Food & Drink

29 Chefs on How to Improve Your Sad Office Lunch

Thrillist/Khushbu Shah

Debatably, the most depressing part about having to hold down an office job -- aside from the soul-crushing lack of daily freedom, draconian dress codes, and having to sign birthday cards for people you don't like -- are the pathetic office lunches: bologna sandwiches, reheated pasta, and of course, the deplorable microwaved tuna fish. 

But it doesn't have to be this way. You can, in fact, add a dose of fun to your (probably) miserable day. Lunchtime should be your time, a daily excuse to break free of the shackles of the capitalist hamster wheel, and devour something actually worth eating. We talked to a gaggle of industry professionals and chefs, and asked them how they would approach the daily slog of office lunches. 

Below are full-blown recipes, quick tips to help improve myriad boring office meals, and general opinions on how to make your lunch break a little better. 

Your job might suck, but your lunch doesn't have to. 

Shutterstock/Anna Hoychuk

The second breakfast, via pie

"When I used to have sad lunches at my law firm office, I would always add a little dessert inspiration into my mid-day meal. I am a big fan of the 10am second breakfast. Usually this would include a small hand pie made with a new filling or crust I am testing to get me over the hump until lunch. For lunch, I like to add something new to spice things up. I use new recipes to bring something sweet. I love getting inspiration from what produce is in season at the local farmers market and this often means packing leftover desserts made from fruits from my weekend market trip -- like peaches and nectarines (usually for my peach nectarine pie). I love making a quick preserve that I can spread over fresh bread with mozzarella and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar topped with sea salt. When in doubt, I can always count on a small piece of apple pie to hit the spot after lunch." -- Brianna Abrams, CEO/Founder/Chef (and ex-lawyer), Winston Pies (Los Angeles, California)

The homemade Buddha bowls

"For me the key to improving a sad desk lunch is prep, prep, prep. On Sundays I head to my local market (shout out to Handy Market in Burbank) and pick up root vegetables, greens, and grains to make my very own Buddha Bowls. I choose seasonal, fresh produce and mix up my grains to keep things exciting week to week. Peel, cut, and baste the root veggies. Season with salt and pepper. If you have unique spices and seasoning tucked in your cupboard from traveling, this is the perfect time to bust them out. Then cook your grain -- something like quinoa or wild rice. Chickpeas also work great. Try a dark leafy green like kale or spinach, they are hearty and will last up to two weeks in your fridge. Just mix together and toss with salad dressing of our choice. Chef Tip: Never buy salad dressing! I like olive oil and balsamic with a little mustard, but also love chipotle dressing which is super easy -- just blend chipotle pepper (canned) with vegan mayo, olive oil, and apple cider vinegar -- get a stick blender, it will change your life!" -- Caroline Concha, Chef, Beelman’s (Los Angeles, California)

The "spicy enough to trick your boss"

"Anything spicy can really take your lunch to the next level. By spicy, I mean something that is slightly above one's normal heat tolerance. I like adding heat to all of my dishes, whether it’s the form of fresh chiles or using hot sauce because it makes almost all dishes more interesting. By pushing yourself to eat something spicier than normal, you're more than likely to eat a smaller portion due to the increased burn. Eating large meals can make people sluggish and tired, which I'm sure decreases productivity in an office environment. Also, spicy food causes people to sweat. The benefit of this is that your coworkers and bosses will think you're working really hard at your desk." -- Drew Coleman, Chef, Mohawk Bend (Echo Park, California)

The sandwich sprucer-upper

"If I were to have an office lunch, I would always keep those little mayonnaise bags on-hand or in my desk. That’s one thing you need, as well as some spice. I would bring or buy a sandwich, get BBQ potato chips from the vending machine, open the sandwich, add the chips, add extra mayo, and on some days some extra hot sauce like Sriracha or a strong Dijon mustard." -- Dieter Samijn, Executive Chef, Bar Boulud (New York, New York) 

