Power up your packed lunch

The girls from food coop

Meet four colleagues from Development, Alumni Relations and Events who are inspiring us to get creative with our lunchboxes and step away from the supermarket sandwich. Sounds difficult? Not when you share the cooking!

Heather, Jemma, Hayley and Lucy take it in turns to prepare delicious, healthy lunches for each other and since they started their innovative Lunch Co-op over a year ago, they’ve never looked back.

We met for a special homemade lunch to hear how it works, what they love about their lunchtime routine, and to find out their tips and tricks for starting your own lunch co-op.

What motivated you to form your lunch co-op?

Heather: We were already keen home cooks and we all enjoyed bringing in nice healthy lunches for work when we had time to make them. It made sense to start cooking for each other, as we were always admiring each other’s recipes.

Although we all have similar taste, we had to write a list of things we all dislike before we started. There were some quite random things on there like mango and trout! Also, Jemma’s vegetarian, and Hayley has become vegetarian since we started the co-op, which was something she had always wanted to do. It’s given us all a chance to try new things.

Lucy: It's a real source of motivation when you realise how cost effective the lunch co-op is. If you add up the cost of a daily supermarket meal-deal over a month, it’s really expensive. We do save a lot of money doing it this way, and none of us mind spending more occasionally to make something special. It never crosses my mind that I’m going to be out of pocket, because I’m getting my lunches for the rest of the week.

Were there any challenges getting started?

Hayley: The process can be a little daunting at first because you want everyone to enjoy the food, but by now, all of us have cooked something that we’ve thought wasn’t very good. We’ve had some disasters with things that don’t reheat very well, like gluten-free flatbreads. They’re delicious fresh, but like cardboard the next day. Sometimes things just don’t work as well, especially when you’re transporting them from home, but we’re all supportive of each other when we experiment with new ideas. We don’t expect a huge gourmet meal every day.

How does it fit into your everyday routine?

Heather: When preparing food for the group, you do the same amount of cooking for four people as you would for one; it’s just a bit more chopping. The dishes we make can be multiplied very easily. Rather than preparing big meals and then eating the same thing for four days in a row, this is a great way to get some variety. Plus, if you’re cooking for someone else, you’ll put the effort in. It’s a great way to treat each other, and treat yourself at the same time!

Hayley: I think people often ignore lunch, because we’re always told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. You can have a great breakfast, but if you settle for a sandwich or a tin of soup for lunch, that isn’t necessarily going to fill you up or sustain you, so you might turn to an unhealthy snack later in the afternoon. But if you’ve had a nutritious, filling lunch, then in the evening you could have something lighter.

Lucy: It really helps me if I’m having a stressful day at work. Whereas normally I’d just go to the shop and get a supermarket meal-deal or something to eat at my desk, it's great to have a lovely, healthy meal made for me. It’s so relaxing too; it means we coordinate our lunches so we have a chance to spend time together and chat, away from our desks. Never eat ‘al-desko’!

delicious lunchesYour Lunch Co-op toolkit

"Have confidence! Anyone can start doing this, you don't need a big group of people; it's fine if there’s just two or three of you.

"Make it work for you: it doesn't have to be a daily commitment - it could be that you do it once a week! Once you get started and you realise how much money you're saving and what a simple but effective idea it is, you'll want to do it as much as possible.

"Keep in touch: communication is vital. We have a WhatsApp group so we can sort out who’s doing which days. Jemma sometimes has to work a bit later than the rest of us and we work it out so that she can have her portion for tea.

"Preparation is key: Make sure you have a good range of stock cupboard ingredients and dried herbs and spices at home. The recipes we prepare tend to use a lot of natural flavour. Along with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, what makes you feel satisfied is the fact that you’ve had something tasty.

"Don't stress: The main point is that it’s supposed to make your life easier, so it doesn’t need to be a source of worry. It could just be that you roast some vegetables and mix them with some salad or grains; that’s a fresh and healthy lunch. Or sometimes we’ve had a curry or a soup, which we’ve made in a batch and then had it for tea as well. It works because we’re all very similar in our tastes; a common interest really helps."

What are your favourite lunchtime recipes?

Heather: Lucy made some fantastic burgers with quinoa, sweet potato, sun-dried tomato and kale. She bound them with egg and put them with homemade pesto. I’ve made that since because it’s such a good recipe.

Jemma: We have some staples too: soup, salad, and anything that’s a one-pot wonder like a curry. Frittatas are amazing too, because they’re so easy and yummy. I made one recently by frying some onion, fresh cherry tomatoes and spinach until wilted, and adding that to the bottom of an ovenproof dish. Then you dollop on some ricotta, whisk your eggs with salt and pepper, drizzle them over the top and bake it all in the oven.

You have a great social media following! How did you build up such a strong online presence?

Hayley: It started out as a bit of fun; we thought we’d just try social media and see what happened. Our pictures were rubbish! But then we realised that if you compose the photo properly, use natural light and add the right hash tags like #vegan or #veggie you get more engagement. We reached 100 followers, and then 500, and people started commenting and asking for the recipes. It’s strange how it all evolved. We’ve slowed down a little since reaching 1,000 followers, though. To get a lot of followers is hard work as you have to constantly like other people’s posts, it’s almost a full-time job.

Plus, we realised that the really successful accounts on Instagram have everything automated. Certain users comment “nice pic!” on all our photos, or a really strange adjective that doesn’t quite make sense. There are apps that can do it all for you, but we’re not interested in that. We’re aiming for a more organic process.

Jemma: It’s also lovely to have such a personal diary of what we’ve made. I look back through it sometimes and think, “That was such a good week!” We don’t take it too seriously, but we’re as shocked as anyone that people like our pictures and think our cooking looks good. It has really given us confidence.

What does the future hold for The Lunch Co-op?

Heather: We’ve been going strong for a year and won't be slowing down anytime soon. We'd like to share the message where possible and get other people benefiting from it.

Hayley: Writing a cookbook of our own would be our dream. If anyone wants to take us up on that, that would be great!

Resources and inspiration 

Lucy: For me, Deliciously Ella sparked my interest because she made it more attainable to cook and eat well. I think it’s because she’s just a normal person rather than a professional chef, so she’s much more down-to-earth about healthy eating. When her first book came out, it just seemed like a better spin on what I was already cooking, so I slowly incorporated her recipes into my dinner plans. I never make my usual tomato sauce anymore; I’ve swapped it for her healthier version.

Heather: I take a lot of inspiration from Lorraine Pascale and Jamie Oliver as well. They’re specialists in healthy food, but they still make recipes that everyone can cook. With some books, you look at the recipes and think, “That sounds really nice, but I can’t be bothered to go and get all that stuff.” Professional chefs don’t always realise what will work for busy people. The BBC Good Food website is a great source of free recipes, they have different collections like healthy or vegetarian meals and you can search by the ones with the best reviews so you know they’re tried and tested.