recent finds for your lunch

I wanted to briefly share a few spectacular products that have been really helping me start off the new year in a great direction. One of my small goals for 2014 was to not only get my budget more in check, but to eat healthier during the work hours. We have an incredible cafeteria where I work, so it’s quite tempting (and very easy) to wander over and pick up a fresh salad or grilled item. However, this adds up quickly — as do quick stops in the morning for a latte or spiced chai (because I’m one of those people who never really enjoys coffee she makes herself).

20 oz Lunch Crock-Pot Food Warmer
(Buy at Amazon)

This little contraption has been an absolute delight for me. I’ve made this cabbage soup recipe (+ black beans for protein) and this Asian vegetable soup recipe (+ tofu) countless times and froze portions in 2 cup containers. A quick thaw in the refrigerator overnight and, ta-da, I’m ready for lunch! Simply plug it in at your desk in the morning and, in 3 or 4 hours, your food has been gradually warmed up vs. an unappetizing zap from a microwave. I bring the inner compartment home every night and leave the actual crock-pot on my desk, but it does come with a carrying handle for easy transport. Keep in mind that this is only for reheating food, not cooking it — no raw products can be added. It’s wonderful for leftovers and saves you from waiting in line for the microwave at the office (plus, things just taste better in it). I’ve found a new love for canned soups, as well, thanks to this little thing — Progresso’s Light Zesty Southwestern-Style Vegetable is a particular favorite (just make sure to add your own spices to zap it up!). It comes in a variety of colors and can be found on Amazon for quite cheap. Several various colors are usually less expensive, as well — I scored mine in pink for $19.00 at one point. Keep an eye out on it at Amazon and you could likely find it even cheaper. Replaceable inner-tins and lids can be found at Crock-Pot’s official site. Be prepared to answer questions when people are intrigued by it sitting on your desk!

BUILT Neoprene Gourmet Getaway Lunch Tote
(Buy at Amazon)

While this seems like quite the silly addition as it’s “just a lunch bag,” I wanted to list it as I’ve definitely found more use out of this neoprene lunch tote than any other bag I’ve used. First and foremost, it stores a ton. It can stretch around frozen meal containers and its zipper will easily zip if stuffed to the very top. It is lightweight and durable — which is so important for everyday use. It comes in a variety of patterns, which make it very easy to find a jam-packed office refrigerator. It comes in different sizes, but I’d recommend the gourmet size if you carry both breakfast and lunch with you frequently — it is not too big and, most importantly, not too small.

FOR LIFE Tall Tea Mug with Infuser/Lid
(Buy at Amazon)

A friend of mine had such a sweet smelling drink at her desk — loose-leaf tea! “Yuck,” I thought. I’d never been able to get on the tea train, particularly because the bagged tea-bags that I tried from various stores always lacked flavor. I’d find myself using 2-3 tea bags and still not be satisfied with the taste. After a visit to a local tea shop, I picked up two varieties of loose-leaf tea and this handy mug, which makes steeping  your loose-leaf tea very easy and also allows you to do so without using a million tea bags. It was a bit more expensive locally, but Amazon has a ton of colors to choose from (if you have no preference on color, I’d suggest browsing through the colors as they all have different prices — may snag a great deal!). You can also invert the top of the lid to rest the infuser on, as well, which makes things even more convenient. The only suggestion I would have is, if you’re planning to drink black tea, to avoid the white color (which is what I chose) as it stains very easily.

new finds from trader joe’s

Unfortunately, I live a little more than twenty minutes away from a Trader Joe’s. Coupled with my often lazy approach to weekend grocery shopping, this means that Trader Joe’s isn’t a constant in my life. However, today’s trip made me want to make a rapid change to my shopping routine.

My favorite thing about the store has got to be their produce section. Prior to visiting, I always had this stereotype in my mind: Trader Joe’s is organic. Trader Joe’s is funky. There’s no way that Sarah can afford Trader Joe’s on her budget. She’ll stick to clipping coupons, thank you very much. However, I couldn’t be more wrong! If you’ve never been to a Trader Joe’s, you would be surprised at the prices and freshness of their produce.

First of all, I love things that have their own package that allows the product to retain quality without dirtying a tupperware container. Trader Joe’s Healthy 8 Chopped Veggie Mix is perfect for my weekly salads — diced slices of broccoli, carrots, green cabbage, red cabbage, jicama, green bell pepper, radish, and celery. This rang in under $3 for me. No longer do I need to spend more than that on individual vegetables nor do I need to mess with chopping them on my cutting board. This was perfect! Add this mix with some crisp romaine lettuce for under $1.50 and a packaged box of “Pearl Tomatoes” (think cute little mini on-the-vine tomatoes) for $2 and you’re set. Oh, and one more thing: their Reduced Fat Cilantro Dressing is to die for. Honestly, I even want to marinade with it. Try it!