The protein-based proactivity 

"I see office workers lining up at food trucks and quick serve restaurants all over the city. Let's face it, paying $15-plus for lunch every day is not ideal. It amazes me that more people don't get creative to save money. With a little prep on the weekend, you can have great homemade lunches. For instance, roast a chicken on a Sunday, and simply pull the chicken off the bone and make a mustard chicken salad, add lettuce, tomato, and roll it into a delicious wrap. You can also make a chicken caesar salad. The same goes for short ribs or roast beef -- make a sandwich on a ciabatta roll with horseradish mayo, baby arugula, shaved red onions. The possibilities are endless when you have good proteins and get creative." -- Darryl Harmon, Chef, Slate (New York, New York)

The sandwich, but healthier 

"Skip the bread and remake your favorite sandwich with lettuce as the wrapper. You won’t hate yourself and you won’t fall into a comatose state from carbo-loading at lunch." -- Richard Hanna, Chef and Dean of Students, Institute of Culinary Education (Los Angeles, California)

Shutterstock/ Jacek Chabraszewski

The incredibly hard to mess up caprese salad

"I would say go simple, and prepare foods that are healthier and will keep your energy up. I love caprese salads for lunch. It’s easy to make balsamic dressing and I just drizzle it on tomatoes combined with mozzarella or burrata." -- Andrew Garbarino, Chef and Owner, The Twisted Frenchman (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
 

The fast, simple, and definitely not soggy

"The key to a good office lunch is fast, simple, and something appealing for the eyes. I love a simple arugula salad with a hardboiled egg, Heirloom tomatoes, avocado, some black pepper, salt, and croutons, with lemon and extra virgin olive oil is just as simple as it is delicious. I often pack lunches for my fiancée and love starting with multigrain bread. Just spread it with crunchy almond butter, ricotta cheese, slices of bananas, and voila. The trick for keeping a good sandwich moist and not soggy is to wrap it in parchment paper first and aluminum foil after." -- Michele Lisi, Chef, Nerano (Beverly Hills, California) 

The meal-prepped grain bowl

"I think a lot of people picture 'meal prep' as being something that takes hours and involves complicated recipes and huge batches of things that you're bored with after a couple of days. For me, eating better lunches means spending an hour at the beginning of the week cooking a few base grains, chopping some fresh veggies, and being stocked with delicious condiments (which you can make yourself or buy -- there are some great store bought options)! I always keep my refrigerator stocked with farro, quinoa, orzo, brown rice, spicy greens, canned beans, raw Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, and cauliflower. You can combine those options in a million ways that take almost no time to assemble. The thing that keeps them satisfying is variety of texture and main flavor profiles from the sauces. If I'm craving something healthy when I'm out and about, I end up paying $14-16 for a 'grain bowl' that I could have made myself for like $2 if I had just planned ahead!" -- Molly Martin, Co-Owner, Juniper Green (Nashville, Tennessee)

The Japanese-inspired snack hack 

"Steal a page from the Japanese: Go to H-Mart, Mitsuwa, or your local Asian market for Nori sheets to keep in your drawer for a quick, healthy snack. Purchase bento boxes to prevent items from getting soggy and stash a container of Nori Kome Furikake, my favorite seasoning, in your filing cabinet for elevating take-out soups and rice." -- Louis Eguaras, Lead Chef Instructor, Institute of Culinary Education (Los Angeles, California)

The "in a pinch, just add balsamic"

"I would highly recommend keeping a bottle of balsamic vinegar at your desk. It will definitely increase the taste of anything you’re eating (pasta, rice, salad, etc.). Plus, it’s easy and practical to keep at your office desk. One balsamic vinegar that I highly recommend is Massimo Bottura’s Villa Manodori. Also, if you want to go a little crazy, keep Parmesan cheese in your office fridge as just a little bit will transform your entire meal." -- Simone Falco, Owner & Executive Chef, Rossopomodoro and SIMÒ Pizza (New York, New York)

