Tips for making lunch in advance

Daniel Neman
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Some see a resemblance to Japan’s popular bento boxes. Some just call it meal prepping. And some prefer to think of it as bringing lunch to work in Tupperware containers.

Any way you look at it, it’s one of the hottest trends in dieting, if you listen to social media. People share recipes and take pictures of their bento boxes/Tupperware containers. Folks can’t get enough of it.

There are good reasons for the popularity. In these time-strapped times, meal prepping allows you to make four or five lunches (or dinners) at once and parcel them out throughout the week — if you don’t mind eating the same thing every day.

It also cuts back on the cost, because you can buy in bulk when you are making four or five lunches for yourself or, say, 20 for your family of four.

But the best reason for meal prepping is portion control. It is always tempting to eat a little more than before, or to stop at a restaurant where they serve you an entire cow on a bun. When you prep meals at home in advance, you can give yourself and your family just the right amount of food.

With meal prepping, you let your imagination be your guide. There are no rules. There are, however, a couple of suggestions.

Make dishes that are relatively hearty; remember, they have to stand up to a few days’ refrigeration. Souffles are out. Make something you are going to want to eat several days in a row — and change up the menu every week. For a balanced meal, be sure to include a protein, a vegetable and a starch.

And if you work or go to school with others, please, for the love of God, do not bring in any fish. There is no smell on this Earth worse than the smell of fish being reheated in a microwave.

I prepped three meals: one beef, one chicken and one pork. Sorry, vegetarians, I just wasn’t feeling up to tofu. But beans, tofu or seitan are all great sources of protein when prepping a meal.

I wanted to keep my meal preps simple, so I began with a classic — ground beef tacos.

If you were really pressed for time, you could just buy one of those packets of taco seasoning at the store, but where’s the fun in that? You can whip up your own batch of seasoning in a couple of minutes, and it will taste much fresher than any mix that has been sitting around in a foil packet for months.

I used the mix to season my ground beef (I bought the cheapest meat I could find, but if you can afford it you will be happier if you use a better grade). When the time came to prep my meals, I put the beef in the container and topped it with a sprinkling of chopped sweet onion, sliced fresh jalapenos, chopped tomato and shredded cheddar cheese.

I filled out the container with a few soft corn tortillas to make the tacos, plus a portion of black beans and some homemade Spanish rice. For fans of Hispanic-Asian fusion styles, it was a delicious Tex-Mex meal in a bento box.

For my chicken dish, I made a variation of perhaps my favorite go-to meal, pan-steamed chicken. That’s not an entirely accurate name for it, but I can’t think of a better one.

I call the variation I made Rosemary Chicken. First, I seared a couple of boneless, skinless breasts of chicken in olive oil, chopped onion and garlic. When browned on both sides, I added chicken stock and a large sprig of fresh rosemary, covered the pan and let the liquid simmer for about 20 minutes (these were thick pieces of meat).

The flavor of the meat was highly pleasant, not overpowering — it’s easy to overdo rosemary. I diced the chicken and put it in my container, along with green beans that I briefly boiled and then shocked in ice water and a portion of tri-colored bow-tie pasta. It made for a pretty meal; the colors were irresistible.

For the pork meal prep, I went a little fancy. I used pork tenderloin to make a recipe created by celebrity chef Charlie Palmer. I used his mostly Asian-inspired marinade (soy sauce, sherry, honey, rice wine vinegar, orange juice, fresh rosemary, shallots and ginger) to give it flavor, and then I broiled the tenderloin. Grilling it would have worked just as well — which was very good indeed.

It only took about 12 minutes to cook. I put slices of the pork in my container, along with a colorful medley of sauteed vegetables and some simple boiled red potatoes.

It looked great. It tasted great. And for some reason I had the strangest desire to put pictures of it on Pinterest.

Beef Tacos

Yield: 4 servings

11/2 teaspoons chili powder

1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

1/8 teaspoon onion powder

1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1/8 teaspoon oregano

1/4 teaspoon paprika

3/4 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

2 teaspoons oil

1/3 cup finely chopped onion

1 pound ground beef

1/2 cup water

In a small bowl, mix together chili powder, garlic powder, onion powder, red pepper, oregano, paprika, cumin, salt and pepper. Set aside.

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and add oil. When hot, stir in onion. Saute 2 to 3 minutes until soft. Add ground beef and saute until browned, breaking up clumps of meat with your spatula or spoon. Drain fat. Add seasoning mixture and water and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid is nearly evaporated.

For suggested meal prep, put 1/4 of the beef in a container with a sprinkling of chopped sweet onion, shredded cheese, 3 small tortillas, cooked black beans and Spanish rice.

Ground beef only, per serving: 235 calories; 14 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 73 mg cholesterol; 22 g protein; 4 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 401 mg sodium; 32 mg calcium

Ground beef and suggested meal prep food items, per serving: 505 calories; 23 g fat; 9 g saturated fat; 95 mg cholesterol; 34 g protein; 41 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; 7 g fiber; 762 mg sodium; 233 mg calcium

Adapted from a recipe from

Rosemary Chicken

Yield: 4 servings

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons finely chopped onion

1 garlic clove, crushed

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, about 12 ounces each

Salt and pepper

1/2 cup chicken stock

1 large sprig fresh rosemary

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onion and saute 2 minutes. Add garlic and saute 30 seconds. Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper and add to the pan. Cook until bottom side is golden brown; flip and cook until new bottom side is golden brown.

Add stock and sprig of rosemary, submerging the rosemary in the liquid. Cover, lower heat to a steady simmer and cook until chicken is just cooked through, about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken.

For meal prep, slice one breast in half and cut that half into a large dice. Place the diced chicken into a container with a vegetable and a starch of your choosing.

Per serving: 241 calories; 8 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 105 mg cholesterol; 39 g protein; 1 g carbohydrate; no sugar; no fiber; 239 mg sodium; 28 mg calcium

Pork Tenderloin

Yield: 6 servings

2 pork tenderloins

1/4 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup dry sherry

1/4 cup honey

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

1 tablespoon orange juice

21/4 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary

11/2 teaspoons minced shallots

1/2 teaspoon minced fresh ginger

Remove silverskin from tenderloins and place pork in a baking dish without crowding. In a medium bowl, mix together soy sauce, sherry, honey, vinegar, orange juice, rosemary, shallots and ginger and stir or whisk until thoroughly combined. Pour mixture over pork, cover with plastic wrap and marinate, turning occasionally, at least 2 hours. Leave the baking dish outside the refrigerator if marinating for a few hours; refrigerate if marinating overnight and bring to room temperature before cooking.

Cook under broiler or on grill until pork is just slightly pink in the middle, about 10 to 13 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to rest a few minutes before slicing.

For meal prep, cut tenderloin into slices and place in a container. Add vegetables and starch of your choice.

Per serving: 150 calories; 4 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 64 mg cholesterol; 24 g protein; 4 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; no fiber; 714 mg sodium; 14 mg calcium

Adapted from a recipe by Charlie Palmer, via Food Network.