I work in a small plaza near the few more small plazas. Normally, my schedule allows me to plan meals around my shifts, so I can eat before and after work. During our busier times though (summer, holidays, any time families are forced to spend time together and therefore drink), my schedule can get a bit hectic. There have been times where I have planned to be there for a 4 hour day shift, only to have it changed to an 8 hour day and closing shift once I get there. Or I’ll have a day off, and get called in at the last minute, meaning I have no time to eat.
In the beginning, I’d just grab something to eat on my breaks. I’d run to Wendy’s and grab a combo, or to Timmie’s for doughnuts. Over time, though, that got expensive. And the amount of money I was spending on last minute food was just ridiculous! At anywhere from $5-$9 for a combo, 2-3 times a week…….. and this is when my monthly food budget was less than $150. I was spending most of my budget on junk that made me feel like crap, made me sluggish at work, and just made me feel tired all the time.
For a little while, I started going to the grocery store in our plaza on my lunch break. I could grab a bag of salad, some bread and peanut butter, and a soda or energy drink if I needed it. Still, though, it was starting to add up. I always have salad fixings in my fridge anyway, so spending $2-$3 for a bag of salad just to eat at work didn’t make much sense. I regularly buy bagged salads anyway, and just add more stuff to them to make them in to gigantic monster salads (spinach, cucumbers, peppers, and alfalfa sprouts are great in a Caeser salad, btw). Having a whole bag just for work seemed…….. wasteful. And I couldn’t just keep my bread at work. Even if I was called in or had my shift extended three days a week, that loaf of bread would go mouldy before I was finished it.
So what can you do when you have an erratic schedule? Or a schedule where there are no real breaks? This is a huge problem for both students and young professionals these days. With the every increasing demands on our time, many people just don’t have time to eat a real meal, or go home for dinner, or have any meals at home some days. Sometimes, it’s not even a whole meal you want. Some days, all you need are a few snacks to get you through the day until you can get home to your kitchen (and your box of wine, if you’re like me).
Fast food and convenience store are, well, convenient for this. The 7-11 off campus was like a second home to me, even after I got my first degree. In addition to the regular convenience store fare (chips, cookies, soda/pop, energy drinks), they also have the grill and hot counter, and a small ready-made section. I could go there for a breakfast sandwich and coffee in the morning, a salad and wrap and coffee for lunch, an afternoon coffee or two (I really love their coffee for some reason), and then grab hot dogs, taquitos, chicken wings, potato wedges, or even a pepperoni pizza for dinner. No one can live like this every day though. Aside from the very obvious strain on your wallet (that day is close to a $30 day just at 7-11), there’s strain on your body. Even getting what looks like a healthy wrap or salad somewhere like this, there is so much extra stuff thrown in there that brings up the not-totally-healthy quota. My usual salad from there is a Caesar salad, which comes with hardboiled eggs, crumbled bacon, a large package of dressing, chicken strips, and grated cheese. There is no way I would put ALL of that on a salad at home! Don’t get me wrong, I love their food. But after eating enough of it, I just feel sluggish and blah. I can’t concentrate after a few chili-cheese Big Bite hot dogs, and I just want to nap. Not exactly what you want to feel like on a busy day.
So, I started keeping snack-type foods at home. Before leaving for a day shift, or a class, or a meeting that everyone swears will only take half an hour, I throw a few snacks in my bag. That way, if my day goes longer than I had planned, I’m still prepared and won’t be tempted to shove a whole bacon and mushroom pizza into my gluttonous face-hole. When I first started doing this, I had no clue what to bring with me. I tried bringing salads (too bulky), chips (too easily crushed), or leftovers from last night’s dinner (too stinky or needs to be reheated). But I didn’t always need my emergency foods. Sometimes, a 5 hour day shift just stays as a five hour day shift. So, I’ve found some foods I can easily pack, keep in my locker or fridge at work, or even just keep around the house to grab when I’m about to run out the door. Now, everyone’s own choices will differ according to taste, allergies, and budgets. But here’s some suggestions of things you can easily throw in your bag. And remember, you can mix it up each day. Keep a few of these at home, and grab a different combination every time.
- Fresh fruit. Aside from apples and the occasional summer watermelon, I’m not a big fan of fruit.But for those of you who are, this is a great choice you can keep with you. Apples, oranges, and bananas are the basics that every one of us probably had thrown in our lunchboxes as kids. Expand you palate, see what’s on sale, be a little adventurous. Pear, mangoes, pomegranates, and peaches are great and healthy choices, and tend to go on sale when they’re in season. And that’s a big key to staying in your budget: buy what’s in season!
- Veggies are another great option. I like to make a bunch of celery and carrot sticks on Sundays, and then portion them out into snack sized zipper lock bags (you can get boxes of these at the dollar store). I keep a jar of peanut butter at work, and can just dip my celery in there for a treat. Peppers and cucumbers are another go-to for me too, but these are softer and usually require a small Tupperware container, which takes up more space.
- Granola bars, snack bars, energy bars, protein bars…… I’m a big fan of bars. I bought a box of 30 protein bars at Costco once (after reading the labels on every single freaking box there. I’m a nightmare to shop with sometimes), and I love one of these on stock days at work. Just be sure to check the nutritional information from time to time. Some of these bars are just chocolate coated sugar. I’ve actually found some that are nutritiously worse than some candy bars. And some so-called “protein bars” have less protein than a no-name granola bar, but at three times the price! So shop carefully when it comes to these.
- Individual soup packets. I love my Cup-a-Soup! I keep a large travel mug at work, just for a nice package of vegetable soup after a long walk in to work in the snow. These do require you to have something to put the soup in, and a way to heat the water, so they’re not ideal for everyone. Another option, if you have access to hot water, are those soup cups. They’re basically Styrofoam cups or bowls with noodles and soup mix in them. These are good too, have a lot of flavour options, but the sodium content on most of these is just ridiculous. So if you’re someone who gets sleepy or sluggish after a salty meal, or have health issues that require a low-sodium diet, be careful with these.
- Cheese strings!! Or those little mini cheese wheels that come in the waxy covering. Or the Laughing Cow cheeses. Or those little individually wrapped mini cheese blocks. Actually, any cheese can work for this. I always keep cheese strings in my fridges at home and at work. If I run low before my next grocery trip, some sliced marble cheese in a zipper lock bag works great too. Just don’t forget these in your bag for too long, especially if you’re in warmer temperatures. Nothing sucks more than reaching your hand into your bag, and pulling it out covered in melted cheese.
These are just a few things we keep at my house, that I would recommend. They are convenient, usually cheap, and can be found in most grocery stores. And there’s many other options out there that I haven’t mentioned here. If you’re lucky enough to be near a grocery store that has an “International” aisle, or even a small international grocers, they seem to keep many different items that are great for throwing in your bag on a busy day. I’ve found a whole new world of ramen noodles (not just your basic Mr. Noodle), and have even started experimenting with ramen soup recipes a friend got from her parents when she went home to Vietnam for a visit.
So, what are some of your favourite convenience items? Have any recommendations you’d like to share with us? Leave a comment, let me know what you like to snack on when your day just doesn’t have enough hours for three square meals. I’m always looking for new foods to try!