The freezer section in this store is daunting and quite large. There’s so many different types of products — some that make you think “hmm,” but I managed to find our guilty pleasures (Garlic Fries, Mac and Cheese Bites) and a few new items, too: Tofu Edamame Nuggets, Shells with Brie and Asparagus, and their version of Veggie Sticks (50 sticks per serving – yowza! – and, I swear, they taste similar to McDonald’s french fries). Their Shells with Brie and Asparagus might look like your average microwaveable meal, but it is anything but. Cook it in the oven at 350 degrees for 25 minutes and it comes out piping hot and bubbly. When I studied abroad in Scotland, they had so many interesting cheeses available at small shops like our Subway or Quizno’s. Brie was available at no extra charge! Now, whenever I see brie cheese, I always think of how delightful (and dangerous!) that must be to be able to pick anything your heart desires each time… on a baguette. Oh, the horror!

Something that I always, always forget until the last minute when I’m at the cash register and have to awkwardly excuse myself for half a second while my items are being scanned is their lovely flower section. My living room table is now home to a little succulent.

What products have you found at Trader Joe’s that have now become a staple in your home?

lunching it, frozen-style

I’m always on the lookout for lunch ideas for the office that are easy and nutritious. Unfortunately, in the past, those convenient microwave meals that are all the rage haven’t been an option for me. I’m not a vegetarian, but I’ve always been weird about meat in such mass-produced products. How do I know it’s really quality chicken? No offense to anyone who works in the food industry or at such companies, but I just can’t trust it. It’s not appetizing to me. Something in the back of my mind whispers to me as the culprit dangles from my fork: “There’s no way that’s chicken, Sarah.”

Fortunately, the Freeze-and-Serve Meal Giants have come up with some wonderful options that don’t just consist of plain macaroni and cheese or alfredo and broccoli (although they’re still available, too). Kudos to them as, let’s be frank: the vegetarian consumer isn’t exactly their most prominent customer and experimenting with any sort of unique flavor has to have some guy in a pinstripe tuxedo vehemently shaking his head. So, thanks to the executive who has my back.

LeanCuisine has created a new line of products under their VeggieCuisine line featuring Gardenin chick’n stripes. My absolute favorite is their Indian-Style Masala. I cannot tell you how many eyebrows are raised at me in the break room when I pull this out from the depths of the freezer. Tofu-type bits in a frozen meal? Ew. Their opinion changes after they smell the final product, though. The consistency of the chick’n is nothing like tofu to me, either.

I’ll be the first to admit that it might not initially sound appetizing to a carnivore but, at 290 calories, I can easily pair this with a side of grapes and I’m set to conquer the day. It’s definitely not too spicy, either. Try finding a manufacturer’s coupon in the 4-for-$ variety that are consistently available on the Internet. Be brave and you just might be surprised!

Recently, I wandered into the vegetarian aisle in the faaaar back of our local Target. In fact, had I not been so daring, I would have never discovered LightLife’s Amaz’n Asian Sesame Chik’n. It was tucked away on a frozen entrée shelf far above everything else; I had to stand on the edges of my toes to even see it. I’m sure I looked ridiculous.

What surprised me the most about this meal was, not only the taste, but the portion. For an average diet, a slop of noodles the size of a deck of cards on a plastic tray isn’t enough to satisfy until dinner. In this meal, veggie chik’n pieces are combined with water chestnuts, carrots, and snap peas in a sweet sesame sauce over a bunch of Asian-style noodles. I’m not one for snacking, so I always try to find something that will calm my appetite until after I’m home from work because it’s embarrassing to be the girl in the office whose stomach is grrrowling so loudly at her computer that her neighbor can hear it over their iPod. I honestly felt as if I didn’t need any side of fruit with this meal. It was impressive… particularly at 260 calories! For my taste buds, it needed some salt and pepper to spice it up a bit, but it was impressive… particularly at 260 calories!

Finally, something that came as a bit of a surprise to me was MorningStar Farms’ Spicy Black Bean Burger. I know what you’re thinking. Why in the world would I eat a meatless burger that pretends to taste like meat if I don’t have to? I think this is a fair question to ask, particularly if you’re not a vegetarian. Why would you try this product if you have no problem consuming hamburger?

Well, for one, they’re extremely convenient to prepare without worrying about raw meat. Sure, you could buy a pre-cooked hamburger or turkey patty and get similar results, but I’ve found that most do not have such a wide array of flavors. I actually enjoy the taste of these over meat when it comes to topping them on lunch salads or heating one up and eating it plain with a bit of salsa on it (tip: the 120 calorie a pop Spicy Black Bean flavor is already a firecracker on its own). With several different flavors to choose from (asian, turkey-inspired, tomato and basil, etc), my “kitchen sink” salads have certainly seen refreshed days. I should mention that do not easily fall prey to freezer burn… you know, if you actually leave the package wide open in the freezer for several days. Just saying.

These are my own opinions and I wasn’t compensated in any way to sing the praises of these products. They’re just that tasty to me and, hopefully, you’ll not absent-mindedly walk past them the next time you come across the frozen food aisle if you’re interested in jazzing up your lunch routine.