And when you think of lunch as an opportunity to pack a special meal, it can go from dull to delicious! I learned long ago that I would be happier if I brought the foods that I like to eat from home instead of hoping that the cafeteria or nearby food court would satisfy me.
A good friend of mine calls it the $10 upgrade. Which is to say that for about $10, more or less, you can easily elevate lunch from coach to first class. After making many lunches, catering in my restaurant and learning a few tricks from my mother and other brown bag fanatics, I have some tips for making brown bag lunches stay fresh, safe, interesting and delicious.
— Freeze bread and make sandwiches with the frozen slices. Wrap the assembled sandwich in a dry paper towel and slip it into a zip-close plastic bag or wrap with foil. By the time lunch arrives, the bread will be thawed and taste fresh and soft. Plus, the paper towel becomes a "placemat" for your sandwich.
— Freeze individual water or juice containers. Once frozen, wrap them in a paper towel and either foil or plastic wrap and place in the lunch box. Your frozen drink will double as a cold pack for keeping the lunch "refrigerated" and food safe. And (of course) it provides an icy cold drink.
— Create themes to inspire lunches. Use favourite books, movies or holidays for kid's and use favourite cuisines or pastimes for adults.
— Think about your favourite picnic foods. They can become great lunch items. I especially like deviled eggs; peanut-butter stuffed celery; pimento cheese and pretzel rods; apple slices and goat cheese; fresh cherries, etc.
— Pack one indulgent treat, such as a homemade cookie or brownie, granola bar, a square of dark chocolate, dark chocolate covered almonds or whatever your favourite treat is.
— Pack one item that can be eaten as snack. My favourite snack is a batch of my homemade gorp (good ole raisins and peanuts). Portion into snack-sized bags so they are ready to pack at any time. Or up the ante and mix a couple tablespoons of gorp into a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter, then use to make a gorp-stuffed apple.
I love making gorp because I can customize it and add all of my favourite fruits and nuts. Substitute soy nuts for the peanuts if nut allergies are a concern.
Start to finish: 5 minutes
Makes about 4 3/4 cups
1/2 cup toasted coconut flakes
1/2 cup roasted, unsalted cashews
1/2 cup roasted, unsalted almonds
1/2 cup roasted, salted peanuts or soy nuts
1/2 cup banana chips, lightly crushed
1/2 cup M&M's
1/2 cup peanut M&M's
1/4 cup toasted pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds)
1/4 cup dried cherries
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup diced dried apricots
1/4 cup finely diced crystallized ginger
In a large bowl, combine all ingredients and gently mix well. Store in an airtight container.
Nutrition information per 1/4 cup serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 190 calories; 100 calories from fat (53 per cent of total calories); 12 g fat (4 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 18 g carbohydrate; 5 g protein; 2 g fiber; 25 mg sodium.
GORP-STUFFED APPLE BOWLS
This is one of my favourite treats! The apple is hollowed out and stuffed with peanut butter and gorp.
Start to finish: 10 minutes
1/2 cup gorp
1/4 cup peanut butter, almond butter or soy nut butter
2 large tart apples, such as Granny Smith or Pink Lady
Place the gorp in a food processor and pulse for 3 to 5 seconds, or until lightly chopped. Transfer to a small bowl and mix in the peanut butter. Set aside.
To make the apple bowls, carefully slice each apple in half down the centre. Use a melon baller to hollow out each of the 4 apple halves, leaving about 1/2 inch of apple flesh to form the bowls. Brush the apples with lemon juice to prevent browning.
Spoon a quarter of the peanut butter mixture into each apple half. Serve immediately or wrap to pack for lunch. To wrap, press 2 of the apple halves together, then wrap in plastic.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 490 calories; 250 calories from fat (51 per cent of total calories); 28 g fat (8 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 55 g carbohydrate; 13 g protein; 9 g fiber; 170 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned."