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Posted on Apr 23, 2007 in Parent Hacks, Tips, Tutorial or How-to | 36 comments

Need for speed: A mommy’s lunch manifesto

Need for speed: A mommy’s lunch manifesto

The face of the enemy

I’m a mom who packs lunch. What’s important to a mom? Nutrition and speed: I want to feed my family nutritious food, but spending a lot of time on every meal isn’t feasible. I strive to achieve balance between the two — losing this battle would either have me waking up hours before everyone else to cook lunch, or reaching for a Lunchable processed lunch (the face of the enemy, pictured above).

Spending an hour preparing a weekday lunch is only going to happen in my house if it’s a special occasion like a birthday or holiday — I spend my morning getting myself and a preschooler ready to go out. Although ornate lunches shaped like cartoon characters and whimsical shapes are artistic and intriguing, I know my limits. I would burn out if I tried to do that every day. For me it’s got to be sustainable over the long run, which is why I make speed bentos.

How did I get to this point? I lived in Japan as an expat for nine years and am fluent in Japanese, but didn’t pay much attention to the whole lunch-packing (“bento”) culture there until my husband was misdiagnosed with a food intolerance that ruled out restaurant meals. Back in San Francisco, I decided to send him to work with delicious lunches that would make him feel like he was eating better than his colleagues who were going out to eat. A trip to the local Japanese-language bookstore turned up bento cookbooks that I started studying, especially the creative packing tips and techniques that could be adapted to our normal diet. My husband has since been “undiagnosed” with the food intolerance, but then I found myself carting around a diaper bag stuffed full of little Tupperware containers for my toddler son (“Bug”), or leaving the playground early to go get lunch. Time to pull out those bento boxes again so we can spend more fun time out and about!

So now I’m learning to think on my feet when I look at the refrigerator in the morning. Where I used to see either uninspiring food or time-consuming meals, I can now see quick lunches taking shape. I have fast lunch items in the freezer and fridge, and speedy prep techniques at my fingertips. Let me tell you about some of the speed techniques I’ve picked up from reading Japanese packed lunch cookbooks.

Use your leftovers!
Don’t hesitate to pack food left over from dinner! Leftovers can be your weapons against boring lunches — maximize payout for the time you already put into dinner by making a little extra food. Granted, eating the same thing again can get boring, so look at your leftovers creatively and find ways to give them a makeover. Potato salad can become potato pancakes or faux Scotch eggs, leftover curry can become the base for a curry noodle dish or the stuffing for dumplings.

Faux latkes with tuna Leftover remake: Scotch quail egg with potato salad


Pre-pack lunches when possible
If you find yourself with dinner leftovers, get a head start on the next day’s lunch by packing up some of the meal directly into your lunch container (Tupperware, Laptop Lunchbox, bento box, thermos, etc.) when cleaning up the evening meal. This way you have most of the next morning’s work done already, and lunch will be ready with only minimal preparation like cutting up some fruit.

Ready-made foods
You don’t have to make everything for lunch the same day. Make full use of frozen foods and canned foods to speed things up. Frozen vegetables can go into quick sautes or little frittatas, canned beans can become quick salads. Ready-made deli foods such as hummus or tabbouleh are quick lunch additions. Also, ready-made foods don’t have to be store-bought: many dishes can be made in advance, batch frozen in individual portions (spaghetti cups, unsauced pasta, sandwiches, rice balls), and either defrosted naturally or in the microwave. A well-stocked freezer can save the day on time-pressed mornings.

 

Frozen spaghetti for packed lunches Wrapped cutout sandwiches for freezing: speed bento technique Frozen yaki onigiri for bento lunches


Pre-made sauces give fast flavor
Stock your pantry or refrigerator with a few flavorful sauces that can be added to simple sliced vegetables or sauteed protein/vegetables. These sauces (homemade or store-bought) can be varied to suit your family’s dietary preferences; think black bean sauce, barbeque sauce, teriyaki sauce, cooked salsas, curry sauces, noodle dipping sauce, vinaigrettes or Italian dressing, Korean barbeque sauce, etc.

Make full use of the microwave and toaster oven (or broiler)!
Japanese bento cookbooks often tout the time-saving technique of cooking multiple items simultaneously: in the microwave, toaster oven, frying pan, etc. This saves time and energy; the trick is to select foods that will cook well with the same method and to check doneness periodically (don’t assume all dishes will be done at the same time). Click on any of the photos below for full details.

