Meal Planning Q&A: Packing Lunches

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As you know we’re big gluttons, er, I mean foodies, around here. Each of the FishFam loves to eat. And lunchtime is no exception.

The best way for the kids and I to have an easy lunch is to pack them a boxed lunch even though we’re home for lunch most days. FishChick2’s food allergies threw a slight wrench in that plan since many of my go-to items contained peanuts. Now, that we’ve discovered sunbutter, I think kid lunches will be a little easier.

Packing Husband Lunches

My husband is gone everyday at lunchtime. He can go out to eat with his co-workers, and while a quick burrito isn’t terribly expensive, bringing food from home is often better for him and our budget. While he does have access to a microwave at work, he also likes to exercise during his lunch break, so it’s nice for him to have something quick to grab instead of going out to eat or hanging out in the break room.

Standard fare in his lunchbox includes the following:

  • a sandwich, wrap, piece of chicken, leftovers, or pasta salad
  • energy or granola bar
  • fruits and veg
  • yogurt
  • sweet snack like cookie or banana bread
  • string cheese or cheddar slices
  • crackers

Super Secret Sub

Making a wrap for his lunch is a new meal idea we’re testing. I simply fill a tortilla with the sandwich fixings and if I wrap it the right way, it’s a perfect “walk-and-eat” kind of lunch.

This is what works for us in this season, and we’re comfortable working out a budget for a meal out each week, especially on Fridays and overtime weekends.

Reader Q&A:

A reader wrote with a perplexing situation. I’m not sure how to answer since our situation is slightly different. So, I thought I would pose it here and let you all answer:

My husband has a hearty appetite. Surprisingly, he is not a large man. Tall, yes. Large, no. He has a physically strenuous job as an electrical lineman (not house electrician – the big electric lines). He works outside in all elements, even today where, in northwestern MN, it is 0 degrees and blowing wind of around 30 miles per hour, which takes more fuel to keep him warm and energized. And since he is outside, that means no microwave to warm up his body with toasty leftovers that keep him satisfied and our budget in a personal satisfactory guideline.

So the common lunch…? A cold sandwich. He hates the sight of a sandwich but to help him through the day until dinner, he chokes down the half I make everyday. Oh, I’ve tried fanagling with it and mixing it up in all sorts of mathematical formulas and ingredients. A sandwich still remains a sandwich. And every day he gets the fruits, vegetables, yougurt, snack food, chips, drink and dessert.

I’ve tried salads with added protein (ie. meat, cheese, etc.), cold pasta dishes, soups and canned pastas in the thermos that are inevitably cold by the time he eats lunch. Once in a while, he and his partner even carry along a tiny, portable gas grill to throw on an occasional venison steak but not the everyday guarantee – especially on days like today.

So how do you fill your husbands stomach with good, nutricious, hearty lunches without busting your grocery budget?

It’s an excellent question. When we lived in Kansas where temperatures could get very cold and hubs was also working out of doors, I packed “snacks” to keep him fueled throughout the day, but we found it was better to make room in our budget for hot lunches at inexpensive places like Taco Bell or Wendy’s. He could easily eat from the dollar menu and walk out having spent about $3 or $4 a day.

While not the healthiest or the most economical, we realized that a chance to warm up and eat a hot meal made a huge difference in my husband’s day. It was a nice break from the elements and a filling lunch. That worked in that season, and he usually spent his “blow money” on his lunches.

But, I’m sure there are other solutions to this dilemma. And I know the LifeasMOMers have some answers.

What would YOU do in this situation?

About Jessica Fisher

I believe you can get great meals on the table -- and still keep that pretty smile on your face.

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  1. How about using a thermos? Target has a great selection of different sizes, and I have found that putting a thermos in an insulated lunchbox keeps things warm for a long time. I pack chili, soups, mac and cheese, turkey meatballs and cheese (sometimes with a sub roll so a it can be made into a meatball sub sandwich), leftover pasta and sauce, lasagna, etc. If you got one of the shorter, wider mouthed ones you could even probably put in a small burrito cut in half.

