Move Over, PB&J

From state parks to virtual reality, professionals share their ideal midday meal 

Photography by Elly Hazelrig

Often when I’m eating lunch, whether at a restaurant or in the office break room, I can’t help but peek at other people’s plates. Taking a peek at a dish as a restaurant server passes makes my mouth water and often leads to me trying something new. I feel the same about lunches people bring from home. There are always pretty bags with bold colors, cool-looking thermoses, and sweet, sour, and savory smells wafting out of various containers. “What’s in there? Why didn’t I think to bring that? Is that a TikTok recipe?” I wonder.

As a 30-something with a mostly sedentary job, I also find myself having more complex questions about nutrition, energy, priorities, and convenience. I asked four people with very different professions what they usually pack for lunch and got very jealous of (or inspired by) their choices. 

Jeff Hill (aka Ranger Jeff), 33
Park Ranger II with Tennessee State Parks

If you follow the Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park Instagram account, you’ve seen videos of friendly Ranger Jeff talking about flora and fauna. We’ve all seen Jeff—educational and entertaining—pop out of the lake, fully dressed in his ranger gear, and lay on his side to get close to something green for the camera or look askew as he encourages us all to listen for distant bird sounds. 

So what does one eat for lunch when they’re out discovering, promoting, and helping host programs in an 11,000-acre forest just 45 minutes outside of Memphis? 

Jeff’s go-to lunch to stay energized during his workday is simple—leftovers. And, with an aversion to microwaves, he usually eats them cold.

For Jeff, this is practical for his physically demanding job.

“Working out here in the forest, it is important to bring my lunch because I often do not have time to leave the park to go find food, or I may be in the middle of the woods working on a project when it is lunch time, so it is logistically easier to bring my food with me,” he says.

“I am a big fan of eating leftovers because it reduces food waste, which is a huge problem in today’s world.”

Jeff also packs snacks that he puts in his pockets when he leaves the ranger office for the morning. 

“I prefer to eat lunch around 11 a.m., but sometimes I don’t get to sit down and eat until 2 or 3 p.m., so the snacks can be lifesavers,” he says. “My snack choices can change based on weather or tasks for the day. If I know I am going to be working hard, I am usually looking for something like cashews or a nut mix. I am a huge fan of the applesauce packets that we keep for my three-year-old son. I refer to them as “tactical applesauce” because I can keep one tucked in my vest and within a couple seconds, I can get a quick little snack.”

Sometimes, he finds snacks in the woods. “Muscadine grapes and blackberries are my go-to,” he says. “If I am doing high-intensity work on the trails, such as sawing or clearing downed trees, I can get super moody when my blood sugar dips a little. These wild snacks are usually enough to get me back on track and get me back to my truck.” 

For others visiting the forest for a day outdoors, whether that’s walking, hiking, biking or general exploring, Jeff suggests anything that is easy to carry in your bag. He relies heavily on tortilla-based meals.

“My wife makes a really good ‘hiking wrap’ that fits the bill,” he says. “On a burrito tortilla, spread hummus all over, thinly sliced turkey, and cheese, and then roll it up and glue it shut with a little cream cheese.”

Depending on what he’s doing that day, he either leaves his food in a park fridge or throws it in his trail bag to bring it in the woods. When he does eat out, his favorite local lunch spot is the Shelby Forest Corner Store cafe connected to a Citgo gas station at 7534 North Watkins Road in Millington. Here, he eats something called the Steamin’ Meeman, a hamburger with peppers in the patty for a little less than $10.

“The burger is filling enough, so I usually skip out on the fries because I rarely finish them,” he says. “I enjoy the employees there and always like to stir the pot with a little Formula 1 drama with the guys behind the counter.”

Kathryn Hicks, 33
Founder and Art Director of Creature Studio 

While Ranger Jeff treks through the woods, Kathryn Hicks is immersed in the world of augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality. (Yes, very techy and cool.) If you opened the Edible Memphis Coffee Guide last year and scanned the QR code, you saw her virtual coffee cup pop out of the page. If you were on Snapchat in 2022, you probably also saw her blue dragon flying around Mud Island in partnership with the HBO series House of the Dragon.

When Kathryn takes a moment to feed the creative beast in her belly, her go-to lunch is brown or white rice with protein such as beef, chicken, bison, or tofu and a vegetable like broccoli, corn, cucumber, squash, or carrots. She seasons with sauces like sesame, teriyaki, and gochujang. This is often accompanied by a high-protein yogurt and sometimes a protein shake.

As someone who’s in front of a screen a lot, she’s also packing her lunch with the idea of avoiding energy crashes.

“I avoid heavy foods and I try to stay hydrated to stay alert while working,” she says. “But sadly I end up drinking more coffee than water.”

Her lunch choices are also about convenience, flavor, nutrition, enjoyment, and, as if she wasn’t cool enough, meeting her macros for powerlifting! “Lifting weights makes me feel like a superhero,” says Kathryn. “It doesn’t matter what weight I lift—I love the feeling.” 

When Kathryn does eat out for lunch, she sticks to a budget of around 15 to 25 bucks. For her, it’s a special treat rather than a daily event. She loves local spots. Some of her favorites are Slider Inn, South Point Grocery, Vice & Virtue, Hive Bagel and Deli, Poke World, Happy Greek Cafe, and City Silo.

At Slider Inn it’s about mix-and-match sliders. She reaches for bagel sandwiches at Hive Bagel and Deli, the three-protein rice bowls with vegetables at Poke World, mozzarella subs from South Point Grocery, and oat milk cappuccinos at the coffee shops. 

