Seattle City Light workers with lunch boxes

Brown Bag Nation

Let’s talk about lunch. Yes, you might just be eating breakfast right now, either at home, or at work, or in your car (I hope not). Bear with me.

I love to eat from the food carts on the pedestrian mall outside my institution's main library. Where else can I get loaded beef & plantain arepas, ayam bakar in a luscious peanut sauce (extra sambal kecap, please) with acar, sticky gua bao, fresh fried falafel, and other decadent morsels within a twenty-yard radius? My wallet doesn't love it quite the same way. Since I apparently have horrible career management skills, that doesn't appear likely to change anytime soon.

So, since I'm likely to get hungry sometime between 0930 and 1630, I bring food from my domicile to my roboticile — almost always supper leftovers from the previous night or two.

For years, I've packed my lunch in a small (approximately 2 cup) Pyrex dish & reusable storage bags, but recently I've felt like trying something new, ideally more compact or space-efficient. Part of my motivation is that the Poissonnier has joined Mrs. Hayes & I as a public transit companion. Part of it is the feeling that I keep rolling the dice with the Pyrex, hoping it won't leak. (I've had the occasional dribbles, but nothing catastrophic.)

I've looked at the various Zojirushi Bento products. They seem pretty nifty, but potentially cumbersome. (I suspect they won’t fit in my Tom Bihn Co-Pilot.) I don’t need the thermal capabilities often, but absolutely require spill-proof storage. The Wirecutter likes insulated lunch bags, which doesn't solve the problem of what to put in that bag; also, I don't want to carry a second bag.

Maybe I missed something, but I don't remember us discussing this before. So, I'm curious — how do you transport your vittles from your coolerator to the place where you spend most of your day reading the WGOM? And, more importantly, what [sniff sniff] do you like to pack?

79 thoughts on “Brown Bag Nation”

  1. Being the miser I am, I rarely bought lunch. I used a small, insulated lunch bag my entire time working outside the home. Initially I brought only that and put it in the fridge. Later I used a backpack to hold that and a book for lunch. That continued until I switched to remote work.

    For lunch itself, sometimes it was leftovers but that was uncommon. Usually we ate the leftovers for dinner the next day. I like boring things and my lunches reflected that. They always consisted of the same components: sandwich, cup of applesauce (or an apple), some cookies, and carrots. The sandwich would be either a PB&J or deli meat. That was it.

  2. My main source of lunch is leftovers. I love leftovers. I'm also, like sean, quite cheap thrifty so I plan dinners around making more than we will actually eat at dinner so I have something for lunch.

    To get them to work, I just put them in whatever plastic containers they were already in and carry them in a plastic grocery bag. Of course, I don't take public transportation so size or spillage is really not a concern.

    'FZ' SelectShow
    1. Like cheaps, I am a leftovers guy. Typically transported in Pyrex these days. And I just got a new insulated lunch bag at Costco: Rhino-tech Ultra something something.

  3. My standard lunch is a sandwich (pepper jack and whatever sandwich meat we've decided on for the week), whipped greek yogurt (lets me feel like I'm eating cool whip while fulfilling the basic bare minimum for also being considered "almost healthy", or at the very least "more healthy than just eating cool whip") and a fruit or veggie of some kind (had a whole bunch of cherries yesterday, and didn't really want to do anything for the rest of the day but eat more cherries).

    All tossed into a brown paper bag (Linds got me one of those insulated ones, but I forget that thing everywhere).

  4. When you work from home, brown bag doesn't mean anything -- I tend to do the opposite, and periodically look for an excuse to run out for lunch somewhere and get out of the house. When I did work in cube city, I preferred sandwiches in Tupperware.

