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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Lunch essentials: time to give the midday meal the respect it deserves

Some realistic tricks to help you spruce up your midday meal and avoid ordering in

Kale and roasted vegetable salad.
Kale and roasted vegetable salad.

Given that many of us regularly put in upwards of nine hours a day at work – be that in an office or elsewhere – our lunch, and indeed lunch breaks, often don’t receive the respect they deserve.

We all know we should pause around midday, move away from our desks and switch up the scenery in order to return refreshed for the afternoon, yet when deadlines loom, inboxes threaten to overfill and stress levels rise, those good intentions often go out the window. Similarly, while we all know that bringing in a homemade lunch filled with fresh ingredients makes sense not just financially, but from a healthy eating perspective, it’s easy for this to slip down the priority list.

One way to put a real claim on that time of day is to spend it eating something genuinely enjoyable, away from your desk. Now we’re not going to pretend that making your own packed lunch is as effortless as calling the nearest takeaway joint or placing a delivery order online. Nor are we suggesting that you have to do so every single day. But if you get into the habit of putting a bit of effort into planning your lunch a few days a week, you’ll reap the benefits in terms of health and budget, and your midday break will become something to relish, rather than rush through.

The following ideas are intended to be realistic. We understand that on a Saturday night or Sunday morning, when you’re well rested post-weekend, you’re more likely to spend a bit of time preparing a salad jar from scratch than you will be a few working days later.

Further into the week, when lunch fatigue may be kicking in (but you’ve still got the motivation to do a little prep) leftovers should be your first port of call. Pretty much any evening meal can yield fodder for the next day, the trick lies in repurposing it slightly so that you still end up with something to forward to; rather than a midday meal to endure.

The addition of a new ingredient or two can freshen things up no end by bringing new flavours and textures to the party. Salad pizza - essentially cold pizza topped with salad leaves tossed moments before in a punchy dressing – is a tasty starting point, while items such as tarts, quiches and pies benefit from being sprinkled with a liberal amount of salty feta, a scattering of fresh herbs and a few nuts for crunch. Extra cooked rice, quinoa, couscous, bulgur wheat and pearl barley are fantastic for forming the base of a grain bowl that will happily accommodate bits and pieces from your fridge: nubs of cheese, scraps of cooked meat or fish, fruit and vegetables, and sauces that need using up. Salads are, of course, another packed lunch staple but for the best (and tastiest) results, use robust greens such as kale, chard, shredded cabbage and fennel instead of prone-to-wilting delicate leaves. In addition, if you take the dressing to work in a separate container and drizzle it over your salad a few minutes, rather than several hours, before tucking in, the difference in enjoyment level will be huge.

Layered salad jars.
Layered salad jars.

So what happens when, despite all the best intentions, you end up at work sans lunch? Well, hold off placing a delivery for a little while and stage a convenience store raid instead. Most of will have a small grocery or corner shop close to our offices and a quick forage through those jam-packed aisles can yield satisfying results – you’ll find ideas below.

Key to making this sort of meal sing – and for pepping up any lacklustre offerings on the days when you do succumb to the lure of the takeaway – is having access to an at-work condiment collection. Stash a few shelf stable items in your desk drawer (being cool and dark, it’s the perfect storage space) and you’ll be able to transform the mundane and potentially disappointing into so much more.

Condiment drawer essentials

Sea salt flakes and a black pepper mill

It sounds obvious and yes there’s probably sachet upon sachet of powdered salt and pepper in the office kitchen, but there’s really no match for a scattering of proper sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper.

Hot sauce or chilli sauce

Just the ticket for pepping up pretty much any lunch: shake over salads, sandwiches, tacos, noodles, rice and soups. Combine with yogurt or mayo to make a dip.

Toasted nuts or seeds

Little packets of nuts and seeds – think pumpkin, sesame and sunflower, hazelnuts, macadamias and walnuts – are great for snacking on, but you should also add them to salads or veggie dishes for extra crunch and drop them into soups and broths for a twist on traditional croutons.

Good-quality olive oil

Just a few drops of grassy extra virgin olive oil will help rescue dry bread or grains, finish salads nicely and add an extra touch to noodles, sandwiches, pasta and the like. Combine with the hot sauce or chilli sauce to make a fiery dressing.

Leftover tart topped with fetta and nuts
Leftover tart topped with fetta and nuts

The convenience store raid

Miso soup with added bulk

Buy:

Miso soup sachets, dried packet noodles or a pouch of cooked rice and vegetables (either a canned option like sweetcorn, or loose, easily prepped veggies such as cucumber). Smoked or hot-roasted salmon or canned tuna makes a nice added extra, but is by no means essential.

To assemble

Put the noodles or rice in the bottom of a jar or bowl and sprinkle with the miso seasoning. Add the canned or raw chopped vegetables and cover with boiling water. Leave for 2 to 3 minutes then top with fish (if using). Finish with a drizzle of olive oil, a dash of chilli sauce and a scattering of nuts and seeds (all sourced from your condiment drawer).

Hummus platter

Buy:

Hummus, a small pot of natural yogurt, a jar of roasted vegetables or sweet peppers, a packet of flatbreads and carrots, cucumber and a few tomatoes from the veg section or crudités from the salad bar.

To assemble

Warm the flatbreads through in the office toaster or microwave (if you have access to one). Decant the hummus into large bowl and fold in the yogurt - this gives shop-bought hummus a lovely light and airy texture. Top the hummus with a couple of tablespoons of roasted vegetables or a few sweet peppers. Swirl over olive oil (sourced from your condiment drawer) and serve with the raw vegetables and flatbreads.

Mexican bean bowl

Buy:

A small can of beans (kidney beans, black beans and cannellini beans all work well), tomatoes from the vegetable section or jar of tomato salsa, a pot of yogurt or sour cream and a bag of tortilla crisps.

To assemble:

Decant the beans into a bowl and heat through in the microwave. Top with chopped fresh tomatoes or the tomato salsa, natural yogurt or sour cream and a drizzle of hot sauce or chilli sauce (courtesy of that condiment drawer). Crumble over a large handful of crushed tortilla chips and eat the rest on the side.