In honor of Labor Day, I've compiled my top ten tips for eating healthy at work. If you work a full-time job like I do, you probably spend the majority of your waking hours during the week at work. You also face countless food-related challenges there on a daily basis - overcoming the temptation of a cupcake on a coworker's birthday or the call of the office vending machine at 3 PM can be difficult for even the most health-conscious foodie.
With those challenges in mind, here are my top tips to help you get through the week and accomplish your healthy eating goals:
1. Plan ahead - The key to eating healthy at work is planning ahead. Figuring out a routine that works for you - and sticking to it - is a must. We like to coordinate our lunches with dinners during the week (see number 5 below) in order to maximize our cooking time and make high-quality lunches that we look forward to eating. For example, we make lunches for the first half of the week on Sunday or Monday night and lunches for Thursday and Friday on Wednesday night. We also have a rotation of snacks that we pack - such as fresh fruits with homemade walnut or peanut butter and oatmeal with yogurt - that make it easier to get through the day. Lastly, set some time aside on Saturday or Sunday to think about your lunches for the week. You will thank yourself on Tuesday afternoon as you dig in to a delicious homemade lunch while your coworkers contemplate buying a burger and fries from Five Guys.
2. Bring your own coffee and tea - Let's face it, most of the free coffee and tea offered in the workplace is subpar. This reality leaves you with a few options - lower your standards during the day and take advantage of the free beverages, spend some money at the local coffee shop (which can add up quickly, but also offer you a chance to get out of the office), or bring your own provisions from home. I generally employ a combination of these options. I buy a container of vanilla soy milk at the local CVS, combine it with the free coffee, and add a bit of my own instant coffee (from Trader Joe's) to the mixture in order to make it palatable. Complicated, yes, but it helps me get through the day and avoid spending too much money at Starbucks. When I really want a treat, I take a nice long walk past the White House and buy a great cup of coffee at M.E. Swing Coffee House and then sip it in Lafayette Park. This helps break up the day and remind me what a really great cup of coffee tastes like.
3. Make a batch of emergency oatmeal - Oatmeal is a really easy snack to keep at the office. You can make your own homemade mixture by combining rolled oats, flax meal, cinnamon, a pinch of salt, and your favorite dried fruit and nuts. Then you can enjoy it a couple different ways- first, you can pour some oatmeal in a bowl and cover it with some of the hot water that offices usually supply for tea, and then wait either five minutes at room temperature or longer if you store the oatmeal in the refrigerator, and then combine the oatmeal with some plain yogurt and/or fresh fruit; or you can combine half a cup of your oatmeal mixture with half a cup of milk in a bowl and microwave it on high for one minute, and then enjoy the oatmeal warm. Either way, emergency oatmeal is great for those days when you didn't have time to make breakfast at home or when you're really hungry in the middle of the afternoon and just need a healthy snack to keep you from raiding the vending machine.
4. Be your own caterer - When you walk or bike to work everyday, the containers you choose to pack your lunch in are very important. We had a few disasters with glass Tupperware containers, which eventually led us to buy the lightweight plastic containers that caterers and specialty food stores use to pack food. I like the Newspring DELItainer Clear Round Deli Containers from The Webstaurant Store. They are light, easy to carry, microwave- and dishwasher-safe, and practically leakproof. Plus, you don't have to worry about them crashing to the ground as you load your bag onto the front of the Capital Bikeshare bike in the morning.
5. Maximize dinner cooking time - as I explained earlier, we like to make lunches by making extra portions of dinner during the week and then packing the leftovers into containers for lunches. Dinner can be a big pot of soup, a batch of vegetable curry, or a tray of roasted chicken with vegetables. Make six or eight servings instead of two on two of the nights that you cook dinner, and then you have your lunch all set for the rest the week.
6. Make a batch of toaster sandwiches - I created these sandwiches to utilize one of the appliances that can be found in most office kitchens: the toaster. Microwaves are generally horrible for heating up bread, and I just about insist that bread for sandwiches be toasted first. So I came up with the idea of a thin sandwich that can be made ahead of time - it consists of a whole wheat (or gluten-free) tortilla and your choice of fillings. You pack it in your lunch when it's cold and then heat it at work using one side of a conventional toaster.
Our favorite is the peanut butter and jelly version that uses homemade nut butter, raspberry preserves, and a sprinkle of coconut, which can be eaten cold or warm. To make this version, lay the tortilla flat on a plate or cutting board. Spread the entire tortilla with your choice of peanut butter or almond butter, then spread some raspberry preserves or another type of jam or jelly over the nut butter, and finally, sprinkle with a bit of coconut (toasted or not). Then, fold the tortilla in half and wrap with plastic wrap or place in a sandwich-size plastic bag. Other filling options include Gruyere cheese with tomato and onion or tuna salad with capers and bread and butter pickles. Make sure you keep the sandwich thin by using minimal toppings - otherwise, you risk spillage in your office toaster and snide looks from your non-foodie coworkers.
7. Utilize frozen vegetables - Frozen vegetables can help you make quick dinners, but they can also serve as a good workday snack. My personal favorite is a combination of frozen peas and corn with a pinch of salt and pepper. You can heat up the vegetables in the microwave for a quick snack, or you can add them to some leftover chicken and rice to create a well-balanced lunch.
8. Make time for breakfast - Eating a substantial breakfast in the morning gets your day started right. We usually start our day with a steam-fried egg, some sautéed spinach, and half of an avocado, along with a cup of coffee. Breakfast also gives us an opportunity to spend some time with each other before we head off to our jobs for the day.
9. Stock up on fresh fruit - Fresh fruit is a must during the workday. We like to shop at the Dupont farmer's market on Sundays and stock up on the seconds that they offer at our favorite orchard, Toigo Orchards. For $.99 a pound, we can stock up on the most delicious peaches, apples, and nectarines available. I like to eat a piece of fruit as a midmorning snack and then another piece of fruit after lunch. Eating fruit during the day helps to control your cravings, and it makes you less likely to grab that cupcake later in the day.
10. Have a good Plan B - Have a good affordable restaurant choice to fall back on for the times when life gets busy and you don't have time to pack your lunch. My favorite Plan B restaurant is District Taco in downtown Washington, DC. They have great fish tacos made with grilled tilapia on Tuesdays and Fridays for only $2.50. I wouldn't want to eat tacos for lunch every day, but it's a good option when you don't have time to pack a lunch the night before.
So enjoy the long weekend, and don't forget to think about what you're bringing for lunch on Tuesday. Happy Labor Day!