For the urban office worker, buying your lunch every day can be a drag. It leaves your palate uninspired, your wallet empty, and your butt growing slowly across your desk chair. It can leave you with a permanent distaste for turkey sandwiches and a fear of deli lines.
Christine Johnson and Joanna Helferich—a public health director and a corporate lawyer respectively—came up with a solution for their lunch blahs. For the past five years the two college friends have been getting together on Sunday evening and cooking their lunches for the entire week.
I recently joined the two lunch ladies for an evening of chopping and stirring and was totally won over by their low-key but dedicated routine. While the cooking takes a certain amount of focus and coordinated kitchen Twister in a small New York space, it also leaves space for gabbing—and maintaining and deepening a friendship that began over ten years ago.
The meals they make are largely vegetarian, incorporate produce from the local farmers markets, and cost about a quarter of what it used to cost them to buy their lunch every day. The process starts via email during the week with a conversation about what they’re in the mood to cook and eat. After five years, they’ve created a stable of favorites, recipes they’ve co-created and tweaked, and keep in a Google doc.
They also try new things, including the Moroccan lentil stew they were making this evening for the second time. The inspiration was a soup Joanna liked from a NYC chain called Pret-a-Manger; they read the posted ingredient list and made adjustments. Their second dish was an old favorite—classic turkey meatloaf (made with ground turkey from their farmers market) with boiled potatoes and peas (a rare appearance by a frozen vegetable).
What you’ll need to rock it like Christine and Joanna:
1) five to six covered pyrex dishes a piece (they make six portions for five lunches and one for a dinner)
2) two to three hours of time on a Sunday night
3) About $2–$4 per meal
4) A big enough kitchen for two people to share space and share tasks
5) A microwave at work in which to heat up your meal
Has it been hard to keep this routine going for so many years? Sometimes, they say, especially when one or the other is traveling a lot. But the benefits—time together, a guaranteed healthy lunch with two to three servings of vegetables, a huge savings of money—far outweigh the hassles. And the experience has shaped them, and their palates. “My lunches used to be very meat-centric,” said Helferich. “Now I actually prefer eating vegetables.”
Moroccan Lentil Stew
2 cups French lentils (scant) – picked over and rinsed
Olive oil for sauteing
3 small-medium onions, chopped
6–8 small-medium carrots, chopped
4 celery stalks, chopped
8 cloves garlic, minced
2 med. turnips, 1/2 inch cubed
1 6oz can tomato paste
1 box container (4 cups) low sodium vegetable broth
4 cups water
2 tsp paprika
2 tsp garam masala
2 tsps cumin
A handful of chopped parsley
1 1/2 tsp sherry vinegar
Salt and pepper
Saute onions, carrots, and celery in olive oil until transparent; add garlic and pepper, cook 1 minute. Add broth and water, lentils, tomato paste, turnips, and spices. Bring to boil, then turn down and cover and simmer 1 to 1.5 hours, until lentils are soft. Taste and add adjust seasonings, add salt, sherry vinegar and parsley. Optional: Use hand blender to blend some of the lentils and vegetables. Makes 6 main course servings.
A version of this post first appeared on Well and Good NYC