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Posted on Jun 13, 2007 in Bento, Corn Tortillas or Masa, Equipment, Food Jar, For Kids, Gluten Free, Lactose Free, Meat, Soup or Stew | 18 comments

Nesting boxes, chili con carne

Nesting boxes, chili con carne


Chili con carne bento lunch

Contents: Homemade chili con carne, yellow rice with sofrito and alcaparrado, and cucumbers and tomatoes marinated in sanbaizu sweet vinegar sauce. The chili recipe is from Cook’s Illustrated’s The New Best Recipe , and the yellow rice is from Daisy Cooks! The chili was definitely not fast to prepare (almost three hours on Sunday, toasting/grinding my own chiles), but it was definitely worth it — I also doctored it with a little Mexican chocolate and peanut butter (think mole sauce).

Morning prep time: 6 minutes, using leftovers (chili and yellow rice). The only thing I made this morning was the quick cucumber/tomato “salad” — quickly cut the veggies and tossed with a little pre-made sanbaizu from the refrigerator (this would also be nice with any vinaigrette dressing). I find it fast to work with cherry tomatoes or small tomatoes for small amounts as I can just grab a few and halve them, as opposed to cutting a whole tomato and then needing to wrap up the excess (we’re only talking seconds here, mind you). I pre-warmed the thermal food jar with hot water from the tap, microwaved the leftover chili and rice, and packed.

Packing: Because the insulated bento set only really keeps the food in the thermal food jar hot, I just warmed the rice a bit to take the chill off (and restore the texture), but heated the chili until hot. Heat rises, so I packed the vegetable container underneath the rice container (not that it makes much difference, but still).

Nesting bento boxes with band

The bento boxes shown here are a new Thomas the Tank Engine set of nesting boxes I picked up from Moritaya in San Francisco’s Japantown. Bug outgrew his other 280ml Thomas box, so I figured this would work well with his growing appetite (and love of Thomas) over the next few years.

Nesting bento boxes: Thomas the Tank Engine

Nested bento boxes: Thomas theTank Engine

There are four lidded containers (450ml, 280ml, 180ml and 100ml) that fit inside each other when empty, and can be used in any combination to pack a lunch. I’m liking these a lot as they give me a lot of flexibility with food portions and food shapes (i.e. Bug’s long tamale fit nicely inside the 450ml container and I could then choose from three remaining containers according to how much food I still had left to pack). When full, I used a cheap US$1 bento band from Ichiban Kan in San Francisco to hold them together, and after lunch I put the empty containers inside each other to save space. The boxes are labeled as being microwave-safe, but not the lids. I found a similar set with the Rilakkuma character here on Amazon, but I’m sure there are similar ones on eBay.

Note that these are not all that different from nesting Tupperware! If you don’t want to shell out the money for character-themed bento boxes, just use regular food containers! Check out this Japanese Flickr user’s photos of beautiful bento lunches packed in normal Tupperware. It’s a valid way to pack a bento lunch — I’m looking at a Japanese-language bento book right now with gorgeous photos of bentos packed in Gladware and freezer containers… (Don’t believe the hype!)

Tamale lunch for preschooler

Contents of Bug’s lunch: Pork tamale with crema (Hispanic sour cream), apple slices dipped in lemonade to prevent browning, cut cucumbers and a cherry tomato.

Morning prep time: 10 minutes, using frozen tamales from Costco. Steaming these the traditional way takes too much time in the morning, and just throwing them into the microwave plain gives them an unpleasant texture, so I cooked it in a large microwave steamer for 3 minutes (1100W) for the best of both worlds.

Packing: I used a little flip-top squeeze bottle shaped like an egg to hold the crema — this allowed Bug to neatly sauce either individual bites of tamale or make designs on the whole tamale in the box (he did both). This worked better for Bug than normal lidded sauce containers as he gets frustrated dipping crumbly tamales into a little container of sauce. There was enough crema that I was able to put some in my chili con carne. The top part (egg and red part) unscrew to reveal a wide-mouth opening; to fill with viscous sauce, I used the “squeeze and release” method after dipping the top of the container into the little tub of crema.

