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Posted on Feb 26, 2008 in Bento, Equipment, Food Jar, For Kids, Leftover Remake, Meat, Pasta or Noodles, Poultry, Sandwich or Wrap | 16 comments

Mac & cheese lunches: Hot vs. cold

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?


Bulgogi mac & cheese bento lunch for preschooler

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.

Microwave mini steamerCooking: 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.)

Juice gelatin fruit cup for packed lunchesPacking: 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.

* * * * *

English muffin sandwich bento lunch for prechooler

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.

Panda bento belt & 3-tier bento box

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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  1. What a good looking lunch.

  2. I have been steaming broccoli in the microwave as well. Thank you for the info on that!

    Also, do you find it tricky to pack food that can be all the same/similar temperature in an insulated container such as a Nissan Stainless? I recently packed a lunch for my husband with soup in the lower container and veggies and fruit in the other containers and he commented that the veggies and fruit were somewhat warm by the time he ate his lunch.

  3. Anything sauced; from pasta to a light or full-fat (3 percent or so on the milk or milk sub) potato gratin enriched with ham and onions, a side dish of a colourful salad. Had people completely forgotten potatoes these days? You can make a potato salad with lots of veggies and a vinaigrette sauce. I prefer it slightly warmish but it’s not a requirement. Just plonk down veggies.
    Ie. I’d go with something slightly moist but not wet so that it keeps cooking and hence drying out. Risotto?

    If you ever feel like cooking something omelettish, consider looking up the persian dish koko sabzi. It’s actually a dish for the new year but whose to say you can’t eat nice food all year huh?
    It’s an omelette of sorts that contains tons of fresh herbs. VERY GOOD.

  4. LOVE your blog! Having just purchased a microwave mini steamer, I was worried about using it for vegetables after reading about that study. But then I found this article:
    It talks about the details of the study and it seems that they were actually cooking their vegetables IN water, rather than steaming them. Apparently the water can leach out the nutrients, but steaming seems to be fine.

  5. @1 from Maggie: Hey, thanks Maggie!

  6. @2 from Kristin: You’ve hit upon a quirk (feature?) of the thermal lunch jars with multiple food containers inside of one thermal jar. Everything does tend to even out to one temperature inside, so all-warm or all-cool foods do best packed in those. One advantage of the insulated bento sets like the one above is that you can pack some warm and some cool foods together without much heat transferrance. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good (especially if you throw in a tiny ice pack on the cool side).

  7. @3 from Jessika: Koko sabzi, huh? Sounds interesting; I’ll check it out!

  8. I have a question re. the thermal food jar… while looking for some on amazon, I noticed that some thermal food jars seem to come with another plastic ‘layer’ in the thermal portion that can be removed. Not sure when we’re supposed to use the plastic lining vs. not? Thanks in advance!

  9. I was able to stop past a Target store today and pick up their last pack of the silicone baking cups for $1. It looks like they will work great. Thanks for pointing out the great deal!

  10. I have a very elementary question that jives a bit with today’s post. Today, you packed a warm lunch. However, most days you seem to indicate an understanding that lunch will be cool when eaten as it is packed into a non-insulated container. Why then, do you reheat the leftovers before packing? Seems to me this would have to do with food spoilage rather than presentation, but I can’t figure why heated food would spoil slower than food that had been fully cooled and then was just packed at the cooled temp and allowed to adjust to room temp. before lunch.

    I’m packing with a micro. available at lunchtime today - but that might not always be the case.

    Thanks, Biggie. I enjoy reading.

  11. I saw that on Alton Brown’s show too! Eeek! I’m glad to see that it was because people microwaved it in water.

  12. @8 from e: Ah, I’ve seen those removable plastic containers in the thermal bento kits before (I took apart one of the Zojirushi models in a store to inspect it more thoroughly). It’s hard plastic that fits right down inside of the metal insulated container. You pack food right inside of the plastic thing, but the benefit is that you can microwave food already packed in the plastic container to heat it, then just set it into the pre-warmed insulated jar. Would be convenient when packing up leftovers the night before — just nuke in the morning in the same container.

  13. @9 from Frozendragon: Glad they still had the silicone baking cups in stock for you, Frozendragon! I love a bargain, and figure all of you might too.

  14. Well, I made my first bento today. :) You can see a picture of it here:
    (You can see my attempt at Yaki onigiri - mine don’t look as nice as yours… maybe not enough soy sauce?).
    I’m heading home again this weekend and have already convinced my mom to go on a bento accessory hunt… I found a neat Winnie-the-pooh sandwich box at Safeway ($3).

  15. @14 from akaJB: Looks great, akaJB — welcome to the bento fold! ;-) On the yaki onigiri, it looks like you have enough soy sauce in the places you got it, maybe try brushing it more evenly over the surface to get the edges? Anyway, thanks for sharing!

  16. You have a little microwave steamer, like we have (ours is a Hello kitty mini steamer). We used it every day for a quick microwave steam of broccoli and carrots.

    As mentioned, the study compared microwaving IN WATER as opposed to the steaming. The nutrients stay in the food, unlike boiling.

    Keep on what you were doing with your steamer!