Speedy prep for mushroom lunches Prep for quail eggs and sausages Frying pan does double duty


Time-saving kitchen tools
Lastly, a couple of tools are particularly useful in speeding up lunch prep. A quick slicer (mini mandoline) makes short work of slicing vegetables and is easy to clean. A microwave mini steamer reduces cook time by 50%, quickly cooking vegetables or frozen dumplings.

Cross-posted to The Daily Tiffin family and lifestyle blog, where I will be contributing to the Tiffin Tuesday column every other week. Lunch in a Box is nominated for Best Food Blog in the Blogger’s Choice Awards. If you’d like to cast your vote for speedy lunch packing, click here (you can vote for multiple blogs in the same category).

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  1. This made me remember once when I was in a grocery store with a coworker. She picked up a box of Lunchables and announced, “These should be called, ‘I’m a Bad Mother!’” Wasn’t very nice, I guess, but it seemed true to me–I would never, if at all possible, send my kid (if I had one) out with nothing but crackers and old lunchmeat as a meal…

    Also, just wanted to let you know that your blog has been inspiring me to pack better, bento-style lunches for myself and my husband (no kids to bento-ize yet). Thanks for all the great ideas!

  2. Thanks for the kind words! Like a lot of people, I’m somewhat horrified by Lunchables and have started asking older kids why they like them. Evidently in some circles they’re quite the status symbol, and kids enjoy the do-it-yourself food assembly aspect to them (play with your food). So I figure I can duplicate the DIY aspect in some meals later on without resorting to Lunchables. Just watch, though, wouldn’t it be ironic if Bug becomes one of those kids who begs for a Lunchable instead of a bento! :-0

  3. Thanks jzabelle! I’m excited to be on board there and write for an international parenting audience in addition to the bento community.

  4. I know I’ve probably said this a thousand times already, but your posts are truly inspiring! I especially enjoyed this one, being a nutrition-freak and student with lack of time. Ever since I started to take use of your tips lately, I’ve finally broken the time-problem barrier and gotten around to making some bentos!

  5. Welcome, 3under3! I hope some of the info and tips (from both me and other readers) will be helpful to you!

  6. I’ve found you through the lactivist as well, and man, I’m practically vibrating in my seat with excitement, waiting for my first bento set to arrive!

    I can’t wait. I’ve got an 18 month old, and getting her to eat a large variety of foods is very, very important to me… and I’m undertaking the herculean task of taking control of my health, by eating less and more sensibly, and bento is the perfect vehicle for that!

    I’m a very poor mother, so this is a huge splurge for me, but I think it will be so worth it. This journal is SUCH a huge inspiration… I think I’m going to start getting very, very creative from now on. We’re awful about not eating leftovers (I just threw away an ENTIRE pot roast!), and I think bentos will be great for breaking that habit!

  7. Thanks, pernwebgoddess! Bug really seems to get a kick out of his small bento meals. We just give him whatever we eat, but make it easy/appealing for him to eat (cutting things small, giving him little picks, forks, and sauce containers, character bento boxes that he recognizes, etc.). I find myself being more frugal with food, packing away tiny amounts of leftovers that I used to eat up or throw away, and then actually USING those little leftovers in bentos instead of letting them rot in the fridge. Sometimes just a few tablespoons of leftovers is just the right amount to round out a packed lunch!

  8. Thanks for the tips. I’m a student and I simply can’t afford eating out anymore. I always hated normal lunchboxes and sandwiches; my mom had such trouble trying to get me to eat anything when I was little.

    Now I can do my own lunch quickly and in a way I’m actually going to find appetizing.

    My friends are going to be so jealous. Thanks!

  9. Welcome, Jess! Seize control of your lunches!! (and maybe tell your friends about the website if they’re jealous?)

  10. Hi — found you via ParentHacks and I LOVE your ideas! I did Lunchables for a few short months but had to stop for the combined shame of lousy food, poor value, and ecological terrorism. Until I could get my son to eat the school lunch (where he’s more likely to eat veggies because the other kids do it), I made “Momables,” which I guess now I could say were Bento-inspired. But your recipes and combinations are incredible. I’ll definitely be back!

