Brown-bagging lunch erases noontime surprises


"Let's do lunch." A phrase that typified the multiple-hour power lunches of the booming 1980s has all but disappeared from today's corporate lingo.

In the lean and mean '90s, more workers eat lunch in the office. One recent survey shows that 49 percent of American workers lunch at their desks, for economic reasons and to clock more "face time" with their bosses.

Others opt for a quickie food fix in their cubicle to leave time for personal errands. Some short-circuit the lunch hour simply to get their work done so they can leave on time.

Dave Jenkins, a vice president of the National Eating Trends division of the NPD Group market research firm, says 58 percent of all workers carry something from home for a meal at work at least once every two weeks. Adult males are the biggest group of people who carry their meals. But the numbers for all adults are rising.

"People are carrying more things out of the house -- whether it is breakfast, snacks, lunch or dinner -- but mostly we carry lunch. We carry things that are portable for an easier, cheaper and less time-consuming way to deal with meals."

Dr. Theresa Rosecrans, 51, has been doing just that for most of the 15 years she has owned her temporary placement service for medical personnel.

"I always carry my lunch to work," she says, "unless my staff insists we go out for lunch or for the occasional business meeting."

Her decision to dine at her desk has little to do with money or lack of choices.

Instead, time is the No. 1 reason Dr. Rosecrans packs a lunch.

"Eating out just takes too much time. By the time you decide where to go, order the food and then eat, more than an hour has passed. I don't feel I should be gone that long. I firmly believe that you should work during the prime time.

"I also eat more when I go out. If I eat at my desk I will eat something much lighter, like a salad. Then I can keep working because I'm not too full. When I do go out I don't plan on doing much when I get back -- maybe just clean my desk -- because it's hard to regroup and start up again."

Sharon Cartalino, a receptionist at a public accounting firm, doesn't worry about time as much as Dr. Rosecrans, although she, too, spends only about 20 minutes eating lunch. Her concerns have more to do with nutrition.

"I don't like to eat all the junk food available outside the office, like McDonald's and Burger King," she says.

From the night before

Ms. Cartalino packs sandwiches made from cooked turkey or chicken and other things her family had for dinner the night before.

"Occasionally I will bring lasagna, spaghetti and leftover stir-fries that I reheat in the microwave oven in the office kitchen."

Dr. Rosecrans likewise totes food, some homemade and some store-bought, to zap at work when time is really short.

When she does have time in the morning, Dr. Rosecrans packs a mid-morning snack of yogurt and, for lunch, a salad or simple sandwich such as grilled chicken on pita bread.

"I will stop working to eat," Dr. Rosencrans says, "maybe meditate, read a little bit and then spend about 15 minutes eating, but I do not work while I eat. It's not good to work and eat."

But eating an adequate midday meal allows you to work better. The average office worker, fueled by a skimpy breakfast and caffeine, shortchanges the body's nutrition needs, says Jodie Shield, a registered dietitian.

A well-balanced lunch can avert the afternoon blahs and keep you from loading up on calories at night. "It's probably better to get the bulk of your calories earlier in the day," Ms. Shield says.

She has found that these days, workers who don't eat at their desks tend to skip lunch altogether. Ravenous by quitting time, they eat whatever they can find once they get home.

"If you're trying to get more grains and fruits and vegetables in your diet, it's difficult to accomplish if you skip lunch," Ms. Shield says.

Sandwiches remain the most popular item for adults and children, and peanut butter and jelly ranks No. 1. Mr. Jenkins says the average person totes six pb&j; sandwiches and eight apples over the course of a year.

"People might not call them their favorite foods, but they are the most popular to carry," says Mr. Jenkins. Ham sandwiches, bananas and potato chips also are top lunch-box items.

"Old habits die hard," Mr. Jenkins says, "especially if you prepare lunch in the morning when you are looking for the easiest thing to make."

With a bit of planning (and discipline), brown baggers can save money and time and not settle for the mundane. Here are some recipes aimed at the briefcase crowd looking for quick, sophisticated, low-fat desk-top dining.