  2. Whoops, see that you have tried the thermos, missed it on the first read! But the insulated lunch box does really seem to help, especially if you put the food in piping hot. You could also get one of those microwave warming packs at the drugstore that are supposed to be for sore backs, heat that up, put it in the lunch box and put the thermos on top…

  3. I know “reader” said that soups in a thermos were usually cold by the time her husband got to eat them. One thing I’ve had success with – still using a thermos – is making a hot sandwich, homemade chicken nuggets & fries (or something else normally served warm), wrapping it in foil, and THEN putting it in the thermos.

    This takes a wide mouth thermos, and the stainless steel or ceramic thermoses work best for this. I do this for my boys on nights we have ballgames to cut down on going through the drive-through.

  4. Stacey says

    I personally do not make my husband lunch. Really, he is lucky to get coffee made for him. So my normal response to your query would be to show him where the food is kept and have him make his own lunch. However, in your case he has a really tough job and could use a little TLC.

    So my answer is “stew” and lots of it. I know a thermos has not worked very well thus far, but stew will save the day. Put it in the crockpot the night before and dish it out in the morning. He can eat on it whenever he gets a chance and will feel all the better for it. Make him some Irish soda bread or corn muffins to go with it and he will have energy to last the rest of his hard day.

  5. Jennifer says
  6. Martine says

    Your reader may be doing this already, but just in case.

    I have found a huge difference in how long my thermos keeps things warm if I preheat the thermos with boiling water for approximately 3 to 5 minutes before I fill it with hot food.

    I personally have had the best luck with the Thermos double walled stainless steel type – not the plastic kind.

    • @Martine, Preheating the Thermos with boiling water for several minutes really does help keep it hotter longer. Something else I have found is that the actual brand of the container makes a difference! I have tried ‘thermos type’ & insulated plastic containers & they do not work nearly as well as the actual “Thermos” brand stainless steel containers.

  7. Kathleen says

    I second Martine’s response. Preheat the thermos with boiling water and make sure the food going in is hot. I notice a big difference in how long my tea stays hot in my travel mug when I preheat it as opposed to when I don’t.

  8. Heather In Michigan says

    We have the same thermos troubles. I bought a name brand (expensive!) thermos and the food is still cold by lunch time. I do the hot-water-thing, too. Pity. Hubby would love a hot lunch.

  9. Melinda M says

    My husband also has a physically demanding job outdoors – he’s a farrier. We are in Texas, so while we do have cold days (usually the wind is what makes it bad), it’s the hot summer days that get to him.

    We have found that, for him, a chance to go inside and cool off (or warm up in the winter) made all the difference in the day. He’s game for taking his lunch, but I like that he is getting a break.

    I’ve tried the thermos thing before with all of the suggestions above and it didn’t work very well, but I may try it with an insulated lunch box.

    I’m going to try more wraps and stuff in the summer (maybe I can even get him to eat hummus).

  10. Jaynie says

    I think one of the key things with the Thermos is that even though it’s in a Thermos it is out in below freezing weather. You need to insulate the Thermos. Preheat with water make sure everything is piping hot. Then wrap in towels or an insulating blanket and put inside a cooler and try to use a cooler the appropriate size you don’t want a lot of air space around it. You also need a good quality heavy duty thermos not one of those plastic things.

  11. My husband is a courier so he is also nowhere near a microwave for lunch, which leaves my choices to a measly few. We live in a HOT climate, so his trouble season is the summer. It’s too hot for him to sit in his truck to eat. We plan on spending extra money during the summer for him to eat out. Last summer he went Subway for about $6ish a day. We look for coupons and sometimes can get a gift card by earning points on Subway doesn’t solve the sandwich problem, but maybe you can find somewhere reasonably priced with warm food.

