In the dark days of my post-collegiate life, I moved to New York and waited tables while I tried to worm my way into an editorial assistantship in traditional publishing. Most self-respecting restaurants serve a staff meal and there’s often plenty of snacks throughout the shift, so lunch was never an issue there. When I finally landed a close approximation of what I thought was my dream job–an assistant in an editorial department!–I was dismayed to learn that the publishing industry cares not for your living expenses. In fact, traditional publishing thinks your student loans and rent and bills and New York’s notoriously high cost of living can go fuck themselves, because traditional publishing is not helping out.
Without saying how much I made, I’ll say that New York has a feature called 21 Questions in which they ask famous New Yorkers said number of questions and one of them is, tellingly, “Would you live in New York on a $35,000 salary?” and every time I’d read one, I’d think to myself, “I would kill to make $35,000 a year.”
Thankfully, a good friend of mine encouraged me to pitch this very website and I eventually started writing a weekly column. With the extra income, my quality of living skyrocketed–I could buy yogurt! All the while, I spent Sunday afternoons doing the same thing: making a giant pot of lentil soup. Sometimes it wasn’t lentils, sometimes it was chickpeas or black beans or sometimes (if I was feeling flush) it involved chicken, but every Sunday was the same. When my soup was finished, I’d divide it up among a bunch of little containers and that would be my lunch for the rest of the week. If, for whatever reason, I was unable to perform the Sunday soup ritual, I stocked up on these guys, which are actually really delicious and reasonably healthy for $2.
My officemate at the time would go out and get lunch and I would always watch her consume that day’s pesto turkey wrap or Thai takeout or assembly line salad with the same bewildered awe: she was spending $10 a day on lunch! That’s $200 a month on lunch! $200 was well over my monthly food budget, let alone my lunch budget. Someday, I thought, I’d be able to buy my lunch and use it as an excuse to take a walk and leave the office and get some fresh air and I’d probably be a little taller and have better hair.
Soon after, I joined The Gloss fulltime. For a while, my lunch-making habit stuck and I’d bring in my various soups because it still seemed like the more financially responsible thing. An intern of ours at the time watched me unpack my lunch one day and remarked brightly, “You bring your own food? You get a big girl badge!” As someone who’d spent the last two years feeling (a not reasonable but still discernable) shame and embarrassment that I had to bring a bag lunch, I was oddly touched. That story, of course, is where we got our idea for this very theme week and although I’d like to find another name for it, I liked the sentiment. Rather, we all liked the idea of chronicling our efforts to make small changes for the ultimate goal of bettering ourselves. Even just slightly.
Two years later, I am much less responsible when it comes to spending money on lunch. I buy lunch nearly every day–for a variety of reasons, though the main one is time. Our office is near one location of a Manhattan Whole Foods and it’s one of the only places I can run out to, buy something healthy and be back to my desk inside 30 minutes. Basically, I eat a frightening amount of Whole Foods sushi (seriously, this would read like a weird episode of True Life if I went into it), supplemented by the store’s various astronomically priced fruits and vegetables. I have come a long, long way from being prudent by necessity about lunch and spending my Sundays making a pot of cost-effective soup.
Writing about this has kind of agonized me for the past few weeks, however, because it’s very hard to discuss this subject without brazenly admitting to a new kind of privilege. The fact of the matter is, I make more money than I did right after graduating college and can spend a little more on what I eat. I’m also a healthy eater, so a $3 bagel with cream cheese isn’t really a viable lunch option five days a week (although it is my favorite hangover cure). Again, my reliance on buying lunch is mostly born out of time; I have a lot less of it now (I used to cook everyday, now actually cooking a meal is a luxury). I can no longer afford to spend X hours of my weekend making soup, or my weekday nights chopping/sauteeing/cleaning up to make healthy meals to take in the next day. That being said, the idea of writing an article whining about how it’s hard not to spend $8-10 a day on lunch repulsed me. I came to terms with this by convincing myself that indeed, it is somewhat repulsive to whine about such a thing, and that is why I am writing this very post. Because I want to be less shitty.
…Unfortunately, I am currently occupying the ever-popular space of being shitty but incapable of doing anything about it. Which is why my week of bringing in lunch looks like this:
Day 1? I fucking failed out on Day 1. It’s not entirely my fault, because I thought Big Girl Badge Week was next week, so if that means I get a failure badge, that’s probably fair. So, Day 1 was brown rice sushi from Whole Foods, with salmon and avocado. It cost $7.89, I think. I did bring an apple, though, as an afternoon snack.
Day 2. This is where things get pathetic. Monday night I was working late (TheGloss is one half of my current professional responsibilities) and had no time to cook. But I did have leftover sauteed kale. From a few days before. So, here is Tuesday’s lunch:
Don’t be fooled by that paper plato halo (cast by our office’s lengths of ugly fluorescence): this sucked. And was starting to take on “refrigerator” taste.
Thankfully, Tuesday night, I found about half an hour to make myself some lunch for the following day. That half hour, unfortunately, did not leave enough room to go to the grocery store, so I was at the mercy of my sorely neglected refrigerator. Here’s what was in there…
It wasn’t always this way.
Hot sauce. Fish sauce. Cocktail sauce? Six month old apple sauce. A Greek salad dressing I made some amount of time ago. Sport peppers for when I make the Chicago dogs I keep saying I will. A Japanese beer. Various nut butters. A beer that has been open for weeks (because someone didn’t finish it and whenever that happens I usually set it aside to use in my hair so it isn’t wasted). In the foreground is some raspberry jam I got in Berlin this summer, which I cannot bring myself to open because I may never have the chance to buy it again. So, basically neurosis. Neurosis and condiments.
But I did have a yam! Which lead this to happen:
Apparently in my rush to make Day 3’s lunch, I only partially removed the sticker from the sad yam that I boiled for ten minutes and then ate cold out of this plastic pint. Jennifer begged me to heat it because it was almost too sad for her to bear (she is delicate) (and loves eating more than anyone I know) but I didn’t see a point in trying to make unseasoned boiled yam better than it was.
Thankfully, last night, I managed to alot for food prep and today made, uh, some more yam, some fresher kale and… I grilled some asparagus:
I also found an avocado. That was a boon for me.
Don’t worry, I don’t think my complete inability to be a fucking grown-up this week is cute. I almost can’t believe how hard it was to do this–didn’t I used to make myself lunch for the entire week? And it was cheap? I’m not entirely sure how that became such a challenge in such a short span of time.
Anyway, I failed. I guess part of being an adult is recognizing that and learning from it, so I wanted to take this (sort of extremely embarrassing) opportunity to ask those of you who work 9 to 5’s (or any job where this question applies): how do you stick to a sensible lunch budget? Moreover, what are your recommendations for lunches that balance speed (in terms of kitchen prep), nutrition and affordability? If the long lines of professionals snaking out of Manhattan locations of Chop’t at 1:00 PM are any indication, plenty of people have no problem blowing $13 at lunch. I do. But I also have a problem with devoting valuable time to prepping food that seems only marginally less expensive than simply buying it.
So I want to know what you do. Help is appreciated, as I’d someday like to join the ranks of adults.