Most people consider packing lunch a chore. But I've always thought there is something exciting about brown bagging it. It's like getting to take a picnic to school, on an airplane or to work.
And when you think of lunch as an opportunity to pack a special meal, it can go from dull to delicious! I learned long ago that I would be happier if I brought the foods that I like to eat from home instead of hoping that the cafeteria or nearby food court would satisfy me.
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A good friend of mine calls it the $10 upgrade. Which is to say that for about $10, more or less, you can easily elevate lunch from coach to first class. After making many lunches, catering in my restaurant and learning a few tricks from my mother and other brown bag fanatics, I have some tips for making brown bag lunches stay fresh, safe, interesting and delicious.
• Freeze bread and make sandwiches with the frozen slices. Wrap the assembled sandwich in a dry paper towel and slip it into a zip-close plastic bag or wrap with foil. By the time lunch arrives, the bread will be thawed and taste fresh and soft. Plus, the paper towel becomes a "place mat" for your sandwich.
• Freeze individual water or juice containers. Once frozen, wrap them in a paper towel and either foil or plastic wrap and place in the lunchbox. Your frozen drink will double as a cold pack for keeping the lunch "refrigerated" and food safe. And (of course) it provides an icy cold drink.
• Create themes to inspire lunches. Use favorite books, movies or holidays for kid's and use favorite cuisines or pastimes for adults.
• Think about your favorite picnic foods. They can become great lunch items. I especially like deviled eggs; peanut-butter stuffed celery; pimento cheese and pretzel rods; apple slices and goat cheese; fresh cherries, etc.
• Pack one indulgent treat, such as a homemade cookie or brownie, granola bar, a square of dark chocolate, dark chocolate covered almonds or whatever your favorite treat is.
• Pack one item that can be eaten as snack. My favorite snack is a batch of my homemade gorp (good old raisins and peanuts). Portion into snack-sized bags so they are ready to pack at any time. Or up the ante and mix a couple tablespoons of gorp into a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter, then use to make a gorp-stuffed apple.
Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned."