BYOL: Bring Your Own Lunch

 

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I called this salad two ways. Because there’s nothing worse than a boring salad lunch.

Was one of your New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier? Or to save money? Well, I might not know how to curb your appetite or shopping habit, but I do know that bringing your own lunch to work every day can help you cut calories and cash flow.

I bring my lunch to work every day. Mostly, it’s leftovers from the dinner the night before; sometimes, it’s just a mishmash of ingredients I have in my fridge. Though I genuinely love everything about cooking – from the grocery shopping (I often say a well-stocked grocery store is my happy place) to the time I plate a nice, warm meal for my boyfriend and me, I enjoy every step in between. But even if you don’t love cooking, there are many different ways to make yourself a lunch that take less than 10 minutes…5 minutes, even! One really easy way to have a nice balanced lunch is to cut up a bunch of different fruits and veggies you have lying around, and then add some protein and a treat or two. Here, I had strawberries, blueberries, pineapple and oranges, white cheddar cheese slices and peanut butter on the celery, plus some treats (in this case, a slice of prosciutto and 2 squares of dark chocolate!)

fruit plate

Healthy lunch options

As many people are quick to point out, all too often prepackaged meals contain weird ingredients you don’t necessarily want to eat. Even if not, they also may be way too high in sodium or sugar. Because I like to know every bit of what’s going into my own body, I’m not a big fan.

 

I wasn’t always this way, though. One Friday night a month when I was a kid, my parents would go out on a special dinner date, leaving my younger sister and me behind with our babysitter Stephanie. I looked forward to it the whole month. Steph would paint my nails, do my hair in funny styles, and let me stay up late reading, warning me just before my parents got home so I could pretend to be asleep. The best part, though, was that I was allowed to choose my own dinner, and almost without fail I chose Stouffer’s frozen mac and cheese.

Mac and cheese

The stuff of my childhood dreams.

In my now six years of cooking post-childhood, I have become very resourceful, learning to create meals with my limited stash of groceries and even more limited amounts of free time. Typically, they’re fairly healthy, utilizing fresh ingredients and with a good macronutrient ratio. That said, it still cracks me up that it wasn’t my mom’s amazing meatloaf or chicken parmesan that I most looked forward to, but a dinky black box of frosted-over cheesy carbs.

Nothing sounds worse to me nowadays. Don’t get me wrong – I love a good mac and cheese meal, and I totally understand the convenience of transferring one item from freezer to microwave to mouth in under five minutes. However, those frozen meals come at a pretty big price, on both your budget and your waistline. There are so many delicious options you can make yourself using mostly fresh ingredients that are more filling, with feel-good vitamins and more texture than mush.

Again, I recognize that sometimes throwing a frozen meal into your bag or heading out for a $5 bowl of soup is easy and can be cheaper. But let me help make your meal decision-making easier: there are 3 kinds of perfect make-your-own lunch options, made simpler by making some ingredients ahead. For example, on Sundays, I like to roast a big batch of vegetables (my favorites are bell pepper, any kind of squash, potatoes, turnips and red onion) and make a large pot of soup, typically lentil or curry. That way, throughout the week, there is far less planning you have to do. You can blend the roasted vegetables with a bit of chicken stock and some spices, and have an easy and delicious soup, or the curry over rice for a filling but nutritious meal.

The Sturdy Salad, Super Soups and The Bold Bowl

1) The Sturdy Salad

Ever heard of this thing called kale? No? Hmm, that’s weird, because it’s everywhere these days! I truly love it, finding its fibrous bite much more satisfying than the wateriness of iceberg or limp romaine. Plus, it’s considered a superfood, with 134% of your daily Vitamin A and C requirements. It also has the added benefit of being able to stay dressed for hours without getting soggy, making it an amazing candidate for the make-ahead lunch.

One of my favorites is the Kale Caesar, with added veggies and a lighter dressing to keep the health factor high.

Greek Yogurt Caesar Salad Dressing

This dressing is so delicious, you truly won’t miss the oil, cream and egg-laden original. Promise!

  • ½ cup plain Greek yogurt (Note: you can use nonfat here if you want)
  • ½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
  • 3 tablespoons milk
  • 2 tablespoons EVOO (extra virgin olive oil)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2-3 teaspoons anchovy paste or 5-6 rinsed and dried tinned anchovies
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, minced
  • Pinch of freshly grated black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt

Combine all ingredients but the lemon juice, either in a blender on low setting or in a mixing bowl with a whisk. Once smooth, slowly add in lemon juice, mixing it in, until you’re happy with the flavor.

Of course, you could make a regular Caesar with romaine, cherry tomatoes, croutons and extra parm, reserving the salad dressing for right before you eat lunch, and call it a day. Or you could try my version: toss torn kale leaves with some dressing, add cherry tomatoes, freshly trimmed green beans, radish slices, grilled squash, and any roasted veggies, like carrots or squash, I have lying around. Instead of croutons, I opt for toasted chickpeas for added protein and more flavor, but still the satisfying crunch.

tuna salad

This updated tuna salad from Eating Well is incredibly light but filling. Just wish I had that plate, too!

Other ideas for the perfect lunchtime salad include Tuna and White Bean Salad on top of mixed greens, BBQ Chicken Chopped Salad (I use this Avocado Greek Yogurt Ranch instead) and Greek Salad with Grilled Chicken. There are so many varieties of salad (have you heard of the Italian bread salad panzanella, or its Middle Eastern counterpart fattoush?) that you should never settle for something dull. When it comes to salad – especially during these harsh winter months! – you want something hearty enough that you don’t feel hungry after an hour, so look for protein add-ons (cheese, beans, tofu, lean meats like turkey and chicken, or fish) to spice things up.

2) Super Soups

I can think of only three things I like more than soup: cats, dogs, and soup. Wait a second…

Point is, I really like soup. Cold and spicy, hot and creamy, vegetable- or meat-based, I’ll never say no to a bowl of soup. The best part? It makes an incredibly easy (and often healthy) lunch, it can keep for up to 5 days in the fridge and 5 months in the freezer, and if you’re the one making it, you can size up or down depending on how many people are in your family.

Turkey ramen

Leftover turkey ramen, with a substantial portion of chili paste.

They’re also a great use of leftover meat; after Thanksgiving, I made ramen with the turkey carcass and topped with chopped up pieces of dark meat.

There are so many different soups to choose from, but right now, in the middle of winter, the height of cold season, and post-holiday excess recovery, nothing sounds better to me than a nice, bracing bowl of chicken soup. There’s a reason they say chicken soup is for the soul, and it’s an amazing mid-day pick-me-up during the workday.

Spicy Mexican Chicken Soup

This is not an authentic Mexican soup, but rather my interpretation of a Latin American classic. You could make your own stock (fresh, with a chicken carcass), but here I used ground chicken and previously made chicken stock (though store-bought would work, too!) Also, this recipe is all made in one pot, saving you dishes and time.

  • 1 lb ground chicken
  • 4 cups unsalted chicken stock
  • ½ yellow onion, diced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 bell peppers, diced (I used one red and one green)
  • 2 carrots, diced or sliced
  • 2 stalks of celery, sliced thin
  • 1 28 oz. can of tomatoes (really, any would work; I used diced with oregano)
  • 1 15 oz. can of black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 8 oz. of corn, fresh, frozen or canned
  • 2 minced garlic cloves (I used 2 tablespoons minced garlic from a jar for ease)
  • A pinch each paprika, cumin, chili powder, dried oregano, black pepper, salt
  • For garnishes: cilantro, tortilla strips, cheddar or cotija cheese, scallions, avocado, sour cream or Greek yogurt

In large, heavy-bottom pot, heat 1 tablespoon oil on medium heat, adding in ground chicken and spices. Once cooked halfway through (about 4 minutes), add in all of the vegetables, stirring until combined and meat is cooked throughout and the vegetables have softened (in total, about 10 minutes). Add tomatoes, black beans, and stock, bringing the heat up to a rolling boil. Turn heat down to low and simmer for 20-30 minutes (or up until 1 hour). Serve hot, with an assortment of the garnishes.

Mexican Chicken Soup

The finished product, topped with grated white cheddar.

When I make this ahead of time for work lunches, I let the soup cool down, portion it out in individual Tupperware containers, and use these awesome little containers for the garnishes. Even if you don’t have a microwave at work, this soup is surprisingly delicious cold during summer.

3) The Bold Bowl

Arguably the simplest of the three, the “bowl” has really picked up steam in the past year or so. The concept is easy as pie: grains + greens + veggies + proteins. Add-ons are plentiful, such as different sauces, cheese, nuts and seeds, and combinations are endless.

Although you can certainly plan out the bowl ahead of time, like this fancy brisket bowl or Latin vegan bowl, but an even easier way of going about it is to make a big batch of grains (I prefer quinoa, for the protein content, or brown rice, for the heft) on Sunday and then add leftovers on top of it.

For example, are you making spaghetti and meatballs with roasted broccoli on the side for dinner? Make a couple extra meatballs and pieces of broccoli, reserve some of the tomato sauce, and get out your grains (brown rice would work really well here). Layer rice, meatballs, sauce, broccoli, add some grated parmesan and a pinch of red pepper flakes, and boom! Tomorrow’s lunch in no time at all.

