Whether you’re sending kids off to school or toting your own midday meal, packing lunches is one of more relentless kitchen tasks. It’s a constant struggle to find items that travel well, stay fresh, and also manage to be appealing.
My own mother was an incredible lunch packer during the years that my sister and I were in school. She made sandwiches, filled thermoses, and invented all manner of room-temperature friendly dishes that would inspire us to eat to the bottom of the container.
Years later, when I asked her about it, she confessed that it had been one of her least favorite parenting activities (right up there with helping with math homework) and that while she missed having young kids, she does not ever miss the daily lunch packing chore.
While I don’t have kids yet, I still find myself frequently packing lunches for my husband to take to work and I’m always on the lookout for ways to make those meals a little bit more interesting.
My most recently lunchtime inspiration comes from J.M. Hirsch’s new book, aptly titled Beating the Lunch Box Blues. For years, Hirsch (who, in his work life is the food editor for the Associated Press) has been writing a blog called Lunch Box Blues and now, all his tips, tricks, and recipe suggestions are in one place.
The book starts with an introduction that offers tips, guidance on boxes, bags, and containers, and guidance on how best to use the book. From there, you’ll find a number of chapters, each wrapped around a theme. Many of those chapters include dinner recipes that will provide leftovers that can easily be reinvented into lunch.
I took the recipe for Turkey Sloppy Joes for a dinner and lunchtime spin. The starter recipe is great and made me wonder why I’ve long been skeptical of the sloppy joe. It was easy to make, tasted ridiculously good, and will be going into our regular dinnertime rotation.
When it comes time to pack the lunch, Hirsch suggests that you can take the turkey in one of two directions. You can either add a little broth to transform the mix into a hearty stew or you can add some beans for instant chili.
I suggest a third variation, in which you pack a container of hearty lettuce, and at lunchtime, tip the turkey sloppy joe crumbles directly on the greens for an instant taco salad. Add some pico de gallo or a little hot sauce for extra zing.
If you’re someone who packs a lunch for yourself, a child or a spouse on a regular basis and find yourself feeling a little burnt out by the task, I suggest you get your hands on a copy of this book for a little helpful brown bag inspiration.
Turkey Sloppy Joes
12-ounce jar roasted red peppers, drained
1 cup tomato sauce
8 ounces white button mushrooms
1 small yellow onion
¼ cup ketchup
1 tablespoon brown sugar
6 anchovy fillets
4 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon mustard powder
1 teaspoon hot sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 pounds ground turkey
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
4 burger buns
Shredded cheddar cheese
In a blender, combine the red peppers, tomato sauce, mushrooms, onion, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, anchovies, garlic, mustard powder, and hot sauce. Puree until smooth, then set aside.
In a large sauté pan over medium-high, heat the oil. Add the ground turkey and brown, breaking up any chunks, for 10 minutes. Add the tomato–red pepper mixture, stir well, then bring to a simmer. Cook for 5 minutes, then season with salt and pepper. Spoon the sloppy joe meat onto the buns and top with cheese.
Serves 4, plus leftovers
Sloppy Joe Chili
Just add canned beans, and sloppy joes become chili.
Instant Taco Salad
Fill a container with sturdy arugula or chopped romaine lettuce. Pack a container of sloppy joe mix in a thermos or container (if you have access to a microwave, this way is easier). At lunchtime, tip the hot turkey out over your salad and top with some salsa or hot sauce.