The Case for Canned Fish

September  2, 2014

As a defiant response to Sad Desk Lunches, the Food52 team works to keep our midday meals both interesting and pretty. Each week, we'll be sharing our happiest desk lunches -- and we want to see yours, too.

Today: We know you have canned fish. Put it to good use, all week long. 

An assortment of canned fish

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I'll admit that canned fish isn’t the most subtle of desk lunches. Unlike pickles or savory oatmeal, there’s no use being stealthy about, say, sardines -- because the minute you crack open a briny tin, your coworkers will know exactly what you’re up to. So why bother with canned fish at all? Two reasons: The first is because we know you have it. The second is because you can put it on everything. 

Let me explain. On some nights, when we feel like responsible adults, we plan ahead. We roast our chicken, we toss our salads, and -- weekday heroes that we are -- we have enough left over for lunch tomorrow. But this doesn’t happen as often as we pretend it does.

More: You deserve better than the deli down the street. Here's how to pack lunch in under five minutes.

Instead, on those mornings when you’re halfway out the door with mismatched socks and an empty lunch bag, don’t worry -- canned fish has your back. Here are some of our favorite ways to turn it into a respectable desk lunch

Tahini dressing and vegan rice bowl

Start with last night’s grains. If you have leftover quinoa, couscous, or rice, all you need is a tin of canned fish and a few scavenged vegetables to round out the heartiest of desk lunches. I’m especially partial to tuna and jasmine rice, the dynamic duo that fueled many an all-nighter in college. (No? Just me, then.)

Avocados with vinaigrette for lunch

You already love avocados vinaigrette. Fill the hole in its heart with a protein-rich spoonful of canned fish -- and don’t forget a few spoonfuls of your favorite homemade dressing

Provencal Tuna Melt Recipe with Canned Tuna

It’s been a long day, and you need a little comfort food. Tuna gets you. At the office, you’ll toast your bread like you would for cheese toast, and then spread it with a thin layer of canned fish, topped off with a blanket of cheese. Hello, tuna melt

Assortment of Bela Portuguese Sardines

If you’re lucky enough to unearth a tin of sardines, you know it’s going to be a good day. Flavorful all on their own, sardines ask only for a sleeve of crackers, a buttered baguette -- or, if you’re feeling adventurous, a few sheets of nori. Our friends at BELA Sardines top their seaweed-wrapped fish with wasabi peas and cranberries, but feel free to use whatever else you have in the cupboard. It’s a lunch both thrifty and filling -- the ultimate pantry meal.

Are you on team tuna or team sardine? Let us know in the comments!

Avocados vinaigrette photo by Marian Bull; all other photos by James Ransom

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Susan
  • Jane
  • paizley
  • sarabclever
  • Francesca Melis
    Francesca Melis
Lisa is a noodle fiend and a chocolate hoarder. She probably wants to make you cookies.


Susan December 29, 2019
Smoked Oysters with hot sauce!
Jane December 29, 2019
I always have canned chopped clams in my pantry. With onion, . cubed potatoes, or quicker yet, frozen hash browns cooked with bacon, and evaporated milk you have a quick clam chowder . My mother found this recipe on WGY TV in Schenectady NY years ago. It was one of the first tv stations ever. GE.
paizley July 18, 2016
Plain sardines on top of rice with wasabi and soy sauce on the side !
paizley July 18, 2016
Sushi rice.
sarabclever May 28, 2015
Love this!
Francesca M. September 11, 2014
Love the sardines but don't have the nerve for them to be used for at work lunch. I tend to save them for at home and then use the tuna for work. Olive oil packed tuna yum. Then on some grains or left over veggies or both with a strong mustard vinaigrette. Yummy mm.
Marylea M. September 7, 2014
Trader Joe's canned smoked trout is the bomb. Pasta, some veggies, maybe a red sauce...just sayin.
suzi September 7, 2014
Thanks for that. Been wondering if I should try those.. Always wimp out and get the trusty sardines.
Karl September 7, 2014
Don't forget about canned Wild Alaska Salmon.
Dianecpa September 7, 2014
Very true
PJ September 7, 2014
Team sardines here. They have to be skinless and boneless and packed in olive oil. Great stuff!
Emily H. September 4, 2014
Any recommendations on high quality brands (of sardines or ANY canned seafood)? Are things like canned smoked oysters worth trying? I'm not a big tuna-in-water fan but I'm otherwise pretty adventurous (sardines, anchovies, and love non-canned seafood).
Kelly N. September 15, 2014
Canned oysters are delicious!! On crackers with pickles, cheese or any niblets really. So good!
Sarah D. September 3, 2014
Oh boo, I was hoping to see some smoked trout suggestions!
Bluerroses January 4, 2016
For an easy dinner, I tear up pieces of trout (with my hands) and serve it (unheated) on top of chopped, roasted or baked potatoes. Top with a dollop of of lebneh (thickened yoghurt) and a sprinkle of chopped chives or scallions and capers. A squirt of lemon would be great, too.
Dianecpa September 3, 2014
I found a recipe in a Frugal Gourmet cookbook that bakes sardines in the oven in a small casserole blanketed with roasted pepper......becomes like a spread!
girlwithaknife September 3, 2014
One of my faves is sliced boiled eggs and sardines on a warm ciabatta roll, with a squeeze of lemon, olive oil and balsamic. Add a side salad and BOOM. Dinner.
Nikki G. September 2, 2014
Saltines and smoked kippers make a fabulous lunch. For a snack I love saltines (again!) with pickled herring. We always keep canned tuna in the panty too for tuna patties or tuna salad.
ambradambra September 2, 2014
Agree with Sandra. Here in Australia I buy a brand of Portuguese tinned mackerel that is lovely. It's great straight from the tin put on toast with some chopped parsley, garlic and plenty of cracked pepper.
AntoniaJames September 2, 2014
I'm squarely in the sardine camp for casual meals, but I also love any-and-everything "tonnato." My true loves in the tinned fish department however are salmon and kipper snacks, which I often combine and keep in a jar, with nothing added, to dollop on my homemade lavash crackers or slices of my artisanal baguettes, for an inspired, satisfying lunch -- typically with a sharply-dressed grain + seeds and/or nuts + vegetables + fresh herb salad on the side. ;o)
ChefJune September 2, 2014
I love sardines, but would never take them to the office. The aroma would be way too offputting. OTOH, tuna or salmon are my big standbys when there's no leftover chicken, pork chop, whatever. I'm a big fan of the 3-ounce cans.
Lori September 2, 2014
I'm love both of them, although I haven't been able to find my favorite sardines, they're the ones in a big tin with tomato sauce, my dad got me started so many years ago.