I recently hit a new lunchtime low: speed walking through the Target near our Portland Press Herald office in search of something to eat.

My cart was the random result of hungry shopping: a package of frozen Hot Pockets, bags of trail mix and dried mango slices, a nectarine. I had not packed myself a good lunch and ended up suffering the consequences (namely, heartburn). Resolved to improve my meal planning, I turned for help to “Prep-Ahead Breakfasts & Lunches: 75 No-Fuss Recipes to Save You Time & Money” by Alea Milham.

“We often see mention of athletes and fitness gurus prepping their meals for the week,” Milham writes in her introduction. “We look closer at the article because it seems like a good idea, but then we see five days of broiled chicken breasts and think, ‘That’s okay. I’ll pass.’ Just because we don’t want to eat plain broiled chicken breasts for lunch five days a week doesn’t mean we can’t use some of the same meal-prep techniques to create flavorful meals for ourselves and our family.”

Photo by Ken Goodman, Courtesy of Page Street Publishing

Milham offers some basic advice: make a meal plan, write a grocery list and pick a day to do batch-cooking in advance. That final tip is the hardest for me, but I forced myself to follow her tips, making a big batch of quinoa immediately after my Sunday grocery store trip.

The 200-page cookbook is easy to read and consistent. Each recipe has one page for a photograph, and one for ingredients and instructions. The breakfast section includes chapters on egg dishes, quick breakfast breads and homemade cereals. The part dedicated to lunch includes chapters on salads, sandwiches, soups and what Milham calls “one-bowl wonders.” She also wrote sections on desserts and pantry staples. Some are vegetarian; others include meat.

Every dish also comes with a blurb on storing and reheating, a handy tip often missing from cookbooks I’ve mined for my weekly menus. As I read the cookbook, I appreciated that Milham really thought about what ingredients would hold up well for a couple days in the refrigerator. I don’t want to admit how many times I’ve opened my lunch to find it wilted or smooshed, eaten half, then purchased a package of Pop-Tarts from the office vending machine.

In the Asian Chicken Quinoa Salad, for example, Milham substituted cabbage for lettuce and quinoa for noodles. I pulled the quinoa out of the refrigerator for this dish on a Monday night. I usually dread meal prep because I think of it as taking hours, but because I had done some work in advance, this recipe took less than a half-hour to prepare and portion into lunch containers. When I opened them at lunch Tuesday and Wednesday, I enjoyed crunchy vegetables, nutty quinoa and a meal that tasted fresh.

I did find a couple recipes that required guesswork. In the Mediterranean Chicken and Vegetable Bowl, the ingredient list included diced tomatoes, but the directions never addressed them. I added them to my skillet anyway and ended up with a dish I enjoyed for multiple lunches. Milham also admirably included instructions for making cauliflower rice at home, but my best and only piece of meal-prepping advice is to buy a package from the freezer section in the grocery store, because it tastes the same with less mess.

But I’ve already started writing next week’s grocery list (following Milham’s advice), and it includes the ingredients for Turkey Taco Rice Bowls and Jalapeno Chicken Pita Pockets. I think I can safely say there will be no more Pop-Tarts or Hot Pockets in my future.

Asian Chicken Quinoa Salad

Serves 6

DRESSING

1/4 cup (60 ml) rice vinegar

1/4 cup (60 ml) soy sauce

1/3 cup (80 ml) mild-tasting oil

1 tablespoon (15 ml) sesame oil

2 tablespoons (30 ml) honey

2 tablespoons (29 g) grated fresh ginger

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

SALAD

1 pound (450 g) boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts, cut into bite-size pieces

3 cups (1 kg) thinly sliced cabbage

1 cup (341 g) julienned carrots

1/2 cup (68 g) diced onion

1 medium red bell pepper, diced

6 ounces (168 g) snow peas

1 cup (270 g) fresh bean sprouts

3 cups (483 g) cooked quinoa

2 tablespoons (20 g) sesame seeds

DIRECTIONS

To make the dressing, add the vinegar, soy sauce, mild-tasting oil, sesame oil, honey, ginger and garlic powder to a medium cruet or lidded jar. Shake vigorously to combine.

To make the salad, add 2 tablespoons (30 ml) of dressing and the chicken to a medium skillet over medium heat. Cook until the chicken is cooked through, approximately 10 minutes.

In a large bowl, combine the chicken, cabbage, carrots, onion, bell pepper, snow peas, bean sprouts and quinoa. Toss thoroughly.

Pour the dressing over the salad and toss to coat. Refrigerate for approximately 2 hours before serving.

STORING

Either cover and store the salad in a large bowl, or divide the salad between 6 lidded containers. Store in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.