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Gluten-Free Lunchbox Tips, by Valerie of City|Life|Eats
Last September, I started writing a series on my blog called Today’s Lunchbox, and it has received an amazing response. What was initially a week-long project to document a few gluten-free allergy-friendly lunchboxes became a month-long project. Now it is well past the six month mark. I mainly write about lunchboxes I bring to work (which generally include a lunch and a couple of snacks) but also weekend lunchboxes and travel lunchboxes. What I love about writing this series is that it has such universal appeal. Packing a tasty lunchbox is kind of like the "what's for dinner" conundrum - it can get boring fast and requires constant variety.
For those of us who follow a gluten-free diet, packing a lunchbox can also add a tremendous amount of ease back into our lives. Following a gluten-free diet, whether because of a celiac diagnosis or non-celiac gluten intolerance, entails many changes, one of which is losing the ease of eating out, especially when on-the-go, whether on your lunch break or out on the weekends. I know before switching to a gluten-free diet, I was very used to never having to plan where I would be eating, and what I would be eating. This is no longer the case since switching to a gluten-free diet, discovering that I am intolerant to dairy and chicken eggs, and also choosing to avoid refined sugars and a few other foods that do not agree with me.
One of the things that has really helped me is to pack lunches and snacks. I pack lunch all the time - even on weekends. It started with packing a few snacks, but eventually I moved to packing a whole lunch even on weekends. I like not having to worry about reading labels or asking questions, particularly if I am trying to fit lunch into a short time slot.
I have a theory that the key to packing lunchboxes is to make it both easy and interesting. Here are my tips for packing gluten-free lunchboxes:
Rely on leftovers – I would say about 75% of the time, my lunchboxes are just leftovers from the night before, sometimes repurposed a tiny bit. I have gone through phases of not wanting to use leftovers, and while it is do-able to make separate things for lunchboxes, there are weeks where I just do not have the time to do that. I know some people hate eating leftovers, and my advice to that is to switch up the format of the dish. One approach to repurposing is to wrap leftovers up in wraps:
Repeat similar but not identical lunchbox staples – I try to make some sort of hummus or dip at least once or twice a week. They are easy in that the food processor does most of the work, and they can be used to supplement a lunchbox, or be the central component of a lunchbox. I tend to focus on protein staples for that category because that generally makes them more versatile - hummus or a nut-based dips can be used to stuff a collard wrap with vegetables, or as a side to some quinoa, or as a spread in a quesadilla. My other lunchbox staples include kale chips, lightly steamed kale or other greens, and raw kale salad. Also, just because something is a staple does not mean it has to be boring or identical week-to-week. There are infinite ways to make hummus and dips and I often change up steamed or raw kale with a variety of dressings, which take minutes to make in the food processor or a blender.
Rethink sandwiches and bread – I rarely use bread or pack sandwiches in my lunchboxes. There are some good gluten-free breads out there, but I find they tend to get soggy when made into sandwiches that are then packed until lunchtime. When I pack a sandwich, I pack the bread on the side and assemble the sandwich right before I eat. Really though, I am all about alternatives to sandwiches: crackers as a base for snack plate lunchbox, brown rice tortillas (for tips on how to soften them, see here) with a variety of fillings, collard wraps, Swiss Chard wraps and bell pepper boats.
Embrace quinoa - When I am at a loss for a lunchbox, I often cook some quinoa and throw it together with whatever herbs and vegetables I have, and round it out with leftover tofu or some cooked beans (or both!). You can use just lemon juice and olive oil to dress the quinoa salad, or make a homemade salad dressing and pack that on the side. Another approach to quinoa is to top it with tomato sauce mixed with canned sardines or wild salmon for a fast but filling meal.
Consider drinking part of your lunchbox - This is one of my favorite time-saving tips. I often have smoothies for breakfast, and it is not that much more work to make an extra smoothie and bring it to work for a late-morning snack. I am fortunate that I have only a 10 minute walking commute, so the smoothie does not spend a long time outside of a fridge, and I often use a small ice pack to keep it cold. I pack smoothies in glass jars and fill them to the top before putting a lid on them. I usually pour the smoothie for work into the jar before drinking my breakfast smoothie. Smoothies are also an easy way to incorporate more fruits and vegetables when your lunchbox would be a bit bare otherwise and you are short on time. Finally, a note on time - I follow all the tricks to save time (cook ahead on weekends, make batches of things, freeze portions of leftovers) but I cannot deny packing a varied meal day in and day out takes time. I am lucky my husband also cooks many of our meals and that we both like leftovers. When I am really short on time, I tend to rely on more raw components in a lunchbox, but we all have to find the time savers that work for us. I hope these tips give you some ideas on packing tasty food to go.
Valerie blogs at City|Life|Eats about food, life, work, and living with food allergies and a modified diet. Her lunchboxes and recipes are gluten-free, dairy-free and often, but not exclusively, vegan. You can subscribe to City|Life|Eats via RSS or email or connect with Valerie via Twitter or Facebook.
All photos by Valerie of City|Life|Eats.