Meal-prep Meatball Vietnamese Noodle Bowls (Bun Cha) are the perfect make-ahead office lunch—but they’re great for any time of day. Loaded with bright, fresh vegetables and herbs, these bowls are a riot of colors, flavors, and textures. Eating healthy has never been more exotic!
Meal-prep Meatball Vietnamese Noodle Bowls, also known as Bun Cha, involve a cold noodle salad loaded with fresh vegetables and herbs—and, of course, meatballs. No two bites taste the same, and—in my book, at least—that’s beautiful.
The perfect office or picnic lunch?
On lazy Sunday afternoons, I take a little time to make a pick-me-up office lunch to stave off the Monday blues. I think it’s fun to have a meal with “some assembly required”—meaning that you add some of this and a bit of that from an assortment of colorful containers, sprinkle with sauce and peanuts, tear herbs over the top, and SNARF. It drives co-workers—especially if they have a sad McWhatever Sandwich—absolutely crazy with lunch-envy.
As the name suggests, I always prep the vegetables for meal-prep meatball Vietnamese noodle bowls in advance, which lends itself very well to packing into lunch containers to take to work.
You serve the dish cold, so no need for reheating.
Beyond that, there’s something about the vibrant colors in this dish and putting all the ingredients together into one big, gorgeous bowl that I find uplifting—we first eat with our eyes, after all.
Also because there are no hot components in this dish, it’s ideal for fancy picnic food—just make sure that you have plenty of ice packs. Spring and warm weather can’t get here soon enough!
Prepping Meal-prep Meatball Vietnamese Noodle Bowls
The meatballs in my meal-prep meatball Vietnamese noodle bowls are—full disclosure—a total departure from traditional bun cha meatballs. The traditional variety are almost purely ground pork with sugar, fish sauce, and aromatics. These are more of an Italian-Vietnamese mashup. I use a 1:1 mixture of pork and turkey, breadcrumbs, an egg, chopped scallions, lemongrass, ginger, and chili-garlic sauce. I add finely chopped mushrooms for added moisture (you can substitute grated zucchini or spaghetti squash if you hate the ‘shrooms). AND they’re baked rather than fried.
As a result, these lighter, healthier meatballs are a riot of flavor all by themselves. I save the extras for snacks. With that in mind, the recipe below makes 4 servings of meatballs with several extras.
Although I eat the meatballs cold or at room temperature, you can serve them hot if you’d like.
I like to use my mandolin for slicing the veggies (I use the thinnest setting). Then, I cut the veggie slices into narrow matchsticks. However, I realize that although I find chopping, slicing, and dicing relaxing, this may not be the case for everyone. By all means, use a food processor. The results won’t be quite as neat, but it won’t compromise the flavor or texture.
To make the vermicelli: check the package directions. The rule of thumb is usually to pour boiling water over the noodles in a heatproof bowl and let them sit until soft, about 3 minutes. Then, rinse well with cold water. I’ve made the noodles the night before and packed them for the next day without any problem.
The recipe below makes enough for 4 servings. I divide the noodles into 4 containers, then put all of the veggies into their own screw-top or pop-top containers (you’ll find an affiliate link below the recipe for the kind I use). Baggies will also work for the veggies (except for the pickled onion!) and herbs. I also always pack a couple of lime wedges for squeezing over the top (you can put them in the same container as the carrots, or in a separate baggie).
A simple matter of adding ingredients to a jar and shaking. Easy-breezy! With that being said…
Meal-prep Meatball Vietnamese Noodle Bowls: about the sauce
The sauce for these noodle bowls is nuoc cham—a condiment of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and chilies. I make a very quick version in which I substitute rice vinegar for lime juice (this recipe goes half and half) and add chili-garlic sauce in place of the traditional sliced chilies.
Nuoc cham—with minor riffs on these core ingredients–is ubiquitous in Vietnamese and Thai cuisine.
I probably consume gallons of this sauce each year. But I have been informed—in the rudest possible way—that some people don’t like fish sauce. (I’m guessing that they probably don’t eat authentic Thai or Vietnamese food very often, either.) Let me assure you: fish sauce is not detectably fishy at all. Much like Worchestershire sauce, which is made with fermented anchovies, fish sauce simply supplies glutamates—a product of fermentation—and salt.
See, Asian cuisine strikes a balance between sweet, sour/bitter, salt, spice, and umami: sometimes this is done with complementary dishes during the course of a meal, but other times—like now— all 5 of the classic tastes appear in the same dish. Fish sauce brings a much-needed, subtle umami flavor in the background. Without it, a dish will seem a bit off for some undetectable reason.
I get it. Fish sauce smells funky. I feel safe in saying that there are NO fish sauce-scented aromatherapy candles in existence. But when you mix it with the riot of flavors in a typical Vietnamese or Thai dish, the result is complex and delicious. I have never once thought to myself, “a-HA, FISH SAUCE!”
IF you are one of those for whom the mere idea of fish sauce is revolting, leave it out. Try subbing in tamari: it won’t be the same—by a long shot. But it will work. Or, don’t make the sauce at all: just sprinkle on some tamari to taste and drizzle your bowl with a couple of teaspoons of sesame oil.