(Of course, the pasta with pesto and the rice salad could be served for dinner -- just be sure to save some for lunch.)

Pasta with gusto

This classic Genoese dish, adapted from a recipe by chef Nicola Gilardi of Chicago's I Tre Merli, uses the bounty of fresh basil available at this time of the year. Use any pasta or even cooked rice. It tastes great served hot (use a microwave oven on $H medium power) or at room temperature; add leftover grilled vegetables or roast chicken pieces if desired.

Serve it with sliced tomatoes (or cherry tomatoes), crusty Italian rolls and fresh plums for dessert.

Pasta with pesto, green beans and potatoes

Makes 6 servings

1 pound linguine or other pasta

2 cups each: diced new potatoes, halved trimmed green beans

1 large clove garlic

2 cups lightly packed fresh basil leaves

1/4 cup each: water, pine nuts, grated imported Parmesan

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon each: salt, freshly ground black pepper

Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling water according to package directions until al dente. Drain; keep warm.

Meanwhile, cook potatoes and green beans in a large saucepan of boiling water, uncovered, until crisp-tender, about 8 minutes. Drain; keep warm.

While noodles and vegetables cook, drop garlic into food processor or blender with machine running to finely chop it. Then add basil, 1/4 cup water, nuts, Parmesan, oil, salt and pepper. Process until basil is very finely chopped, almost pureed.

Toss pasta with potatoes, green beans and basil sauce to coat.

Per serving: 445 calories, 10 g fat, 3 mg cholesterol, 265 mg sodium, 74 g carbohydrates, 15 g protein.

This recipe, adapted from "Lighter, Quicker, Better" by Marie Simmons and the late Richard Sax, is a sort of salad version of the Carolina low-country classic, hoppin' John. Cooked or grilled shrimp, diced smoked ham or turkey could be added.

For dessert, pack a wedge of angel food cake and a small container of sugared sliced strawberries for topping.

Black-eyed pea, green pea and rice salad

Makes 6 servings

1 cup diced ( 1/4 -inch) carrots

1 cup fresh or frozen tiny green peas, thawed

1/4 cup mild olive oil

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon grainy mustard, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper sauce

1 can (16 ounces) black-eyed peas, drained, rinsed

3 cups cooked long-grain white rice

1/2 cup each diced ( 1/4 -inch): celery, red onion, green (or yellow) bell pepper

1/4 finely chopped parsley

2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme leaves, optional

freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat a medium saucepan half filled with water to a boil. Stir in carrots and boil, uncovered, for 2 minutes. Immediately add peas to the carrots and boil, uncovered, 1 minute. Immediately drain and rinse with cold water. Set aside.

Whisk oil, lemon juice, 2 tablespoons water, mustard, salt and hot pepper sauce in a large bowl until blended.

Add the black-eyed peas, cooked rice, carrots, peas, celery, onion, bell pepper, parsley and thyme to the dressing. Add a generous amount of black pepper. Toss to blend. Let stand 20 minutes before serving. Taste and add more lemon juice, salt or pepper if needed. Serve at room temperature.

Per serving: 315 calories, 10 g fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 445 mg sodium, 48 g carbohydrates, 8 g protein.

For an even faster version, substitute the cabbage and red pepper mixture with store-bought coleslaw. Smoked chickens are available in large supermarkets and gourmet shops; rotisserie chicken, smoked turkey, grilled chicken and barbecued pork also work well here. Bunches of grapes make a nice accompaniment.

Pita packed with smoked chicken and slaw

Makes 4 servings

Meat from 1 small smoked chicken, pulled into coarse shreds (about 3 cups)

2 cups thinly sliced cabbage

1 large red pepper, seeded, thinly sliced

2 heaping tablespoons low-fat mayonnaise

2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley, chives or cilantro

1 tablespoon Creole mustard or grainy Dijon

salt, freshly ground pepper to taste

hot red pepper sauce to taste

4 pita pocket breads

lettuce leaves, tomato slices

Mix chicken, cabbage, red pepper, mayonnaise, parsley, mustard, salt, pepper and hot sauce in a bowl. Let stand 30 minutes or refrigerate overnight. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Cut pita breads in half and open up pockets. Divide chicken mixture among the 8 halves. Wrap well. Add lettuce leaves and tomatoes just before eating.