    My go-to for a simple quick lunch is "homemade trail mix": Jay's Krunchers dill flavored ships, honey pretzel twists, blueberries, spicy string cheese, and a small protein bar with some Sparkling Ice to wash it down. While reading the latest Astronomy magazine with my feet up (important when using a stand-up workstation all day)

  5. So, J eats bento lunches quite frequently. I got her a Zojirushi Ms. Bento for Christmas a few years ago. It is somewhat cumbersome, and looking at pictures of your bag it may not fit, but it's not QUITE as huge as it seems in person. That being said, she uses other bento boxes more often. The ones she likes the most, and are probably most effective for what you're looking for, are the Monbento ones. I have two of the Original models. Each tier is 500 ml, and each tier has a silicone-sealed lid that will keep things airtight. They also sell a band for a single tier if you don't want to take both things together. They're microwave capable, too. I'm awful at planning, but when I do plan, I find it nice. I can separate stuff I want to warm up from stuff I want to keep cool, they're relatively compact, etc.

    1. I've seen these setups before, but had no idea there was an actual name for the thing. A quick search turned up this, which seems to operate similarly and may fit the Co-Pilot more easily.

      For myself, your intro prompted me to run out to the food trucks for the first time this season - went with the "Authentic Puertorican" truck and ordered the "'Tripleta' - triple meat sandwich with roasted pork, ham and chicken, cheese, cabbage, tomatoes, house sauce mayo-ketchup and topped with potatoes sticks" and "'Corn Fritters' - Corn fritters stuffed with Cheese", deep fried with the "house sauce mayo-ketchup" for dipping. Both hit the spot.

      I usually do leftovers for lunch, nearly always packed in reused plastic lunch meat containers. Sometimes I go with deli meat & cheese sandwiches, apples, cheese sticks, dried fruit or small bags of chips. If I'm ambitious, I buy a head of romaine lettuce, a box of spring greens, carrots & snap peas and leave it all in the work fridge to make salads.* I rec'd this from my best buddy as a thank you gift for helping with his wedding.** It's pretty big (holds a sixer of bottles no problem), but waterproof, lots of extra pouches and comfortable to haul. I have a Marmot Mendocino backpack for the laptop, portfolio & ring binders so the extra bag on my side doesn't bother me...but I don't ride mass transit either.

      *I need to do more of that last one ... my after care printout from a visit to the clinic yesterday noted "Overweight" under 'Other Issues'.

      ** SelectShow
      1. It’s a good thing I’ve already eaten, or I’d be drowning in my own saliva right now. That lunch sounds amazing.

        I like the looks of that cooler, and since it holds a sixer, I can think of all kinds of non-lunch uses (or, hey, liquid lunches) for it. My brother-in-law wants to do more hiking and invited me along on his next excursion, and it seems like the perfect vehicle to transport some cold silos for trailside refreshment.

        1. Not sure if that one is still available via REI, but there are some other options of a similar type all over the interwebz.

    2. *More on the clinic visit - CAREFUL WITH YOUR LEFTOVERS

      During lunch last Tuesday, I bit into my sandwich made with crusty ciabatta bread leftover from the night before (turkey, apple & brie Panini w/ jalapeño jelly) and felt/heard a loud 'POP!' in or around my left ear with a simultaneous shooting pain. After a few minutes of grimacing back tears, it resolved down to a throbbing ache that felt like what I can only describe as what an ear infection feels like. I could avoid the pain during mealtime by biting tentatively and chewing more cautiously. By yesterday, it was mostly just slightly sore. Then I carelessly bit into a (softer) sandwich and the pain came roaring back, though no audible pops. It worried me enough that I told my boss about it and took sick-time for the afternoon to go to walk-in care.
      Physician's diagnosis: not an ear infection. Nope. Not this boy-o ... no, I somehow managed to rupture my eardrum! He didn't seem overly worried about it as it wasn't infected and I didn't notice any drainage, hearing loss or any increase in the "volume" of my preexisting tinnitus. He prescribed prednisone drops and indicated that it should heal itself in due course. I'm supposed to go back if any of those issues show up, but otherwise it should be okay.

      Also, he didn't have any comment on whether an over-enthusiastic bite of crusty bread could cause it ... but I'm going to be a bit more careful in the future.

      1. Yowza. I wonder if it was ruptred from barotrauma? Could your jaw have exerted enough force, at a suitable angle, to create enough pressure to rupture the eardrum?

