I’ve always been what respectable people call “a snacker.” It’s a well-intentioned jab; I take it to mean I’m like a lovable little squirrel that hangs around the picnic table too long. I’ve had no choice but to embrace this designation because, well, it’s hardly off-base.
My favorite meal is what my friend Kelsey has always deemed an “adult Lunchable” (or what I call “grounded charcuterie”) and I’ve eaten that way for as long as I can remember. In my world, the only difference between a snack and a meal is 1) quantity, 2) commitment. And when I want to feel more human and less rodent, I migrate towards a rotating set of meals that are, at their most honest, still just XXL snacks.
My most common dinner right now is chicken. Specifically, Morningstar Farms’ “Original Chik Patties” which are as chicken as I am vegetarian, which is to say 0%. But they taste like chicken nuggets and take 72 seconds from freezer-to-couch, which is the squirrel woman’s version of farm-to-table and they bring me lazy joy (similar to “great joy” but far easier). They pair well with carrots and hummus or a handful of Triscuits.
When I worked in San Francisco, a distant land where impressive snack displays, like free medical and dental, are used as lures to poach talent, I scarcely left the office even (especially) for lunch. My last three Bay Area workplaces had stocked pantries for what I imagine they considered sustenance between meals and what I considered pretty much everything I needed to survive, ever. A typical lunch for me would look like this:
-an apple (with peanut butter)
-a cup of green juice (hold the sugar) (just kidding it had tons of sugar)
-a handful of almonds (chic)
-some dry cereal (sad)
-a cookie (or two)
…for a cumulative cost of free-ninety-nine, baby. 100% a lunch to me; 100% a collection of snacks to everyone else. While many people use prison metaphors like “shackled” to describe eating at their desks, I’ve always loved it. It’s a comfort to me. I never promised you I wasn’t a house cat. (That’s how I sign my saddest love letters, by the way.)
In New York, in-office snacks seem to be lower on the work-perk totem poll. People seem to favor exiting the building during feeding hours over slowly burying themselves in a grave of cheerfully-packaged chemicals parading as “snack packs.” As a result, I’ve been forced to wander out of the office around 1 p.m. during the week, eyes squinting against the light of day like a newborn hamster (sedentary vampire?), confused yet determined to feed myself on pure instinct.
I’ve found this new practice a combination of exhilarating/difficult/unsustainable. Exhilarating because: OPTIONS! Difficult because: options. Unsustainable because: expensive as F. Often I attempt to bring food into work to avoid such perils. I wrote my money diaries during one of those weeks and I’ll tell you right now that I ate a lot of snacks. Lunch time: apple, string cheese, yogurt and granola, a bar. You know, the kind of stuff listed in clickbait-y articles about foods doctors say are marketed as healthy but are super fucking horrible for you. Wallet: 1. Body as dumpster: 1. (That’s how you manipulate words to create a win-win out of thin air!)
Last week, I thought: this has to stop. Snacks are not meals. I said this to myself in the same tone those Finding Nemo sharks recite, “FISH ARE NOT FOOD.” My cat didn’t agree, but he doesn’t know what’s going on at all, so I decided to try eating like an adult woman for a week. On a budget, that is. I’d make myself actual meals and bring an actual lunch to work, I proclaimed, and here’s what went down (the hatch):
For breakfast every day I ate lightly-sweetened oatmeal with raspberries, a meal that so much resembled Oliver Twist’s porridge it prompted the following comment from my roommate A.K.A. the peanut gallery: “I’m impressed by your dedication to your morning oatmeal. Only you, grandmas and lifters are this committed to boring breakfast food.” I paused when he referenced lifters and asked him if I was unknowingly eating the breakfast equivalent of Kalteen Bars a la Mean Girls. He didn’t answer, which I found suspicious.
The Monday-to-Friday trajectory of my lunches was, I’ll admit, a little troubling. What began as a hearty spinach salad with apples and walnuts (Monday) and quinoa with grilled chicken (Tuesday, Wednesday) quickly devolved into Tupperwares of cold, underseasoned spaghetti (Thursday, Friday). It should be noted, though, that the fancy quinoa and chicken was consumed (extremely) cold as well, which was…unusual. Barring Monday, every day I felt a little bit like a bored teenager who raided his mom’s leftovers after school, too lazy to at least toss them in the microwave. What I didn’t mind was the ease with which the lunch hour approached. I knew I had a real meal just a lasso’s throw away. (I don’t actually fetch food with a lasso.)
If you’ll allow me a moment to shine now, I’d like to discuss dinner. Most nights I somehow managed to come home and make myself a salad, a protein and a grain. According to my kindergartener’s understanding of square meals, this makes me all grown up. I did have a weak spot mid-week, when I invited my brother over for dinner and told him I had “plenty of ingredients to make something,” including the required elements of our mom’s weird angel hair recipe (add sour cream, black beans, your favorite salsa and zero cans of your judgement right now!!!). When he seemed unenthused, I accused him of being picky and he laughed for like an entire minute. “All you’ve offered me is pasta with sour cream and I’m picky??!!” Okay, he had a point. It was a real meal rough patch.
But really, overall, I found the eating of actual homemade meals a nice approach to feeding my rotting corpse of a body. Just kidding, I now consider it my precious vessel! It actually cost even less than I expected — in time and money alike — but it definitely required some effort and forethought, something I could have used more of during my end-of-week slippery spaghetti slope. I think what I have yet to master is how to truly enjoy lunch when it’s a meal home-cooked by…me. While I didn’t feel at risk for cabin fever, my tastebuds weren’t exactly jumping for joy. But what I lacked in pizazz, I made up for in fiscal responsibility. (Did I just write my own gravestone?)
I think there’s something to this meal thing, you guys. I certainly have some details to hammer out around practicality and creativity, but this is pretty promising stuff. In the meantime, please, keep eating snacks until I’ve officially cleared meals as viable. I’m not completely sold yet.
Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis; Creative direction by Emily Zirimis.