Dinosaur nuggets and juice boxes: In defense of making lunch fun again

On days that I don't feel like eating, I feed my inner child instead

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published April 27, 2022 5:09PM (EDT)

Dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets (Getty Images/Gingagi)
Dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets (Getty Images/Gingagi)

When I first started working from home, I had grand designs for lunch. No longer was I constrained by what would hold up well in the Lisa Frank thermos I'd somehow managed to hold onto since middle school! I would have a full kitchen and all its contents right at my fingertips. Surely, I would get in the habit of pulling together midday meals that were at least interesting, if not extravagant, by comparison. 

But as most people who work from home do, I quickly found out that in the face of back-to-back-to-back Zoom calls and deadlines, lunch — intriguing or otherwise — was the first thing to get chucked off the to-do list.

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Suddenly, the pandemic hit, and a switch seemingly flipped. I realized that little moments of self-care, no matter how infinitesimal, were going to be key to staying sane and healthy. My inner Southern grandma would make an appearance around one o'clock every afternoon as I'd quietly murmur to myself, "Honey, you gotta eat." 

One of the ways I encourage that habit is, quite simply, by following a formula. I've written about this before. Most days, my plates consist of a quick-cooking carbohydrate, like canned beans, instant rice or toast; a simple protein, such as chickpeas, edamame, eggs or tofu​​​; and some fat, which is most often avocado, nut butter or a drizzle of olive oil. 

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On days when I need a little extra dopamine jolt, however, I have another little secret. I make lunch for my inner-kid

I know that sounds self-indulgent — and it is, a bit — but let me explain. About two months into the initial pandemic lockdown, I was placing a grocery order. I'd already selected my kitchen staples — the boring adult stuff like canned beans, chicken thighs and oat milk — yet something compelled me to check out the selection of chicken tenders, one of my longtime comfort foods. 

My cursor hovered over a bag of dinosaur-shaped nuggets, and I let out a little laugh. I hadn't had those since I was probably in middle school, or around the same time I was carrying that Lisa Frank thermos. Suddenly, I realized, "Oh, I can buy those for myself. No one is stopping me." 

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The next day, lunch rolled around, and I gleefully poured 1/4 of the bag onto a sheet pan alongside some olive oil-coated broccolini in the name of "balance." I didn't have pre-mixed honey mustard on hand, but I did have some agave, grainy brown mustard and a whisk. The entire meal was a delight. 

Since then, I've picked up other longtime favorites from my childhood. While some (notably Welch's juice boxes) don't hold up, most do. On the days that I feel like eating lunch is burdensome, I have Annie's shells and white cheddar in my pantry, pre-chopped fruit salad in the crisper drawer and chocolate pudding in the refrigerator. In combination with some of my other kitchen staples, having those items on hand has made lunch fun again.

On the really bad days, there are always dino nuggets in the freezer. 

Some of our favorite lunch recipes from the Salon Food archives: 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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