I Stopped Packing The Same Lunch I've Eaten My Whole Life

Confession time: I have eaten the same thing for lunch for almost my entire life. Every day, I unpack a lunchbox filled with the same three items: a turkey sandwich, with mayonnaise and cheddar cheese on whole wheat bread; Cheez-Its; and carrot sticks. The habit took shape when I first started attending school. My mom, a mother of three, who was also in school herself, had little time to get creative with what she put in my lunchbox but was also unwilling to buy the easy, more unhealthy options like Lunchables or Uncrustables. Back then, I mostly didn't notice the monotony of my daily lunches and was more focused on meticulously picking the nuts and seeds out of the nine-grain, whole wheat bread she insisted on packing. I was, at times, jealous of the Gushers and white bread my friends brought, but I was mostly content with Cheez-Its, my one escape into junk food heaven.

When I went on to Middle and High School, our lunch money was built-in to my school tuition, which meant pizza every day, Sister Schubert Rolls, dill pickles from the salad bar — we used to get a bowl of them for the table — and piles upon piles of undercooked chocolate chip cookies. I was living in a sea of options.

My college years brought a rude slap in the face from that bitch we call reality. I was kind of on my own, so I had to rely on myself to come up with meal ideas. Faster than I could have possibly imagined, I reverted back to my mom's go-to three component packed lunch, which I ate every single afternoon for four long years. During this time, my mom also started regularly sending me care packages that included Duke's Mayonnaise, a practice that continues to this day. This mayo brand is hard to find outside of the South, and trust me when I say it's vital to making an amazing sandwich — or chocolate cake.
Post-grad, I continued my packed lunch streak and started bringing my monogrammed lunchbox — when you're from the South, every gift you receive has to have your damn initials on it — always with the same three things to my job. Co-workers quickly took notice. I felt like I was constantly answering the question of "Don't you get sick of eating that every day?" The truth is, no. As much as I love food and going out to try new dishes, I've never felt like my boxed lunch was boring. I definitely owe my devotion to this meal to the Duke's Mayonnaise, which I might say is my favorite food, if it wasn't for the fact that it's technically only a condiment.
Also, I think it's physically impossible to grow tired of Cheez-Its, the ideal snack food. What I did get sick of, though, was fielding judgment and questions from others. Every time I open my lunchbox at work, I revert back to feeling like an awkward ten-year-old, except now I'm a grown woman, surrounded by other grown women with their expertly prepared meals. As far as lunch habits go, my reliance on the same packed meal doesn't seem so bad. I could be blowing money on a different delivery every day, but instead, I spend a little less than $3.00 a day on these homemade lunches. Still, I decided a change might be good for me, or at the very least, it would help me feel like I was making an effort to grow up so I challenged myself to eat a different lunch every day for two weeks.

Day 1:
I strategically started my lunch switch-up experiment on a day when work was providing me a free meal. I figured it would be a good way to ease myself into this colossal change. Lucky for me, the office chose Dos Toros, New York's local version of Chipotle, so I put together a lovely and enormous steak burrito bowl. As I usually favor full-on burritos when I hit up these types of joints, the bowl was a slight departure for me. These two weeks were all about breaking out of my routine, so I slapped some lettuce in the cardboard bowl and left the tortillas untouched.

Day 2:
The second day was another day of work-provided lunch, and this time it was paninis. I chose a tuna salad sandwich because no matter how awful you may think it smells, I can't get enough of the stuff. I was happy with my choice and began to mentally prepare for the next day when I would have to fend for myself, sans turkey sandwich or company provided lunches.

Day 3:
Since I'm absolutely useless in the mornings, I always make a point to prepare my lunches the night before. Spreading mayo on two slices of bread and placing baby carrots into a Tupperware may take minimal effort, but I'm not up to it when I wake up for work. So, on the evening before my first real day of packing a completely unique lunch, I sat in my living room wracking my brain, trying to figure out what the hell I was going to eat the following day. I took the easy way out and put together a salad. A note about me: I absolutely despise salads because they're boring and stupid and totally dull, but I constantly use them a default meal because they're easy to throw together, and I know they're good for me. I do know that there is one way to make a dumb pile of leaves mildly less lame, and that's to add cheese. So, on day three, I unpacked a container of veggies and liberally sprinkled on the feta. As I forced the spinach down, my deskmate looked over and commented, "Ooh, that looks good." Victory!

Day 4:
For day four, I made my own tuna salad at home. It occurred to me that this might qualify as cheating since I had eaten that tuna sandwich just two days prior, but this time I was making it myself and eating it straight with a fork, so that was different enough, right? Give me a break, I really needed my mayonnaise fix. I ate this meal alone in the break area at work so not to disturb others with the tuna smell. I also packed it in a Hello Kitty container, which in retrospect was clearly my way of desperately clinging to the familiar through this whole new adventure.

Day 5:
Thursday night, I got home from work worried I wasn't going to be able to take on tomorrow, next week, or even that night's dinner. I had hit a wall and was all cooked out, and it wasn't lost on me that I had only had to come up with lunch two of the four previous days. I was also acutely aware that "cooked out" wasn't the right term since I had yet to turn on the stove or oven. I opened the painfully empty cupboard and found an Amy's lentil vegetable soup can I had purchased the weekend I moved into my apartment several months ago. I heated that up, ate half for dinner, then poured the rest in a container and packed it in my lunchbox. After eating that sad serving of soup the next afternoon, I realized I needed some major help getting through the next week. It was a Friday, I had no evening plans, so I told myself, "Girl, you've got to get your ass to Trader Joe's." The grocery store had saved me before, and once again, it turned out to be just what I needed for inspiration and motivation.

Day 6:
That weekend, I did what I always hear sophisticated working women talk about, devoting Sunday to putting together a few nice meals that they then enjoy throughout the week. My version of this was to devote my Sunday to trying to make one decent meal that I could eat for one lunch during the following work week. I stressed over an extremely simple meal, which is embarrassing to admit, but at least it turned out to be worth it. A pot of brown rice, a pot of black beans, sautéed kale, and grilled sweet Italian sausage. I packed it for Tuesday — Monday was conveniently a holiday — and this was a lunch I was actually proud to eat in front of my coworkers.

Day 7, 8, and 9:
Spoiler alert: that one meal was the peek of this entire two-week experiment. After that, I brought Trader Joe's frozen chicken stir fry —yum — and the next day, I duplicated that salad from the week before. The most shameful part of my challenge came on the final day when I didn't pack anything and lived off the office candy drawer and work-provided snacks like string cheese and black bean chips.

So, you might be thinking, she failed miserably. But, I actually think I did a great job. You know how I know? After the challenge was complete, I went to the store for my weekly groceries, and my list had a few changes. I picked up whole wheat pita bread instead of a loaf, got Nut Thins in place of Cheez-Its, and picked out a few different soups. They may seem like minor changes, but they're significant to me, and made me feel wildly adventurous. I've also been taking more frequent trips to the supermarket instead of solely relying on buying all my food at the convenience store that's less than 100 steps from my front door. Seeing more options allows me to imagine a greater variety of meal ideas. It also helps to know, that when my imagination fails or I'm feeling too lazy to turn on the stove, I've always got that trusty turkey sandwich to fall back on.
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