I'm a big lunch fan. I love lunch. When it's a long morning, especially one with too many meetings, I get through by thinking about lunch. And in the afternoon I get through by thinking about what I'll have tomorrow. I rank it right alongside breakfast and dinner as my very favorite meals of the day.
Being a figuratively big lunch fan will gradually make you a literally big lunch fan, so some years ago I decided to start bringing my lunch in to work. I failed within weeks. The reason is simple: no turkey sandwich on wheat bread in the world can possibly stand a chance if pitted against a big plate of takeout General Tso's. Not when you're hungry, and especially not when you have other stuff on your mind. I failed again and again, not realizing some simple truths about myself and how I make choices and what I could do about it. Once I did, I became very successful at it, and so I thought I would share my findings and maybe they will help someone else.
The most important thing to remember is this: the lunch you bring has to be better than your other options, or you will leave it in the fridge. This is probably pretty obvious, but ultimately gets to the heart of the entire business. If, for you, a turkey sandwich can't compete against General Tso's, then bringing in that sandwich is setting yourself up to fail. So, there are two ways to resolve the problem: either find a way to exclude all those other delicious, convenient options, or make your lunch better. The first way is doomed to fail, because we can rationalize anything when we are hungry. The second way, however, is actually pretty easy, and to illustrate, here are the strategies I've found helpful in doing just that.
So, if you just bring a ham sandwich or something then you will find before long that this is boring, and at some point it will fail to compete. A ham sandwich with chips, a pickle, some tomato soup, and some grapes sounds a lot better to me, so that's what I started doing. One way to handle this is with tons of little bags, but by far the easiest way is with a lunchbox of some kind. There are probably hundreds out there, so that can be overwhelming, but you can start with a medium-sized tupperware container and some of those little paper muffin cups that you can use to separate things. Once you get the hang of it you can look for a good lunch box. I primarily use the Monbento Original, the Zojirushi Mr. Bento, and a little cube-shaped sandwich container by Sistema.
Really this is the key of the whole thing for me. Honestly, a ham sandwich doesn't do it for me anyway, but PB&J does. As does chicken paprikash, or jerk chicken, or even General Tso's. The trick is to make the amount of that thing fairly small. Let's say you really like chicken tikka masala, because you're sane--but as you know, that stuff is basically poison. So just get a normal quart order of it, and make tons of lunches out of that one order. In general, just make sure that for each lunch you pack you put something awesome into one of your little muffin cups. That way, when deciding between what you brought and what you can buy, you already know you have an ace in the hole.
One of the main reasons people want to bring their lunch is that they can pack a healthier lunch. Then, if they're like me, they overdo it, and put in a bunch of crap that doesn't interest them at all. Sliced raw veggies with hummus can be a great snack, for example, but only if you actually like sliced raw veggies, specifically the ones you brought, and hummus. If you hate vegetables and basically only eat carrot sticks, then you will bring carrot sticks. If you don't particularly care for apples, don't bring an apple. Cherries are delicious, and a little more expensive than apples, but if you like them better and will look forward to eating them, then buy them. If you like olives and stuff like that, go to the olive bar at the grocery store and get a container of different things and use those.
I discovered that something should always be different between yesterday's lunch and today's, or I won't want it. This can be a different main bite, or a different side, or even a different dressing or dip, but something has to change. I kind of went overboard with this, and I bought silicone baking cups to replace the paper ones. This way I can freeze individual portions of my main bite and, once they're frozen, take them out of the cups and put them in a freezer bag. Any given morning I can go through my collection and pick something good, keeping it different every day. If you don't want to go that far, buy a couple different salad dressings to dip things in, and get smaller amounts of a wider variety of fruits or vegetables to work as sides.
For me this was the last piece I needed--if I had something last night, I don't want it today for lunch, unless it was really amazing, so I now make entire dishes and sides only for lunch. That's when I really got into the silicone cups, because I could make a big batch of something and have it available throughout the next two months with almost no waste, and after a couple of weeks I didn't really have to do much to keep adding to my stash of food. My wife doesn't like spicy things, so I tend to cook spicy things for my lunches, giving me added incentive to eat what I brought. It also gets me more invested in the lunch I brought, because I put work into it and don't want it to go to waste. On Sundays I pick some things at the grocery store that I want just for my lunch and make some sides, which can be as easy as putting together a fruit salad, cutting carrots into sticks, or cooking a frozen vegetable dish from Trader Joe's and putting it into Tupperware. Then maybe I'll make one entree and freeze it into portions if I'm feeling inspired.
This is where I might go a little overboard, but it's worth noting that even just using a sectioned lunchbox you like will go a long way toward making a good-looking lunch. Having little sections of things gives you the opportunity to be creative a bit and make a visually pleasing presentation, which is a cheap and actually fairly easy way to increase the value of the lunch and make you more likely to choose it over takeout.
It's important not to try too hard at first to make some crazy healthy, visually stunning lunch every day because that will fail and take up too much time and you won't have done it enough for the time to be worth it yet. It also took me some time to get down to having my main dish be as small as it is, because that's just a totally different way of eating for me. So that was gradual. It's also important to realize that a sandwich is fine, it doesn't have to always be some big blowout, but there should be something of value with it--a cookie, maybe, or a pudding cup from your kids' stash--that will help make it a better option than it would be by itself.
The point of all this is to try to make a nice lunch, so that you'd pick it over other options. That's all. If some of this might work for you, that's great! Otherwise, I guess you have to find your own thing. Or some of each. If you wind up bringing in your lunch from now on, it doesn't really matter how you do it.