Shutterstock/ zarzamora

The definitely not boring cheese plate

"No meal should be boring, even if it’s your lunch break. First, ask yourself a few questions about what is realistic for you, then go from there. Do you even like to cook? Do you have time to prep for the week? What foods do you like? How much time do you have for lunch? You obviously want a meal that will satiate you but not bog you down for the remainder of your day. You want something delicious, quick, and not boring, right? Here is my suggestion: Make yourself a meat and cheese plate. Get some great quality salamis and slice them, get some delicious cheeses and cut off a few pieces. Take along a piece of fruit like an apple or a pear in season right now, and a Demi baguette for that full European experience! Try different brands of salamis or charcuterie, get interesting with your selection of cheeses and have fun with it." -- Dan Weiland, Chef, About Last Knife (Chicago, Illinois)

The Parisian escape

"Coming from France, breakfast is usually a 'viennoiseries' or sweet morning pastry like a croissant or Danish, so lunch should be always be savory. Fill a light sandwich or top a green salad with tons of quality and seasonal ingredients to improve any lunch. I also recommend eating meals outside, instead of at a desk, helps you refresh and can transport you to an outdoor café on the streets of Paris, instead of an office!" -- Fabienne Soulies, Co-Founder/Owner, Pitchoun Bakery (Los Angeles, California)

The jealousy-inducing smoked chicken

"If I’m making lunch for work, I’m probably also making dinner at home. I would plan to make a protein for dinner that could easy be utilized for lunch the next day. Like a smoked chicken for dinner and then a smoked chicken salad sandwich or chicken lettuce wrap for lunch, or a nice flat iron steak for dinner and then a steak sandwich for lunch. If I was sitting in a dreary cubicle eating a delicious steak sandwich with chimichurri oven-dried tomatoes and grilled onions, my co-workers would definitely be jealous." -- Arthur Gonzalez, Chef, Roe Seafood and Panxa Cocina (Long Beach, California)

The cold-but-good protein 

"So often our sad office lunches are leftovers from last night’s meal, or we throw together a sad salad or sandwich. My recommendation for spicing up a sad office lunch is to forgo the salad or sandwich and focus on a cold protein, which can seriously improve the meal! Poach some salmon, toss together some cold cucumbers, and add a little dipping sauce -- maybe some vinegar or an aioli -- and make the cold protein the centerpiece rather than an add-on. This works well with other cuts too -- a little cold roasted cold steak, some cold shrimp, or lobster tail works equally as well!" -- Sam Marvin, Owner/Restaurateur, Echo & Rig (Sacramento, California, and Las Vegas, Nevada)

The Sunday-funday approach

"I look at office lunches like I do my kids school lunches. I like to batch out the week on a Sunday morning when I can have fun in my own kitchen with music and coffee. Preparing meals that you can just grab from the fridge over the week instead of rushing to throw something together as you run out the door is a lot easier and ends up being a lot more satisfying. I like to make a few different items and bowl them up so you can just grab and go. A great option is a cold soba noodle salad with a homemade soy ginger sauce and chopped veggies. Lasagna is one of those dishes that make a great Sunday dinner and excellent leftovers throughout the week. Also, roasting a whole chicken is easy and you can enjoy it with different things all week like salad, rice pilaf, or even make a quesadillas out if it." -- Greg Biggers, Executive Chef and Co-Owner, Fort Louise (Nashville, Tennessee)

The "glamour is always good"

"In my previous work life in the fashion industry, it was rare to find people that appreciated food. However, one designer I worked with had such a glamorous approach to her everyday lunch. She would compose her salad using the most beautiful utensils, it was such a sight to watch. She had her shimmery oversized bowl and would elegantly eat her salad with mother of pearl chopsticks. You felt so at home in her office, it was an escape from work and that’s really how lunch should feel -- it should feel like an indulgent escape." -- Glenda Galvan-Garcia, Executive Chef, Granville (Los Angeles, California)

The salad-enhancer (featuring Ritz Crackers!)