Another favorite is to make a chimichurri sauce by putting different herbs, like cilantro and parsley, in a food processor with olive oil, red wine vinegar, a clove of garlic with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes and pulse until it’s fairly smooth. Then all you need to do is take some of the quinoa and roasted veggies from Sunday, and you’ve got a lunch bowl. Add beans or leftover meat such as chicken to really make it well-rounded, but it’s plenty tasty on its own.

I know in the short term it might just seem easier to run out and buy a sandwich at lunchtime, but that is costly in both time and money. With just a little planning, you can save so much in the long term. Plus, you’re showing yourself you’re worth more than an unsatisfying, premade egg salad sandwich. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Katie U., a Smart Perks employee, really does care this much about BYOL and hopes you will, too.

 

Holiday Cards: Adding More Joy to Your World, Less Humbug to Your Holidays

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Ebeneezer Scrooge has finally gotten hold of me in the last couple years.

At least when it comes to Christmas cards. Or Valentine’s, Easter, Halloween and Thanksgiving. I have been single-handedly doing my part to keep the greeting card industry and United States Postal Service afloat for over two decades now. Chew on this. According to the Greeting Card Association, 1.6 billion cards were sent out last holiday season. The cost of a first class stamp is .49¢. So assuming no over-sized cards, which require additional postage, that’s $735,000,000 in postage alone.

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This year I was seriously considering humbugging it and making the switch to email cards. Or a text message. (shudder, chortle, snort). I kid. I will NEVER send Season’s Greetings via a text message.

However, I’m a “reach-out and touch someone” kinda gal. I don’t want anyone to stare into a cavernous, empty mailbox and hear the echo of “Hellllllooooooo in there”, a la Charlie Brown. Call me Mary Sunshine, but I want to make people smile. I want my friends, neighbors, coworkers, the people I’ve fallen out of touch with over the years, to know that I still think of them warmly and wish them the best.

Besides, despite all the time and money associated with sending holiday cards, sending them makes ME feel good. I enjoy the tradition. I also love going to the mailbox and seeing some brightly colored envelopes, with a return address from someone I miss. 12185008_1255686671124168_2853116667187239140_oAlthough I have to admit, through the joys of social networking, my three dogs have more friends, and receive way more cards than I do. True story!

Don’t get me wrong, if I don’t get a card from you, I won’t feel snubbed. I understand the pressures of life and the need to put first things first. No one can get every single thing done that they want to do. But making cards is something I enjoy.

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So right about now, this time of year, you’ll probably find me spending at least a Saturday afternoon or two, sitting in my craft room, listening to Christmas tunes and making cards.

Making my own cards gives me a chance to play, get glitter on my face, exhale and most importantly put some of myself into my cards. 337661_327967827229395_574144619_oI don’t make all my cards, but maybe a couple dozen for close friends and family. Like this one, that I made for my cousins to remind them of the Christmases we spent together growing up.

I know that not everyone hoards craft supplies year-round. Not everyone has separate boxes stacked on separate shelves in their craft cupboard, one for craft papers and stickers, another for rubber stamps and ink pads, or 4 wooden dowels that hold about a dozen or more spools of festive ribbon each. My husband will be the first to tell you how expensive craft supplies are. Well, you should never pay full price for craft supplies.

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If you have a Gmail account, Google has gone through the trouble to sort your emails for you. That means you have one whole tab just for Promotions. Virtually EVERY single company you sign up for emails with offers a first time subscriber discount or coupon to use either online or in the store.

After that, whenever you need a coupon or coupon code, you simply click on your Promotions tab, and I promise you will find an email with a discount, usually percent off coupons, for one item or your entire purchase and/or free shipping. You’ll also get advance notice of sales. And, you don’t have to see them until you need them with the Promotions tab. This works for Michael’s, Hobby Lobby, Crafts Direct, JoAnn Fabrics. If you still get a newspaper, Michael’s has a flier every week containing coupons for 20-50% off one item, and a percent off your entire purchase. During Black Friday, they’ll even give you a percentage off sale prices.

One of my favorite Smart Perks partners, Expressionery, has an email sign-up incentive of $10 off your first $30 purchase with free shipping. You’ll also find additional discounts at http://www.smartperks.com. Expressionery is a great source for self-inking address stamps. So much easier than labeling! You can really power through your stacks of envelopes in minutes. Colorful Images is my go-to source for personalized shipping and gift labels. They always have a great discount available online.

