5 easy ways to improve your packed lunch with store-cupboard basics

Say goodbye to soggy sandwiches, and perk up your lunch with some staple cupboard standbys 
Say goodbye to soggy sandwiches, and perk up your lunch with some staple cupboard standbys  Credit:  Martin Wierink / Alamy

Nothing can improve your working day like an excellent packed lunch. And it's particularly satisfying when you've made something delicious from scratch. However, despite the millions of recipes and inspirational Instagram posts out there, a recent survey showed that 1 in 6 people have eaten the same lunch every day for at least two years.

To make matters worse, 81 per cent of those people said they were bored with their repetitious lunches (usually a ham sandwich), but that they continue to eat them to cut costs, save precious time or because they don't know what else to make. 

Yes, we're all busier and more stressed than ever, and the thought of dedicating time to plan ahead for lunch can seem unattainable when you're trying to balance work, family, exercise and maybe even fun. 

The good news is that a packed lunch need not be hugely fancy, fussy or expensive to be tasty.

All you need are a couple of tricks up your sleeve to take basic ingredients (yes, even ham and sliced bread) to the next level. It only takes one new ingredient to make a difference to a meal, so here are five store-cupboard staples that will perk up your lunchbox in a flash. 

1. Tinned sweetcorn

Nothing beats tinned sweetcorn when you're in need of veg and the fridge is looking bare. It counts as one of your five (or ten) a day, goes with almost anything and is very cheap; supermarket brands are often less than 50p per can. 

Cheap and easy, it's worth stockpiling sweetcorn for lunchtime emergencies Credit:  REGIS DUVIGNAU

Toss half a can with one grated carrot,  plenty of olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper for a zingy salad or sandwich filler. Or mix with tinned beans (any will do, but black or pinto are best), chopped peppers, tomato, chilli and lime for a Mexican salsa. For a speedy lunch, stir into cooked couscous with tomatoes, olives and cucumber. 

2. Pumpkin seeds

Pumpkin seeds are tiny nutritional powerhouses, packed with antioxidants, healthy fats, magnesium and potassium, so they make an excellent healthy addition to any lunch, as well as adding an extremely satisfying crunch. 

Crunchy, satisying and extremely healthy Credit:  Karen Appleyard / Alamy

Buy them in bulk from whole food shops to get the best value and sprinkle them over salads or leftover cooked vegetables: they're particularly good with dark, leafy greens such as spinach or kale.

You can even put them in sandwiches: fill a pitta with houmous, rocket, tomato and avocado, and sprinkle in some seeds at the last minute. To add an extra dimension, mix them with olive oil, salt, pepper, cumin, paprika and coriander and roast in the oven at 180C for ten minutes (or until browned and crisp). Keep in a airtight container and enjoy as a snack.

3. Capers

These sour and salty flower buds (yes, really!) are a hugely versatile store-cupboard ingredient.

They can be pricey, but the good news is you only need a couple at a time to make a huge difference to a meal.

The salty tang of capers makes for punchy lunches

Capers go brilliantly with fish: they add a satisfying zing to a smoked salmon sandwich (along with cream cheese, lemon and a twist of black pepper) and are guaranteed to transform a sad-looking tuna salad. You can also add a teaspoon to leftover pasta that's in need of a bit of love.  

4. Dijon mustard

The secret to a good salad is the dressing, and Dijon mustard is the foundation for a lip-smacking vinaigrette.

An oldie but a goodie: never underestimate the power of a good mustard

Whisk 1/2 a teaspoon together with the juice of half a lemon, a splash of white wine vinegar, salt, pepper and olive oil and drizzle over your veggies. To help save time, make extra and store in the fridge for up to a week.

It also makes a great veggie sandwich when stirred into lentils or mushrooms and stuffed in soft seeded bread. If you fancy a punchy dip for crudites, try mixing it with yoghurt, a little lemon and some garlic salt. 

5. Pesto

The hero of the student diet, jarred pesto is an absolute godsend when it comes to making lunch in a hurry; and you can buy good quality brands for under £2.

The easiest convenience food in the world, it's worth making the most of pesto Credit: ANDREW MONTOMGERY

For a quick pasta salad, cook fusili, penne or farfalle according to packet instructions, and throw in some frozen peas for the last two minutes. Drain and stir in a couple of teaspoons of pesto; mix together with some rocket or spinach, fresh tomatoes and ham or salami. (Avocado is a good substitute for vegetarians - just add a squeeze of lemon, first).

Stir it in to chopped vegetables for an easy salad dressing, or use a dollop to liven up leftover potatoes. It makes a fantastic sandwich spread, too: use with tomatoes, mozzarella, cured meat, peppers and rocket for a dreamy Italian mouthful.