"For a little salt and crunch, keep Ritz Crackers in your desk. They can act as croutons to shake up a boring salad, you can use them for dipping, and they can add texture to soups. And a great way to make your own exciting salad dressing is to keep mustard and mayo on hand. You can use them as a base for salad dressings. Once you have created your base, you can add ingredients other desk pantry ingredients like honey, oil, vinegar, or spices to create an easy homemade salad dressing." -- Michael Garrett, Chef/Instructor, Institute of Culinary Education (Los Angeles, California) 

Thrillist/Khushbu Shah

The upgraded ramen, part 1

"Spruce up those instant ramen noodles you’re microwaving by adding a chopped hardboiled egg and some chopped, fresh chives. No one will know it came from a packet and you’ll add some protein to your diet." -- Lachlan Sands, President & Chef, Institute of Culinary Education (Los Angeles, California) 

The upgraded ramen, part 2

"Upgrade from a boring ramen package to a heartier, healthier option by adding extra stuff, like grilled chicken breast and vegetables. Start with the vegetables you have at home -- take Brussels sprouts (chopped fine), add onion, garlic, some tomatoes -- whatever you have on hand -- and put it all in a container. Then, throw everything in a bowl at work and cook the vegetables with the water when you're making the ramen. Once it’s done, put your grilled chicken on top. You can add extra water to make it soupier, and even bring some chopsticks from home. This is a great, cost-effective way to use your vegetables instead of throwing them out. You can even use frozen vegetable medley if you don’t have any fresh vegetables on hand." -- Lior Hillel, Executive Chef, Bacaro (Los Angeles, California)

The "adult Lunchables"

"The key to not having to eat sad office lunch is to make sure whatever it is that you are eating is different. Variety is the spice of life as they say. Packing a lunch doesn't mean it has to be a mushy ham sandwich and fruit or a PB&J with a bag of Cheetos. Not to say a sandwich can't be great, choose a quality bread with great protein and some flavorful accompaniments to pack into it. Or make an upscale adult version of the old Lunchables with some great sliced meats, a few pieces of cheese, and a good mix of crackers. Food today has come so far in terms of the amount of available ingredients and the quality of what a normal grocery store consumer is able to buy. Keep it simple while preparing and packing up lunch, give yourself just enough to make it through the day and save the time and effort for making a great dinner to share and enjoy later in the evening!" -- Geoff Baumberger, Chef, Ocean Prime (Beverly Hills, California)

The seasonings for every season

"Keep spice blends, like Trader Joe’s Everything Bagel or the Japanese spice Furikake, in your desk. These can make a world of difference when trying to elevate your sad desk salad." -- Frank Proto, Chef/Instructor, Institute of Culinary Education (Los Angeles, California) 

The domination via mason jar... among other things

"If I worked in a dreary office I would attempt to dominate the office kitchen. Besides the normal signage of 'don’t touch' and 'Claire’s only!!!',  I would engineer some fun and easy ways to let my colleagues know who’s boss in the office kitchen. I like fresh and mostly natural food because of health and wellness of course. Whether you bring your own or get it delivered, having a clutch house salad dressing is critical! The first tip is making a mason jar salad dressing, where I take a large mason jar, one large enough to hold two large conjoined twin monitor lizards on a junior high biology class shelf, and fill that jar with delicious things instead. To make it, and always have something ready to take your take out or chopped veggies to the next level, you want to add a little chopped onion. A few halves of cherry tomatoes, a squirt of yellow mustard (a packet from a fast food joint out will do), some herbs of your choosing. I like a little tarragon and parsley but you can use basil or cilantro, a clove of garlic chopped, and a toothbrush's worth of anchovy paste. By the way, replacing someone’s toothpaste with anchovy paste I do NOT recommend as an office prank. Add a few shot glasses of your favorite vinegar (you can find shot glasses at Barry’s desk, he collects them!) and a half a cup of good, but not great, olive oil. Great olive oil can be bitter. A drop of honey or agave nectar and a slice or two of jalapeño isn’t a bad idea either." -- Richard Blais, Chef, The Crack Shack (Los Angeles, California)

