Desk-Drawer Meal Survival:
Emergency Foods and Snacks
by Kate Heyhoe
Got a hunger pang but can't leave for lunch yet? Or, do you simply want to complete that project before wrapping up? Here's what we call our "Desk Drawer Pantry"—emergency foods that will tide you over until a real meal can be had.
Many of us typically rely on peanut butter cups and Mars bars. But all they do is give you a sugar and chocolate rush before causing your blood-sugar levels to seriously crash and burn. Some of us have the luxury of a refrigerator, microwave and instant hot-water, which in the hands of a skilled improvisational cook can produce outstanding 3-course meals. However, most of us still need something we can surreptitiously eat at the desk without interrupting our concentration or work flow. So let's focus on more nutritious—and tasty—snacks to get us through the workday, all of which will keep in your desk drawer either indefinitely or, in the case of fresh fruits, at least for a few days.
- Breads & Crackers—Some breads last longer because of preservatives, and a slice or two may last up to a week in an air-tight bag, ready for a tasty spread. Crackers are essentially baked breads; some are better for snacking on "au naturel"—that is, without a spread of some kind. Here's a few of my personal favorites, selected for their savory taste and crisp texture: Carr's Black Pepper Table Water Crackers, Lavosh (many varieties), Garlic Flavored Bagel Crisps, Seasoned Rye Crisp and bite-size Japanese Rice Crackers.
- Olives—Once opened, olives should be refrigerated. Chopped olives in small tins make impromptu spreads for crackers, and a sprinkling of crushed red pepper wakes up the flavors. A small jar of whole or stuffed olives can be a life-saver for taming the gurgling stomach (and if someone passes by with a martini, you'll be prepared).
- Pate, Mushroom Pate and Liver Spreads—Look for these in the gourmet aisle of most large markets. They come in small tins, usually with self-opening lids. Using your plastic knife and crackers (ever handy in the top drawer), you'll not even miss going to lunch.
- Canned Fish & Shellfish—You can, of course, buy individual tins of tuna, but why not explore the more savory tastes of mustard-sauced sardines or smoked mussels? The canned fish area of your market has these and other intriguing morsels that can be plopped onto a soft roll or a crunchy cracker for an instant lunch.
- Dried Fruits—Remember how Mom used to pack an itty bitty box of raisins in your lunch box? Today we have a huge variety of dried fruits with wonderful flavors available to us. If you do need a sugar rush, dried cranberries are like eating candy and do have some sugar added due to the cranberry's natural tartness. Dried blueberries, strawberries and cherries are also available and are tasty alternatives to raisins (in fact, Ocean Spray markets their dried cranberries as "Craisins" although health food and specialty food stores sell them as "Dried Cranberries.") Pure dried fruits with no sugar added include apples, apricots, pineapple and dates. If you can, try some of the more exotic varieties of dates, like the Fancy Deglet Noor, the prized Halawi, and the Barhi, which have a rich buttery flavor.
- Fresh fruit—What fruits keep best? Citrus fruits, with their protective peel, last several days unrefrigerated and there's nothing like the sweet smell of an orange, tangerine, or grapefruit to revive you mentally and physically. Kumquats are even better since you don't have to peel them. Fruits like plums and pears last for several days as well, but be careful about storing them in closed bags: they emit natural gases that hasten their ripening, which may be good or bad depending on how ripe they are when you buy them. Bananas should never be refrigerated (they turn black) so they're perfect for the desk drawer pantry. Granny Smith apples have a firm texture that lasts better unrefrigerated than the softer, red varieties. Note: If you're looking to increase those healthful antioxidents in your diet, pick fruits that are rich in yellow, orange and red pigmentation.
- Nuts, Nut Butters & Seeds—Peanut, almond, cashew and other nut butters don't need to be refrigerated, even after opening, making them a staple of the desk-drawer pantry, but because of their high oil content, nuts and nut butters will eventually turn rancid giving them a short shelf life. They are high in fat, but also offer loads of protein and vitamin E, so a spoonful or two of peanut butter to keep you going is not a dietary sin. Some nuts, like hazelnuts and pecans, are high in monounsaturated fat, the kind believed to help lower the "bad" cholesterol. Pepitas, the crunchy, toasted seeds of pumpkins, have a delicate flavor just right for snacking and can be found in Mexican and natural foods markets.
- Jerky—I know: everyone laughs at the thought of eating jerky. But have you tasted today's jerky? Peppery salmon, teriyaki turkey and other exotic flavors use the same process for making beef jerky, transforming low fat pieces of pure protein into savory snacks that do not, as the name might imply, require you to jerk your head off when biting into them. Yes, they are chewy but also pliable, and the flavors are concentrated, giving your tastebuds a lot of satisfaction and your body the energy to carry on.
- Bean Dip & Chips—One of the best brands of low-fat bean dips and baked tortilla chips is Guiltless Gourmet, although other companies make quality products as well. The dips, including a savory black bean version, come in squat glass jars, and the chips come in individual packs or larger bags. I use binder clips to hold the opened bags shut when returning them to the drawer. Beans are quite nutritious and if you can find a bean dip that hasn't been overly fattened up, it can make an ample lunch in itself. (Note: if an item says "Refrigerate After Opening" be sure to do so; the leftovers won't keep in your drawer, so either throw them away or refrigerate them.)
- White Cheddar Popcorn—This may not have tons of nutritional value, but it's not really bad for you either. I typically feel the need to crunch, and a bag of pre-made popcorn dusted with white cheddar satisfies in both taste and texture. It's junk-food on the mild level.
This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.
Modified October 2005