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Tiny Prints and Snapfish are my go to online sources for holiday photo cards. Being as my husband and I don’t have children, but have three dogs, our dogs are usually the highlight of our cards. In fact, I actually got a complaint last year for sending a photo card with a photo of just my husband and I. Some years I’ll have such a hard time choosing from my favorite photos, I’ll have to order more than one card. I go for natural poses for the holiday cards, just catching the pups doing what they do, being their goofy selves.

While I’ve received discounts from both Tiny Prints and Snapfish, both online and in my mailbox already this year, I typically wait to do my ordering of photo cards until Black Friday. peanutsstamps-1441218230778-23546992-ver1-0-900-675-153806You’ll not only get the best prices of the season, but you’ll receive your cards back in plenty of time to get them in the mail.  If you want to ensure your cards arrive on time, try to get them to the post office no later than the end of the second week of December, or earlier if you’re mailing cards outside the U.S.

Well, I’d better get busy…those cards aren’t going to make themselves.When it stops being enjoyable for me and turns into a chore, that’s when I know it’s time to scale back. But in the meantime, whether you send cards or not, whether you celebrate the holidays or not, whichever holiday you celebrate, I hope you take time to pause and enjoy the season and create your own traditions.

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Blogger Melanie B, a Smart Perks employee, can’t wait to watch Elf a half dozen times. Smiling is her favorite, too. 

Smart Perks State of the State: The Heat is On!

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No colony collapse in my garden! Lots of fuzzy bumblebees.

Greetings & Salutations, Friends!

We’re in the thick of summer and our Smart Perks HQ team is all abuzz with activity.  We just sent our fabulous fall money-saving offers to the printer (look for them in your mailbox mid-August,) and now our creative department is busy giving the Smart Perks website its fall makeover.

The next Smart Perks mailing includes some amazing offers for refreshing your home for the new fall season from leading brands like 3-Day Blinds, Wayfair, The Company Store, DirectTV (NFL Sunday Ticket – YES!) and many others. If you’re not on the Smart Perks mailing list, you’ll want to sign up for the next mailing.

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Loved these books!

In-between gardening, reading some great books, filling my bird-feeders (lots of hungry hummingbirds and ravenous woodpeckers,) and enjoying some time ON the lake and IN the lake, I’ve been having a lot of fun taking photos of all the new puppies in our neighborhood.

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Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota

My husband just built a new front porch. He’s quite the handyman. So while sitting out in my new rocker, (oh my gosh, I’m in my early 40s!) I have to stop anyone who passes by with a dog to visit. That’s how I met the  5-month old Bernese Mountain Dog from across the street, and the 6-month old Siberian Husky from around the corner.

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Enter the Summer Caption contest! http://on.fb.me/1JexQsX.

The darling husky puppy, Kash, is so cute, that he was chosen for the Smart Perks Hot Dog Caption contest running this month on our Facebook page. The prizes include Best Buy® and restaurant.com gift cards, along with a darling heart bracelet and a 27-piece tool kit. Get creative and enter your caption today. Share it and encourage your friends to vote, too! Winners will be announced on Friday, July 31st.

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Sweet Martha’s Cookies – A perennial MN State Fair Favorite

Next up, it’s fair time. For us here in Minnesota, The Great Minnesota Get-Together, or Sweat-Together, to be more accurate. Whatever you have planned, stay cool and enjoy. Summers are way too short, so be sure to make time to really enjoy your favorite summertime traditions.

Next up in the blog, some great tips for laptops versus tablets from our Smart Perks Electronics expert, Karl. Stay tuned.

Seed Starting for Newbies – Greetings from Zone 4!

united beauty of vegetables

Greetings from Zone 4? No, that is not the title of a science fiction novel.

Zone 4 is the plant hardiness zone for Smart Perks headquarters in Minnesnowdah. But regardless of where you live in the U.S., with spring right around the corner, it’s a good time to start thinking about seed-starting for your vegetable garden.

I’ve started seeds indoors for over a decade now. It’s a great way to save money by avoiding nursery prices, and I typically have more than enough plants leftover after mine are in the ground, to share with friends and family.

Have you seen the price of a grocery store tomato lately? You shouldn’t have to make a choice between a child’s college education and a tomato! Besides the savings, starting seeds indoors will bring a little summertime to your home during a cool, damp March.

To get started, you need to decide which veggies you want to plant, depending on your personal tastes and growing space. If you live in apartment, a lot of plants can be grown in a couple big pots on a deck or outside your front door.

