I Miss Pret – How Lunch Under Lockdown Became The Worst Meal Of The Day

Illustrated by Assa Ariyoshi
Of all the things I thought I’d miss about normal life, I never imagined it would be a slightly soggy Pret baguette. Despite being a longtime Tupperware devotee, for my entire working-in-an-office life I have relied on the fallback option of a high street sandwich or unnecessarily expensive salad. It was a safety blanket that contained the promise I took for granted: a buffer against going hungry as a result of last night’s laziness, a starchy, fatty balm for a weekday hangover, a treat for getting through a particularly hard week.
But that’s all gone.
And lunch, as a meal, has got really weird now.
Of course there are much bigger problems than lunch in the world right now: problems that are more urgent and threatening and dangerous. But this piece is not about those things; it’s about how a meal that once broke up the day delightfully has become really annoying and I hate it.
The reliability of something delicious and accessible just 'being there' has gone. Having to take care of breakfast and dinner ourselves has always been a given but lunch maintained a question mark over it (unless you're so diligent with your meal prepping that you’ve never called on a Tesco meal deal, in which case congrats, I guess). Whereas before you could lean on the high street – on Pret, on Greggs, on EAT (RIP EAT, which closed for good last month after it was acquired by Pret) – lunch now requires some kind of shopping and planning or, far more likely, making a meze out of whatever is in the fridge. This means things can get weird. An informal survey of friends and coworkers revealed an eclectic range of midday meals: half a tube of Pringles and a bite of an Easter egg. Poached eggs on rice cakes. Lentil soup and a side of green beans. A hunk of cake. A jar of olives and some poppadoms.
Of course, half-arsed smorgasbord lunches are assuming you’re eating at what we’d traditionally call 'lunchtime'. Those of us still working nine-to-five, full time or part time, may retain the customary demarcations that help to structure the day but for many more people, timing has gone completely wonky. Sure, time has always been a construct but without the clear delineation of meals it can feel like it’s collapsed in on itself
Problem three (of many) with lunch now is the repetition. Maybe you’re smart and you did a big batch cook on Sunday. It limits variety sure, but it saves the hassle – that is until you’re on day four of six of your dal and you can’t face it anymore. Where can you turn? Not Itsu anymore, loser! Eat your lentils, they’re all you’ve got.
Then there's the issue that lunch, now the most boring meal of the day, only adds to the constant cycle of washing up that has come to plague lockdown.
But there is hope, friends. It doesn’t have to be this way. 
The bizarre creations we're forced to assemble since being confined to our homes don't have to be a burden – viewed through a different lens, our eclectic midday meals can be redefined as a beautiful opportunity. No one is there to judge your choices; the selection of foodstuffs you mix together is yours and yours alone! Now is the time to experiment, to unleash your creativity in your own kitchen, to try each and every one of your hoard of spices. You might even come up with a life-changing food combination: the new beans and cheese, the new peanut butter and chocolate.
Lunch is now a choose-your-own-adventure. Enjoy the ride.
Here are a few ideas to get you going...

Lunch Classics Revisited

Soup is standard lunchtime fare but it can be made 10 times more exciting with fresh, crispy, crunchy, meaty croutons as in this split pea recipe from Bon Appétit. Likewise sandwiches: brought from home, you risk a soggy, boring meal. But in the comfort of your own kitchen, you can whip up a no-waste potato masala toastie (with a side of potato peel crisps) which has heaps more bite and flavour than a store-bought number or assemble your own smørrebrød (that's open-faced sandwiches to you and me). For a more low-lift option you could batch cook this simple roasted cauli-broc salad with tahini hummus using ready-to-eat ingredients.

Perfect Picky Tea Bits

The beauty of a picky tea is that it can be anything you want it to be: a highbrow antipasti spread or a sea of beige potato smiles and cocktail sausages. A lot of it depends on personal preference (what cheese is your go-to? Do you have a cold cut of choice?) but preparing your own buffet-style bits ahead of time makes it even more of a treat: potato salad, sausage rolls, marinated olives, Scotch eggs, homemade hummus...the world is your picky tea oyster.

Feeling Fancy?

If you're feeling elaborate you can always whack things up a notch. Take the time to make your own aubergine parm sandwich! Assemble a tomato tarte tatin! Have a go at making Thai larb! If you're feeling especially time- and flour-rich, you could even make your own pasta from scratch.

More from Living

R29 Original Series