us to fit our lunchbox in. It’s always safest to bring something that can withstand room temperature storage for a few hours (i.e. under your desk), if the fridge is really that full. Grain salads are great for this purpose. Some portable favorites: Crunchy Spicy Hummus Wraps; Roasted Eggplant & Israeli Couscous Salad; Quinoa Salad with Corn, Black Beans, and Basil Vinaigrette.