3 Ways to Upgrade Your Homemade Lunches If You Miss Eating Out

It's a longstanding mystery and an absolute truth: Food prepared by someone who is not you tastes better. Since there's a good chance your homemade plate of greens isn't measuring up to the made-to-order salad you'd rather be lunching on, we took a stab at solving that mystery for you—and finding a way around it.

Sure, your kitchen might not resemble that of a Michelin-star restaurant, but recreating the fast-casual vibes of your favorite lunch spot doesn’t require any fancy gadgets or professional culinary skills. To get you started, we asked chef Carla Contreras to share some tricks she's used to level-up her at-home lunches.

"This is when it’s important to be patient with yourself. Food doesn’t have to be complicated."

"It can be incredibly stressful for people to cook and eat every single meal at home, especially if they’re not used to it," says Contreras, who also founded the online cooking school Cook+Chop. "This is when it’s important to be patient with yourself. Food doesn’t have to be complicated."

One of her go-to ways to simplify a week of cooking? "I roast a few veggies, make a pot of grains and a few proteins (like hard-boiled eggs, roasted chicken, or beans), and wash some leafy greens," Contreras says.

To put an extra nutritious twist on her basic formula, keep Manitoba Harvest Hemp Hearts on hand for a delicious dose of protein (or what Contreras calls "plant-based protein powerhouses"), and continue reading for more chef-approved ways of making your at-home lunches worthy of a pro chef kiss.

Keep reading for chef-approved ways to level up your at-home lunches.

at-home lunches

1. Add nutritious ingredients with interesting flavors

One of the mysterious reasons restaurant food tastes so good? Chefs study flavor combining. But luckily, you don't need to become a trained chef by lunchtime. Simply being mindful of salt, acid, and umami can elevate your at-home lunches, Contreras says.

She turns to pink Himalayan salt as her primary salt source, uses vinegars or citrus to add a pop of acid, and adds umami-rich ingredients like soy sauce, Parmesan cheese, and nutritional yeast for depth. "Umami roughly translates into “deliciousness” in Japanese," Contreras says, and who doesn't want more deliciousness on their plate?

"Umami roughly translates into “deliciousness” in Japanese," Contreras says, and who doesn't want more deliciousness on their plate?

Manitoba Harvest Hemp Hearts fall into the umami category, and are a nourishing topping for almost any meal. "They have 10 grams of protein and 12 grams of omega-3s and -6s per 30-gram serving," Contreras says. "They contain twice the amount of protein compared to flax or chia seeds, and they are also lower in carbohydrates for those following a keto lifestyle."

For breakfast, Contreras adds hemp hearts to her smoothie or oatmeal, and they’re even more versatile at lunchtime. "I love adding hemp hearts to my grain bowls, salads, and on top of roasted veggies to give them a pop of texture, a slightly nutty flavor, and extra plant-based protein," she says. The chef has spoken.

2. Use tech to connect

Do you find yourself working or scrolling through your phone during lunch, and not even paying attention to the meal you just ate? (Same.) As much as it might pain you to do it, try to put down your devices and be in the moment with your food. "We talk about putting technology outside of the bedroom because it disturbs our sleep, but what about our technology in the kitchen?" Contreras says.

Or, rather than relying on your friends' feeds to get you through at-home lunches, schedule group Zoom calls so you can eat and chat with your work wives without missing a beat. This way you're interacting face-to-face (ish), and decreasing your I'm-just-bored screen time—all while filling up on nutritious bites.

at-home lunches

3. Take time to plate your food + set the table

When's the last time you actually set out a placemat, arranged your fork and knife neatly next to your plate, and used a cloth napkin over a paper towel? If it’s been a minute, test out how taking the time to set the table (yes, even if it’s a table for one) can make your lunch break a more rejuvenating part of your day.

"Use your plates, napkins, utensils, placemats, tablecloths, and candles (even the 'good' olive oil)," Contreras says. "You’re 100 percent worth washing a few dishes, and it beats eating out of a to-go container standing over your countertop every single time." (Are there cameras in our kitchen or...?)

While you’re probably never going to confuse your kitchen for your fave restaurant, these small changes can make lunchtime a highlight of your day. Oh, and once we’re back to buying salads, who says we can’t keep sprinkling hemp hearts on top, stepping away from our screens, and using a real plate?

Sponsored by Manitoba Harvest

Top photo: IVAN GENER/Stocksy

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