Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Let's (Don't) Do Lunch

I really don’t like lunch. Not that I don’t like to eat it, but I have problems with the concept of it. I can never think of anything good to have. I see suggestions and meal plans on websites and in magazines and I think “Who the hell has the facilities to broil a pork chop at the office?”

Going out for lunch on weekdays is a problem for me too. My tastes run to sit-down table service, but my budget is generally in the Wendy’s 99 cent Value Menu range. If I’m going alone, I often wind up at a fast food place. If someone is going with me (and I can persuade them) we’ll go somewhere they have waitresses, and a menu that doesn’t have fluorescent lights behind it.

I think a lot of my problem stems from the fact that I really don’t care much for sandwiches. I like hot sandwiches OK, but not cold ones. Lunch meat just doesn’t do it for me. Tuna, chicken, and egg salad are good, but they’re fattening, and how many times a week can you eat tuna salad before you start to turn into Charlie? My brother-in-law and his wife love sandwiches. Their idea of a terrific lunch is one that comes from a sandwich shop with creative combinations. I wish I had that mindset, but I find that creative combinations tend to strike me as weird or unpalatable or both. I don’t like anything with avocado or sprouts, and I really don’t like bread that has seeds or bits of oatmeal or something like that clinging to it.

To me the perfect lunch is one that consists of at least two courses (salad and main, plus dessert, if I’m feeling splurgy). It’s served someplace with an interesting or spectacular view (sidewalk café, or something overlooking the ocean), is accompanied by a glass or two of wine, takes an hour or so to eat, and is paid for by someone else. This combination of circumstances occurs rather less often than one might wish.

I suspect a lot of my reluctance to embrace lunch stems from my childhood experiences. In elementary school, my dad packed my lunch every day. I know I had more than one over the years, but the lunchbox that stands out in my mind is my Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs one. I would say that should raise a red flag right there: that the design on my lunchbox was inspired by a story in which the main character eats a poisoned apple. I was doomed. It didn’t help that my dad was as uncreative as I am when it comes to serving lunch.

Oh, to be fair this was in the days before packaged foods really took off, and everything had to be able to be eaten at room temperature because we had no microwaves. We had packaged foods, of course, but they were pretty much limited to things like little bags of chips, and cans of juice. There were no juice boxes, no tuna packaged with a little squeezy thing of mayo and some crackers, no premade Rice Krispy Treats or cups of Jello pudding. I remember one occasion when my father made me what turned out to be a chicken salad sandwich, but he used canned chicken (it took me years to realize this was the problem) and after one bite I thought that he’d actually made my sandwich with cat food. I think that pretty well sums up what my lunches were like, and also provides a rock solid reason why I’ve never eaten canned chicken again.

In high school things didn’t get much better for me. Now I was in charge of my own lunches, but because of my aforementioned lack of creativity, and the fact that my parents weren’t very helpful in buying me “lunch box” type foods to keep around, my midday meal tended toward chips, a soda and a candy bar. I’m not kidding. For years noon would find me with a bag of potato chips (or Fritos or Doritos—this was when they first introduced such wonders as Nacho Cheese and Cool Ranch flavored Doritos), a Coke (because this was BDC—Before Diet Coke), and a Snickers or a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. And to answer the obvious question: I wore about a size 8 all through high school. Thank you, oh benevolent God of Metabolism (and by the way, what HAPPENED?)

If I happened to come into money, lunch went upscale to Roy Rogers or Burger King. I attended a private school in the middle of a city. The administrators realized that it was impossible to keep 150 teenagers in a school building for an hour every day without driving the teachers insane. Thus, we were permitted to leave “campus” for lunch and venture out to patronize the local businesses. For many years this meant The Liquor Store, or Giant. The Liquor Store was the closest establishment that sold comestibles (I think its real name was Van Ness Liquors, but I never really bothered to confirm this—we always called it The Liquor Store). It also happened to sell liquor, but knowing that there was a high school within walking distance, they were pretty sharp about carding people and none of us ever bothered to try to buy anything stronger than a grape soda from them. They also sold the chips and candy bars that were the foundations of my personal food pyramid, and a tuna fish salad sandwich that I liked, but which was a little pricey (hey, when a buck will get you a soda, chips and a candy bar, a $3 tuna sandwich is high living).

Giant (for those unfamiliar with it) is a grocery store and so of course you could buy the usual grocery-type foods, plus they had a bakery where you could get a seasonally decorated cupcake or two (nutrition seldom entered into our food choices, as you may gather). This was also the start of the salad bar era, and Giant had one, so sometimes lunch would be a salad with far too much Ranch dressing. This was about ten years before researchers would announce that the majority of fat in the average American woman’s diet came from salad dressings.

But in my tenth grade year, a local shopping center added a Roy Rogers to their array of stores. It happened that this particular shopping center was at a stop on the subway, so a fast food restaurant was a logical choice. The Burger King was further away, and technically we weren’t allowed to go there because the powers that be felt we couldn’t get down there, eat, and get back in the time allotted to us for lunch. As we got older and more willing to question authority (and, not incidentally, had “free periods” around lunchtime) we would sometimes walk down there anyway. We never got in any trouble for doing it, as I recall, and the directors of the school didn’t really care if we went, so long as we got back in time for our next class. They just had to set some kind of guideline.

So you can see that the nutritional and psychological foundations of my opinions about lunch were shaky at best. It didn’t get any better as I got older. When I went to work in an office, I found that I preferred “table service” restaurants to delis and the like (see aforementioned feelings on sandwiches). However, a proper restaurant meal costs about twice what a deli costs, and about five times what it costs to bring lunch from home. And of course, fat and calories are proportionally higher as well (generally speaking). My first job out of college paid $25,000 a year. A princely sum, but not enough to pay for my car, gas, clothes, rent, etc, etc, etc, oh and fifteen bucks a day, five days a week for lunch. I found myself deciding between turkey and roast beef far more often than I found myself asking for my check.

When I got married and started making dinners, I was making recipes that served four. My husband and I would generally eat our portions and then bundle up the rest in one of an increasing collection of Tupperware-type containers and take it for lunch the next day. To date this is the most successful means of providing myself with lunch. Oh sure, leftovers suffer somewhat in the microwave—their texture is often of a lesser quality than it was the previous night—but I do get a decent meal, and I don’t have to make myself a cold sandwich.

But now I have a new challenge confronting me. I have three children who require lunch on weekends (daycare provides their lunches Monday through Friday), and I am morally opposed to feeding them fast food both days (one day, perhaps, but not both). And of course, the day is fast approaching when they’ll require lunches to take to school. Of course, packaged foods are now widely available, and you can get just about anything in a pre-packaged form, but I dislike the idea of giving my kids Lunchables every day, so my dilemma is great. But as with every food quandary that I face, I can always use this one as a reason to investigate more cookbooks. Every handout of lemons is another chance to make lemonade, if you will.

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