The Pantry In Your Desk Drawer: Snacking and Dining at the Office

Desk drawer tea-stash, originally uploaded to Flickr by KratzyLast week we talked about what clothes you keep at the office… this week, let’s talk about the food you keep in stock at the office!  (Pictured: Desk drawer tea-stash, originally uploaded to Flickr by Kratzy.)

Here’s the thing about hectic, busy jobs, at least in my experience. Half the time, you’re so busy you don’t have time to go grab lunch. And when you’re not busy, well, why prolong your time at the office by lingering over some long lunch unless it’s with a friend (which requires scheduling, which may or may not be something your hectic work schedule allows you to do). So how’s a busy woman to eat during the workday?

My trick has always been to keep food at the office. When I was at my firm, I kept a whole banker’s box full of snacks — it fit right in with all the other boxes of documents in my office! My list of must-haves has always included the following, which I would space out throughout the day in a series of snacks:

Note that this list was written on the assumption that you do have ready access to hot water, but not necessarily a readily-accessible microwave or a refrigerator.

1. Peanut butter. If this isn’t a problem food for you (allergies, calories, etc), it’s a great thing to keep around the office. Spread some on crackers like saltines, and you’ve got protein, fat, healthy oil, and you should stay satiated for at least a few hours. If portion control is a problem for you, you can keep things like PB2 Powdered Peanut Butter in your office and only make as much as you want.

2. Bars. I highly recommend finding a a low-calorie, high-protein, high-fiber bar that you enjoy eating. Meal replacement bars (200 calories plus) never really seem to fill me up, and the low-protein bars — such as granola bars — are kind of like eating a cookie for lunch. My preferred picks: Gnu Foods bars (extremely high fiber and high protein for only about 130 caloreies), PowerBar Pria Bars (mint is particularly good), or, if you’re really craving something dessert-like, the Glenny’s 100-Calorie Brownie. Two other great choices that are super high fiber: Fiber One Bars and Fiberful bars (sold at Trader Joe’s).

3. Oatmeal. This doesn’t have the protein or fiber of a lot of the things recommended above, but it has a warm, cozy, filling feeling — and it’s the closest a busy woman can get to comfort foods a lot of the time. It also smells wonderful. (Be sure to get a box of oatmeal that definitely only requires hot water.)

4. Nuts. Portion control can be a problem here, also, but if you can keep nuts around they really are a power food. Go for nuts that are as close to natural form as possible — avoid things that are roasted, salted, processed. Raw almonds have always been my favorite — they taste good but not SO good that I want to eat the entire bag.  If portion control is really a problem, you may want to try pistachios or peanuts — in their shells. Everybody’s Nuts! makes some great portion-controlled bags of pistachios.

5. Instant noodles. There are a ton of options for meals that can be heated by the microwave — from EasyMac to LeanCuisine — but it’s harder to find ones that only require hot water to “cook.” In general, these things won’t fill you up, but they are a nice alternative to the bars and other things mentioned above. Trader Joe’s has some great dry soup mixes that only require water; I’ve also had good luck with Thai Kitchen and Annie Chun’s products.

6. Raisins. Dried fruits can be a bit too much like candy, which is why I like the old standards — raisins and dried plums. They may not be “sexy” fruits, but you can keep them in your bottom drawer and a handful from time to time will help you feel like you got your fruit in for the day.

7. Emergen-C. When your energy is dragging — or you feel a cold coming on — or you need some extra pep before heading out for dinner or drinks with friends, I swear by Emergen-C. These lemonade-like packets contain only about 5-25 calories, but pack a wallop of vitamin C — more than 1000% of your daily requirements. Just add water, and you’re good to go.

8. Canned tuna or salmon. I highly recommend going to the office kitchen to drain the cans first and dispose of them (or else your office will smell of tuna for a week!) but with a packet of mustard or mayo mixed in, these healthy fishes are great eaten with crackers or by themselves. Of course, be sensible about potential mercury poisoning and don’t eat them too often. (If you’re unfamiliar with canned salmon, be sure to get cans that contain skinless and boneless salmon.)

