1. Life & Culture

There’s a new meal in town: flunch

Four meals a day has helped to break up long pandemic days — and slim the waistline.
Roy Peter Clark's flunch, the new meal they've adopted at his house.
Roy Peter Clark's flunch, the new meal they've adopted at his house. [ Courtesy of Roy Peter Clark ]
Published Dec. 3, 2020

The Clarks have created a new meal, which we eat about 2 p.m. We call it flunch, short for “after lunch.” But we don’t eat lunch anymore.

Think of the ways the pandemic has changed so many of the routines we thought were fixed in stone: how we work, meet, consult with a doctor, dress, groom, travel and, yes, how we eat — if we are lucky enough to have food on our plates at all.

Before COVID-19, I would eat a big breakfast and head for the office. At noon I would hit a local eatery for a hearty lunch. I’d get home about 6 p.m. for dinner. It’s important to note that I worked in a “food office.” We served meals to visitors or students and there were always leftovers. My mouth was always moving. If I wasn’t talking, I was eating. Noshing U.S.A.

The Clarks might eat out at local restaurants, sometimes five meals a week: an Italian feast on Friday night, Saturday morning breakfast near the beach, seafood on Sunday. We ate a lot. And we spent a lot.

Over the years, I grew and grew. From 147 pounds at the age of 40 to 182 pounds 30 years later. When my pant waist got tighter and tighter, I knew it was time to cut down, but I did not know how. Along came the pandemic.

The pandemic brought stress. Like a lot of people, I feel anxiety in my stomach. My appetite can disappear. This was not a new thing. From the time my wife first underwent chemotherapy for breast cancer five years ago, it felt like a punch in the gut for both of us.

COVID-19 brought a change in our eating schedule. We usually woke at 7 a.m., but to shorten the stay-at-home day, we might sleep for an extra hour. Breakfast was mostly the same: a healthy bowl of cereal often with fruit: half a banana, blueberries or strawberries. And coffee!

Weather permitting, after breakfast we headed out for a morning walk, often to Crescent Lake Park, where the bird life is quite amazing: One day we spotted 10 white pelicans and 19 baby ducks.

Some people call a late breakfast “brunch,” but that’s too elaborate for what we like to do, usually about 11 a.m. after our walk. Before, we might visit one of the many great coffee shops in St. Pete, eating inside, greeting old friends and making new ones.

We have not eaten inside a restaurant since March. But outside is okay if tables are separated and servers are wearing masks.

Our morning snack is a muffin — either blueberry or cranberry/almond, and coffee, usually a latte. This costs about $15. We enjoy it. It gets us some fresh air. From a safe distance, we can people- and dog-watch. It supports a local business. And it curbs our appetite for what might be a bigger lunch.

Three hours later — it is now 2 p.m. — I’m feeling a little hungry. Enter the flunch. I believe I am the inventor. Think of flunch as half-a-lunch — or less. You have to be able to make it in 10 minutes and consume it in 15. It is low in cost and in calories.

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Here is a recipe for my favorite flunch:

Toast one piece of Jewish rye bread — I prefer seedless — and cut it in half.

Take one packet of tuna fish and stick it in the freezer for two minutes.

Mix tuna with a little mayo. Make a little sandwich. (There will be enough tuna to share with the cat.)

Possible side dishes: a handful of potato chips, two apple slices or six small carrot sticks. Miniature Twix bar or one cookie for dessert.

A half glass of brewed iced tea — no sugar — washes it down.

I usually prepare flunch in a three-meal cycle: tuna, peanut butter and jelly, American cheese.

This is not the healthiest meal you will ever eat. Substitute your salads, your fruits and veggies, your tofu toast. But, for me, flunch has these advantages: cheap, quick, easy. I control the portions, eliminate sugary sodas from my diet and dull my appetite.

Our dinners have become much smaller. A bowl of soup or a quiche. Or I’ll cook up some scrambled eggs and grits. Here’s what dinner looks like when we splurge: a rotisserie chicken ($4.99 at Sam’s Club), mashed potatoes, broccoli, and cranberry sauce from the can. Smaller portions mean we can eat it again later in the week.

I’ve left out the two most important elements of my diet: beer and ice cream.

After a good medical checkup last year, my doctor asked me my secret. “Every day,” I told her, “I have one beer before dinner, and then 3 ounces of vanilla ice cream after.” Her eyes got wide. I assume she has not recommended the Clark Diet to others.

The result of these changes in our eating habits is that we have saved a little money, tossed a couple of bad habits and (ta-da!) lost a little weight. We don’t own a scale, but there is a giant one at Publix. I step on, sans hat, wallet, phone, keys and glasses. Hold my breath. Down to 172 pounds! My jeans feel a little looser at the waist!

This may be the first time I have ever written about food (other than Halloween candy).

I do enjoy reading about food, especially the work of a writer named Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, known as M.F.K. Fisher. The daughter of a California newspaper editor, she went on to become not just a great food writer, but one of the greatest nonfiction writers of the 20th century. Even when her work included recipes, her stories were really about family, culture, country, travel, health, sex and war.

My favorite book of hers is How to Cook a Wolf, written in 1942. The Wolf was the Nazi menace leading to World War II. At a time of severe rationing for the war effort, Fisher argued that it was a patriotic duty to eat as well as we could with whatever food was available. At a low cost and in the national interest, we could nourish our bodies and our souls.

The same is true now. We deserve some nutrition and modest pleasure in the middle of another long day of “house arrest,” and we can find it in a packet of tuna or a slice of cheese. May I offer you an oatmeal cookie?

I don’t want to end this column without recognizing how many people across the nation are without work and feeling food deprived. I have seen the long lines of cars waiting for hours to receive food donations. Many churches and charitable organizations are trying to help. I’ve consulted my pastor, Monsignor Robert Gibbons. He suggests the Clarks direct our donations to the St. Vincent de Paul Society. It’s that time of the year, but also now that time in human history. We all feel hungry, in body and spirit.