You know what sucks?
A soggy salad. A soggy salad sucks. It just plain sucks when you take the time to pack yourself a nutritious, veggie-loaded salad to take out into the world for lunch… and by the time you sit down to eat it, the vibrant garden of vitamins and protein that you took minutes out of your life and got lemon juice in your paper cut to make, the salad that was supposed to fuel you through the rest of your day (a day that was supposed to be awesome but has likely now turned to sh*t), is wilty and pathetic and awful. This moment of utter suckage is demoralizing and makes you never want to bother being a responsible adult ever again because it’s useless, and never works out, and there’s an Arby’s right down the street from the office anyway, and you DO NOT need anymore disappointment in your life this week. But maybe you should just accept that life is full of disappointment and no matter how hard you try, gulping down a pathetic mush salad huddled over your desk is going to be a part of your routine that you will eventually learn to live with. You look around and see plenty of other people doing it, they’re surviving, maybe you should just drink the Kool-Aid…
Well, to that I say–do not drink the Kool-Aid, do not accept lackluster soggy sh*t as a part of your daily reality. It doesn’t have to be like this. You deserve more. And you can pack a salad for lunch and it doesn’t have to suck–no fancy equipment required. It all comes down to proper layering–that’s all. Stick with me, and you’re biggest challenge to enjoying a nourishing salad that’s as enjoyable and not-sucky as if you’d made and immediately ate it fresh at home will be convincing yourself, when the moment to pack lunch comes, that Arby’s is not the better lunch solution. Friends, only time can undo that instinct.
Anyway, the first step to packing a good, durable salad is getting yourself a wide and deep rectangular plastic container–it doesn’t need to be stylish or hip (mine is Glad brand, I got it at Target), it just needs to look like it’s way larger than what you actually need it for. One thing to note about this packing method is that it was developed in the spirit of efficiency–this is your entire lunch salad, packed–with quality preservation top of mind–in a single container. I really hate having to mess around with numerous containers of various shape and size for my packed lunch. Which is why I say, all you need for this is your single big plastic rectangular container. And then, we layer. I’m going to start with the bottom layer as layer 1 since that will be the first thing you put into the container.
Layer 1: Dressing and Hearty Veggies
The first thing you need to pack into your large plastic box is your less-delicate veggies–things like quartered raw radishes, thinly sliced red onion, broccoli florets, and carrots–and your dressing of choice. Yes, I know that typically you would drizzle your dressing over the top of your salad, but I am telling you it needs to go on the very bottom of the container for a few reasons:
- If you were to drizzle the dressing over top of your packed salad, then put it in a fridge for 4 or 5 hours before eating it… you just bought a one way ticket to sog city. That’s why it’s often recommended that you pack your dressing in a separate small container.
- Ain’t nobody got time or patience to deal with a “separate small container” for a tablespoon of salad dressing. Or at least, I don’t. I can barely keep up with myself, I can’t keep up with some specialty little plastic tub for my salad dressing (especially not in the context of the jungle that is our shared office fridge). Putting your dressing on the bottom with the hearty veggies allows you to skip packing–and later, cleaning–another container.
- Those heartier veggies will block your dressing from touching up on the higher levels of delicate veggies that don’t need to come into contact with dressing until it’s time for lunch. The heartier veggies aren’t harmed by the dressing–they benefit from it. Allowing components like broccoli and onion to sit and marinate for a few hours softens them up a bit and tames some harsh flavor notes.
Now here’s the thing, packing your lunch this way requires you to have a rough estimate of how much dressing you’ll need–but you can make that estimate, I believe in you. Typically, if I haven’t made a bottle of simple vinaigrette for the week, I’ll just arrange my hearty vegetables in a single layer, then drizzle them with olive oil, a little rice or red wine vinegar and/or a squeeze of lemon juice, and maybe some grated fresh garlic, then give the veggie a little toss in it so they’re lightly coated and the excess dressing settles beneath them at the bottom of the container. Once you refrigerate your salad and the fat solidifies a bit, it will stay put until you pull it out for lunch. This is also a good layer to go ahead and sprinkle salt and pepper over.
Layer 2: Protein
On top of those lightly coated vegetables is where you’ll want to place your main protein source of choice. Arrange items like torn leftover chicken, sliced hard boiled egg, sliced steak, and/or whatever else you might like for protein in your entree salad to create a layer over the hearty veggie base. If your protein encounters some dressing from its neighbors below, it’s no biggie. What’s important is that the protein layer serves as a nice, solid platform for your salad greens.
Layer 3: Salad Greens and Delicate Veggies
First, lay down any moist and tender veggies you want to include on top of the protein layer–ingredients like cucumber and tomato. My preference is to seed any tomato that is going into a salad, but it’s not entirely necessary if you don’t mind that bit of extra liquid. Next, gently layer on your salad greens–spinach, chopped romaine, arugula, whatever. What’s important here is that the greens are placed towards the top of the tower, without all of those heavier, heartier components stacked below weighing them down. When your delicate greens aren’t singled out and protected, wilt happens.
Layer 4: A Folded Paper Towel
This might seem like a rather anticlimactic layer, but I swear, it’s important. This acts a moisture barrier for the top and final layer. And in the spirit of efficiency, you can also use this as your lunch napkin. A layer of parchment or wax paper would also work for the purposes of creating this protective layer (but less so on the lunch napkin front).
Layer 5: Crunch
On top of your paper layer is where you can place a final sprinkling of chopped toasted walnuts (or whatever nut) and/or croutons. If you’re hyper-concerned about this layer’s well-being, you can place them in a small plastic zip-top baggy before packing them, but I have not found that to be necessary. My crunch is always still crunchy by lunchtime.
And when it’s time for lunch, all that’s left to do is remove the paper layer, dumping your crunch into the container or holding it to place on top (whatever you prefer), reseal the lid, give everything a good shake, shake, shake to mix it all up, and you’re ready to enjoy a not-sucky salad.
*Pro-tip: I’d recommend pulling your salad from the fridge about 5 minutes before you plan to eat it so that the dressing can start to loosen up. The shaking action will take care of the rest.