Food for Thought: Lunch for a Week in 30 Minutes

Since going Paleo I started packing a salad for lunch every day.  It’s quick to prepare, doesn’t require waiting for the microwave in the kitchen at work, and it also guarantees that by midday I’ve put a big dent in my veggie requirements.  It’s easy to get in a salad rut, though, and I like to mix up my proteins and fats throughout the week.  In the past year I’ve gotten a system down where I can prepare everything I need for a week’s worth of salads in about half an hour, and still eat something different every day.  I still often mix it up with dinner leftovers or a special lunch if I have extra time during the week to prepare something, but this guarantees that there will be  a healthy Paleo lunch option waiting in the fridge every morning–no excuses!

Every week I make sure the pantry is stocked with a few cans of wild-caught salmon and tuna.  (I also keep a few in my desk drawer at work in case of emergency.)  I also buy a pound of organic greens and package of organic, free-range chicken tenders every week.  (Buying full breasts would be more cost-effective, but this post is all about convenience.)  On my designated cooking day, I usually prepare three sauces or dry rubs.  My favorites are blackening spice rub, Asian marinade, barbecue sauce,  Mexican dry rub, and Buffalo sauce.  For the sauces and rubs that I use most often, I usually make a larger batch and store it for a few weeks’ of meals, further streamlining the process.  I also like to keep the “accessories” on hand: some roasted red peppers, pine nuts, sesame seeds, hard-boiled eggs, oranges, etc, which I can quickly throw in to build up the salad.  Leftover veggies from last night’s dinner are also an excellent resource.

Once you’ve prepared your seasonings of choice, take a pair of poultry shears and cut the chicken tenders into bite-sized pieces.  Divide them among the seasonings and stir to coat.  If you have time, you can marinate the chicken for 15 minutes to a few hours, or you can get right to it.  At this point you have two choices.  If you’re feeling particularly lazy, preheat the oven to 400° and grease up a baking sheet.  If  you have a little more time and energy, heat your fat of choice in a saute pan over medium heat.  If you opt for the oven, spread the chicken pieces into a single layer, keeping the different seasonings separate.  They should take between 10-15 minutes to cook through.  If I’m going with the oven method, I often take the opportunity to crisp up some turkey bacon at the same time (we are kosher-Paleo here at the Cavegirl) for additional salad garnishment options.

The advantage of using the saute pan is that you can tailor your fats to the complement the flavors of the seasonings you’ve chosen.  (If you work from the lightest flavors to the heaviest and spiciest, you can even skip rinsing the pan in between.)  Assuming your batches are around 3-5 tenders each, they shouldn’t take more than 7 or 8 minutes to cook through.

While the chicken is cooking, I make up some dressings.  For the seasonings listed above, I find I can get by with a citrus and a soy-ginger vinaigrette, though I like to keep a good commercial ranch around to pair with the spicier preparations.  There are some wonderful Paleo dressing recipes here, and I encourage you to try varying combinations.  When the chicken is done and cooled, I package it up into serving-sized portions and either freeze it or keep it at the ready in the fridge.

I am not a morning person, so I like things to be as simple as possible when I’m getting ready for work.  At that point, all I have to do is portion out my greens, select a protein, and throw in whatever extras I want.  The dressing goes in a little container on the side, and I’m out the door.  Between the different chicken seasonings and the canned fish at the ready, I find I can come up with a variety of salads from just a few ingredients.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for ages, but as this has become more and more routine, it also seemed less and less post-worthy.  It’s an incredibly simple preparation of already simple ingredients.  I think it’s worthwhile, though, because half the battle of successfully going Paleo is having some simple, go-to meals at the ready, especially in the beginning. Cooking ahead is a great solution, but it’s no fun eating the same thing for a week.  I always found that I was much more tempted to cheat when I was bored or in a rut with my meals.  And while salad every day doesn’t seem all that exciting on the surface, I find a little window dressing can go a long way.  As always, experiment, and see what works for you.

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