Lunch

The Meal Prep Plan That Completely Changed Our Lunch Game

For better work lunches, use the buddy system.

January 31, 2020
Photo by Julia Gartland

Big resolutions are overrated. This year, we’re all about highly doable improvements we can pull off any day. In Small Change, Big Impact, we're making tiny tweaks and sharing the results. Follow along, join in, and let us know what other small changes you’re making this year.


At the start of every year, it’s easy to have all sorts of cooking and eating resolutions: try a new recipe every week; eat less meat; become a meal-prep master. One resolution I always have: bring my lunch to work. I’ve written about it before and devised plenty of strategies to make it happen.

By the time August rolls around (okay, May), I’m back to buying lunch most days, with a brought-from-home sandwich or leftovers occasionally thrown in. And it’s fine, I don’t beat myself up over it. But when the Food52 team discussed this idea of skipping big resolutions in favor of little changes this year, lunch definitely felt like a good place to start.

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I asked myself: What would make this time different from all the homemade lunch promises I had made myself in the past? And how would I keep it as minimally demanding as the task at hand requires? Enter Catherine Seaver.

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“I did this for a few years with a classmate in law school and still have really fond memories of cooking to share with a friend even though I lived alone. I should pick up the tradition again with a coworker. :) ”
— Amanda K.
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Last year, Catherine reached out to our resident Genius, Kristen, about something truly genius she does: Since 2015, Catherine’s family has been trading dinners with four other families. As in, each family makes one dish in a portion enough to feed 20 people, then divides up the food into five batches so that every family can have a week’s worth of meals. (The whole thing's truly amazing, and you can read more about it here.) Each family only has to cook once (though, admittedly, they cook an enormous quantity!), but has dinner—more specifically, a different dinner—every night of the week.

Particularly valuable for families with small children, or too little time to prepare a brand-new dinner every night, this system of cooking and sharing is really inspiring, if a little daunting. A small change it was not, but I wondered: Could it be adapted somehow to make bringing lunch to work a little easier?

When I chatted with Catherine over the phone, she not only had ideas about how I might adopt a similar strategy, she immediately gave me helpful tips that made the whole thing feel doable.

1. Start small.

When I suggested a giant lunch swap the whole editorial team could try together, Catherine cautioned against making it too big (it’s supposed to be a small change, right?). When she first started her dinner village, it was just her family and one other; only gradually did they expand to five families. So we landed on experimenting with just two people—me and Brinda, our managing editor. The initial plan was that we’d each make a big batch of just one dish and alternate eating the two for lunch all week.

2. Chat about the basics.

Few things are more personal than cooking for another person, so getting on the same page in terms of likes, aversions, allergies, and other dietary restrictions is really important. Does anyone have food issues to be aware of? Make sure these are discussed from the outset. For our lunch swap, I was already aware that Brinda is a vegetarian, but at the time, she was also eliminating certain foods (like dairy, gluten, soy, and eggs) from her diet to test for allergies. What I cooked needed to meet these requirements. Sounded easy enough, but discussing it ahead of time was critical to the success of our experiment.

3. Set expectations.

Another important thing to agree on: how long you’ll swap meals for. Is this a one-week thing, or something that could be ongoing? Also be sure to communicate your meal plan. What are you each thinking of making? If you weren’t a meal planner before, now’s your chance to start.

Brinda and I brainstormed a bit the week before we started this experiment, then confirmed the menu on Sunday. My idea was to make mujadara with some kind of green vegetable (after checking with Brinda, I eventually decided on zucchini), and a Thai-style curried sweet potato and lentil stew I’d been wanting to try. Independently, Brinda was thinking about either a coconutty dal (leftovers from the big batch she made that weekend) or a quickie chana masala (since she had the time, she decided on both).

Brinda's quickie chana masala...
...and Brinda taking a photo of her quickie chana masala.

Upon comparing recipe plans, we realized we were both proposing pulse-based dishes. But since the flavors and cooking styles were different enough, we agreed this would be fine for the week. If we continued our swapping into the future, we decided it would be good to avoid using the same ingredients next time around, so we wouldn’t be eating the same thing (lentils, in our case) for a week straight.

4. Keep it simple.

This doesn’t have to be the most elaborate cooking project you’ve undertaken in your life. Pick tried-and-true dishes you love eating, or a simple new recipe you’ve been meaning to make. Little flourishes or garnishes are a nice touch, but certainly not required. Sharing something delicious is really where it starts and ends.

In Brinda and my case, we both went with recipes that we were familiar with: For me, I chose a favorite from Lucky Peach Presents Power Vegetables!, and that new lentil recipe I knew would work well in big batches. Brinda opted for standbys that she already cooks once or twice a month (she went off book for this experiment, but the recipes were pretty similar to this coconut dal and this chana masala).

5. admire your success!

Overall, I think Brinda and I were both pretty pleased with how our lunch experiment went. It required a little extra planning, but proved worth it—impactful, even—during a particularly busy week at work. Plus, Brinda is an excellent cook, so it was doubly rewarding. Could I really make it a regular thing for the rest of the year? With a willing companion, I think so.

Would you ever do a lunch swap with an office buddy? Let me know in the comments.

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7 Comments

Catherine S. February 1, 2020
I love seeing all the ways this idea can be adapted! I've found it helpful to just have extra meals in the fridge and then invite folks over for what we have lovingly titled "Crappy Dinners" - It has changed our social lives (made them actually possible) with children: https://www.villageuppeople.com/blog/2019/4/24/crappy-dinners-and-how-they-save-our-social-life-and-sanity
 
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Joanna S. February 2, 2020
Catherine! Thank you again for your advice and all your support!
 
Amanda K. January 31, 2020
I did this for a few years with a classmate in law school and still have really fond memories of cooking to share with a friend even though I lived alone. I should pick up the tradition again with a coworker. :)
 
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Joanna S. February 2, 2020
A lunch swap *and* law school? I am impressed! I'm glad you have fond memories and I, too, hope you pick up the tradition again :)
 
kristenwemer January 31, 2020
We've been doing something similar for years but more potluck style. We have a core group of four people who rotate bringing the four main components of a "bowl" lunch - base (grain/greens/riced vegetables), protein, vegetable, and dressing/topping. We pick a theme (e.g. Mediterranean, Thai, Southern) and everyone makes something that fits the theme in their assigned category. Even when we pick a theme that I'm nervous about (e.g. "Down by the Sea" or "Surprise"), it's delicious. Every single time. If more people want to participate, we just ask that they bring a vegetable or topping that fits the theme. We've used this strategy to make soups in the winter, and salads in the summer. We've all tried going vegan, Whole30, and Paleo together at different points. We're always eating things that we would never have the time or idea to put together ourselves. It's endlessly flexible and so easy - sometimes all you need to bring is a tub of mixed greens! The food lasts us 2-3 days, which we've found to be ideal to allow for bringing other leftovers or client lunches the rest of the week. I highly recommend this strategy!
 
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Joanna S. January 31, 2020
Oh wow, I love this idea! It's quite possibly even simpler than what we tried. And how lovely that you all participate together. Also, love a "surprise" theme :)
 
ellie R. January 31, 2020
We do something similar where I work also. It's almost like that story 'Stone Soup', where everyone contributes just a little bit and the results are always wonderful, whether it's soup, salad, or sandwich stuff. It's also great when we do things like 'cheese day' - people decide whether they're bringing cheese, bread, crackers, fruit or some combination of those items. We're always trying new things and we end up eating it for several days because of the variety. Of course, it helps that I work with a great group who is always willing to enjoy something like that.