The meals-in-jars trend was ready-made for Pinterest. Easy recipes, plus meal prep, plus mason jars? Photogenic, delicious gold. Refinery29 has even gotten in on the trend over the past couple years, sharing recipes for just about every
meal and occasion. ( Breakfast, anyone?)
But, as someone who nearly always forgets to pack lunch, I am lucky if I get a leftover slice of pizza in my workbag before rushing out the door in the morning. So when my editor challenged me to eat only out of jars for a week, I was game. Mostly because I figured it would be a good way to hold myself accountable to actually packing my lunch for a change, and also because I would have ample excuse to complain along the way.
For the challenge, we agreed on some ground rules: dinner was excluded, since part of the point is to help with packing lunch, and I don't need to pack food between the kitchen and the dining room table. Everything else, however, from breakfast to snack time, would need to be stored in a jar.
Ahead, the grand results of my experiment — fellow serial take-out orderers, there's hope out there.
Day 1: Green Smoothie & DIY Burrito Bowl Before starting the week, I went to Whole Foods to stock up on supplies. For just jarred meal supplies, I spent $45 for the week. That comes to around $3 a meal, though the snacks were significantly cheaper. Considering that makes it closer to $4.50 a meal, at first it didn't feel like I was getting that great a deal.
Then I realized: the upcoming week is going to involve a LOT of fruit and vegetables. Scan Pinterest for jar recipe ideas, and nearly all of them are stacks and stacks of fresh produce. Considering that sometimes the only green thing I eat is the lime Sour Patch gummies, this felt like a good change of pace.
For day one, I made a green smoothie, a burrito bowl in a jar, and some raspberries and nuts for snacks. As soon as I got to the office, I unloaded my heavy bag of glass jars at my desk and immediately got a chorus of
"Oooo 's" from my coworkers. As it turns out, stacking brightly-colored veggies in a jar is an easy way to look pretty impressive with minimal effort. The burrito ingredients were bulgur wheat (much harder than rice to mess up), canned beans, peppers, cilantro, avocado, and onions. Oh, and some cheese. Hardly an Iron Chef endeavor. To eat it, I heated up everything besides the avocado, added salt and pepper, and tossed it on a plate. More
Day 2: PB&Banana Oatmeal & BBQ Chicken Jar On day two, I stepped up my game. For breakfast, I not only made oatmeal, I topped it off with bananas and peanut butter. For lunch, I strongly veered off from the salad path and made my own version of our own BBQ chicken jar recipe. Instead of corn, I layered with mashed potatoes, which are fairly easy (if not fairly silly) to make just one serving of. I also added cilantro from yesterday's burrito bowl into the cole slaw.
The meals were again delicious, and, mashing potatoes aside, again, painless to prep. The advantages to serving the chicken in the jar weren't totally obvious, although everything did taste pretty good mashed up together later (I delicately removed the top two layers, microwaved the rest of it, and kind of mashed it all back together in the end). But, once again, it was something that made everyone jealous when they saw it. Take that, plastic food containers.
Day 3: Green Smoothie & Greek Salad In A Jar In an effort to spruce things up, I tried adding the raspberries from my snack to my smoothie, which only kind of worked, and mostly made the raspberries look like something I'd fished out of a scummy pond.
For lunch, I attempted to make a proper salad and layered Greek-inspired ingredients on top. I used some of the leftover bulgar from Monday, mixed it with some red onion, and layered that with handful of spinach, leftover chicken from the day before, cucumber, roasted red onion, and a healthy crumbling of feta. Again, I got tons of compliments, but I wasn't super excited about it. I like salads, in theory. Mostly when it's the free side to a steak. In reality, taking time to make a salad isn't high on my priority list.
But once I tossed it (in a large bowl, so there was plenty of room) with some olive oil and balsamic vinegar, I was really impressed. It was actually really good. It was a recipe I completely made up, but I did have to give some credit to the jar. Since I was trying to make those oh-so-nice layers, I was really generous with the mix-ins. I wound up with a much more hearty, flavor-packed salad than if I was just eyeballing it in a normal tupperware.
Day 4: Chia Pudding & Thai "Peanut" "Quinoa" Jar On day four, I once again experimented with a new recipe to keep things exciting. I wanted to try our Thai Peanut Quinoa Jar, but also really didn't want to go to the grocery store, so I improvised. Instead of quinoa, I went with barley. Instead of edamame, I threw in some chickpeas. And then I realized I was completely out of peanut butter. So I used some almond butter instead.
And it turned out...pretty good, actually. It was another big plate of colorful veggies, but this time with a nice, Thai-inflected sauce. The formula of a good jar lunch: lots of veggies, a grain, a protein, and a sauce or spice mix of your choice, isn't revolutionary, but I certainly feel like I've discovered a brave new world. I am, however, getting fairly sick of lugging three clanging jars around with me on my commute.
Day 5: Whatever The Heck Is Left Over, Some Chia Pudding Inspired by the revelation that I can just layer different hued veggies together, I used up the last little bits of whatever is left over from the past days: barley, bell pepper, cabbage from the cole slaw, the last handful of chicken, plus avocado and feta. I tossed it together with a simple dressing and plenty of salt and pepper and I even felt a little like a Top Chef contender.
In in the past, when I packed lunch, I often looked at my salad or mashed up turkey sandwich and found excuses to get takeout instead. To my surprise, I found that packing jars was a strange antidote to that urge. When I first started the experiment, I had reservations about the jar trend — mostly because I suspected the oh-so-Pinterest-worthy layering of ingredients was a triumph of form over function. What I discovered instead was that I was packing brightly-colored, healthy lunches that were not only relatively easy, they were also attractive enough that I actually looked forward to eating them.
I thought I'd be relieved when the experiment was over, but I ended up looking forward to more jarred meals — this time, however, I'm going to stick to just lunch. I think a limit of one glass container per commute is probably for the best.
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