        1. The doctor didn’t venture a guess. Certainly sounds like a reasonable explanation to me, but I’m not sure.

      2. I've had my right ear drum rupture on two separate occasions. In my case, both times were related to a very bad ear infection. I have a pretty high tolerance for ear pain on account of constantly dealing with ENT issues as a kid (constant sinusitis and ear infections, one of my tubes in my ear never went away and left a hole in an eardrum, large adenoids and tonsils that led to tons of throat issues, poor immune system as a kid...), but the first time my eardrum ruptured it was the worst ear infection I'd ever had. I was laying in bed in tears, and then I felt a small pop and the pain went away. I had drainage (details below if you are not squeamish) in it for a couple months, but it healed up with some antibiotic eardrops.

        Yuck SelectShow

        The second time was a few years later. The ear pain wasn't nearly as bad, but the pain went away over night, and I knew the next morning that's what happened. Went to the doctor and confirmed suspicions, etc. the next morning. I haven't had it happen a third time, but my ears are still a mess when you combine the years of noisy shows with no earplugs.

        1. Uffda. One of my brothers had tubes in his ears (sounds like a similar, though somewhat milder, version of some of your troubles); I remember him suffering with ear problems for several years.

          Hearing loss is a funny thing. I have tinnitus (perhaps from sources similar to Corn), but a form of hearing loss on top of it. Ms. Hayes would complain that I was ignoring her, when I really couldn’t hear what she was saying in certain conditions. Her dad is a VA audiologist, so on a trip out to see him, we had him check my hearing in his office. He confirmed I had hearing loss, then told me it was a kind they can recognize, but don’t have a way of treating or mitigating right now. It was helpful to have that confirmation on record from my father-in-law.

          1. I should probably have mine tested again someday. I know I have tinnitus and I also have trouble hearing things in certain situations. The way I perceive it is that certain sounds in the background just blend in with what is being said. It's exacerbated if someone is not looking at me and I can't read their lips.

          2. Uffda is right! I’m fortunate to not have suffered any hearing loss from my service - working in the engineering spaces on a destroyer for three years, it got so I could sleep with hearing protection and it was more normal to have it in than out. The firearms and crew-served weapons though, that apparently was a bridge too far; tinnitus is something I could do without.

        2. I've had the sensation described in this thread since I was about 13. I don't know what specifically would have brought it on, and it's never too much more than an omnipresent annoyance, but it never really goes away, either, and if the pitch of a conversation is just right, everything sounds like the left side of my world is being brought to me by a blown speaker.

    3. Those Monbentos look pretty nifty, so I scooped an original (Moutarde! What a color!) up over lunch. I got a Zojirushi Ms. Bento, too, since they were heavily discounted on Amazon today (45% off or so). We’ll see which is the better fit. Thanks, Zack!

      1. I hope they work out well for you! I have the all white & the green/white. Jess has a pink & white one they no longer sell, and a Tresor Banana. I've always loved the square one, I might have to pick one of those up sometime soon.

  6. I eat the same thing every work day: Carrot sticks, a mozzarella light cheese stick, an orange or apple, and a small bag of pistachios. It's approximately 280-300 calories. I've been doing this for over 10 years. It's part of my 500Vb6 weight maintenance plan (500 Vegetarian calories before 6:00p). It's one reason I have kept off the 40 pounds I lost in Spring/Summer 2008.

    1. I need to lose some weight, and I know it. Even so, that’s the kind of sustained discipline I can only admire. Good work, free.

      I’ve mostly beaten down my desire to snack in the afternoon by eating one of these (Maple Sea Salt is amazing, and Mango Pineapple and Blueberry are excellent). But if that was 2/3 of my lunch, I think my body would freak out.

      1. I am with you. One area I've tried to cut back is snacks at work. I try to stick to dried fruit and pistachios. Those bars look pretty good though. Might have to give them a try.