The poor man's banh mi

"Start with frying up a can of Spam, and adding it to a baguette. Then I recommend adding leftover lunch meat if applicable, and fried egg for extra flavor. I keep four main condiments in his kitchen at all times: Sriracha, sambal, fish sauce, and kimchi, and I'll load the banh mi with all these ingredients. For added tang, add your favorite kimchi. To top it all off, add cilantro. The result will be a lunchmeat sandwich packed with zippy flavors and delicious seasonings." -- David Choi, Chef, Seoul Taco (Chicago, Illinois)

The "don't be afraid to get a little fancy"

"The easiest way to improve your sad desk lunch: Add some high-quality ingredients. Your salad, bowl, or sandwich doesn’t have to be filled with all expensive produce, cheeses, and meats, but compensate with one or two 'fancy' staples to always keep in your fridge. Go for a really creamy mozzarella, a house-made baguette, locally caught fish, or even some fresh herbs to make the homemade tastes like it came from a restaurant." -- Mark Peele, Chef, Prawn Coastal (Los Angeles, California)

SHUTTERSTOCK/GEORGE DOLGIKH

The "what the hell, let's make grilled cheese"

"Someone in the office needs to have a chef’s phone number on hand for personal deliveries, but if they don’t, get an induction burner so you can make great grilled cheeses in the office.” -- Ed MacFarland, Chef/Owner, Ed’s Lobster Bar (New York, New York)

The pot luck... with shrimp tostadas 

“I would like to create a community environment, where each employee can contribute to a potluck-style lunch, making their time a more inclusive and exciting experience during a hard earned mid-day break. For instance, our team could create corn tostadas seasoned with za'atar. As a protein, we could prepare a chopped jumbo shrimp with diced avocado and roasted garlic black bean puree -- which can serve as a bean dip or a gluten-free bowl. Then, add a fresh slaw made of red cabbage, jicama, red onion, sliced serrano chiles, and a lemon mayo. To add a kick, top it off with a tomatillo and birds-eyed chile salsa and finish with a corn and peas Spanish rice.” -- Jose Guerrero, Executive Chef, Viewhouse (Multiple Locations, Colorado)

The crunch-i-fy, tang-i-fy, and choc-o-fy

"I’m a big fan of a lunch-style bento box which allows a variety of bites that stay in their own cozy compartments -- small bites of yesterday’s dinner help relieve basic lunch fatigue. Having a bunch of cooked meats and veggies allows me to play off contrasting flavors and textures. Crunch-a-fication (might not be a word but it should be) is an important element to all salads and sandwiches. We can never be proud to unleash our inner child and throw some chips into any sandwich to add that crunch factor! Throw in a little zing of a pickle or tang (no, not the orange drink) is another important essential that tantalizes the tongue and takes you away from the ordinary. This can be brought in the form of a balsamic glaze, hot sauce, or Tajin and can be added to any protein, vegetable, or fruits. Finally, always pack a small treat. A little piece of dark chocolate at the end of your meal leaves you with that luxurious feeling even though you just ate a bologna sandwich on white bread with yellow mustard and mayo-type spread." -- Marc Dix, Food and Beverage Manager, Granville (Los Angeles)

The cold noodles, hot idea 

One great option is a chilled soba noodle salad because it doesn't have to be reheated. All you have to do is pre-cook the night before. Pick out any Asian dressing, and get a box full of cut and prepared vegetables to mix in.” -- Andrew Garbarino, Chef/Owner, The Twisted Frenchman (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) 

The "anything but microwaved fish"

“If I worked in an office, I would avoid all traditional options, grab a ball of fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and some fresh basil -- top with a little salt, pepper, and extra virgin olive oil, and enjoy. Avoid microwaved fish at all costs, your coworkers will appreciate it.” -- Dave Anoia, Chef/Owner, DiAnoia’s Eatery (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)

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Wil Fulton is a staff writer at Thrillist and a passionate doer of other stuff. For more info, you'll have to do a free background check.