6 tips for starting a lunch club at work
For the last two months, I’ve been a member of a lunch club at work. Once a week, five of us get together to eat lunch, taking it in turns to bring in a home-cooked meal.
It started as an opportunity to catch up over a meal – rather than eating solo hunched over your desk – and also as a way to save money: it’s usually far cheaper to cook for five people once every five weeks than to buy myself a meal once a week at some of the cafes near my office.
But the benefits have been far greater than I anticipated. Having other people cook for you introduces you to new dishes, flavours and ingredients, and has helped me on my push to try other recipes. (Regular readers will know that since January, I’ve been challenging myself to get out of my boring old food rut by trying two new dishes each week. Flicking through recipe books to find dishes to make for lunch club has played an important part in this.)
For example, the first week that I was a member, we ate fennel, cherry tomatoes and crumble gratin from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook. It was a revelation. Such comforting flavours, perfect for a cold winter’s day, and yet it just wasn’t something that I’d ever thought of cooking.
I should know – that cookbook has sat on a shelf in my kitchen for just over a year, unused and unloved. Every time I opened it, I focused on the long lists of unusual ingredients, and quickly put it back on the shelf.
But since that introduction, I’ve become a bit of a fan of Ottolenghi and even made the crumble twice at home, altering the recipe to cut back on the sugar and adding wholemeal and spelt flours to the crumble topping. (I’m still inspired by my forays into wholemeal and spelt flours. See my blog post about making healthy pancakes for kids with these flours.)
Actually Ottolenghi has proved to be the most popular inspiration overall for lunch club dishes – we’ve also eaten his delicious green lentils, asparagus and watercress salad, topped with Manchego cheese.
Here’s what I’ve learned about setting up a lunch club:
Keep it simple
If you’re super-organised and you’ve batch-cooked something at the weekend ready for lunch club, hats off to you. But chances are you’ll be preparing this meal after work one evening or possibly first thing in the morning, and you’ll be pretty tired. To avoid lunch club becoming just another chore when it’s your week to cook, I like to avoid over-complicated recipes but stick to dishes that take around 30 minutes to prepare and cook if possible. (I think 30 minutes is the optimum time for cooking during the week. Read this Healthier Mummy blog post for more 30-minute dinners for week nights.)
Don’t be afraid to try something new
See lunch club as a chance to test out that recipe on willing guinea pigs, who are just grateful to be fed at all.
Explore recipes using more economical foods, like pulses, cheese and vegetables, to spread the cost
We’ve eaten dishes like lentils with Manchego cheese, giant couscous with feta, mushroom risotto and goats cheese tart.
Avoid pudding pressure
Occasionally someone produces flapjacks, brownies, satsumas, chocolates or, on one marvellous week, a popcorn machine, but as a general rule, we feel under no pressure to produce a pud. Anything for dessert is frankly just a bonus.
Don’t forget logistics
Unfortunately, the sky’s not the limit – your meal has to be easy to transport to work (in my case on the Tube) and to store in the fridge for a morning. You may also need to bear in mind that the only way to heat up this meal is a microwave, and it must be served in bowls.
Bring herbs and garnish
At the last minute, you can chop up some herbs for extra flavours.
What I cooked last week
It was my turn to cook for lunch club last week. So the night before, after putting the kids to bed, I tried a new-to-me recipe, a chickpeas and spinach sauce, with a yoghurt, lemon and garlic dressing, which is a variation of a recipe also in Ottolenghi: The Cookbook.
I decided to serve it with couscous, which I made in the kitchen at work. So as well as my plastic containers of food, I carried into work a measuring jug, couscous, stock cube and clean tea towel to keep it covered while steaming.
Recipe for chickpeas and spinach, served with a yoghurt, lemon and garlic dressing
Preparation time: 10 mins
Cooking time: 19 mins
400g tin chickpeas
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tbsp tomato puree
1 400g tin tomatoes
1 tsp sugar
1½tsp ground cumin
100g baby spinach leaves
coriander to garnish
For the dressing:
170g Greek yoghurt
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 lemon, juiced and zest grated
Fry the onion and seeds for eight minutes. Add the tomato puree and cook for one minute. Add tomatoes, sugar and ground cumin and cook for five minutes.
Add the spinach and chickpeas to the tomato sauce and cook for another five minutes.
Put the yoghurt, garlic and lemon into a bowl, and mix together.
Pop into containers. Heat up the sauce at work, and top with roughly chopped coriander before serving.