Andrea E. McHugh
For nearly a year now, countless people around the world and in our own community have had to adapt to working from home. Those who are used to “eating something close to the office” for lunch need to plan their own lunchtime meals – a task that can quickly lead to what is colloquially referred to as “food decision fatigue”. However, with careful planning and implementation of interchangeable meal components, there are plenty of convenient options for lunch time.
“Leave me in a kitchen with groceries, a label printer, and matching containers, and in four hours you’ll see what a serial killer’s refrigerator looks like,” laughs Jen McMahan of Newport. McMahan, event manager at Newport Art Museum; her husband Robert, who traveled frequently to work; and son Jackson, a college student, found their lives all turned upside down when the pandemic began. Rhode Islands “stay at home” order changed their schedules – and their eating habits.
“With the pandemic and the shutdown, we’re just saying we gained a few pounds,” admits McMahan. She learned that a lack of lunch schedules resulted in poor food choices, and she recalibrated it and applied her Type A personality to the kitchen.
Clean eating and portion control became McMahan’s guiding principles as she planned healthy meals in advance. She starts by creating a menu and making a shopping list. “It saves me time, money and eliminates food waste,” she advises. A chalkboard now hangs in the kitchen to tell the family the dining options. “So I don’t keep replying to whining about what to eat,” she says. McMahan cooks in bulk to make enough servings for each family member to have lunch for five to six days, and she freezes a few extra servings for future use.
McMahan says she turns cooking a variety of lean, ground proteins to avoid a lunch break. “I fry bison with salt and pepper, turkey with a pack of organic fajita seasoning, and chicken with garlic, fresh herbs and organic Italian spices,” she says. To prevent the food from drying out, she adds some organic low-sodium vegetables or chicken broth just before the protein is cooked through. For portion control, she divides the proteins into 4 or 5-ounce servings and stores them in individual containers. The containers are then labeled, organized and stacked in the refrigerator.
“Make a salad, heat up a throw-in protein, and you have a healthy, satisfying lunch,” explains McMahan. “On those cool winter days I take the protein, add beans or vegetables, throw in some of my spicy tomato soup, make a few minutes of Nuke and voila – a healthy, hearty lunch!”
The soup makes a satisfying lunch in itself. Split peas are one of the easier varieties to make from scratch, as the dried peas can be kept in the pantry for eons and the other ingredients – yellow onion, garlic, olive oil, chicken broth, thyme, bay leaf, sea salt, and ground pepper – are usually at hand. Add some medium-sized diced carrots and ½ inch pieces of potatoes (Yukon gold or red boiling potatoes) for variety. If you have the time, take an extra 10 minutes to make your own croutons by baking diced bread in brown butter and a little garlic until extra crispy.
Carmen Foy, the founder and cook of Sprout & Lentil in Middletown, says soup is the perfect lunch to prepare and freeze ahead of time. That’s why the vegan restaurant is now selling large freezer bags that customers can heat and eat as they please. One of her customers says she keeps the frozen bags upright, like a library shelf full of soup flavors.
When you’re pressed for time, instant pots are ideal for soups. Such is a lesser-known device for preparing food: the soup maker. The device usually resembles a tall jug with a handle and can mix and cook 1.2 liters of soup in 15 to 30 minutes depending on the texture you want (pureed, chunky, etc.).
For traditionalists who have more time to spare, the time-tested slow cooker (aka crock-pot) has been a trusted favorite since 1940, and promises a solid meal for even the least skilled culinary. In the first few months of last year’s pandemic, I ordered products via the WhatsGood app, a virtual farmers market that connects shoppers with local farms, and drastically underestimated what 10 pounds of tiny sweet potatoes look like. Fortunately, if you store these bulbous root vegetables in a dry, cool place (like a basement or root cellar), they will last for four to six months.
But 10 pounds is a lot of sweet potatoes. After sharing a few with neighbors, I looked for recipes to capitalize on this huge yield and came across an Instagram post by local food blogger Rita Winthrop (@ritawinthrop) featuring sweet potato chili. After breakfast, I tossed pantry staples like canned black beans, cannellini beans, diced tomatoes, spices, and broth into the slow cooker, and at lunchtime I had a hot, delicious, and nutritious dish on request that is now part of my regular lunch Rotation.