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. I’m fond of my ear syringe for filling things. I squeeze the container to overcome any accidental seals from sticking the syringe into the bottle and let things equalise as it fills. Can’t seem to get them all the way full just sucking up from a container… (maybe I’m suction-challenged!).

    Your Thomas containers and the link remind me of a similar set I found for my Sanrio Cinnamoroll-obsessed friend Flor - a graduated set of squares, the largest of which was almost as big as my first bento box!

    • OMG, I just typo’d my own name. :faceplant:

    • Hear you on getting them full! If the sauce is viscous, after squeezing/sucking once, I turn the container right-side-up and tap it on the counter to get the sauce down to the bottom. Squeeze the remaining air out, suck up more sauce, and it’s done. Ear syringe sounds good as long as it hasn’t been in an ear!!!

      • Har. No, it was brand-new from the CVS or Walgreen’s or somebody, and washed with soapy water on top of that. It lives in the sakura box, safely.

  2. I just got that very same sauce bottle set at Mitsuwa! Love the tip about filling them like tarebin, I can’t wait to use them for the first time.

    • If it’s really liquidy you can pour it right into the containers, but if it’s really thick, squeeze & release is best unless you’ve got a squeeze bottle (i.e. bottle of ketchup). It also came with a little bottle filler attachment that screws onto the plasic squeeze bottles of Japanese Kewpie mayo & ketchup.

  3. Oh, my son will go nuts if I buy this Thomas lunch box set! He will start eating lunch at school in September. Need to get a Sanrio Cinnamoroll set for my daughter, too!!

    • Oh! I got a bunch of Cinnamoroll stuff for a Sanrio-mad friend of mine! I believe ‘Skater’ holds the license for them; I got her one of the boxes with the snap-downs on either side of the lid, and also found a set of four square boxes similar to Bug’s Thomas set up there.

      It was all on eBay, so if you want me to find the references, I’ll look them up for you. :)

    • I thought of your son when I bought it, BTW! I know they love Thomas. There was a recall of some selected Thomas toys this week, BTW — check out the company’s recall page:

  4. Hi there,

    I just had a quick question about the thermal bento you used in this lunch. I’m thinking of buying one but I wondered how watertight are they? Would they cope with soup?

    • Docsarah, after reading your question I went into the kitchen and filled the little thermal jar with water to test its watertightness. They initially seemed fine, but when I shook the container violently or turned it on its side it did leak a little. I think it’d work if you were to keep it upright, use a thick stew, or popped the whole little container into a sealed 1-quart freezer bag for insurance.

  5. How did you keep the Tamale warm enough so it would be safe to be hot till lunch? We find that soups etc that we heat to boil and keep in a thermal cup are OK, but stuff like tamales wouldn’t keep hot in a regular tuperware type container..

  6. I saw the nesting bento boxes you used here and thought those would be perfect for me, but I can’t find them online anywhere and there’s nowhere near my house to shop for stuff like this so if there’s anywhere you could recommend to look I would be grateful. I’ve gone to the links on the list already and looked there though.
    Thank you and you do an amazing job I love reading this and then trying it out!

  7. Great post, thanks for the info

  8. I’m a working woman aged 28 years. My 3 year old started preschool this year and as a first time mom I was panicking and wondering what to put in that box. Tomorrow( 20/07/2010) they will have a picnic at school so I was looking around what to put in her basket. I realised how much I missed out, but is never too late. I think with your side I wont receive food back AGAIN.

    Thank you- This is really fantastic and saved my life.! I think you are making all women life easier out there.


  9. The other thing you can do (that’s probably cheaper anyway) is to buy a little food jar from somewhere like Walmart or Target and combine it with any kind of small bento box or Tupperware to achieve a similar effect as the insulated bento kit above. The advantage of this is that the little insulated food jars are totally waterproof and retain heat longer (especially the Thermos or Nissan brands — excellent quality).

  10. In the U.K., has similar ones (Thermos brand) in purple here and also carries it here. You might want to look around for different colors & designs, but you really shouldn’t have to pay international shipping for something basic like this.

  11. The purple one is very cute!

    I didn’t realize there was such a large variety out there. I’m going to have a hunt around today - saying the weather here is so nice at the moment, I want to put gazpacho in it, possibly with a few tomato juice ice cubes to keep it extra chilly:)

    Thanks for the links!