9. Cereal. This is another great thing to keep at the office — either to keep a high-fiber cereal to mix into yogurt and oatmeal, like Fiber One — or to keep a favorite cereal from college or childhood, like Cap’n Crunch. Steal some milk from the fridge intended for coffee, and you’ve got a meal.

10. Pudding. It’s a little-known trick, but if you bring in a box of Jell-O Instant Pudding, you can mix 1 heaping Tbsp with 1/2 cup skim milk, let it sit in the fridge for about 60 minutes, and enjoy a single portion of office-made fresh pudding. Is it a meal? Not really, but it is a dairy serving — and it’s yummy.

Bonus Round: Refrigerated/Fresh Foods to Keep on Hand:

1. Organic apples. This is one of those fruits where it’s allegedly worth it to pay for the organic version, but even if you just get the regular version, they’re great to keep at your office.  I’ve always liked to bring one with me each day and eat it for a late-morning snack before lunch.  (Be sure to wash the apple well if you’re not buying organic.)

2. Lemon juice. I love a little lemon juice in my life — I use it to squeeze on salads (I swear, it makes every.single.dressing taste better and go farther with less dressing), as well as to add to water, hot water (particularly when I’m sick, I love hot water with lemon and honey), and to add to fish (canned or otherwise).

3. Cheese. My all-time favorite is the light string cheese you can get at Trader Joe’s — it’s cheap, low calorie, and tastes the best to me compared with other string cheese.  Still, almost any cheese is handy for a snack, though: those mini Babybels, a wedge of Laughing Cow cheese (which technically doesn’t need to be refrigerated, but personally I find it a bit gross if it’s not chilled)

4. Yogurt. I always like to mix in Fiber One so I’m more satiated.

5. Vitatops. These fiber-filled treats are great if you have access to a freezer at the office.  (They have no preservatives, which is why they require freezing.)  They come to room temperature in about an hour, or else you can get a cup of hot water or tea and warm them up a lot quicker.

Alright ladies, let’s hear it — what kind of foods do you keep in your desk drawers to nibble on throughout the day?

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  1. Usually Lurks :

    I keep a box of Pure Protein bars at my desk. They’re 18-20 grams of protein depending on flavor, ~200 calories and~2 grams of sugar. Best of all, they taste like candy bars.
    I always thought the energy boost from Emergen-C came from the B vitamins. In any event, my skin looks better for having incorporated it into my daily routine.

    • Ms. Basil E. Frankweiler :

      Love Pure Protein bars, but I stay away from any with the “white chocolate” covering; I have yet to find one that actually tastes good.

  2. San Jose in house :

    For all of you out there that are worried about portion control issues with your snacks, you can buy your nuts, trail mix, whatever in bulk and create your own individual portions with those little zip loc bags or glad containers. You get the benefit of buying in bulk and the safety of not going through a whole box of snacks in one sitting. I pre bag all of my snacks on a Sunday night when Dexter is on!

    • MissJackson :

      I do this, too. I buy a huge container of mixed nuts at Costco and portion out one-ounce servings into little baggies (that I reuse to reduce waste). It’s a huge cost savings. Plus, I only have to buy once every couple of months!

  3. MissJackson :

    I have so much food in my office. If I do not plan ahead, I make bad decisions, so this works for me. I do have to keep everything in a box and out of sight — otherwise, I get tempted to eat even when I’m not really hungry.

    My stash includes:

    Canned soup that requires no can opener
    Single serve microwave popcorn
    Nuts portioned into one-ounce servings
    Clif Kid Organic ZBars (yes, they are for kids, but they are really good, and they are about the right portion size — I eat bars for snacks, not meals, and these are my absolute favorite)
    tuna in a pouch (tastier and less messy than a can)
    instant oatmeal (not as good as the real deal, but better than nothing)
    fresh apples
    several different varieties of tea
    croutons to add to salads (prefer this to adding them at home — I hate soggy croutons)
    Trader Joes turkey, beef, or buffalo jerkey

    In the office fridge:
    laughing cow cheese
    greek yogurt
    egg whites (you can microwave them in a coffee mug)
    carrot and celery sticks
    hard-boiled eggs

    Reading this list, it sounds like a lot, but it takes up hardly any room, and keeps me from making vending machine trips, or buying overpriced snacks at the convenience store!