  11. @14 from JT:
    Ha ha, “Momables” — I like it! Thank you for the kind comment, and please feel free to ask any questions you might have even on old entries (I keep up with them).

  12. Great website! I found you while looking for bento boxes. My favorite way to pack lunches was the 3 section rectangular box by Ziplock, but alas, they are no longer made. I am down to my last one and it is showing its age.

    My daughter calls her lunches “Momables” too! The DIY thing–and being able to share and trade food–is a big deal in elementary school.

    I have not read the entire site, but my comments/questions are about reheating. I have read that it’s not a good idea to microwave in plastic. Your thoughts? Also, our school has no fridge or microwave, so lunches have to be packed with an ice pack and eaten cold. Is there a way to keep rice moist this way?

    Thanks!

  13. Thank you for this site. I feel inspired. I have been resorting to prepackaged foods for months now. Time to get a bento box or two and give my family something tasty.

    Love it.

  14. @17 from Kangomom: Thanks, Kangomom! I find that the process of making a bento lunch kind of prompts me into better eating habits than if I were to scrounge and throw things into a bag. Hope you have fun with your bento box (or substitute)!

  15. Love your site! So glad I found it. Quick question – does your preschooler & husband heat their food during lunch? Or do they eat it at room temp? I’m having trouble of coming up with foods that can be eaten at room temp and still taste good, and I see your pics of spaghetti and I dont’ think my child wouldn’t eat spaghetti at room temp, and his preschool will not heat anything for them. Thanks =)

  16. @19 from Jen: We generally aren’t near a microwave during lunch, so no heating and lunches are eaten room temp unless I used some kind of thermal food jar, thermal lunch jar, etc. You might be interested in my longer post on hot vs. cold lunches.

  17. Hi there…Man i love reading your blog, interesting posts ! it was a great Sunday . Sasha Cohen

  18. @24 from vampyra1: Wow, thanks vampyra1! That’s so sweet of you, you just made my day.

  19. @26 from mom8360: Thanks for the breakdown of how much money you’re saving by packing bentos! It definitely adds up, and I think it feels a little more special packing things bento-style than cramming things into a brown bag.

  20. hey there! i adore your site. i have to admit i am one of those “bad mothers” who gave their child lunchables :/ i felt guilty doing it but i grew up with it, and it became a sick chain reaction, i suppose. due to lack of time and lack of being educated on nutrition i grabbed those dreadful boxes. it got to the point where i reached out looking for a solution and alas i found your site! anyways, the concept of making food cute and organized to tempt better eating has really opened my eyes, and my sons! i was so envious of how well your son eats, i have become determined to try and get my son to eat better. he is really against greens, most other vegetables or anything that isnt a hot dog etc. heh! i am sure its because of the terrible feeding pattern he had been shown, ugh. since lurking your site for the past 2 weeks i bought some bentos, lots of new foods (i never usually tried anything new), a bento cook book, and accessories. i have been trying different receipes and techniques that you have on your site and they really have been working well for us! we have been eating better and i even feel better!! i am sure my son does too. it really makes me feel good to try a reciepe and give it to my son and know hes eating healthy and getting the right serving sizes. thank you for sharing your knowledge, i really enjoy all you have to say. i am pretty sure bentos will be in my household for a long time.

  21. Your initial reason for packing bento is very similar to mine. A few months ago I was diagnosed with food allergies. (barley, yeast, onion, green bean and rice) It is sad how much food I have had to cut out of my diet. I can’t eat out anymore. No premade soups or breads. No more sushi for me which was my favorite food. I have had to completely change my diet and bring all my lunches with me. I make just about everything from scratch so I started researching and found out about bento. It has completely changed my outlook on things. Reading your blogs really helps a lot too! It helps to keep me motivated.

  22. I just wanted to add one of my favorite speed-tips:

    If you want bacon in anything (chicken dishes, burgers, fried rice, eggs, salads, etc), Costco and Sam’s Club sell wonderful big resealable bags of pre-cooked real bacon pieces. I keep one in the freezer, where the pieces keep for a good long time, and just pull out a handful whenever I need them.

    No mess, no fuss, no cooking time, no grease, and no extra chemicals, artificial flavors, gluten, or preservatives (other than what is in plain bacon)!

