Food on the Fly

I’m a champ at not having my meals prepared on time. I usually don’t begin cooking until I realize I’m hungry, and so I end up eating an hour or two later than I intended to. This is fine on Fridays and weekends. It’s not so fine, say, when it’s 12:15 and I need to be at work by one, such as was the case last week.

So, what to do? I tend to have a handy stash of oh-so-quick (and oh-so-environmentally-unfriendly) instant soups and quick-cooking grains. While these are good for a snack or filling up the stomach, they’re not great for meals – too little protein and too much sodium. While there’s not much you can do in ten minutes about the sodium (if you have an hour, soaking a peeled piece of potato in the soup will soak up the sodium), you can remedy the protein deficiency with beans, peas, or legumes.

Well, this particular day last week, I didn’t have any instant soups. I didn’t have any bread, pita, or tortillas, so no sandwiches or wraps. No leftovers in the fridge. (Sound familiar yet?) What could I eat?

Just the previous day, I had dog-eared the page on tabbouleh (a Middle-Eastern grain salad) in one of my cookbooks (Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe – totally worth another blog post on my end and a reading through on yours). At a loss for what else to do, I took it out and skimmed the ingredients list. I had no cooked garbanzo beans, not enough parsley, no mint, no scallions, not enough tomatoes, and no lemons – in short, I lacked about half the ingredients.

This is where normal people give up and grab something on the way to work (especially easy for me, seeing as I work at Common Ground). For better or worse, I am not normal. I immediately noted which of the ingredients I did have -lentils instead of garbanzo beans, bulgur, some parsley and tomatoes in my garden, onions instead of scallions, lime juice instead of lemons, and olive oil- and decided I could make my lunch from scratch and get to work on time.

Knowing what will make a quick lunch is no superpower. Let me walk you through the process of food on the fly:

    1. KNOW WHAT YOU HAVE. You can’t make food on the fly if you spend half an hour figuring out what ingredients you have. Organize your shelves and fridge so you can see what food you have at a glance, clearly labeling anything that’s in an opaque container. If you want to go the extra mile, keep a running inventory of what you have in stock (this really helps you figure out what to buy on your next shopping trip, too). Regardless of what method you use, make sure to organize your food storage in a way that makes sense to YOU; if you put your pickles in the door of the fridge because that’s where they should be -not because that’s where you would naturally put them- it’s going to cost you time.
    2. KEEP YOUR OPTIONS OPEN. If you don’t have baked goods (read: bread, tortillas, pitas, crackers, rice cakes, etc.), you’re not going to be able to make a sandwich. If you don’t have veggies, you can’t make a salad. This sounds more intuitive than it is. I don’t eat my bread fast enough to keep it from molding, so I freeze it. Guess what? You can’t make and eat a sandwich in half an hour with frozen bread. Similarly, if you don’t have beans or peas or nuts/seeds (canned, cooked from bulk and refrigerated, in nut butter form, chopped, etc.), dairy products or substitutes, or meats on hand, you won’t be able to get your protein on quick notice. Keep your options open – have basic staples prepared and on hand. Depending on who you are and what you eat, this could be a diverse as chopped vegetables, single-serve containers of pre-cooked rice, sliced deli meat, chopped nuts, canned kidney beans, soy cheese, or yogurt. Keeping your options open takes some prep time in advance, but it makes making lunch a snap. And then, for example, you have chopped vegetables all prepared for that stir fry dinner you wanted to make!
    3. HAVE FAVORITES AND KNOW HOW TO SUBSTITUTE. Know what you like and run with it. Food on the fly is not the time to be experimenting with new recipes. Either have a few simple, fast recipes you love, or a couple of formulas that always work for you. An example of a recipe would be Confetti Rice (again from Diet for a Small Planet), which I can make in 15 minutes flat if I’ve made the rice and ground the sesame seeds in advance, and which I always love. An example of a formula would be a sandwich, or a grain salad, or a stir fry – we have a good idea of what goes into the “formula” and what’s supposed to come out, so we can substitute fairly easily: pitas for bread for a sandwich, yogurt for pre-made dressing for salads, lentils for garbanzo beans for a grain salad, etc. Formulas are my favorite way to go – once you’ve made a certain type of dish enough times (hopefully not all last-minute!), finding substitute ingredients becomes second nature.

Here’s how I used the Food on the Fly strategy for my last minute lunch:

  1. Know what you have: I knew what I had. My fridge and pantry shelves were organized in a way that made sense to me and my ingredients were labeled (as easy as masking tape and a pen).
  2. Keep your options open: I had quick-cooking grains available, I had beans pre-cooked, and I had my staple ingredients stocked.
  3. Have favorites and know how to substitute: I like grain salads and knew what the end result should look like. I had an understanding of what ingredients could be substituted and what I could leave out without hurting the dish’s taste and nutrition.

Voila – tabbouleh for lunch in 15 minutes!

I recommend making your meals further in advance than I do, but if you ever find yourself in that hour-or-less crunch, I recommend the Food on the Fly strategy: it’s saved my stomach many a time. As always, if you have any strategies of your own or questions, please share them!