Secret to a luncheon feast is finally out of the bag

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She unfurls her cloth napkin. She lays out her silverware. The aroma of a real meal emanates from under the lid just lifted. With anticipation, she begins her lunch. Everyone asks: ”Do you eat like this every day?” Inadequacy is in the air. Excuses are floating thick and fast. Lunch mates reach into wrinkled paper bags, scrounge in the communal kitchen drawer for flimsy plastic forks, stare woefully at flattened cheese sandwiches, containers of wilted lettuce, and lone pieces of bruised fruit. Some wait in line at the microwave to nuke Noodle-in-a-Cup, a.k.a. sodium-lover’s delight. With little enthusiasm, lunch begins. Their colleague Joanne Rizzi, director of cultural programs at The Children’s Museum in Boston, however, eats her lunch there with a cloth napkin and real fork and knife. ”My mother grew up in Europe,” she says. ”They didn’t know from plastic, and it wasn’t allowed in my house. I never could get her words out of my head … and food just doesn’t taste right using that stuff.” As for the cloth napkin, she says she’s saving a few trees. This is a scene familiar to many, played out in lunchrooms everywhere.

Where do you fit in? Maybe you spend several dollars a day buying lunch and eating more than you intended. Perhaps you are the brown bagger. Or are you one of those who bring appetizing lunches that look like pictures in a food magazine. Who has time to fuss like that? Siobhan O’Connor, office manager at Harris, Miller, Miller, and Hanson, a noise environmental consulting firm in Burlington, is just that person who, according to colleague Gail Landry, ”always has the most nicely presented and attractive meals.” Fifteen minutes before a companywide staff meeting at 11:45 a.m., their lunchroom is packed with people foraging in the fridge and lining up at the microwave. O’Connor removes her food from a plastic container with several dividers and arranges it on a plate – a pottery plate, not paper. ”I am always on a diet, so the food has to look good or I’m not interested,” she says. Her fresh spinach, carrots, pea pods, cottage cheese, and sliced kiwi create a colorful and edible palette. She put the ingredients together that morning in 5 minutes. Drizzling a capful of balsamic vinegar on the greens, she turns to Margo Olson: ”I just found out how nutritious raw spinach is.” Olson has sliced turkey and celery in a wrap with mustard, and cucumber slices, an orange, and a Diet Coke. The microwave crowd has left-over pasta, canned soup, Lean Cuisine, and one young college intern, Andrew Schmidt, has Mexican lasagna. ”I’m so excited,” he says. ”This is the best lunch I’ve had in two weeks.” An inquiry reveals he made it himself the previous night, not a common occurrence, it seems. Nick Miller, president of the company, has been making his own lunch of tuna fish with mayo and lettuce on a roll every day for 20 years. Yes, tuna. Every day. ”It’s healthy and fast,” he says, ”but I have been thinking about a change. It is getting a little boring.”

There are many ways to ”dine” at lunch that are neither too taxing nor so time consuming that it becomes unthinkable. Keep a colorful plate, glass, your own set of silverware, and a few nice napkins at work. It is amazing how attractive broccoli and a few cherry tomatoes look on blue. Keep a few staples in your drawer. Lunch is not always about sandwiches. Bring a sweet potato that cooks in the microwave in about 8 minutes (poke holes all over so the skin doesn’t burst). Split it, and suddenly colleagues will start sniffing around. ”I smell, uh, Thanksgiving.” Mash it with a fork and let the sweetness speak for itself. It also packs a
powerful nutrition punch, is higher in calories than a regular baked potato, but you need no butter or salt. Think about all that Vitamin A and beta carotene; your body will thank you. If you are making a nice meal for dinner, double the recipe – heck, triple it – and get some mileage for your efforts. Tired of leftovers? With a splash of ketchup and a cup of mixed frozen vegetables, you can have a whole new meal. Last night’s meatloaf and mashed potatoes become tomorrow’s shepherd’s pie. Use and re-use some of those snazzy new disposable sectioned containers that go in the microwave. For dessert, cut half a pear and half an apple into slices, sprinkle on some sugar and cinnamon or maple syrup, and when you heat your meal, you’ll have a great treat. If you have any half and half, spoon a teaspoon or two over the warm fruit. It will taste like pie á la mode.

Don’t pass up that supermarket special on eight chicken breasts. Cook them all at the same time and freeze a few, wrapped individually. Later, slice on a diagonal and arrange artfully on a bed of lettuce for an inspiring lunch.

Little-known lunch fact:

Liz Walker, WBZ-TV news anchor, has fond memories of her mother fixing her lunch when she was a child. ”My mom was a teacher, and the morning ritual would be to make both of our lunches together. Sometimes, it was peanut butter and jelly, sometimes tuna. There was always a piece of fruit, cookies, and sweet pickles. But it wasn’t what she made as much as it was that she wrapped everything individually, so neatly in waxed paper. It was the presentation. I knew I was blessed that someone would take the time to do this for me.” For Walker’s 13-year-old son, Nick, she has tried to do the same thing.

Zesty Grilled Lime Chicken (Serves 4)

4 boneless and skinless chicken breasts
juice of 1 or 2 limes
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil

Wash chicken and pat dry. Squeeze fresh lime juice directly onto the chicken. Mix spices, and rub into the chicken. Place in a bowl with olive oil and marinate for half an hour. Heat a cast iron grill pan (with ridges, if possible) until very hot. Brush a little olive oil onto the pan. Cook chicken for about 4 minutes on each side or until the chicken is cooked through but still moist. Slice on the diagonal and serve with white or brown rice and steamed broccoli. Use leftovers for following lunch recipe.

Grilled Chicken on Greens (Lunch for one)

1 cup fresh mixed salad greens or raw spinach, washed and torn into pieces
3/4 cup canned mandarin orange sections
Sliced celery, cherry tomatoes
1 grilled chicken breast, sliced (see above)
1/2 cup pecans, walnuts, or almonds, roughly chopped

Arrrange greens on a plate. Toss mandarin orange sections, celery, and cherry tomatoes, and place atop the greens. Slice chicken on the diagonal, or shred and place on top of the vegetables. Sprinkle on the nuts. Drizzle on dressing just before eating. Note for vegetarians: Freeze a block of tofu in a plastic bag. Defrost and drain all the water by pressing the tofu. It is now ready to cook. Slice and saute in a little sesame oil, crushed ginger, and garlic. The consistency is like cooked chicken. Shred and use on salad.

Dressing Makes (1/4 cup)

1 tablespoon light soy sauce, pinch of sugar, salt and pepper
1 tablespoon oil
3 tablespoons orange juicedash of sesame oil Mix all ingredients with a whisk or shake in a jar.

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