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Perfect Packed Lunches

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A plate of sausages

Cruising round supermarkets, shopping for your packed lunch requires a bit of foresight. To plan one well when shopping, you need enough ingredients to take you to the end of the week. (And, remember, these should stay fresh long enough so as not to give you botulism on Friday, as, frankly, it would spoil your weekend.)

Ham and cheese do the job admirably. Buying these two components ensures a degree of flexibility: ham on Monday; cheese and ham on Tuesday; cheese on Wednesday; ham and cheese on Thursday; pub lunch with your colleagues on Friday. The combination of ham and cheese is fine, because it's easy, but it can get a little predictable. So what can we do to shake up this conveyer belt production? That's what we asked you the h2g2 Community and below is your terrific response.

The Secret

It's often difficult to attain gastronomic perfection when it comes to packed lunches largely because you make them when you've just had breakfast and therefore don't know what you're going to feel like come lunch time. The secret, therefore, is to have a fridge stocked with things you may want for lunch and then the choice is yours when it comes to making the lunch.

This is obviously easier said than done as there are bound to be occasions when you don't have a fridge - scaling the north face of the Eiger for example, or canoeing down the Danube or counting pairs of mating octopi. Times like these require forward planning and an element of greed. After all you don't want to find yourself starving having spent a morning grappling with wildebeest only to find that you have one measly slice of white processed bread and a slab of plastic cheese to keep you going for the afternoon.

So go greedy - if you can't stomach the whole designated lunch in-one-go you can always save the left-overs as a snack for later - a reward for your hard work.

As for what should constitute the perfect packed lunch...

While salads are good, you need a fork/spoon/spork/chop sticks to manage them which again is fine if you're not in the middle of Mongolia branding yak.

Soup is also a good option assuming you have access to a heat source - just make sure that it's kept in a container from which you can imbibe without the need for flatware.

Sarnies surely form the ultimate in packed lunches, the options available are multitudinous: bread, rolls, bagels, ciabatta, focaccia, baguette, ficelle, stottie, pitta - you name it, the foundation material itself is diversity exemplified.

As for contents, it's important to make sure that if you're taking more than one sandwich, neither are the same - even if that means putting redcurrant jelly in one and not in the other, it's important to ring the changes.

Chicken, ham, beef, chorizo, pastrami, parma ham, turkey, salmon, tuna, ratatouille, cheddar, brie, Philadelphia, cottage cheese, dairy lea - the options here are as diverse as they are for the bread itself.

Lettuce, tomato, cucumber, spring onion, sweetcorn, onions, gherkins, olives, they all have their merits. With regard to tomatoes, whatever happens they should be kept away from the bread - they just make it soggy. This can either be resolved by ensuring that the toms go on between the main filling and the salad, or ditch the big toms and pay a little more for cherry or baby-plum tomatoes... not only do they provide a little colour to your packed lunch but also they can be ignored should you not want to eat them when the time for your midday repast comes around.

As for complements to your meal, a packet of crisps or such like is always a good thing as you can always add them to your sandwich. A choccy bar is essential, providing energy and a treat, and then there's the fruit option and perhaps a yoghurt to keep those hunger pangs away.

Mediterranean Packed Lunch

Here is a lunch that would make many a Researcher happy, bringing, as it does, a touch of the Med with it.

  • A slipper of pita bread
  • A punnet of hummos
  • A couple of slices of grilled haloumi cheese
  • A small tin of fish, say sardines (but not tuna) in a jalapeno Tabasco-inspired tomato sauce
  • Some Mediterranean salad (onion, tomato, cucumber, olives) doused in a saucy vinaigrette dressing, with some sun-dried tomatoes and those spicy (peppercorned) pickled onions
  • A few sticks of biltong, or dried wors
  • A packet of dry roasted peanuts.
  • A piece of fruit (an apple a day keeps the doctor away)
  • A drink (a large beer would be good, but a half-litre of water should fill the need)


Making your own bread produces much better quality sandwiches and you don't have to be a mathematical genius to work it out. Just go for the pre-mix packs which contain the right amount of everything - all you have to add is the correct amount of water, and depending on the type of bread, oil (usually olive).

One of the best mixes is garlic and rosemary foccacia (a fantastic flatbread) that can be eaten plainly with butter or margarine, or filled with any of your favourite ingredients (chargrilled chicken, wafer-thin ham, the list is endless).

It's just a case of preparing the mix, resting and proving the dough, and then 15 minutes in a preheated oven.

Crunchy Sarnies

If you include a packet of your favourite crisps, cheddary biscuits or Pringle-type snacks, they can enliven even the most boring round of sandwiches.

Don't tell me that, as a kid, you never smuggled your crisps into your sarnies? Well, you missed out - far more interesting than plain crisps or ham sandwiches.... and you'd be surprised how well certain combinations work!

Italian-influenced Packed Lunches

The greatest test for the perfect packed lunch has to be a teenage child attending school. In my experiences with my daughter there have been many successful and equally unsuccessful attempts at packed lunch. A true measure of success is how many times can the same lunch be repeated with or without hiatus. I believe that I hold some sort of record as my usually finnicky child requested the same lunch for over three months. The winning entry? Prosciutto sandwich!

The secret is in the quality of the ingredients and, without doubt, the single most important ingredient is the bread. keep it fresh, keep it Italian! if you know of a small artisan bakery, buy your week's needs in one go. Rolls (or panini, if you prefer) freeze incredibly well if wrapped individually. Defrosted overnight the roll will be as fresh the following morning as the day they were bought. The Prosciutto should be sliced paper thin: this is not a snob's perspective; the Prosciutto gives up it's flavour more abundantly in gossamer wafers (less really is more). Any meat counter/delicatessen worth its weight will automatically thin-slice and stagger-layer your slices on wax paper. You shouldn't accept it any other way.

Add thinly sliced roma tomatoes and mixed baby lettuce as a final touch. Here, too, quality is important. Many supermarkets package mixed lettuce under various exotic sobriquets: provençale mix/garden herb etc... these are easy enough to monitor in terms of quality - if it looks limp and black it's bad. Tomatoes on the other hand are notoriously misleading; the most tumescent, red-coloured tomatoes are often tasteless and dry. to counter this, slice your tomato thinly, powder sparingly with salt and dribble olive oil over the top. Leave overnight in the refrigerator. The combination of salt and oil draws out the natural juices and flavour of the tomato. The juices are great poured onto the substance of the bread in place of butter/mayonnaise.

Kid Friendly Food

Below is how one Researcher managed to keep her little darling entertained and well fed. It serves as an inspiration to us all.

My daughter takes lunch to school every day, and I have had to get pretty creative to keep her eating! Of course, there's always a water bottle and a dessert of some sort (pudding, rice krispie treat, etc), but I try to keep it healthy. Some of the big hits have been:
  • Single Colour Lunch - One day it's red - red pepper strips, a red apple, cherries, and a sandwich wrapped in red plastic wrap. Another day, green - green cabbage rolled around green meat (dyed with food colouring, not rotten), with celery sticks, green grapes and green jello cubes. Somehow, it works.

  • The Wrap - A tortilla, filled with anything, rolled tightly, wrapped in foil to keep it together, and cut to show the ends. Favorites include bologna, string cheese and green pepper strips, and turkey, ranch dressing, and lettuce.

  • Silly Lunch - Make the sandwich inside out (put the bread between the meat and cheese). Put chips inside an empty pudding cup, and put the pudding in the water bottle (make sure they can get it out first!).

  • The Gross Lunch - This works best if your child is a reader. Mostly, it's a pretty standard lunch, you just make it sound exotic. Like chips and salsa? Suddenly it's bloody bits and fried skin. Chocolate pudding? Liver purée. Lemon jello with streaks of green food colouring? Booger salad. Get creative, and kids will eat even the healthy stuff. Carrots, cut the right way, can become fingers. Celery, set in a cup of red food coloring overnight, can become ribs. Dried fruit, depending on colour, can be any body part. (Most adults hate this, but kids love it!)


Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam.

The following is a shining example of just how you can make the most out of a pretty boring ingredient.

When I wasn't vegetarian I made spam into all kinds of things for a lunch. Fry it until it's crispy, let it cool and make a sandwich. Cut it up and put it in a salad. Mush it up and use it as an ingredient in 'meat'loaf.
Of course now I have seen the inside of a packing plant so I'll make my lunch box some fruit, celery and carrot sticks, potato salad, and a hot Thermos of soup with the heel of a baguette.


Spuds make great packed lunch fodder as they can be recycled from the left overs of the night before. There are plenty of potato recipes on h2g2 that can be wrapped and served cold the next day:

Sandwich Fillings

Generally speaking, the fresher the filling is, the better it tastes. More flavour, better texture, better colours... So, let's have a look at a few specifics:


Tuna flakes seem to be easier to use in sandwiches than tuna chunks, as they're less... chunky! Get tuna in brine or spring water, rather than oil - the oil version can end up tasting rather greasy. Mix with mayonnaise, and a little freshly-ground black pepper. For variety, you could add some sweetcorn, or diced bell peppers (capsicum). A little extra seasoning? Try some crushed coriander seeds which are easy to grind in a pepper mill.

Sliced Meat

This should be as fresh as possible, as it tends to dry out if not stored properly. When choosing what else to put in a meat sandwich, think about the flavours - you (presumably) want to taste the meat, so add flavours which will complement (but not overpower) the meat. Classic combinations include beef and horseradish, ham and mustard, chicken and salad (or sweetcorn), turkey and cranberry sauce, pork and stuffing...


Choose a cheese you like. Sounds obvious, but (for some reason) some cheeses seem to be better for eating on their own than in sandwiches. Pickle is often put with cheese. How about coleslaw for something a little different or tartare sauce for a little zing?