    In the winter I do send soup in a thermos and he says it’s still warm when he eats. In the morning I microwave it far hotter than he would like to eat it, that way by the time he eats it is still warm.

  12. During my work week, I eat lunch/snacks out frequently. One thing I do to save a few extra bucks is to call the 1-800 number on the back of the drive-thru receipts. Restaurants usually offer something FREE {like BK Whoppers, Arby’s Beef & Cheddar etc} for completing a quick telephone survey.

    There are also car warmer/coolers that you can find for $50-$80 at Target & Walmart {usually during the summer months} that plug into the cigarette lighter. Most shut off if the car is not running though!

  13. No advice here. But oh! How I love sunbutter! (Did you know Trader Joe’s has a house brand?)

    • Jessica Fisher says

      Yes, TJ’s is the cheapest brand we’ve found. Still pricey, though. Wow!

  14. A friend’s husband used to have an old pot in his truck and would heat his lunch right on the engine. I thought that was a bit…gross/weird but it worked for him.

  15. Wow. I have been brown bagging my husband’s lunch now for 15.5 years. Can’t believe it’s been that long. I will say that my blog is very new, but I already have some of our favorites on there but will be adding more as time goes on. I encourage you to think outside the box.

    A few things on my blog that might help are: Homemade Protein Bars, Focaccia Flax Bread that you could pair w my homemade Savory Hummus, and since you are in a cold climate, the heartier coconut based desserts that I have like Homemade Almonds Joy would be great energy boosting options. I also don’t know how insulating your Thermos is, but I just started carrying Kleen Kanteen’s insulated bottles in my online “store” and they keep hot things piping hot for 6 hours. They are really great! Hope that helps!

  16. My husband works outside all day too, in Vermont! I tried several name brand thermoses without success. I went to the camping store and asked for the best thermos I could get. They recommended Nesters cookware brand. It was expensive, but his soup stays hot for lunch or is hot chocolate is still warm even at the end of the day. The boiling water preheat is key. Don’t give up, those days outside are long!

  17. I wanted to let you know that my husband takes wraps all the time for lunch and loves them. It actually all started with your chicken bacon sub! I didn’t make mine ahead and freeze, I had the ingredients on hand and made one for dinner one night for our family. My husband fell in love. The next day we had filling leftovers but no bread so he took a whole wheat tortilla (he likes them the best) and filled it with all the fixings with no sauce. He packed some ranch separate so it didn’t make the wrap soggy. When it came time to eat it he said he would dip a fork in the ranch to get a little on his wrap but he could have easily opened the wrap after microwaving (to melt the cheese) and poured it on.

    Just thought I would share how one of your recipes inspired a (now) staple in my husbands lunch rotation. Thank You!

  18. Oh and to answer the readers question – I have a very strange solution to keep food warm. I have been a girl scout for over 25 years in Michigan. So that is where this answer is coming from 🙂 When we would go on winter nature hikes my mom would take a rock and warm it in a 475 degree oven for 20 minutes – so weird I know, but it gets stranger – then she would take said rock, wrap in tin foil and put on the bottom of a backpack we lined with newspaper. She would set said lunch on top of rock/tinfoil and then put some more newspaper on top and put on our backs (the news paper was to protect our backs from the hot rock) When it became lunch time we had a warm lunch from the hot rock. So if you want a weird thing to try I guess that would help keep it warm for him. I have also baked a cake using the heat from the ground (digging a hole, placing cake in a special box in the hole in the ground and burring in dirt) and cooked cookies on a dash board of a car on a hot/sunny day, so maybe I am not the best one to give advice LOL!

  19. You might try a lunch-box stove. It’s like a cooler, except you plug it in to your car’s cigarette lighter and it heats up, rather than keeping things cool. Then you could easily send hearty left-overs, burritos, etc. My husband hates sandwiches also! My dad, brother-in-law, and brother all have these and love them. My sister has even taken it in the car on road trips so they don’t have to buy fast food.