        1. I order ‘em by the box on Amazon to keep the cost per unit manageable. If you want to get a mixed box from the company itself to try an assortment, I can point you to a discount (20%, I think?) from an indie podcast sponsorship they did.

          1. I would also recommend eBay. I've found energy bars, allergy meds, and numerous other products at great prices there, 'long as you pay attention to expiration dates.

  7. I'm a leftovers kind of guy too, except when I'm eating out, which is always too often (but has gone down significantly since moving to a small town, but at the same time... not significantly enough). Much like Cheap, above, I just use whatever containers the leftovers were already in. I, too, actively make too much for a meal so that there are leftovers, and often when putting dinner away I aim for specific containers, so that bringing things to work the next day will be easy.

    I do also go home for lunch a reasonable amount of the time - often just to pick up the leftovers I didn't bring in the morning, but sometimes to eat and hang out with the family too (and sometimes to meal-prep for supper!). This is a huge benefit of life in a small town and working close to where we live. Heck, I should do it even more than I do.

  8. Working in the French Quarter allows me to be way more terrible to myself than I would be if I worked elsewhere. There are so many options to choose from if I want to go out. African? Sure, Risky sushi? Why not? Vietnamese? Youbetcha. Red beans and rice with a side of fried chicken? Oh, yeah! ... ... ...

    We don't go out to dinner all that often because we cook so much, but I often engineer reasons not to take the left overs because I can get a crazy good meal (and I tell myself that I need to leave the complex / my coworkers for my own sanity...).

    When being good I do take my left overs into work in the previously mentioned pyrex, but I transport them in the muses lunch bag I caught a mardi gras last year. I have three of them so when the pyrex gives up the shwarma I can just deep six the bag... On second thought, shwarma flavored plastic isn't probably any better for the whales...

    1. I was recently watching a video about bánh mì/po’boy foodways mashups in the Crescent City. My mouth hasn’t stopped watering.

      I didn’t realize how many people use Pyrex as their lunch containers. I felt like I was crazy carrying glass — even something as sturdy as Pyrex.

      1. The Banh Mi Boys are so far off the beaten path, but oh so good at flavor mash up. I've become very spoiled in the flavors department living here that it's become a not insignificant consideration when looking at jobs that may lead us away from New Orleans.

  9. A couple of days late to the party, but thought I'd contribute.

    I too generally bring leftovers or a sandwich. We have pretty standard plastic ware and some new pyrex containers, nothing to write home about for either option. I never have time to go out to eat for lunch, and often don't even have time to eat my lunch in one sitting, since my normal schedule leaves at most 20 minutes between classes, some of which will always be taken up by students asking questions after class, refilling my water bottle, and making a bathroom run.

    When I find the time to properly prepare, I really like bringing mason jar salads. It easily seals completely, so no risk of a spill on the way in. And, it's easy to change things up with different ingredients, dressings, styles, etc. I keep a large salad bowl in my office, so I have something to dump it in and mix, which I can wash at work after use. Works out well, and tends to be lower calorie than the leftovers I would normally bring.

        1. ... yeah I should probably start doing this too. Oh, what's that? Red beans and rice with a side of fried chicken is only 9 bucks on mondays at Mena's? Oh, but I brought a salad in a jar....

  10. Even later to the party! My typical lunch at work is two slices of whole wheat bread with hummus and cucumber along with an apple and some of this chocolate for dessert. I also snack on almonds in the morning and then have some other fruit or yogurt (or more chocolate . . . oops) midafternoon.

    Leftovers stay at home because there's not time to cook something new every night, so they get consumed for dinner.

    I carry my lunch in a plastic shopping bag tucked inside my work bag. Not very aesthetically pleasing, but I don't really need a separate thing to carry on the bus since a good portion of the time I'm lugging around a bunch of library books in their own bag as well.

    1. When I (rarely) am at home for lunch during the work week, my favorite thing is a fried egg atop rice, veggies scavenged from leftovers, whatever herbs that happen to be in the fridge, and a nice dollop of sambal oelek. Inspired by this, among other things.

