I experienced a perfect storm of first world annoyances recently:
1. I really dislike packing my lunch, but I do so anyway for financial and health considerations. Oh, and because the only place within walking distance of my office where I can buy lunch is a decidedly lackluster cafeteria.
2. Since I am now taking classes two nights a week, I have less time and energy for pretty much everything. Making lunch sounds appealing neither when I get home at night, nor the next morning when I wake up exhausted.
Something was going to have to give. I eat a lot and become "hangry" pretty easily, so I need to pack something substantial. Now more than ever, that substantial lunch also needed to be healthy; my metabolism is not what it used to be. Oh, and I'm somewhat of a food snob and likely to dislike frozen meals that could be stockpiled in the office fridge.
Something made me think of those mason jar salads whose pictures seem to be all over the internet. For anyone who hasn't seen these, the idea is, well, that you pack salads in mason jars that can be shaken out onto a plate when you're ready to eat them. You take advantage of the vertical space in the jar to pack all of your salad ingredients in layers; dressing goes at the very bottom, and things that will become soggy and gross if left to sit in dressing for too long (like salad greens) go at the very top. If you consider ingredient placement carefully, you can make several mason jar salads at once on Saturday or Sunday and then eat them throughout the week.
The idea seemed appealing in theory. But then again, haven't we all seen those wonderful photo spreads of the messy disasters that result from people trying ideas from Pinterest? I was skeptical. But I had three nice large jars that previously held salsa, so I thought I didn't have much to lose by trying. I made packed three salads in jars on a Sunday, and decided I would eat one on Monday, one on Wednesday, and one on Friday to see if they really did remain palatable throughout the week.
To my astonishment, all three salads that week tasted great. Also, the salads were very filling--I didn't have to pack lots of extra things to keep my hunger-related crankiness at bay.
I'm now on week four of eating three mason jar salads per week, which in my mind gives me enough experience to start giving out tips. These are the conclusions I've reached so far:
1. I won't lie: It's a bit of a procedure to put these things together. I think of it as taking an annoyance that is usually spread out over several evenings, and cramming it into a portion of a weekend day. That being said, preparing three is barely any more trouble than preparing one. I think this is the sort of lunch that you have to either prepare multiples of, or not at all.
2. Unless you want a bland salad, be sure to use plenty of dressing and/or other ingredients that impart a lot of flavor (cheese, olives, etc.).
3. I've tried both quinoa and brown rice for the grain layer in the salad. Quinoa tastes better here.
4. Adding some protein and fat will help you stay full for longer. I've added avocado, canned tuna, olives, feta cheese, and pumpkin seeds in various combinations.
5. Personally, I think some ingredients are best added the day you plan to eat the salad. It's hard for me to imagine avocado improving after being cut up and sitting in a jar for several days, for instance. Use your best judgement here.
6. If you have somewhere at work where you can wash dishes, it's probably worth just keeping a plate in your office for salad-shaking purposes.
I doubt that the success of my mason jar salad experiment will set me on a slippery slope of trying Pinterest ideas, but who knows? If our apartment ever becomes a sparkling clean haven of seasonally appropriate crafts, I'll know how it all started.