There are so many different things that you could put into a humble salad sandwich - fresh, sweet tomatoes; crisp, fiery onion; crunchy peppers; crisp lettuce; radishes; beetroot; mushrooms; cold potatoes; cress;... The best salad sandwiches are finished off with a good dollop of mayonnaise.


Simmer the eggs for exactly ten minutes. As soon as they're done, cool them as quickly as you can. One favoured method is to put the pan under a running cold tap. This quick cooling should ensure you don't get a black ring around the yolk. Mash the eggs up with a fork, and mix in some mayo. Season with a little black pepper. For a twist, throw in a few cardamon pods - remove the outer 'shell' first though.

Quick Salad Packed Lunch

This salad is very easy to make and all you have to do is mix together the following:

  • Lettuce cut into small pieces
  • 1 small can of sweetcorn
  • 1 can of tuna
  • Cherry tomatoes cut in half


Things you can buy and eat immediately without any preparation means you can get the full enjoyment of the moment without any fussing (and without having to get up earlier in the morning to make sarnies, which will undoubtedly be sad and soggy come lunchtime). A few favourite examples are:

  • A chunk of hard or crumbly cheese and a packet of plain digestive biccies (or oat cakes if you prefer). An apple for afters finishes this off perfectly.

  • Chicken drumsticks and a tub of coleslaw to dip them into.

  • A packet of crackers, a packet of salami/pepperoni and a packet of processed sliced cheese


They're such a fun thing to eat - throwing them up in the air and catching them in your mouth, tossing them into a co-worker's mouth sitting across the room. And if you've got some left, they make a great snack while you're sitting at your desk waiting for the end of the workday.

Or perhaps we have too much fun in the lunchroom?

Cold Quiche

Quiche is brilliant in lunchboxes. Make a nice bacon quiche the night before (or bacon and mushroom, or just plain mushroom, or any other kind actually, whatever you like). Have some of it for dinner then leave it to cool and it'll keep in the fridge for a few days while you consume the rest in your lunches. Delicious.

Japanese Children's Packed Lunches

My children went to a really multi-racial school (which was fab, because no one was in the majority race, it worked brilliantly). The Japanese children used to bring in the most wonderful lunchboxes. They had things like steamed florets of broccoli, arranged in neat rows, along with rice balls and terriaki meat slices. It looked wonderful, was really healthy and no doubt tasted great. It put some of the English children's white bread and jam with chocolate and crisps to shame.

It is not just kids. Teachers, construction workers, even office clerks, everybody can have a lunchbox. In Japan, and in Taiwan where the Japanese influence on culture is still important, lunch boxes are not just a necessity, they are an art form.

It starts with the box itself. Plastic or metal, it comes in many shapes, sizes and colours. From a very classy black to the flashiest colours, with the full range of cartoon characters printed on the lid. It can endure the coldest freezers, and many heating processes (microwave or steam being the most common ones). The lid locks on one or two sides, or is held by an elastic band (another opportunity for colour and pattern variations). Sometimes, a special compartment on the back of the box holds the chopsticks (or spoon/fork).

The base is white rice. Less often, noodle. Whether a layer at the bottom of the box, or on one side if you are lucky and get partitions in your fancy container. Or you might have several boxes piled-up, and one containing only rice (that's the heavy-worker type of lunch box).

Then an assortment of steamed/sautéed vegetables, some tofu in one shape or another (fresh, pressed, fried, or fermented), often meat and fish, possibly half a boiled egg, and some pickled seaweed, bean sprouts or bamboo can be added. In the Korean version, you'd see the omnipresent kimchee (pickled vegetables with garlic and chili pepper) added to it.

The whole thing pleases the eye before it reaches the mouth, in an arrangement of colours and shapes that are the artistic expression of the housewife (well, sometimes it is just piled-up, really). And about 30 minutes before lunch-break, you can see lunchboxes taken out of the fridge, and lining-up toward the microwave in the office kitchen, ready to take their turn.

The lack of sweets might shock Westerners, but in Japan, China, or Korea, sweet dessert is not a compulsory part of the meal. In families where someone (often the housewife, or the maid) prepares a full meal at least once a day, it is actually not that difficult to insert the preparation of the next day's lunchbox for everybody.

On the street, you can usually by a disposable version of this 'full meal in a box', in plastic or light wood containers. Japan railway stations are particularly famous for their delicious specialties of lunchboxes.

An Ex-cleaners Speaks

... and we should all listen:

Speaking as someone who once worked as a part-time cleaner in a primary school, I'd like to point out to parents that giving children yoghurt in their packed lunch is a big mistake. Children may come home empty-handed, but that doesn't mean they have eaten the yoghurt. Oh no! It more than likely means that they have had a food fight with a pot of strawberry yoghurt and a straw. Boy does that smell at the end of the day.
Another misguided product are those little packets of raisins - another item of weaponry - and a real killer to clean up.

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