      1. My good friend travels for work a lot, and when he's at home his breakfast and lunch is a bowl of rice with a fried egg, some soy sauce, and one of the varieties of furikake he keeps on hand. Whenever I stay with him, I end up eating this too. I crave it pretty frequently.

        1. We eat roasted Brussels over grits with poached eggs on top for dinner at least once a week in the fall / winter. It’s pretty awesome.

          1. Oooh. I will have to remember this one.

            Every time I make green chile chicken, at least one meal is chilaquiles topped with fried eggs.

        2. This is far less healthy than what you & Pepper mentioned, but I can’t help but think of loco moco, which a friend from Hawai’i (Big Island) introduced me to when we were in school together. It’s one of my favorite dishes.

          1. It’s one of my friend Flyboy’s favorites, too from his time stationed at Hickam AFB. Claims it’s the greatest hangover cure in the world.

            1. I may or may not be able to confirm the truth of his claim. My first visit to our island state included an extensive sampling of Kona, eventually followed by a Spam loco... because Spam (both Grandfathers were long-time employees/retired from Hormel)

          2. Loco moco is the best. I tossed some sautéed mushrooms in the gravy last time I made it.

  11. I’ve been making thisRoy Choi ramen recipe at least once a week since I came across in the NYT recently. And yes, you use American cheese. (The comment section at the Times went ballistic over that ingredient, btw—I’d link but I’m over my article limit for the month.) I use about half the water that the above link uses, and more scallions, but you can do what you like. I’ve made it for lunch, dinner, and a late night snack. It’s so good. I also add a dash of Soy Sauce and a splash of whatever hot sauce is closest. The writer at The Times said it’s like the Korean version of a Big Mac.

    1. I made this for supper tonight; it was delicious. I agree that cutting down the water seems like a good idea. A somewhat more concentrated broth would be decadent. I might try adding some sambal next time...

      1. I went to make this for dinner two nights ago only to find out that dr. Chop ate the ramen for lunch the day before she left town. I had planned on adding some sliced roast beef and some more veg, but after getting everything going I realized the main ingredient was missing. Perhaps next week.

    2. Tried this last night in a big enough portion to feed all four of us (3 pouches, 4 eggs). My wife and I thought it was pretty good. Niblet did alright with it but didn’t love it and Kernel, picky as she is, would barely touch it. I sometimes get very tired of meal prep for her, though often I get to eat what I want to eat and only have to stand her whining in order to do so.

      I really don’t enjoy preparing 3 different dishes in order to satisfy the various ‘demands’. But... it happens more than I care to admit.

  12. Edit: Nesting fail. This was supposed to be in response to the Roy Choi ramen recipe.

    That sounds awesome. I may be making something similar for lunch tomorrow.

    As a kid my brother and I regularly made beef ramen and added American cheese and deli roast beef slices. It was surprisingly good.

  13. Ok, so your comments affirm some thoughts of mine about lunch from a restaurants perspective. I have been in this market for 15 years. I have seen lunches gradually dwindle over this time. I have written it off to a few things:

    1) The average American does not have time to go out for a sit down lunch. We squeeze 10 hours of work into an 8 hour workday, or 12 hours into a 10 hour work day, etc. Lunch is generally eaten "on the fly" between tasks.

    2) A lot of companies (like the one Nibbish used to work for) have found that catering in lunch is more economical than letting staff leave for lunch. As a result, the lunch catering business is booming. Businesses schedule working lunch meetings and bring lunch in, versus letting staff leave for 1-1.5 hours to go eat out. It appears to staff that "wow! they are feeding us!" when actually they are maximizing productivity.

    3) The 2 martini lunch has gone away. This is no longer an acceptable business practice in today's business world. Combine that with stricter IRS guidelines on what can be written off.

    I spend very little money trying to build my in house lunch business as I think it is just throwing good money after bad. Our dinners are awesome, so I spend money to build that day part even more. My opportunities at lunch are to chase down catering business. I deliver somewhere between 70-120 lunches a week to various businesses. In fact, today I signed off on a new vehicle for work. A 2018 Jeep Renegade, that we will wrap with our logo and other graphics to further advertise our catering business.