Life can get busy at times, and lunch is easy to skip, but even Tsar Peter the Great, who modernized Russia and built the nation’s navy, made time for lunch. “Fate may come with us today,” he said, “but there is no need to disturb lunch.”
Sweet Potato Chilli
Recipe from Rita Winthrop (@ritawinthrop, ritawinthrop.com)
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
2 cans of black beans (pinto and cannellini work too)
1 can of diced tomatoes (use fire roasted for a smokier taste)
1 cup of frozen, fresh, or canned corn
1 tablespoon of chopped garlic
1 teaspoon of chili powder
1 teaspoon of cumin
½ chopped onion (sweet or white work best)
1–1½ cups of broth (chicken or vegetables)
A shot of cinnamon
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Place the ingredients in a slow cooker, stir, cover and cook on medium or high for 4 to 6 hours, stirring every hour.
2. Scoop into serving bowls and season to taste with salt and pepper. (Garnish with fresh coriander, grated cheese, sour cream or guacamole, if you like.)
Butternut and Bartlett Bisque
Recipe from Carmen Foy, Sprout & Lentil
1 (2 pounds) butternut squash, peeled and cut into quarters
1 tablespoon of cumin
1 tablespoon of curry powder
1 onion, diced
5½ cups of vegan broth
2 firm, ripe Bartlett pears, peeled, pitted, and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 cups of cashew nuts
salt and pepper
1. Soak the cashew nuts in water (enough so that the cashew nuts are well immersed) and let rest for 1 hour.
2. Place a quarter of butternut squash in a frying pan (a rimmed sheet pan will also work). Sprinkle with cumin and curry and add 1 cup of stock to the pan.
3. Place in the oven at 350 ° F and cook for half an hour.
4. While the pumpkin is cooking, fry the onion in half a cup of the broth on the stove (or use cooking oil instead of the broth). Continue until the onions are translucent. After the pumpkin has finished cooking, add it to the onion pan along with the diced pears and 4 cups of stock. Cover and let simmer for about ½ hour.
5. After the cashews have soaked for an hour, remove them from the water and discard the liquid. Place the cashews in a Vitamix or blender and add just enough broth or filtered water to cover the nuts. Mix until creamy and free of lumps. This is “cashew cream”.
6. Use a hand blender to puree the onion, butternut and pear mixture until it is silky smooth. Add cashew cream and keep mixing. If desired, add additional broth to adjust the consistency.
7. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Spicy tomato soup
Recipe from Jen McMahan
For 6–9 people (1½ cups per serving)
6 ripe tomatoes
1 large container with three-colored cherry tomatoes
2-3 cloves of garlic
½ small onion
4 10-ounce cans of organic diced tomatoes with green chillies
2 13-ounce cans of organic tomato sauce
1–2 packs of organic chilli spice
1 teaspoon of organic cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon of onion powder
1 tablespoon of garlic powder
1-2 cups of organic vegetable stock
Pink Himalayan sea salt
1. Peel and roughly chop the ripe tomatoes, set aside.
2. Halve the tri-colored cherry tomatoes and set aside.
3. Chop the garlic and onion by hand or with a food processor.
4. Lightly spray a large, shallow pan with organic cooking spray and sauté the garlic and onion until translucent.
5. Add tomatoes and simmer over medium heat for about half an hour until the tomatoes crumble.
6. Put the contents of the pan in a blender and mix until the consistency is smooth. You may need to do this in small amounts to avoid overloading your blender.
7. Put the mixed tomato mixture in a large stock pot over low heat.
8. Put cans of tomato sauce and cans of diced tomatoes in the stock pot (do not drain).
9. Add chilli seasoning, cayenne pepper powder, onion powder and garlic powder.
10. Add 1 cup of vegetable stock. If you prefer a thinner soup or a less spicy soup, add more broth.
11. Add pink Himalayan sea salt and ground pepper to taste.
Note: This soup can be eaten on its own, or you can add a protein, beans, or vegetable to make a healthy chili.