Dinosaur nuggets and juice boxes: To make lunch fun again

When I started working from home, I had big plans for lunch. I was no longer limited by what would fit in the Lisa Frank thermos that I had managed to keep since middle school! I would have a full kitchen and all its contents at hand. I would surely make a habit of concocting lunchtime meals that were at least interesting, if not extravagant, by comparison.

But like most people who work from home do, I quickly discovered that in the face of back-to-back Zoom calls and deadlines, lunch — intriguing or not — was the first thing to get thrown off the to-do list.

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Suddenly the pandemic hit and a switch seemingly flipped. I realized that small moments of self-care, however infinitesimal, were going to be the key to staying sane and healthy. My inner Southern grandmother would make an appearance around one o’clock every afternoon as I quietly whispered to myself, “Honey, you need to eat.”

One of the ways I encourage this habit is to simply follow a formula. I have already written about this. Most of the time, my plates consist of a quick-cooking carb, like canned beans, instant rice, or toast; a simple protein, such as chickpeas, edamame, eggs or tofu; and a little fat, which is most often avocado, nut butter, or a drizzle of olive oil.

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However, on days when I need a little extra dopamine hit, I have another little secret. I cook lunch for my inner child.

I know that sounds complacent – and it kinda is – but let me explain. About two months into the initial pandemic lockdown, I was placing a grocery order. I had already selected my kitchen staples – the boring adult stuff like canned beans, chicken thighs and oat milk – but something made me take a look at the chicken tender selection, one of my longtime comfort foods.

My cursor hovered over a bag of dinosaur-shaped nuggets, and I let out a chuckle. I hadn’t had one since I was probably in middle school, or around the same time I wore that Lisa Frank thermos. Suddenly I realized, “Oh, I can buy them for myself. No one stops me.”

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The next day, lunch rolled around and I happily poured 1/4 of the bag onto a baking sheet alongside broccolini coated in olive oil in the name of “balance”. I didn’t have pre-mixed honey mustard on hand, but I did have agave, grainy brown mustard, and a whisk. The whole meal was a delight.

Since then, I’ve picked up other longtime favorites from my childhood. While some (notably Welch’s juice boxes) don’t hold up, most do. On days when I feel like lunch is a burden, I have Annie’s shells and white cheddar in my pantry, pre-chopped fruit salad in the crisper, and pudding chocolate in the refrigerator. Combined with some of my other kitchen staples, having these items on hand has made lunchtime fun again.

On really bad days, there are always dino nuggets in the freezer.

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