Mac & cheese lunches: Hot vs. cold
I’ve used thermal food jars before to pack curries, stew, oden, chili, hotpot, and even rice — keeping everything warm and soft until lunchtime. Given how stiff macaroni and cheese can get once it cools, I wondered if it would benefit from being packed in a food jar. My three-year-old doesn’t complain about cold pasta (yet), but I tried some of Bug’s leftover pasta after picking him up from school, and it was still soft and warm in the jar. Success! Think outside of the box if you’ve got a thermal food jar and no access to a microwave at lunchtime; what else would be good warm?
Contents of preschooler bento lunch: Organic shells & cheese with sauteed zucchini, onions and diced bulgogi (Korean marinated, grilled beef) with a little leftover Japanese curry stirred in at the end. Steamed broccoli with Korean barbecue sauce, carnitas braised pork, cherry tomatoes, blueberries and homemade apple crisp (recipe is from Cooks’ Illustrated’s The New Best Recipe, but online subscribers can find it on their website).
Morning prep time: 10 minutes, using leftover mac & cheese, apple crisp, and Del Real carnitas from Costco. In the morning I pre-warmed the food jar with hot tap water while I microwaved the mac & cheese with a splash of water to restore the texture. I also nuked the carnitas to take the chill off, and cooked the broccoli in my microwave mini steamer.
Cooking: As an aside, I recently saw Alton Brown’s new Good Eats show on broccoli, which mentioned that “a study in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture found that microwaving broccoli reduced its antioxidant compounds by 74-97%.” Ack! I’m having double thoughts about microwaving broccoli now; it looks like steaming or pan-frying are much better. I’m going to all this effort to make sure Bug gets his vegetables, I don’t want them to be nutritionally crippled… (Click for packing info and an additional preschooler lunch with panda bento band.)
Packing: Packed in a 560ml insulated bento set that kept the pasta soft and warm until lunchtime. The carnitas went into a reusable silicone baking cup, and the apple crisp went into a 2 oz. disposable lidded condiment cup (the same kind that I used for the jello fruit cups). The condiment cups are disposable, but I’m so cheap I wash them by hand and reuse them. I like the fact that they have lids, so I can pack liquidy food or dips nicely contained inside a packed lunch (especially convenient when packing a bento for a plane trip as you can put the covered container inside your freezer bag to get through airport security, and toss them afterwards if need be).
Shopping: Right now Target has cheap silicone baking cups in Easter colors for US$1 in their Dollar Spots. Evidently these particular silicone cups are pretty thin and squish down into box lunches more easily than their more expensive, thicker counterparts.
Verdict: Good, but on time delay. Bug actually ate two breakfasts this morning as he was asking for “more more” after finishing his normal breakfast. (Did I mention his growth spurt?) Not surprisingly, he wasn’t very hungry when it was time to eat lunch at 11:30, so he ate about a third of the mac & cheese at preschool and left the rest until the playground afterwards. He became ravenous at 2:00, though, and scarfed down everything (although I shared some of his mac & cheese). I was a little taken aback when I opened up his bento bag and found everything mostly untouched, though, until I remembered his monster appetite at breakfast.
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Contents of preschooler bento lunch: English muffin sandwich with chicken salad and cheddar cheese, blueberries, plum tomatoes, and doctored shells & cheese with sauteed vegetables.
Morning prep time: 10 minutes, using leftover mac & cheese, and store-bought chicken salad from Costco. In the morning I made the sandwich, and briefly nuked the shells & cheese with a splash of water to restore the texture.
Packing: Again I plead guilty to unnecessary garnish, as the red lettuce under the English muffin sandwich was a purely decorative shot of green in the lunch. Bug ignored it. I put the mac & cheese into a disposable paper baking cup, which smushes down lower than the reusable silicone baking cups that I have. The lunch is packed in a cheap three-tier bento box, fastened with a new panda bento band made out of felt with an elastic strip sewn into the bottom section (both from Daiso Japanese discount store with branches internationally). Two panda bento bands, one large and one small, came together for US$1.50.
Verdict: Thumbs up over time. Bug ate the whole sandwich at preschool, but left the third container untouched. After preschool he ate the rest as a snack.
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