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10 Multipurpose Ingredients to Keep in the Office for Better Lunches

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Sometimes life—and lunch—doesn't go as planned: You made a tray of broccoli in hopes of saving half for lunch tomorrow, then couldn't resist the fresh-out-of-the-oven florets; you left your salad on the countertop; your sandwich took a leap out of your bag and onto the subway platform; your soup wasn't as filling as you'd hoped.

Photo by James Ransom

No matter your lunchtime woe, keeping a few ingredients at your office—just enough to tuck into the back of the fridge or your desk drawer—can act as insurance against ever needing to run out for that last-minute $13 salad. Here are 10 ingredients to always have on hand at the office—ones that will save your lunches and keep you happy through the 3 PM slump:

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1. Lemons

Lemons have a multitude of lunchtime purposes: Squeeze one over a few apple slices to give them a citrusy bite and keep them from browning, or use the juice to flavor grains and salads in an impromptu vinaigrette. When you've used up the juice, put the rind in your water for some extra flavor.

If you don't have a cutting board at work, squeeze several lemons into an airtight container at home on Sunday and bring it into work. It will last about three days in the refrigerator, or several months in the freezer.

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How to Make a Vinaigrette Without a Recipe

2. Soy sauce

There is nothing I borrow more often from the Food52 test kitchen than soy sauce. Last night's chicken dinner not as flavorful as it was out of the oven? Soy sauce. Brown rice a little too bland? Soy sauce. Not into plain hard-boiled eggs? Soy sauce. It's a great staple to have around when your food could use an salty, savory boost.

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3. Olive oil

You probably don't need us to tell you how delicious olive oil is, or how versatile it is—have you tried it on ice cream yet?—or how many ways you can use it to up your lunch routine, but we'll tell you anyways:

  1. Mix olive oil into Greek yogurt with nuts and spices for a savory, filling lunch. (Scoop up with pita! Or pita chips.)
  2. Use it to thin tahini to make a multipurpose dressing that's as delicious on leftover chicken as it is on salad.
  3. Whisk it with yogurt to make a creamy base onto which you can pile salads (or dried fruit!).
  4. Mash it into avocados, then slather it onto toast.
Why Yogurt Tartines Just Might Be the Perfect Lunch
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Why Yogurt Tartines Just Might Be the Perfect Lunch

4. Nut butter or tahini

If you looked in Food52's snack cabinet—not to be confused with our snack drawers—you'd think we have a peanut butter addiction. And you'd be right. Come 4 PM, you'll find us swiping peanut butter across toast, dipping our apple slices in it, and stirring it into our yogurt. No matter your nut butter preference, it's a perfect, nearly non-spoilable staple to have around. And if your preference happens to be tahini, you'll have a world of hummus (or hummus-aspiring, mashed-at-the-office chickpeas) and dressings at your fingertips too.

5. Plain Greek yogurt

If there's a few inches of extra room in your work refrigerator, keep a pint of yogurt in the back. Not only will it come in handy when you forget breakfast (and if you do, it might be wise to keep some honey and granola at your desk as well!), but it's a handy way to bolster avocado toast and other tartines, grain bowls, and salads. In a pinch, it can be used as a mayonnaise alternative to whip up a tuna fish or potato or egg salad.

The Case for a Semi-Homemade Lunch 
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The Case for a Semi-Homemade Lunch 

6. Cooked rice or other grain, frozen if possible

Cooked rice is the ultimate make-ahead ingredient—once you make a few cups at home, it will freeze happily for months until defrosted (and if it comes from a microwaveable bag or the Chinese takeout place downstairs, that's okay too). If you have access to a freezer at work, keep a few single-portioned containers of your frozen grain of choice in the back so that packing lunch means grabbing last night's leftover vegetables and running out the door (shout-out to soy sauce for your help pulling it all together).

7. Butter

Need to fry an egg? Butter. Make toast? Butter. Make a heartier, creamier oatmeal? Just add butter. (We're not kidding!) A pat of butter in a bowl of oatmeal—whether sweet or savory—will make it thicker, creamier, and kick it up a notch for a slightly more special lunch.

How a Few Hard-Boiled Eggs Can Save Your Work Lunches
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How a Few Hard-Boiled Eggs Can Save Your Work Lunches

8. Hard- and soft-boiled eggs

Eggs are lunchtime (and snacktime) cure-alls. At the beginning of the week, soft- or hard-boil half a dozen eggs (drop eggs into boiling water for 8 minutes, then immediately move to a cold water bath) and bring them to work, in their shells. They're perfect to have with a piece of toast or as-is for breakfast, but their real power is in bolstering lunches. Add them to salads, sandwiches, and brothy soups.

9. Sliced almonds

When you almost have enough for lunch, but not quite, almonds are your best friend. Sprinkle them over yogurt, avocado toast, grain bowls, oatmeal, and salads for some extra crunch and energy to keep you going until dinner.

How to Make Hummus Without a Recipe
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How to Make Hummus Without a Recipe

10. A can of chickpeas

Because canned chickpeas last forever, they're great to have on-hand for that inevitable day, weeks from now, when you realize you forgot your tuna salad sandwich on the counter at home. If you have even a few of the essentials above, you're good to go. Here are a few options, once you've opened and drained your chickpeas:

  1. Whisk together some Greek yogurt, tahini, and olive oil and put it at the bottom of a bowl. Pile the chickpeas on top and eat!
  2. If you have a blender, make hummus: Blend the can of chickpeas with about 1/4 cup olive oil, a few dollops of tahini, and the juice from one of your lemons. Serve with a soft-boiled egg (and maybe trade some hummus for some crackers from a colleague).
  3. Top some brown rice with chickpeas and drizzle with a little soy sauce to flavor it all.
  4. Make a mashed chickpea and egg salad, held together with Greek yogurt thinned with olive oil.

What are your essential lunchtime ingredients? Tell us in the comments below!

Tags: essential ingredients, make ahead meal, plan ahead, meal planning