    • healthcare anon :

      I LOVE the cliff kid bars! I have them too. Only I have to sneak them from my son.

  4. Re “portion control”, in response to Em #2: I think that can go both ways. If I’m doing something *and* eating at the same time, I can mindlessly eat nuts or pretzels. I am pretty middle of the road when it comes to my relationship with food. Also, stress eating snacks is a pretty common thing and if happens once every 2 months, I don’t know if I’d consider it a psychological issue? (Maybe the difference in our comments is just semantics and we mean the same thing but it struck me as odd that anyone who eats more than a regular portion is either starving or has psychological issues.)


    I keep the following at my desk on and off:
    – pretzels
    – almonds or hazelnuts
    – cans of soup (lentil or vegetable)
    – oatmeal variety pack
    – cans of grape leaves
    – microwave popcorn
    – peanut butter
    – (refrigerator) hummus

  5. I just wanted to say you ladies are awesome. I thought I was weird for needing to snack so much, but it’s not just me. I have a mini-fridge in my office from back when I was expressing breastmilk, but I kept it because it’s just so handy. I let the ladies in my area use it so we free up more room in the fridge down the hall.

    Just one thought to add – I keep salad dressing in there for when I go to the local salad bar. I can save on the cost of salad by not buying their dressing and just using my own in the office!

  6. San Jose in house :

    I also have issues with stress eating, but individually packaged portions are a pain, so I buy my snacks in bulk and put them in the mini zip locs.

    • San Jose in house :

      what I mean to say is that buying pre-portioned snacks are really expensive. You can use the smallets zip locs or the gladware containers to make your own individual portions of any snack.

  7. I keep just a few things:

    – Tazo Tea
    – Cliffs Kid Bars
    – and my absolute favorites, Go Picnic meals. I found them at World Market and I’m in love. (I think you can order online at too.) No need to refrigerate, no need to microwave, no need to portion. Just 300 calories of a well balanced meal. I also bring them with me when I travel, I get soooo sick of hotel food.

    • Wow, those gopicnic meals look amazing! I may need to pay a visit to World Market. Any idea how much they are there?

      • They were $5 at World Market, but I think they’re cheaper if you get them online. I swear by them, they’re lifesavers for me!

  8. Random observation after reading all the comments: ever notice that men don’t bring food to work like we do?

    • I don’t bring work to food (see my comment above) but my husband does! He can keep himself from nibbling on it constantly – nuts, fruit, even candy.

      Well, actually, he’s pretty weak with the candy which makes me love him more!

    • I actually have nothing but a couple granola bars (back-ups that usually hang out a month before being eaten) and tea. I used to bring snacks (years ago), but found that I was eating all the time, especially when stressed. I stopped stocking snacks and have been 10 pounds lighter ever since. There’s essentials in the office pantry (crackers, etc.), but not my favorites, so I only eat them if absolutely necessary (starving). Just reading everyone’s lists of snacks is making me hungry – don’t know how everyone has such good self-control!

    • I thought the same thing. I need to get my husband a drawer like this because I just realized he probably totally snacks at his work on garbage!

    • Some do – our senile engineer always has a bin of candy on his desk (though he doesn’t actually eat any, it’s just for passers-by), and my husband has a beer fridge (with beer, pop, and fruit) at his desk, as well as a bin of spiced nuts.

      I think it’s more about planning and self control – most of the guys I work with visit the vending machine daily, and more than a couple have said that if they had my snack drawer they’d eat it all within a week (I usually only have to top up one type of drawer-snack once or twice a month).

    • My husband brings lots of snacks to work.

  9. Need a screen name :

    My stash includes different teas and Mrs. May’s fruit/nut bars (CostCo).

  10. Cats Ahoy! :

    I have the usual teas and protein bars, but I also like to keep tiny tablespoon-sized containers of cardamom and cinnamon and some packets of instant coffee for flavoring my Greek yogurts.

