Taking Your Meals To Go
As we gear up to make two days' worth of meals in our Orange Belt Cook-Along it's time to look at options for taking our ready-made meals on the move.
The power of grab-and-go meals
Remember the criteria for measuring the success of your meal prep practice:
- It knocks out the bad-apple mealtimes in your week
- You stick with it
Taking your meals to-go impacts both criteria.
Knocking out the bad apples. Oftentimes the baddest of the bad apples are the mealtimes that come when we are under the gun of life - during the busy workweek. Waiting until you are hungry to decide what to eat is a recipe for disaster. Whereas packing perfectly proportioned meals to pull out at the first sign of hunger is a winning formula.
Helping you stick with it. Sticking with your meal prep routine involves an ongoing, often subconscious, evaluation of the effort-in to value-out ratio. Whether or not the meals you made during prep actually get eaten during the week has a huge impact on that measurement. Packing to-go meals helps ensure no meal goes to waste.
SHOULD ALL MEALS BE PACKED TO GO?
When people post photos of their meal prep output all the meals are usually in to-go containers.
But is that actually the best way to go? Or does it just make for the prettiest pictures?
Assembling all your meals into to-go containers:
Pros: Makes all meals grab-and-go. Take the thinking out of mealtime decisions throughout the week. Cons: Adds complexity to your meal prep planning. Adds time to your meal prep session. Often limits variety as the tendency is to make only dishes which conform to the shape of the to-go containers. Often leads to "rubber-stamping" the same ingredients into multiple containers which also leads to limited variety.
Here's my recommendation:
- Store the bulk of your prepped ingredients in the refrigerator 'A la carte' and assemble them as meals at mealtime
- Assemble and pack in to-go containers only those meals you want to take out of the house
Ahh, nothing excites conversation in the meal prep community quite like storage containers.
Following are the most popular options with my thoughts on each.
Chinese Take Out
Pros: Cheap, convenient, reusable, and makes the meal feel like genuine take out. Cons: Easy to spill, annoying to wash, too tempting to microwave, not usable during meal prep itself Recommendation: Use these as to-go containers only, not for general storage. You probably only need five of them. Shopping tips: I find the octagonal containers fit more than the rectangular one. You can collect them over time for free from actual take-out joints. You can get them in bulk at discount stores like Smart & Final or buy them online. Search for "take out containers" or "meal prep containers".
Pros: Great seal on lid, easy to carry, pretty Cons: Narrow mouth makes getting items in and out cumbersome, multiple pieces to lids are annoying, not good for using during meal prep itself, not good for reheating. Recommendation: Don't believe the hype. Avoid using mason jars to pack your lunch unless you are trying to impress your co-workers with how Martha Stewart you can be. Shopping tips: If you must get mason jars, go for the large quart size with wide mouth.
Tin foil and storage bags
Pros: Cheap, flexible, tin foil can be used during meal prep and reheating. Cons: Leaks and spills easily, ugly, annoying to interact with, creates trash. Recommendation: Use these options in the early goings of your meal prep practice while you build up your war chest of nice reusable containers. Shopping tips: Buy pre-cut tinfoil and get quart-size freezer bags with sliding seals.
Glassware and plastic containers
Pros: Durable, reusable, good seals, usable during meal prep, glassware usable for reheating. Cons: Glassware cost $$, its heavy, you often need to pack both the glassware and the plastic for a single meal. Recommendation: Make this your go-to storing, packing, and to-go strategy. They are not as pretty as Chinese take-out or mason jars but they are far more useful throughout the entire meal prep process. Master these and you won't need anything else. Shopping Tips: Get the plastic containers at dollar stores. You want the 5-cup size with no-frill lids. For glassware, get 3-cup size for individuals and 6-cup size for families. Don't get those multi-size sets they sell at big box stores. It creates havoc in your cupboards and most of the sizes never get used. I recommend the rectangular shape. You can often get them on sale after a major holiday.
Multiple compartment (bento-box style) plastic containers
Pros: Good for children who need every item compartmentalized. Cons: More stuff to clean, more lids to lock, makes every mealtime a puzzle. Recommendation: Indulge your children with these until they enter middle school. Shopping tips: Let your kids pick them out.
Dressings On the Side?
Pros: Keeps your dressing on the side until its time to eat. Cons: Another thing to pack, clean and deal with. Recommendation: Use these if you work outside of an office. Otherwise store your homemade dressings in larger squeeze bottles with caps. Keep some at work and some at home. Shopping: Get reusable containers with a good sealing lid. 30z size is sufficient.
We've also put together an Amazon Store for Meal Prep Essentials which contain some container options. These are not necessarily the cheapest way to go, but they might be the most convenient to click and buy.
Taking your to-go containers on the move requires a bag or lunchbox of some sort. What's the best way to roll?
The best option is to box up all your lunches for the workweek and bring them on Monday. If you don't have access to that much refrigerator space then bring them in one at time using the one of the following options
Simply toss you meal in the reusable grocery bag and throw it in the fridge when you get to work.
Work bag or gym bag
If you are putting your food in with other things that you don't want the food to spill on by accident be sure to wrap them in another bag first.
This is best for people who don't have access to a refrigerator during work but its a cool option for office workers as well.
Reheating on the go
Remember you only need to bring items up to a temperature you enjoy. You don't need to cook anything. All your meats and veggies should have been cooked properly during your prep. Cooking them again will only overcook them.
If you bring your meals to work you can often leave them on your desk throughout the morning to come up to room temperature by lunch.
You should only have to microwave things for a minute or put them in the toaster oven using the "toast" setting rather than the "bake" setting.
If you don't have access to a microwave or toaster oven I suggest you pack lunches that are good to eat cold or at room temperature. Think wraps, salads, and purees.
I use a microwave to heat up plenty of meals but I always try to put the ingredients on a plate before nuking. Here's why: The term "microwave safe" means the plastic won't melt in the microwave. It does not mean that it is safe to microwave food in plastic containers. There is a growing concern over toxins leaching into your food from plastics when heated. It may or may not be true, but why risk it when it's so easy to dump the stuff on a plate first?
Plating on the go
Try to stash the following wherever you work - whether in an office or in a car:
Salt, pepper, vinaigrette dressing, drinking glass or water bottle, plate, fork, knife, paper towels or cloth napkins
Sure you can eat out of storage containers like a caveman, but it's always nice to plate up your food like a civilized person. Plus, the habit of plating your meals even on the go will curb the tendency to microwave your food in "microwave safe" containers.
Don't want to miss out on socializing with your co-workers during lunch just because you packed yours?
Invite them to join YOU in a better location than some skuzzy cafeteria. Tell them to grab their meals to-go and come meet you at the nearest idyllic location, whether a city park or building atrium.
Or, bring your lunch to the cafeteria or fast-food joint. Most will allow you to dine with friends even if you didn't buy food there. The only places that will frown on that sort of behavior are sit down restaurants. And who has the time or money to spend on a sit-down restaurant during working hours? Not you! That time would be better spent at the gym, getting errands done, or banging out work so you can go home early.