I usually like to start cucumbers, tomatoes, and beans indoors. Herbs, especially chives and basil, are easy and fun to grow, because they smell DELICIOUS as soon as they sprout. You can dry them and use them throughout the year. Fresh herbs are the best, and you really can taste the difference in your recipes!   mozzarella di bufala con pomodoro e basilico

Then head to your local hardware, discount store or nursery and pick out your seeds. Check the back of your seed packets for the zone hardiness of the plant, and how much time you’ll need to allow if you’re starting indoors, as well as time until harvest. The typical amount of time for indoor growing is 6-8 weeks. Here in Zone 4 we shouldn’t put our plants in the ground until after May 15th, when the danger of a killing frost is USUALLY passed.

I usually start my seeds around St. Patrick’s Day or during the NCAA Final Four. I remember in previous years, sitting on my kitchen floor, with seed starter soil everywhere, listening to a tournament game, while trying to get wet soil out of my grout. That was before I wised up and started using peat pellets.

While some hardier veggies like lettuce and radishes can be sown directly in the ground in early spring, others have to wait until the ground warms up. Tomatoes, for instance, thrive in heat. If the temps are too cold, or the weather too cloudy, their growth can be stunted. Tomatoes are an excellent plant to start indoors.

Then you’ll need a tray that will allow adequate drainage and a clear, vented cover. I recommend investing in a multi-square version like the Jiffy Starter Kit if you’re a newbie. jiffy-greenhouseIt has everything you’ll need, except the seeds, light and water, and will cost approximately $10 or less. Plus the tray can be used again next year.

You can buy the growing medium loose, or in a little mesh-covered peat pellet. Trust me…the peat pellet is the way to go to avoid a mess! You soak them in hot water for about 5 minutes and voilá…they expand to just the right size. It’s pretty cool to watch. Kids will love this, too.

There’s even a little hole in the top of the mesh to place your seeds in. So all you have to worry about is checking the back of your package for seed-planting depth, and how many seeds to plant in each pellet. It can take anywhere from 4 to 14 days for seedlings to emerge.seedling

The three most important words of wisdom I can give you, after years of making every mistake imaginable, are to separate, ventilate, and rotate!

  1. Separate. You’ll typically plant multiple seeds in a peat pod, because all the seeds may not sprout. However, sometimes they will and you’ll need to separate or thin out the young sprouts. If you don’t, once they start to leaf, they’ll crowd each other out, competing for space and nutrients. Your plants won’t thrive, and when it comes time to plant, you’ll have a bunch of tangled, thin, and gangly plants.
  2. Rotate. Placement of your seeds is key. You need a warm, sunny place that gets the most light over the course of the day. Seeds need warmth to germinate. So a window near a heat vent is optimal.  You can buy a small grow light and warming mat on which to place your seed tray for around $30-$40. Although I never have. Remember these investments sound like a lot, but once you have the right equipment, you’ll have it forever. When the seeds have sprouted, you’ll need to rotate the tray at least once a day or more, so that neither side has to lean toward the sun. Optimally you want light coming from directly above, so that your young seedlings will grow straight up and have strong healthy stems. Believe me, I’ve had many years, where I’ve ended up with spindly, sideways tomato plants, that have eventually borne fruit, but it certainly wasn’t easy to put a tomato cage on a horizontal plant.
  3. Ventilate. As I mentioned, seeds to stay covered and warm in the first several weeks, hot and moist like a greenhouse with minimal ventilation. But once they have sprouted, you’ll want to keep the soil moist, but not drowning, and ventilate or you’ll have moldy soil. Once the plants are touching the lid, you can remove the lid completely.

You’ll want to watch the bottom of your mesh peat pods for exposed roots, transplanting them to larger pots filled with regular potting soil until it’s time to put them in the ground. Potting up tomato seedlings © Arena Photo UKAlways refer to the back of your seed packs for more specifics, like when to pinch the first leaves from the stems.

And when you’re ready to put your seeds in the ground, remember, the plants need to be gradually acclimated to the direct sun outdoors, and other elements. So you can take them out for a couple of hours each day. This is called hardening off your plants, and you can read more about the process online.

Starting seeds indoors has been one of the best experiences I’ve had as a novice gardener, and I’ve learned so much from my mistakes, without reading stacks of books, or spending a fortune. The results have been great savings, and the greatest rewards…FRESH VEGGIES and the satisfaction of knowing I grew them myself. Have your own tips or experiences with seed starting? Please share in the comments!

Young plant in a pot ready for planting

-MB

When she’s not blogging for Smart Perks, Melanie is staring glassy-eyed at Pinterest, her Pin It finger splinted from overuse. Besides crafting, gardening, shopping and cupcakes, the loves of her life are her three naughty terrier pups, the smartest and best-looking dogs in the world, and her husband.