  20. Kathy Parker says

    Years ago, my dad was also a lineman and he wanted a warm hearty meal in the winter too. My mom used the thermos often for meals like stew. If we had leftover meat for his lunch, she would wrap it up in foil and when lunchtime came, dad would open the hood of his truck and put the foil-wrapped food on the engine to warm up! (I think they left the trucks running most of the time in the winter.) I know this isn’t a normal way to warm your food, but it worked!

  21. Regina says

    lots of good ideas about warm lunch! I also have had best success with putting boiling water in the Thermos, putting the lid on, and leaving it for 5 minutes before putting boiling-hot soup/stew in it. However, our winters are pretty mild around here! Hubby worked with some guys around here whose wives would always pack burritos (with anything in them: eggs & bacon; meat, beans, cheese; whatever they had in their fridge) tightly in tin foil and in their thermos and they would always be hot.

    Now, if you have given up on a hot thermos, what about things that don’t taste too bad cold? Like slices of quiche; meat pie cold; calzone; left-over pizza; even a hunk of French bread or sourdough, with a wedge of swiss cheese and sliced summer sausage. Wraps are also big around here, and I try to spice them up by using ranch dressing instead of mayo/mustard, or putting some hot sauce (to simulate pepper jack cheese). Also we have made knock-off subway sandwiches, by using a hoagie roll, adding olives & sliced pepperoncini and a drizzle of Italian dressing. You have to layer the ingredients cleverly though so it doesn’t get soggy.

    With a combo of the above, hubby tends to be happy with the variety and doesn’t get burned out on sandwiches. Hope you find some good solutions for your family!

  22. Molly says

    I wonder if you could hybridize – so send bread and snacks and filling things like that, and then go into Wendy’s or another similar place and get just one thing from the dollar menu like chili? Then he’d be inside and able to warm up, and an extra $1/day might be easier to swing.

  23. Sarah G says

    “Reader” here…Thank you for tackling my question, Jessica! I loved reading all the great ideas so far.

    Most of them I have already tried (thermos-brand/stainless steel and preheating before filling with piping hot goods). But there were also a couple I will experiement with and invest in, such as the lunch-box stove and wrapping food in foil or a blanket around the container. These are simple solutions.

    As far as the “blow” money for eating out, yes, he has it and uses it when he can. It’s definitely not an everyday option (more like 2 times/month?) since he’s usually working in a rural countryside nowhere near a restaurant or drive-thru. Still an option, nonetheless.

    Thank you for the privilege to put this question out to your readers and for the reader’s responses! I have a phenomenal husband who works hard for his family – I want to give him a phenomenal lunch in return! 🙂

  24. I don’t pack my husband lunch, but one thing I’ve found with my kids lunches is I often have to pack the hot thermos (which I do prefill with boiling water with tops on until I’m ready to swap in the soup or whatever hot/warm food for lunch) and their cold snacks separate. Ice packs for their yogurt and fruit were the culprit in cooling their thermos down too quickly.

    I’d try one of those plug in coolers that also can keep food warm. There are also insulated bags used to transport casseroles and such – maybe one of those would work to put the thermos in and keep the heat in.

    None of my kids like sandwiches. They obviously don’t require the calories a full grown hardworking adult would need, but I’ve given up on traditional lunch food and will often pack pepperoni/cheese/crackers, nacho chips with salsa, bagel with cream cheese, or cereal and milk.

  25. I imagine that while a thermos might keep hot food hot indoors, sitting in a truck outside in 0 degree weather is probably not going to work. I just had a thought though. you know those hand and toe warmers that you squeeze and they heat up for 6-8 hours? I wonder if you could wrap the thermos in that, then wrap the whole thing in a towel and put it in a cooler all by itself to keep it hot? I know that is a lot to pack just for a thermos of soup, but just an idea.

    Also, what about tuna? My husband (and kids) love tuna and triscuits. The whole grain and protein is very filling. It would be different and at least not a sandwich. Good luck!

