(Published by the San Jose Mercury-News and its affiliates on January 3, 2015.)
The New Year’s resolutions of losing weight and eating healthier are as popular as the eggnog and cheese balls that contribute to making such vows. Problem is, such tiresome edicts are often put away along with the holiday decorations.
Rather than introducing yet another diet plan as the road to self improvement, Portland author Califia Suntree suggests the focus be on just one often-tedious, usually forgettable meal: lunch.
Her new e-book, “Bring Your Lunch!” (Workman Publishing, $0.99; on Amazon and iTunes) is an entertaining, well-researched guide with more than 60 tasty, healthful, easy-to-make recipes for all we office drones that includes clever recycles of leftovers and even some downright delicious replacements for the guilt-inducing offerings in the vending machine.
She’s a strong believer that homemade lunches can pay off in several ways. “Even if we changed our habits just a few days a week, we could save hundreds of dollars, cut way down on fats/sugars/salt and eat more vegetables and fruits,” Suntree insists.
With a recent CareerBuilder study showing that two in five people say they’ve gained weight while at their current job, perhaps it’s time to skip the roach coach or fast-food outlet and whip up something better at home for that midday meal.
Calling lunch “that neglected area,” Suntree has personal experience with limited or bad noontime food choices. “You go back to the office and think, ‘I really wish I hadn’t eaten that,'” she says.
According to her book, brown-bagging costs an average of about $5 in ingredients while a restaurant lunch will likely be twice that. Feeling virtuous when buying a prepared salad from a restaurant chain or deli? Suntree reports that after the possible mountains of heavy dressing and greasy add-ins, “You end up with a salad that has the same calorie count as a cheeseburger.”
Since she is well aware of the time constraints among frazzled workers, one section in her book is devoted to fast lunches requiring 10 minutes or less to prepare. Suntree includes instructions for “deli-counter bahn-mi” sandwiches and enticing “pizzettes” based on pita bread.
A fan of sturdy greens that will stand up to dressing during the several hours before lunch without wilting, Suntree offers a recipe for fennel and spinach salad with figs and blue cheese that is attractive, healthy and deeply delicious. For salads and sandwiches susceptible to what she call “the dreaded sog,” she describes a clever layered approach to packing that keeps textures appealing at lunchtime.
She recommends carrying salads in jars and putting dressing in the bottom, layering less wilt-prone ingredients above and piling delicate lettuce on top. For sandwiches, Suntree suggests packing wetter elements (spreads, tomatoes, etc.) separately from drier ones and assembling right before eating.
Leftovers are a prime candidate for lunch-ifying, she says. Instead of joining the 25 percent of food Americans end up throwing out, these previous meals can easily be turned into alluring midday fare.
Suntree’s book includes tips like how to turn leftover pot roast into beef burritos or reinvent take-out stir-fry dregs as part of appealing salads. One of her inspired recipes reuses leftover pork as the basis of yummy tacos amped up with a quick fruit salsa featuring pineapple or mango.
Cooking ahead enables workers to leverage their effort via individual portions that can be popped into the freezer. One of her ideas is to use jumbo muffin tins to bake pre-portioned lunch meals. Meanwhile, many soups lend themselves well to becoming frozen lunches, with one scrumptious example Suntree’s recipe for a colorful gold beet and carrot borscht with zip from horseradish.
Even the 70 percent of workers who reportedly snack during the day can find healthier alternatives in Suntree’s book to help them ignore the siren song of the vending machine — responsible for more than 600 extra calories a week, she says.
She has instructions for making lower-fat taco chips, kale chips, granola bars and turkey jerky without all the salt, chemicals and fat of the usual kind. Sweet freaks can follow her recipes for chocolate bark topped with various goodies while salty-crunchy fanatics will get some satisfaction from Suntree’s delightful chickpea “nuts” recipe.
Besides all the recipes and tips, “Bring Your Lunch!” offers lavish suggestions on shopping, prepping and transporting home-prepared meals. In addition to wide-mouth Mason jars, Suntree particularly likes to carry lunches in the leak-proof, eco-friendly glass containers from Glasslock. “I have an entire cabinet of those,” she reports.
Even if workers just eat at their desk or brave a drafty, over-lighted lunchroom, the benefits of DIY lunches is clear, believes Suntree. “Home-cooked meals, almost by default, are healthier than restaurant meals,” she says.
And tastier, too.
Go to the box to the right on this page for links to recipes from Califia’s e-book.