Day in, day out, it’s the same old sandwich. Or soup, or salad, or whatever you can grab as you head out of the door. When it comes to packed lunches, we’re generally rather unadventurous. And too often, a soggy sarnie is abandoned for – or supplemented by – a trip to a tempting, overpriced vending machine or local deli, meaning you shell out twice. It seems these days it’s not only the grown-ups who aren’t faring so well when it comes to packed lunches. The Telegraph reported that our children are now being encouraged to eat at the school canteens. According to the article, “a Government-backed report is expected to push for a halving in the number of children taking packed lunches to school in an attempt to stop pupils eating so much fatty and sugary food.”
By packing up a lunch you actually look forward to munching, it’ll be easy to resist spending extra money on making your midday meal worth eating. You don’t need to have a lot of time to spend, either – all these options are both cheap and fast, not to mention filling and nutritious. Spend your lunchtime gaining back time and money and lose a little around your middle into the bargain…
The Guardian foodie Felicity Cloake believes that “dal is a dish which can comfort all year round: the fresh, sharp spices and clean herbs work as well for me on a cooling summer evening as a dark winter’s night.” And according to Indian food write Madhur Jaffery, it’s the mung dal that has “always been considered the most digestible and is eaten with equal relish by toothless toddlers, husky farmers and effete urban snobs.”
Raw pulses are cheap and store well, so just cook up the amount you need each time. Choose small red lentils which cook down in the shortest time- around 20-30 minutes. Dal is one of the most nutritious dishes you can eat, notably high in protein. By changing spices and flavourings it can be endlessly varied. For a basic version, boil lentils with a bay leaf and grated ginger until it breaks down completely. Heat oil and fry off some cumin seeds and crushed garlic, then tip this sizzling mixture over the cooked dal, stir in and add salt to taste. Try adding spinach or cooked vegetables too.
By being economical with your ingredient choices, you can put together interesting, satisfying salads for very little money. For fresh produce, use ethnic shops and ‘pound-a-bowl’ stalls, and buy in season for the best prices. Choose a bulky base like pasta or grain, cooked potato or tinned pulses, then build it up with leaves and veggies. A simple vinaigrette flatters most mixtures, and fresh herbs punch up flavour. Don’t forget texture; dried fruit, seeds and nuts, and olives are great additions. Make it colourful – brightly pigmented foods tend to be highest in nutrients.
You may think of yogurt as something you’d choose for dessert, but it makes a great base for savoury dishes. Any basic cheap plain yogurt is fine – if it’s watery, strain it through a cheesecloth before use. Mix with garlic, cucumber and herbs for a refreshing tsatziki to serve with pita and veggies, or exchange cucumber for chopped roasted aubergine or courgette. For a hot lunch, try a Middle Eastern yogurt soup made substantial with bulgur wheat, or India’s ‘ kadhi’ which involves whisking chickpea flour into the yogurt before heating, meaning you can safely boil it without it separating. The New York Times featured hot yoghurt soup in their recipes for health series, claiming that the “simple soup is both comforting and light, good at any time of year, but in warm weather serve it warm but not simmering hot. To stabilize the yogurt so that it doesn’t curdle when it cooks, stir in a little cornstarch.”
Couscous is cheap and filling – and very, very simple to prepare. Measure out the amount you need into a bowl, pour over boiling water from a kettle, cover with a plate and leave for 5 minutes. Fluff up the grain with a fork and add your chosen ingredients and flavourings. As a bland base, couscous works well with almost anything you could think of – but does need quite a heavy hand with the seasoning. Adding a little acidity with citrus juice or wine vinegar works well, and it’s the perfect carrier for pungent or salty ingredients like parsley and feta.
Racy rice noodles
These are another economical time-saver; simply soak before use to yield a mass of chewy, satisfying noodles. Their slippery, toothsome properties mean they work best with Oriental flavours and ingredients. Rice noodles have little taste of their own so you’ll need to add plenty – think soy sauce, ginger, coriander, fish sauce, lime and chilli. Add texture with a few cooked prawns or chicken and some chopped nuts. Don’t over-dress or you’ll end up with a big pool of liquid that slides right off the noodles.
Fruit is a great go-to healthy lunch, but it can get old, fast. Rather than eating it ‘naked’, add a surprising spicy-tangy dressing. In India, fruit chaat is hugely popular. Chopped fruit is combined with lime and a magical spice blend called ‘chaat masala’ – if you can’t find it, use chilli powder and salt – a combination also popular in Mexico. The high water content combined with salt makes it great for hot days and sporty types.
Tinned pulses have to be one of the most economical stor-cupboard staples, and ready-made hummus one of the biggest rip-offs. One you make your own, you’ll see why. Simply whizz up a tin of chickpeas with a clove of garlic, lemon, oil of your choice, and salt to taste. That’s it! Then you can customise – keep it chunky or smooth it out, add herbs, spices or a spoonful of peanut butter, or try using a different pulse next time.
Don’t shell out for gourmet crisps – make your own. Cut slightly stale pitta, tortillas or chappatis into triangles, toss with a little oil and bake in a low oven until dry and crisp – you can even use the microwave! Whilst still warm, toss with salt and flavourings of your choice.
Jessica Bourne is on a mission to save her readers money. A Chester-based lifestyle writer, Jessica loves to share tips on budgeting and how to save money both inside and outside of the house, whether it’s savvy shopping for the latest summer fashions or travel tips for the budget-conscious.