Per sandwich: 270 calories, 4 g fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 1,330 mg sodium, 38 g carbohydrates, 20 g protein.

Take along a piece of corn bread or pack some bread sticks for noshing with the soup.

Chilled black bean soup

Makes 3 cups

1 can (15 ounces) black beans

1 can (14 1/2 ounces) stewed tomatoes, Mexican-style

1/2 cup beef broth

1/2 to 1 teaspoon adobo sauce from canned chipotles or 1 tablespoon smoky barbecue sauce

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

Plain yogurt for garnish, optional

Puree half the beans with their liquid in a food processor or blender. Add about 3/4 of the tomatoes and process until tomatoes are coarsely chopped. (Chop remaining tomatoes and pack in a small container for garnishing soup just before eating.)

Put bean-tomato mixture and remaining whole beans into a small saucepan. Stir in broth, adobo sauce, chili powder and cumin. Heat until hot. Pour very hot water into a vacuum bottle; pour out the water and add the soup. Serve soup in mugs with a spoonful of the reserved chopped tomatoes and plain yogurt on top if desired.

Per serving: 170 calories, 1 g fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1,035 mg sodium, 33 g carbohydrates, 10 g protein.

Better brown-bagging

These tips for brown-bag lunching are sure to make your desk-mates envious:

* Select great breads or individual rolls that keep a few days (or freeze them) so sandwiches don't get boring. Choose from multigrain rolls, pumpernickel whole-wheat pita, cheese and jalapeno bread, olive bread or sourdough.

* Stock up on low-fat condiments such as several flavors of mustard (jalapeno- honey mustard does wonders for a simple ZTC sliced turkey breast sandwich), balsamic vinegar, prepared horseradish, low-fat mayonnaise and salsa.

* Items such as olive tapenade, chopped sun-dried tomatoes and pickled hot chilies deliver lots of flavor to ordinary tuna and salads made from leftover chicken.

* Speaking of leftovers, plan to have some of last night's dinner in a new form for lunch. Whether you're dining in a restaurant or cooking at home, many foods inspire great noontime meals, such as roast chicken or pork, grilled tuna or beef, grilled vegetables and cooked rice and grains. Eat them reheated or use them for a main-course salad and sandwich. And don't forget how good leftover soup, pizza, pasta and fried rice can taste reheated in the company microwave. So, if you are eating out, order enough for the next day's lunch.

* Look past the frozen entrees in the freezer aisle for some new ideas. For example, make a quick shrimp poor boy with frozen battered shrimp (most have microwave instructions) set on a crusty roll spread with low-fat mayonnaise jazzed up with hot pepper sauce and topped with shredded lettuce (always wrap lettuce separately from the bread). Another idea uses frozen falafel (seasoned balls of ground chickpeas found in Middle Eastern stores or large supermarkets) reheated in the company microwave and tucked in a pita pocket with shredded lettuce, chopped tomato and a side dish of cucumbers mixed with plain yogurt, ground red pepper and lemon juice.

* Take time to wrap foods properly so they remain mouthwatering at lunch time. Pack delicate items and salads into sealed plastic containers (choose microwave-safe containers for foods you want to reheat). Wrap sandwiches completely, but put lettuce and tomato in a separate container. Pour salad dressing into a small plastic container to add to green salads just before eating.

* Buy an inexpensive set of stainless flatware, a sharp serrated knife, microwave-safe coffee mug and a cloth napkin to keep in your desk.

* Pack an interesting beverage, such as fruit-flavored tea, lemonade, or even non-alcoholic beer.

* Talk a walk after lunch. The fresh air will perk you up, and after all, you did save time eating at your desk.

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