It’s August. Got someone in the family who needs a shelf-stable lunch? Not to worry; here are some ideas!
CousCous-Salat mit Tomaten (rot&orange), lila Zwiebel, Gurke und glatter Petersilie, Lunchbox, no-plastic
Credit: Getty Images

Whether cooking for yourself, your partner, or your kid, some days you just need a lunch that doesn’t require a refrigerator. Sure, apples and peanut butter and PB&J are standbys for a reason, but here are a few ideas for when you want to be a little more creative

Note: The USDA warns of a food “danger zone,” and USDA technical information specialist Archie Magoulas reminded me that food shouldn’t be left out for two hours or longer (or one hour if it’s a very hot day), and that it should always be kept below 40 degrees or above 140 degrees. If you’re following the rules to the letter, says Magoulas, that any fruits or veggies you have sliced or peeled, which could ferment. Magoulas suggests that you pack a small plastic thermometer (one not containing mercury!) into your lunch bag to ensure that everything is at the correct temperature when you go to eat it.

As you’re reading this piece, know that the following are the chances I personally am comfortable taking—especially with an insulated cold-pack bag!—but that you should do what feels best for you.

Chinese peanut noodles

Cheap, cheerful, and packed with protein, peanut noodles are a delight. For bonus points, throw spicy smashed cucumbers into a second container as a bright foil for the creamy noodles.

French Niçoise salad

Today’s installment of “The French Live Better” stars this knockout salad, featuring olive oil-packed tuna, egg, green beans, potatoes and olives. I often skip egg in favor of shelf-stable, protein-heavy items such as white beans (and if I was being strict, I’d skip the tuna, too, but meh). I make riffs on this salad weekly, folding in kale when I have it, skipping potatoes in favor of a hunk of baguette, et cetera. Salade Niçoise is endlessly flexible.


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; ratatouille can be a godsend for days when you want something more interesting than a ho-hum salad. Packed with summer’s prettiest veggies, it’s delicious. (I tend to flaunt the USDA on this one and tuck a knob of goat cheese and a hunk of bread alongside.)

Snack lunch

So #snackdinner has become a thing, including among MyRecipes editors. And no wonder: It’s endlessly flexible, can contain multitudes, and looks dreamy. Think: olives, roast veggies, spiced chickpeas, fruit, carrots, celery—the list goes on. Just nestle everything together prettily, and even a less adventurous eater will tuck in.

Farro salad

Farro has been having a moment in the sun, and I think its less-perishable aspect contributes to that. It’s beloved by celeb chefs including Hugh Acheson and Giada, and there are plenty of recipes out there both with and without cheese.


If you have a great Italian market near you that makes fresh mozzarella daily and you can snag it before it goes into the fridge, you, friend, are in luck. Conventional wisdom and food science nerds agree that—stringent government regulations aside—you should be OK eating that the day it’s made before it goes into the fridge—a point at which it’s juicy and flavorful. So if you have sliced salted tomatoes, peaches, and fresh basil in a container, and can pick up a hunk of mozz on the way into work, that’s lunch, and you are a genius.

Fresh tomato pasta salad

Pasta salad doesn’t have to contain mayo. Really. Some of its best iterations are cooked noodles plopped hot on top of fresh tomatoes, herbs, shallots, and veggies. Toss with plenty of good olive oil, salt, and pepper, and you’re golden; it tastes just as good at room temperature.


These Indian street snacks, featuring a mix of textures, flavors and sauces, are fantastic. If you make your own vegetarian samosas, you’re most of the way there: Just add chickpeas, a yummy mint chutney, chopped fresh chili, and sev, fried chickpea noodles you can find at an Indian market. This chaat, which eschews samosa in favor of potatoes, is a great shelf-stable recipe.

If none of these ideas appeal, simply picture your favorite lunch dishes, then eliminate the problem players. (I’m looking at you, mayonnaise!)

Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.