    Anyway, I would love to hear feedback from the group if my premises above are spot on, or are gibberish. Thanks!

    1. Here are my observations from when I'm actually in an office, when in downtown Omaha at the HQ:
      - alcohol at lunch is a no-no
      - people schedule 1PM meetings, so a sit down lunch is fine if it isn't a drawn-out affair and you can get back with a little time to spare
      - walking distance
      - lunch-size portions; don't want to fall asleep in that 1PM meeting
      - to-go opportunities so that you can take it back and eat while catching up on the day's news if you want to
      - variety; depending on who you're with at lunch, there's something everyone can agree on

    2. I think you're pretty spot on. These days it's hard to think of anything a corporation does that might seem nice on the surface is actually being done to eff over their employees further. It's all part of keeping that pay relative to production slope trending downwards.

      A perfect example is Epic systems. They've built a monstrous campus and everything there is designed with, basically, fooling they're employees to grind, grind, grind. They put in a cafeteria there and the food is fantastic and cheap. While I was there, I thought it was really great to have around. Looking back on it while reading what you wrote and I realize it's 100% being done that way to keep everyone on campus and working. Not a day goes by I'm not glad I left.

      All that said, I might be an outlier. I take a lunch everyday not to squeeze an extra hour or work in, but because I really can't afford to eat it everyday,and, quite frankly, my leftovers are much better than I'd get elsewhere.

      1. This is how you know state governments don't care about productivity. It is illegal to use state money to buy someone lunch (other than per diem on a business trip).

        1. I might state it a bit differently -- it's how you know (some) state governments prioritize ethics over productivity.

          1. My tongue may have been embedded in my cheek.

            But "ethics reform" is how we have the absurdity that my entity cannot pay for water or light refreshments for a public meeting with mental health consumers. Or how attending a public lecture that includes a free lunch is a reportable "gift".

            Governments always legislate solutions to the last scandal/problem, rarely thinking through the downstream consequences, particularly when it comes to personnel issues and management issues. Every organization has managerial challenges; but it is the government ones and the large ones that tend to codify problems into bad policies.

    3. 3) The 2 martini lunch has gone away. This is no longer an acceptable business practice in today's business world. Combine that with stricter IRS guidelines on what can be written off.

      You clearly don’t live in New Orleans.

        1. It is indeed. Our employee handbook doesn't specifically say that there is no drinking while on duty, rather they encourage responsible decision making. This city is way short on responsible decision making.

          1. In my last job for a multinational corporation, only the US employees had a restriction on consuming alcohol at lunch. But it was a wink and a nod situation as everyone did it anyway because 'Merica.

    4. I eat lunch at my desk nearly ever day, though I know I shouldn’t. I agree with your assessment of the reason for this behavior, which makes me more exasperated with myself for going along with it.

      I don’t think I’ve ever been told flat out that my institution’s employees are forbidden from consuming alcohol during lunch. Considering we have multiple eateries on our campus that serve beer, that would seem rather hypocritical. It would strike me as particularly hypocritical for there to be a prohibition on alcohol consumption by staff, but no such regulation for faculty. Both have contact with & responsibilities to students. If anything, modeling responsible social consumption of alcohol is something our institution could do better.

      Plus, anyone who tells me I can’t enjoy a pisco sour if I get out of the office for some Peruvian can go jump in the lake(s).

    1. Not sure what I think of that. My thoughts above reflect that I really don't support companies holding their staff hostage and essentially taking away their lunch break. However, I don't necessarily agree that the city can tell companies they can't provide lunches for their employees. Seems pretty ridiculous. I feel for the restaurants in that situation, but times they are a changing.

  14. I just tested my new batch of sour dills. They are...not up to my usual standards. I think the ferment was too warm in the house, so things went too quickly, resulting in some off flavors from the wrong beasties. Plus, I cut the cukes in half (the long way) and I seem to have some texture problems.

    Boo.

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