Some people start the day with a crossword puzzle, but my morning mental exercise regimen is a little more practical. It involves staring into the fridge, jumbling together edible odds and ends to fill a lunchbox balanced enough to sustain myself through a day at the office. I’m usually pretty good at this game, so that’s my excuse for not being super organized with meal planning. But the day that I struggled to find a better “protein” than a bag of Trader Joe’s peanut butter pretzels… I knew it was time to get serious.
Last weekend I made a very minimal investment of time and efforts, which yielded big lunchtime results. It started with an idea to attempt a copycat recipe for the sweet chili tofu cubes stocked at the Whole Foods salad bar. For a time I used to live in an apartment right across the street from Whole Foods, and since this was during my busy grad student years, I built a pretty strong affinity for some of their healthy convenience foods. That salad bar saved me for dinner many nights, and those sweet, chewy tofu cubes were always a welcome addition to my leafy greens.
This humble squishy bowl is where it all begins, and it really couldn’t be simpler. I didn’t even bother to press the tofu; just chopped it up, tossed with storebought sweet chili sauce and a hefty squirt of Sriracha, and left it in the fridge overnight to dream about how delicious it will soon become…
Maybe I’m weird, but I just LOVE tofu. Honestly, I’m having trouble concentrating on writing this post because I can’t stop looking at these pretty little gold nuggets of soy goodness! I’m actually starting to think that baked tofu would make a good desktop background… (send help?)
In all seriousness, I’ll try to maintain my sanity long enough to finish telling you what a perfect make-ahead work lunch this salad is. Once your tofu is baked and beautiful, all that’s left to do is setting up your counter assembly-line style and stuffing some containers full of all your favorite veggies.
For a bed of leafy greens, I filled half of my salads with kale and the other half with romaine, just for variety. Then for the crunch factor I threw in sweet bell peppers, slivers of broccoli and thinly sliced green onions. Finally in the morning before work each day, I added a quarter avocado and a splash of simple vinaigrette for optimal freshness. Totally doable!
And if saving money is one of your lunch-packing motivations, I should point out that this is majorly budget-friendly. A whole block of tofu is less than 2 dollars, and you won’t pay much more than that for the rest of the seasonal produce underneath!
One final suggestion: halfway through the week I found myself with some leftover brown basmati rice, so I packed a little portion in a separate Tupperware, microwaved it at lunchtime and spooned it over the salad. SO SATISFYING, especially with the kale-based salads. The aroma and warm grainy texture were perfect with the fresh veggies, and it felt extra-filling in the most healthful way. Even if you’re not a meal-planner, do yourself a favor and bank a stash of healthy lunches next week!
For the tofu:
1 block extra-firm tofu (14 oz)
1/3 Cup storebought Sweet Chili Sauce (or Sweet & Sour Sauce, Duck Sauce, etc.)
1 Tbsp. sriracha
For the salad:
6 cups leafy greens of your choice
thinly sliced bell peppers
thinly sliced broccoli
chopped green onions
vinaigrette dressing of choice (learn my basic technique here
warm brown rice, to serve (optional)
Chop tofu into 1-inch cubes and toss in a medium bowl with the sweet chili sauce and sriracha. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to marinate in the refrigerator for at least an hour, or preferably overnight. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 400 F and cover a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Place the tofu cubes in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet. Bake the tofu for about 30 minutes or until golden, flipping the cubes halfway through the baking time.
Assemble the salads with greens, peppers, broccoli, green onions, and the tofu on top. The salads can be refrigerated at this step in sealed containers for about five days. Add avocado and dressing immediately before serving. Serve with warm brown rice, or another grain, if desired.