“I enjoy the proximity to these places and the downtown atmosphere,” she says.

Cedric Foster, 36
Medication Therapy Management Pharmacist (PharmD) for Christ Community Health Services

As a pharmacist, bodybuilder, and runner, Cedric’s go-to lunch is about efficiency. His choices help satisfy his hunger without leaving him feeling groggy. 

He’s usually happy with boneless, skinless chicken thighs for protein, fat, and flavor; brown rice for fiber; and asparagus because it’s one of his favorite veggies. 

“I always go with a high-protein meal, adding a carb to supply energy for the rest of my workday and something green for good gut health and digestion.

To make preparation easy, I use different Mrs. Dash no-salt seasonings and add a little kosher salt to unlock the flavor,” he says. 

Though he works at home and in the office, Cedric always makes his own lunch. “As a healthcare provider, I see too many of my peers that go the entire day snacking or not even eating meals. Diabetes and hypertension are common in my family, so for health and longevity, I don’t have an option to eat out or snack like everyone,” he says.

Cedric started his fitness journey in 2019 and has packed his breakfast and lunch every day since. He’s completed two bodybuilding competitions and three half marathons. “Diet plays such a huge role in recovery and performance—not only in the gym, but in daily life,” he says 

For those looking to start packing their lunch more often, he recommends keeping it simple.

“Don’t go crazy with too many choices, or you may get discouraged. Picking a protein source and vegetables, with or without carbs, is a great way to start. This is way better than snacking all day or eating nothing,” he says. “Avoiding processed foods and bringing your own food will significantly change how you feel during your workday. You should be shopping more on the outside aisles of the grocery store (whole foods) versus the middle of the store (processed, boxed, or bagged foods). It doesn’t happen overnight, but it gets easier with time.”

When Cedric does eat out, his favorite local lunch spot is Soul Fish Cafe. He usually opts for the ruby red trout or the blackened catfish with a side of zucchini, sweet potato, or sweet potato fries.

“I eat there because I can get a delicious meal, but not go off the rails,” he says.

Josephine Alexander, 41
Farmer/Owner at Tubby Creek Farm 

As a farmer and owner at Tubby Creek Farm, fiber is never far from Josphine, whose go-to lunch is an easy green salad.

“We always have vegetables on hand and there is endless variety because it changes with the seasons,” she says. “Right now I’m enjoying beet, apple, and walnut salads, but in the summer it’s all cucumbers and tomatoes—always with fresh herbs of course.”

When there’s no lettuce on hand, she makes a big vegetable, grain, and bean salad on Sunday and eats it for lunch all week. Josephine says because her job is so physically demanding, it’s better for her to eat small meals and snacks than to be “overly full.”

She also packs her lunch out of necessity. Tubby Creek Farms is located in Ashland, Mississippi. “It’s really the only option locally besides burgers, pizza, fried chicken, and typical gas station food counter fare,” she says. “I might enjoy those things once in a while but not every day. Besides, we have so much good food available to us on the farm, why wouldn’t I take advantage of that? We eat like kings. It’s one of the best perks of the job.”

Alertness, energy, and convenience are major factors for how Josephine packs for her 30-minute lunch break. She usually opts for legumes as a protein source and keeps things light and balanced.

Her recommendation to perfect your lunch? Add fresh herbs. 

“Fresh herbs can make a dull meal into an extraordinary meal.

I grow herbs right outside the front door so they are right there anytime I want to snip some,” she says. “I did, in fact, eat the perfect lunch the other day. It was white sweet potato home-fries with a lemony grated beet, carrot, watermelon radish, and chickpea salad. Simple, veggie centered, and so, so, so delicious.”

If she needs a snack, she can reach for veggies from the field throughout the day.

“Eating seasonally is the only way I know how to eat. To my mind, eating seasonally has a lot of advantages. First, it naturally adds variety. Each season has its own fruits and vegetables to enjoy,” she says. “I find eating with the seasons easier because it narrows my options. Instead of thinking ‘What do I want to eat this week out of all of the foods in the world,’ I simply look in the walk-in or in the field and think, ‘What can I do with butternut squash and kale?’” 

Josephine says when you eat seasonally, especially if you are growing your own or buying locally grown produce, the quality and nutritional value are at their peak. In the Mid-South, a long summer season yields treats like tomatoes, melons, and peaches, and a mild winter brings greens and root veggies.

For spring, her favorite vegetables are red radishes and kohlrabi. “Finely diced radishes add a delicious spring crunch to everything from tacos to soups to salads,” she says. “I love raw kohlrabi. Homemade hummus is a staple when we’ve got dipping vegetables like kohlrabi on hand. Even though it doesn’t really end up in my lunch, strawberries are the darling of spring and I eat plenty while working out in the field.”

Josephine says tomatoes are the classic summer vegetables, but for her, “nothing says summer like a fresh cucumber.” She enjoys a cucumber, tomato, red onion, tofu, and kalamata olive salad with balsamic vinegar for lunch.

“There is always a point in the summer where we are up to our eyeballs in melons,” she says. “Cantaloupe or watermelon with cottage cheese is another favorite.”

In the fall, it’s all about greens on the farm, which she often uses for salads. 

When she’s not in food nirvana, Josephine’s favorite place to eat in Memphis is the Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market, especially when the Good Groceries Mobile Diner food truck is there. For about $13, she grabs some BBQ duck nachos.

“They are the nicest people and everything they make is delicious,” she says.

Erica Horton is a freelance journalist who loves to learn and write about almost anything. @chewsipfly

Elly Hazelrig, of Haze Photography & Media, is a Memphis-based photographer from Chicago. She aspires to inspire. @haze.photog