These meal-prep meatball Vietnamese noodle bowls make for a very healthy meal. A significant part of the dish consists of raw vegetables and herbs with all the attendant nutrients and antioxidants. You bake the meatballs rather than frying them. Also, you incorporate veggies into the mixture. The sauce is salty, but it’s used in moderation (well, I have to admit that I’m quite liberal with it). The noodles are high in carbs, but—again, moderation is key.
But above all, you’ll enjoy assembling and eating these meal-prep meatball Vietnamese noodle bowls.
And there you have it! A vibrant, healthy meal that will be a delight to eat at the office, at the park for a picnic, or right at home. The last time I made this meal, Phil and I ate it for dinner and then had the other 2 servings for lunch the next day. Yum.
I’m linking my recipe for meal-prep meatball Vietnamese noodle bowls with these fantastic link parties:
- #CookBlogShare, a great food blogger recipe-share at Easy Peasy Foodie.
- #CookOnceEatTwice, for recipes that are just as good left-over as they are when you made them, hosted by Searching for Spice.
- #RecipeOfTheWeek hosted by A Mummy Too.
- #BrillBlogPosts, a link party with a variety of lifestyle reads hosted by Honest Mum.
- 1/2 lb ground pork
- 1/2 lb ground turkey
- 1 cup panko bread crumbs
- 1 tbsp garlic, finely minced
- 1 tbsp ginger, finely minced
- 1 tbsp lemongrass (soft, center part only; see recipe note 1)
- 1/4 cup scallions, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup cremini or shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and finely minced
- 1 large egg
- 1/2 tsp coarse salt
- 1 tbsp chili-garlic sauce
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup fish sauce
- 2 tbsp rice vinegar (see recipe note 2)
- 2 tbsp lime juice
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1/2 tbsp chili-garlic sauce
- 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
- ~12 oz dried vermicelli noodles (also called bean threads)
- 1 cup English (seedless) cucumber, julienned
- 1 cup carrots, peeled and julienned
- 1 cup scallions, julienned in ~1 1/2" sections
- 1 cup cilantro, chopped
- 1 cup Thai basil (sweet will also work)
- 1 cup mint leaves
- 1/2 cup pickled red onion (optional, see recipe note 4)
- lime wedges, for serving
- 2 tbsp raw peanuts, (toast and chop; optional)
- Sriracha (optional)
- tamari (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 large baking sheets with foil. Set a metal rack on top of each baking sheet and spray lightly with cooking spray.
Add all meatball ingredients to a large mixing bowl. Work the meat mixture together with your hands, making sure not to overmix.
Roll into ~1 1/2-inch diameter meatballs and place on the rack. (You should have ~25–30 meatballs.) When your meatballs are all rolled, place the cookie sheets in the oven. Bake for 35 minutes.
Cool for 10 minutes, then store in a freezer bag or plastic container until use. The meatballs will keep for ~3 days in the refrigerator or up to 3 months in the freezer.
Add the nuoc cham ingredients to a small jar and shake well. Keep in the refrigerator until use, up to 1 week. (See recipe note 3)
Place noodles in a heatproof bowl. Pour enough boiling water over the noodles to cover. Let sit for 3 minutes, or until soft (up to 5 minutes). Drain and rinse well with cold water. Drain again.
For eating immediately: divide noodles into 4 bowls. Add 1/4 cup of each veggie (except pickled onion) into each of the 4 bowls, arranging ingredients separately around the outside of the bowls. Pile in several whole leaves of each herb (let your guests tear them over the top of the dish). Add 1 tbsp of pickled onion (if using) and 4–5 meatballs to each bowl. Reserve the remaining meatballs for snacks (or freeze for another time). Finish with a sprinkling of peanuts (if using) and lime wedges. Serve with nuoc cham sauce in a ramekin on the side.
For packing a lunch: the noodles and meatballs can be packed together in a plastic container. Pack nuoc cham and pickled onion (if using) in separate spill-proof containers. Sliced veggies can either be packed into a single plastic container or (if you want it to look pretty with the vegetables separated) into separate containers or baggies. Herb leaves can be packed together into another baggie. Refrigerate. Just before leaving for work, add ice packs to your lunch bag (take particular care to place an ice pack in contact with the container of meatballs and noodles). Be sure to bring an empty salad or soup bowl for assembling the final dish (follow steps for assembling in step 2 above).
- You can substitute 1 tbsp of lemongrass paste.
- For the nuoc cham, I frequently use only rice vinegar if I don't have limes on hand. In this case, I add 4 tbsp of rice vinegar to the mixture.
- If you have tried nuoc cham and do not like it, try using tamari rather than fish sauce. It will be quite different, but should still be delicious.
- Pickled red onion: add 1 small sliced red onion, 1/3 cup rice vinegar, and 2 tbsp of sugar to a microwave-safe container. Microwave for 30 seconds. Store in a screw-top container, shaking occasionally. The onions will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks: they're great as a condiment for meats, salads, and more.
Related tools on Sur La Table (affiliate)
Pressure-cooker Pho Ga: a classic, healthy Vietnamese dish, delivered quickly with the help of a pressure cooker. Loaded up with fresh vegetables and herbs, this is a feast for the eyes and the stomach.
Stir-Fry with Thai Basil & Peanuts: a healthy dish that draws upon Thai and Vietnamese cuisine to achieve a balance of classic Asian flavors. A nuoc cham-based sauce balances out bright herbs, vegetables, and chilies.