How to create a 'desk pantry' for easy and healthy last-minute lunches

Pressed for time, but want to save money and eat better at work? Become a pro at desk side dining with these dietitian-approved office drawer staples.
Image: Rice Cake
Rice cakes are a great base for a number of open-faced sandwiches from peanut butter and fruit to tuna and salmon. Jjacob / Getty Images/iStockphoto
By Samantha Cassetty, RD

Our editors have independently selected the items featured in this article because we think they’re worth knowing about. NBC News has affiliate relationships so we may get a small share of the revenue if you buy something through our links.

You know those days when you just don’t have time to dash to Chipotle between meetings? If your calendar is blocked out for the foreseeable future, a desk pantry can help keep you nourished, fight distracting hunger, and give you the energy and focus you need to get all the stuff done! To create an ideal desk pantry for lunching and munching, you need to keep some of the basics of a balanced meal on hand. Ideally, you’ll have fruits and veggies, a few protein picks, plant-based fats, and whole grains. If desk-side dining means skimping on the fresh produce, make sure to double down at other meals since fruits and vegetables provide the vitamins, minerals, and protective substances to keep your brain sharp. Here are some staples to stash in your desk drawer as well as some ways to create mini-meals, or even just liven up your drab cafeteria salad.

Whole grains

Proteins

Produce

Plant-based fats

Get the better newsletter.

Mini Meals

Most of your desk drawer staples can serve as mini meals or snacks, depending on what’s called for. However, grazing isn’t advised; studies link over-snacking with trouble managing your weight, and on top of that, it’s hard to get your hunger under control if you aren’t filling your belly with an ample serving of food. A desk-side mini-meal is a more substantial way to curb hunger and limit an all-day snacking session.

Now it’s time to get creative with desk-side dining by combining foods from the different categories. Here are some examples to get you going:

  • Rice cakes + roasted seaweed + canned tuna + olives. Use the rice cakes as a canvas for the roasted seaweed and tuna and serve with a side of olives. Or mix the olives with the tuna before you top the rice cake.
  • Soup + crackers + pumpkin seeds + dried fruit. Add some crunch and flavor to your soup by topping it with the pumpkin seeds. Serve with a couple of crackers and have the dried fruit to finish off the meal.
  • Popcorn + roasted chickpeas + dried fruit + nuts. Instead of grazing through your day, make a snack platter or trail mix bowl with these hearty ingredients. Having the combo at one sitting will be much more satisfying compared to spreading your intake out throughout the day. If you’re snack-sizing it for in-between meal times, drop either the roasted chickpeas or the nuts.
  • Oatmeal + protein powder + fresh fruit + nut butter. Oatmeal on its own doesn’t have enough protein—the macronutrient that helps curb hunger and preserve muscle tissue (which helps keeps your metabolism humming along). Unsweetened almond protein powder takes care of that and makes this a more filling dish. You can also use this desk drawer ingredient to make your soups more substantial; it’ll make your soup look creamier, but you won’t really notice any difference in taste.
  • Rice cakes + canned salmon + avocado + dried veggies. Here’s a twist on toast Tuesday: Use the rice cake as the base for mashed avocado and canned salmon and have the dried veggies on the side. Or use an avocado half as a boat to serve the canned salmon, and then enjoy the rice cakes and dried veggies on the side.
  • Salad greens + tuna + olives + crackers. You can skip the dried produce if you start with a fresh base, like salad greens from home, the office cafeteria, or a nearby eatery. If you brought a full salad from home (say, with protein, like chicken or chickpeas) and you just want to liven it up a bit, add your nuts and dried fruit, which bring texture, color, and flavor (note to mention a nice dose of nutrition). If you want to go savory instead of sweet, swap the dried fruit for the olives.

Extras

If you’re lucky enough to score some space in the office fridge, you may want to keep a few condiments, like hot sauce and mustard, handy. Both will dress up a number of mini-meals.

If you have a little freezer space, a frozen entrée can be a great, last-minute option. If a frozen entrée feels a little skimpy, doctor it up with your desk pantry foods. Almonds and cashews add crunch to Asian-inspired entrees while pumpkin seeds bring texture to Mexican-style meals.

Don’t forget to stock your home fridge with convenient grab-and-go items, too. Foods like ready-to-eat hard boiled eggs, single-serve hummus packs, individually-wrapped cheeses, and plain Greek yogurt are great additions to your desk drawer pantry. So are any number of fresh veggies that travel well and pair with many of your desk pantry items; think: baby carrots, grape tomatoes, and cucumber and red pepper slices, to name some. On days you don’t see any breaks in your calendar, grab one (or more) of these items to-go. You’ll find many ways to eat them with the foods you’ve already got stashed at the office.

WHAT A NUTRITIONIST WANTS YOU TO KNOW

Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

NBC News takes care to recommend our favorite items chosen by trusted experts and editors, as well as inform our readers of great deals, customer favorites, and newsworthy products from around the web. For more on our process, click here.