The transition from summer to fall feels more like a new year to me than that cold and quiet day in January. Schedules change, flannels are pulled from the closet, and the air just begins to feel different, seemingly overnight. Along with this shift comes resolutions. I vow to clear out the basement (do we really need to own three boogie boards!?), wash the quilts, and cook even more. After the heavy rotation of Menemsha Galley soft serve and Chilmark Store slices, I crave an even and nutritious eating pattern to fuel our busy fall days.

I know I’m not alone when I say that planning and packing weekday lunches is tough. Grabbing something in town is always tempting, but eating out regularly adds up. The homemade, packed work lunch of my dreams is one that I can easily pull from the fridge in the wee hours of the morning. Something nutritious, flavorful, and satisfying that will keep me full through the afternoon. My most successful cook-ahead, grab-from-the-fridge lunch options have been hearty salads made with beans, grains, and vegetables. I cook these dishes over the weekend, store them, and pair them with a variety of items throughout the week. For example, the recipe at right for a salad of Lemon-Tahini Sweet Potatoes and Chickpeas can be stuffed into a pita with baby greens one day, topped with an egg (hard boiled or fried) the next, then scooped with corn chips later in the week. It holds up well in the fridge and is tasty cold, at room temperature, or warm.

I knew this “make hearty salad/eat many ways” technique worked for me, but I wanted to hear how other busy people plan successful weekday lunches. I asked Caroline Flanders, a partner at a West Tisbury law firm, how she does it. “Keeping a well-stocked pantry with exciting salad add-ins like dried fruit, nuts, beans, and seeds is key,” she said when describing her go-to desk lunch: a raw salad piled high with toppings and made more exciting served with a healthful side she prepares on her days off. “I always make a few items over the weekend. My favorites are wheat berries, frittatas, and simple roast chicken.”

I couldn’t agree more. It can make a world of difference when basic staples like rinsed beans, a pot of rice, or a bowl of hard-boiled eggs are ready and waiting for you in the fridge.

Flanders also mentioned the importance of having a variety of good packing containers on hand, so that pulling lunch items together and heading out the door becomes second nature. If you have to search out a container and matching lid all the time, you’re going to avoid the task. Her habit of eating a protein-heavy lunch, one without many carbohydrates, to keep her afternoon energy alive is something I aim for as well. A little 3 p.m. crash is inevitable, but made much less severe by a healthy, filling midday meal. Sometimes there’s only so much coffee can do.

My sister, a middle school teacher, uses a different approach. She consciously cooks larger portions at dinner to ensure lunch food is ready for her when she leaves the house in the early hours. If you pack up those leftovers into individual-sized portions when cleaning up the meal, even better.

At the heart of it, this is really about a habit shift. With any new behavior, it takes work and effort, especially in the beginning. If packing your own lunch every day feels overwhelming, look at the calendar and try it for two weeks. Don’t give up, see what parts are working and what’s not. Maybe team up with a co-worker or ask friends what works for them. Treat yourself to lunch out once a week – humpday Wednesday or celebratory Friday? Better yet, take that money you’re saving on eating out and put it toward something you really want.

We can all make preparing delicious and healthy portable lunch items a part of our weekly routine. To get going, start with this simple salad of sweet potatoes and chickpeas. After that, look for recipes that can be made ahead, travel easily, offer big flavors, and can be tweaked throughout the week so you don’t get bored. And you know what, when you sit down at your desk, a favorite park bench, or a communal table for lunch and crack open a container of delicious and nutritious homemade goodness, you’ll have only yourself to thank.

The following recipe was originally published with this article:
Lemon-Tahini Sweet Potatoes and Chickpeas