  11. I find that the stack of take-out menus fits neatly in my desk drawer. Which may explain my cholesterol level. I do enjoy wasabi peanuts for a quick snack, cause, hello clear sinuses! Plus, it’s easier to eat just a few when the first ones make your tongue go numb,

  12. I’m a big snacker, but I try to limit the snacks I have at work because of that – especially at month end I eat & eat. I balance my snacks with smaller meals, so it all works out.

    Things I always have on hand, though, are instant oatmeal & Fibre 1 bars. I have one of each for breakfast daily – the Fibre 1 bar when I get to the office & the oatmeal around 9:30 – 10:00. I also really like to have Purdy’s 100 calorie Peanut Butter fingers (little chocolate covered peanut butter chocolate bars). My favorite afternoon snack is either an apple & a slice of medium cheddar cheese or a small serving of trail mix. Yogurt & a carb is also a good snack for me.

    I really like all the ideas people have been posting – I think I need some microwave popcorn for this month end – then I can eat it all afternoon & it’s a lower calorie snack.

  13. I keep several of those same things in my drawer. Peanut butter is great to have because it can go on so many things (or be eaten alone). Sometimes if I haven’t eaten breakfast I get shaky, so I just eat a bite or 2 of peanut butter and I’m good. I also like to keep Honey Nut Cheerios for that purpose. I try to keep cheese or applesauce in the fridge for when I’m feeling snacky and bananas and clementines are good, but of course can go bad. I also have oatmeal for an easy breakfast and hot chocolate mix since my office is usually 30 degrees even when it’s 110 outside. And of course, a must have is chocolate for my afternoon cravings.

  14. Bliss Doubt :

    So here I am nearly two years later. I was googling to get more ideas for office lunches. I don’t like going out for lunch, when all the traffic is out for lunch, especially in summer with triple digit temps, or really any time, unless someone is treating me to a restaurant lunch. I started with Patak’s chickpea and rice curry, 10 oz. sealed microwaveable packages that don’t have to be refrigerated. I’ve been through several 8-serving cases of those in the past couple of years (with free shipping from Amazon). They always taste good. I’ve just received a 6-pack of assorted Sanskriti microwave meals to try. The ingredients on the packaged Indian entrees are really very pure, nothing you can’t pronounce, just food and spices. I usually keep a non-candy trail mix, like pumpkin seed/nut/raisin, in my desk drawer. Even though they have some cr*p for ingredients, a few if those little tuna lunch kits with the can of catfood plus a few crackers, are always in my credenza. They must be popular because now they come in hot Thai chile and lemon pepper flavors. I usually have some dark chocolate and a couple of single serving bags of potato chips around. I keep my own supply of canned sodas, but there’s a guy in my office who thinks I don’t know he steals them sometimes. I keep cheese and tortillas in our full size office fridge. Avocados store well in my credenza. They ripen in there. An avocado and some crackers make a really delightful lunch. I put apples on the fireplace mantle and nobody cares. I think it’s pretty easy to eat at the office nowadays.

    • I like making a week’s worth of whole wheat pasta and chickpeas. It takes less than 2 minutes to put some in a bowl with frozen veg and a bit of pasta sauce, and the entire cost is about $8/week.

  15. Add some peanut butter to your instant soup so it’s filling; I like mine with a bit of mustard and hot sauce for a thai-style flavor. TJ’s, Sprouts/Henry’s and some conventional stores carry instant soups without MSG. Yes, they do cost more than Cup of Death by Sodium, but if you only need them as a backup, they’re worth it. Otherwise, use the ramen noodles with as little seasoning as possible, or mix up a blend at home and keep it in a little container at the office. I also like to keep packets of miso soup around.
    Seaweed is really nice if you need some crunch without the grease of a potato chip. They’re not as hearty as kale chips, but are still pretty addictive.
    I don’t really have trouble with portion control. I serve myself and put the food away. If I want more, then I’ll get more, but I’m usually alright, and I doubt that my waistline will suffer from more plain oatmeal with cinnamon(I don’t buy the premixed packaged junk). That’s always been my strategy with everything. I can’t sit with a bag of chips or an ice cream container.

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