  26. Christine says

    California Innovations makes WONDERFUL coolers that will keep ANYTHING hot or cold at least 8 hours. Since your husband is outside. I would insulate it further with a towel. The larger coolers come with hot/cold packs. I would also make protein/energy bars.

    Tuna/bean salad is extremely filling. Actually adding beans to anything is more filling due to the protein and fiber.

  27. not that I have tried this myself, but there are whole sites dedicated to cooking/reheating meals on the engine of your car!!!

  28. Hi, Jessica,
    Happy you discovered SunButter. As a blogger for SunButter, I’m eager to see what else you concoct with it. I continue to so enjoy your posts….as a fellow mom, you have me nodding in empathy often!

  29. Packing lunches every night before bed saves me… every single day! Lunch around here is the hardest time of day. Everyone is whiny, hungry and tired. If I have to make something, even quickly, it’s just not good! We’re home too, but a packed lunch is a great thing!

    Here’s our menu plan for this week:

  30. Allyson says

    What about buying him something like a Jet Boil? My husband and I have one that we’ve used for hiking/backpacking, and it heats up food/drinks in no time at all!! He could put soup, stews, casseroles, whatever and heat them up with in few minutes.

    I know you can find them on amazon. This may work for you!

    • Sarah G says

      @Allyson, I just checked out the Jetboil – great idea! Thanks for sharing. Do you have the personal-size Jetboil and if so, can you heat more than just water in those? Otherwise, I’m contemplating buying the group-size pot which sounds like it has more cooking versatility. Thanks again!

      • Allyson says

        @Sarah G,

        We have the personal Jetboil and the larger group pot, too. If memory serves me correctly, the burners are the same and the two sizes of fuel cells are interchangeable. While the heat control is quite good, it’s a little more forgiving to cook/heat a “wetter” dish like soup or chowder in the pots. For him, the personal one should be okay. You can always get the larger pot later. If you think he might cook larger portions, I’d go with the group-size pot.

  31. Jessica Fisher says

    Ladies, thank you for all your fabulous suggestions!

  32. Denise C. says

    I had to say something about the “wrap”, I was in a dinner rut, & decided to give them a try…WOW! The kids had pb&J wraps (fine by me), hubs & I decked ours out with cheese, turkey, lettuce, tomato (him only), & because I adore feta cheese, I threw some on mine! They were delicious, super easy to make, served with some fresh fruit & chips!
    YUMMY! 🙂

  33. Hi, thank you for your post, it helped me a lot figuring out many things.

  34. I don’t have a physically demanding job, but I’m with your husband…. hate a cold sandwich! 🙂

    My husband likes it when I make homemade empanadas or hot pockets and put those in his lunch– those can be eaten cold. (Personally I prefer them warm, but DH likes them either way.)

    Would he go for a “deli plate” like I pack my kids? Basically a homemade lunchable with pepperoni, cheese, crackers, grapes, etc. You could bulk it up with more meats and cheeses, maybe a hard boiled egg.

  35. sarah says

    Okay, I know this is an old post and I’m a couple months late. But my husband has the same kind of job, so we have dealt with the same thing. Here is one thing I have not seen mentioned, I don’t think. My husband drove the same company truck everyday when he went to job sites. He kept a small microwave and a long extension cord in it. If he was at a job site that had a place to hook up to electricity, he would plug his microwave in and warm up his food. Some days he he knew for sure he would have power, but if he wasn’t sure, we tried to pack food that didn’t have to be warmed. But he used that microwave a lot, as did his coworkers.

    We have a stainless steel Stanley thermos that works wonderfully. We do preheat it with boiling water, then my husband dumps his soup/coffee/whatever in it as he is leaving. We also have smaller stainless widemouth thermoses (Foogo brand) that are good for keeping food items warm (not hot) until lunch. I have put hot dogs, meatballs, chicken, etc. in them.

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