  23. @28 from newtobento: I’m so glad your son is accepting of new foods when presented bento-style! Kids are so funny — I’m happy when we’re able to gently guide them into good habits.

  24. @29 from Courtney: Your eating predicament sounds severe; I’m so glad you stumbled across bentos! I look at them as being one way to really spoil yourself from a food standpoint, in the face of all sorts of discouragement about what you can’t eat. Enjoy!

  25. @30 from Alison: Frozen pre-cooked bacon sounds like a good idea! No reason you couldn’t make your own, too, if that’s more up your alley.

  26. Courtney,

    I have a really good recipe for a quick focaccia-type bread that does not need yeast or rice flour (and I guess you could use wheat, right?)–let me know if you would like it. There are also a lot of good Passover recipes that do not use any leavening at all.

    You might want to check out http://www.glutenfreeforum.com (am I allowed to post that here?), as there are many people there who have multiple food allergies (and lots of recipes!), though it sounds like gluten isn’t a problem for you. (Or is it? Maybe I missed something.)

    Biggie: I don’t think the bacon was actually MEANT to be frozen–I just chucked it in the freezer for convenience. It’s shelf-stable until opened, then requires refrigeration. Since Costco sells it in a big bag (20-oz–it’s made by Hormel), I think it actually comes out cheaper than buying your own bacon, cooking it, and then freezing it, unless you buy bacon in bulk.

  27. hi there, I was just wondering if what you say batch frozen in individual portion, spaghetti cups, do you mean sauced spaghetti portion? And when you say,”unsauced”, you mean we have an alternative of freezing them sauced and unsauced? sorry for asking so much. I am a newbie and is always in a need for rush fixing bento for my 2 kids before i leave for work

  28. oops. i mean, “When you say” not “what you say” . typing in haste cos thought i heard the little one fretting in bed. hee hee..

  29. @37 from allthingspurple: Yes, that’s right — you can either freeze pasta sauced, or unsauced but tossed with a bit of butter or olive oil to keep things from sticking together too much. Click on the links in the post to get all the details. :-)

  30. Regarding lunchables. My guys, now 13, used to crave them! We finally gave in and they got one as a special treat. They learned, lol, they learned! They are NOT good. They are NOT filling!. You’re spending an ungodly amount on something you still have to add other foods to! I can spend less on a bento and my guys will have MORE to eat!

  31. Hey this is a awesomereffic site =) thanks so much for putting it up .. when my aunt got me a bento i was like ” what am i suppose to fit in this ??” >.<” but now i realize it could be really fun making bentos everyday ( im still learning how to cook from my mom) lol so far ive completed a simple onigiri ( rice ball) so yay ! thanks for the recipes =)

  32. I have been doing bentos once a week for about a month and a half now. I’ve got 6 kids all in 6th grade and under. They LOVE it when i send them with a bento. My sons first request was an onigri(which at the time we didn’t know what they were. My one daughter has always been in love with anything asian so doing bentos has made her the happiest. we always packed a lunch but when i found out about bentos i decided to do them once a week. The kids at school can’t wait to see what they have in there bentos! I still have to try to cut down my time but i love the stuff you have on here and time is expecially getting to be an issue here. looking forward to making more!!

  33. What a fantastic website! What great info! I have 4 kids and at my wits end most nights trying to pack them all a healthy lunch and remember who likes/dislikes what…(mustard n cheese on this sandwich;, mayo, no cheese on this one; meat only this one…LOL).

    Question: What American version of the Bento boxes do you think would be most appropriate for 2 toddlers that are special needs? They have trouble opening things,and the are young, but go to a school like big kids (in a separate ESE class). What exactly would I need for a ‘starter’ kit for that age group with heightened occupational difficultes?

    Thanks so much!

  34. I’ve been interested in bento’s ever since I got my first bento. Now in possession of 11 bento’s and the collection is still growing. ;D At first I had just collected them because I liked the way they looked, then I came across your site.

    Thats when I decided to start making bento boxe lunches. =3 The first one I made was an egg and shrimp donbury bowl in my first bento.

    Thanks for inspiring me to reach for the stars.

  35. Visit my webby site and enjoy; thanks Biggie! =3

  36. I will be in New York next spring. Please, please tell me where to shop for all Bento equipment.

    Thank you
    Jenny Kosky

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