I usually wind up packing my son’s lunch in the morning, but if I really had my act together I’d pack more lunches the night before when we’re cleaning up from dinner. Leftovers feature prominently in our lunches anyway, so evening packing would just be getting a leg up on the next day. But what I CAN manage is partial packing: where I throw one or two elements into a box for the next day, then finish up the rest in the morning.
Some foods do better without an overnight stay in the refrigerator, though. The texture of rice particularly suffers in the refrigerator, and needs reheating before packing to make it soft and warm again. If you have a cool rice cooker with a timer, though, you can set it to have freshly cooked rice ready in the morning.
Contents of preschooler bento lunch & snack: Roast chicken drumstick, baby carrots, cherry, kiwifruit, blueberries, and mild curried mushrooms (khombi tarkari).
Cooking: For dinner this weekend I tried out a mushroom recipe from Moghul Microwave, Julie Sahni’s cookbook of convenient Indian food. I didn’t need to tone down the spiciness for my three-year-old as I used a mild Madras curry powder for flavor. It didn’t thicken sufficiently with the amount of cornstarch called for, though, so I wound up doubling that. I don’t think I actually saved much time by making this in the microwave oven as opposed to the stovetop, but it was a warm afternoon when I was cooking and it was nice not to heat up the kitchen in the summer.
Morning prep time: 6 minutes, using leftover rotisserie chicken and curried mushrooms. The night before, I put the drumstick in the box when cleaning up from dinner. In the morning I peeled and cut the kiwi, and plated the mushrooms. To speed up my morning even more I could have assembled the entire lunch the night before and kept it in the fridge overnight — no rice to get hard and unappetizing in the cold. The kiwi is a little nicer when sliced fresh, though. (Read on for packing details and a Singaporean skate wing lunch.)
Packing: As my son is a bit of a neatnik, I made a clean handle on the drumstick using decorative Ciao-brand aluminum foil from Daiso (introduced in my earlier post on drumstick handles). A bento basic is to drain foods of excess moisture for best packed lunch food safety, so I spooned the mushrooms and onions into a mini strainer and bowl before packing them in a plastic souffle cup. I like the lidded condiment cups for homemade jello jigglers and moist foods that might otherwise jump around in the box during transit. Although they’re meant to be disposable, there’s no reason not to wash and reuse them (hey, I do!). But if your child accidentally tosses them at school, no problem — they’re cheap and widely available at restaurant supply stores like Smart & Final or on Amazon.
The fruit went into a reusable hard plastic food cup from Daiso, and the lunch is packed in a 360ml Disney Cars bento box with both subcontainers removed to fit the long drumstick. I threw the lunch, an oshibori damp hand towel, a utensil set, and a drink into a Shinkansen-themed insulated lunch bag along with a few little ice packs cut from a flexible ice blanket to keep things cool until lunchtime.
Verdict: Thumbs up from Bug on his first day back at preschool after a two-week summer hiatus. He ate it all at preschool, no leftovers. A 360ml box is still okay for my preschooler’s appetite at the moment (see the bento box size guidelines), but I do wonder how long it’ll be before I need to bump up the size of his lunches a bit. I guess I’ll wait and see if he starts complaining of hunger; for now I know he’s happy to be able to finish all of his lunch.
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Contents of preschooler bento lunch & snack: Grilled skate wing with chili sambal sauce (recipe from Lily’s Wai Sek Hong blog), sauteed pea shoots with garlic and Thai oyster sauce, plum tomatoes, rice, shrimp-flavored furikake rice sprinkles, and cherries. I’ve been searching for ways of preparing stingray since making it last year; I finally came close to my memory of eating it in Singapore at the Airport Hawker Center in the 1990’s! I cut the amount of chilies for Bug’s palate, and substituted parchment paper fastened with regular office staples for the banana leaf wrapper — it really hit the spot. The secret ingredient in the sambal is definitely the strong-smelling belachan dried shrimp paste (a.k.a. belacan or blachan). It gives the sauce an earthy nuance like nothing else I’ve run across.
Storage tip: Double-, triple-, even quadruple-wrap your block of belachan securely in layers of plastic or glass unless you want your entire pantry to smell like funky shrimp paste! Like they say about durian, it tastes like heaven, smells like hell.
Morning prep time: 5 minutes, using all leftovers. I packed the two small containers the night before when cleaning up from dinner. So in the morning I just warmed the rice in the microwave and filled the little spice dispenser with furikake rice sprinkles.
Packing: The stingray went into a reusable silicone baking cup with most of the sambal scraped off, and the furikake went into cheap little spice shakers from Daiso. The little shakers are also good for things like grated cheese, chili pepper, and other spices, but there’s no need to actually spend money on these if you have a spare mini spice bottle (the squat ones from McCormick are a great size). Dress it up with stickers or markers if you like and you’re set!
I used a 560ml thermal bento set from Ichiban Kan to keep the rice warm and the side dishes cool. I slipped a couple of tiny ice packs cut from a flexible ice blanket into the insulated bag, and asked Bug to hold off on the cherries until after he’d eaten everything else. Initially I’d wanted to keep the cherries in my own bag to keep as an after-school snack for Bug, but he asked to have everything together in the same bag.
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