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Posted on May 11, 2008 in Beans, Bento, Food Jar, For Kids, Gluten Free, Lactose Free, Meat, Recipe, Review, Rice | 23 comments

Ma po tofu and Sloppy Joe lunches

Ma po tofu and Sloppy Joe lunches


Not all dishes fare well cool or at room temperature. Just imagine Sloppy Joe filling eaten cold — congealed and nasty. Because there are no microwave ovens at my son’s preschool or at the park, I like to have a thermal food jar or thermal lunch jar on hand to expand lunch options to include warm food.

Amazon carries thermal bento sets with a thermal food jar and an insulated carrying case for packing cool side dishes. You can achieve the same the effect on the cheap by using a regular thermal food jar that you can find at stores like Target or Walmart, plus a small side dish container for the room temperature or cool foods. (Read more about hot vs. cold lunch packing considerations.) When I use this set for my own lunches, I also like to pack fresh rice in the thermal lunch jar, keeping it warm and soft until I’m ready to eat. (Note to San Francisco locals: Kamei has the two Zojirushi-brand sets behind the counter for $33. Store info at the SF local shopping guide.)

Ma po tofu bento lunch for preschooler

Later this week I’ll be traveling out to Philadelphia to visit my ailing grandmother, so I won’t be as responsive as usual on the comment front. I’ll still be updating the blog from the road, but just a quick heads up. It’ll be interesting to see how my husband fares packing our three-year-old’s lunches on his own for two days; I promised to help by planning out simple menus that require only quick assembly. Maybe he should read my Mommy’s Lunch Manifesto — Need for Speed… I hear that works for dads too. ;-)

How to make apple rabbits

Contents of preschooler bento lunch: Homemade ma po tofu (with tofu, ground pork, enoki mushrooms and salted black beans), rice, edamame and apple bunnies made with miniature Red Delicious apples that Bug and I found at Safeway (see the apple rabbit tutorial). I thought apple bunnies were out of the picture because Bug doesn’t like apple skin anymore, but something about these tiny apples made him ask for apple bunnies.

Morning prep time: 10 minutes, using leftover mapo tofu. In the morning I made the apple rabbits first and got them soaking in acidulated ice water to curl the ears and prevent the fruit from browning, then moved on to warming the frozen rice and ma po tofu in the microwave and pre-warming the thermal food jar with hot tap water while the apples soaked. (Read on for packing details, Sloppy Joe lunch and recipe, and review of Bush’s Grillin’ Beans.)

Freezing cooked rice in plastic wrapPacking: Because the mapo tofu wasn’t very liquidy at all, I went ahead and packed it on top of warm rice in the inverse of the “rice lid” technique. The rice lid method puts a layer of rice on top of a liquidy stew or curry to keep the rice warm but non-soggy. My son complains about it, though, as he doesn’t like to stir everything up and prefers to see the savory food on top so he can pick things out. Ma po tofu was a good candidate as I make it quite thick (based on a recipe in New Chinese Cooking School, one of the food books in my kitchen). I packed the lunch in a 560ml thermal bento set with one side dish container removed, for a 400ml lunch, more in line with the bento box size guidelines for a thre-year-old. I threw in a Thomas the Tank Engine oshibori damp hand towel in the empty space in the bag so Bug could clean up after eating the apples and edamame.Thomas the Tank Engine oshibori hand towel

Verdict: Thumbs up except for the apple skin itself, which he left behind despite having specifically requested apple bunnies. (Whatever floats your boat, kid!)

* * * * *

Sloppy Joe filling bento lunch for preschooler

Contents of preschooler bento lunch: Homemade Sloppy Joe filling with onion, zucchini and red bell peppers (based on a simple recipe in Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, new edition here — my adapted recipe follows). On the side are Bush’s bourbon and brown sugar-flavored baked beans (product review follows), a strawberry and edamame.

Morning prep time: 6 minutes, using all leftovers. In the morning I microwaved the Sloppy Joe filling until hot while I pre-warmed the thermal food jar with hot tap water.

Product review: The people at Bush’s recently sent me their new line of Grillin’ Beans to try out. They come in four flavors: Bourbon and Brown Sugar, Steakhouse Recipe (beans and brown sugar in a steak sauce), Smokehouse Tradition (beans in a sweet and smoky sauce), and Southern Pit Barbecue (beans in a rich barbecue sauce). I’ve made my own baked beans before on the stove top, in the oven, and on the smoker, so I had high hopes for these beans with a grill theme. After trying the Bourbon & Brown Sugar beans at dinner, we opened up the remaining three cans and did a side-by-side taste test. The adults found the Steakhouse Recipe and Bourbon & Brown Sugar versions to be too sweet, but they were Bug’s favorites for that very reason. We liked the Southern Pit Barbecue version, but found the Smokehouse Tradition to have an odd flavor that wasn’t to our liking. All in all, I might seek out the Southern Pit Barbecue beans in the future if I’m looking for a quick canned bean, but if I were serving beans at a barbecue I’d want to take the time to make my own or doctor the canned versions with freshly sauteed vegetables, crispy fried bacon and hot sauce. The company is currently running a Perfect Pair Contest where readers pair Grillin’ Beans with their favorite chicken, steak or chop recipe to win a US$5,000 prize; check it out if you’re so inclined.

Insulated bento setPacking: To keep the Sloppy Joe filling warm and prevent it from congealing, I packed the lunch in a thermal lunch kit that I got from Ichiban Kan discount store a while back. They recently conducted an online poll to measure interest in these sets, and will be carrying similar products in the future (see my review of Ichiban Kan’s online store, or their retail stores in my San Francisco Bay Area shopping guide for bento gear). The 560ml bento set is too large for a three-year-old according to the bento box size guidelines, so I only half-filled the thermal food jar and the side container with beans. If I’d been making this lunch for myself I would have packed a bun instead of beans so that I could make a fresh sandwich with warm filling just before eating. But Bug asked for beans and gets super-frustrated by the “sloppy” aspect of Sloppy Joe sandwiches, so he used a spoon to eat the warm Sloppy Joe filling on its own.

Verdict: Still a little too much food for Bug. He ate all of the beans and half of the Sloppy Joe filling, the whole strawberry and most of the edamame. He finished the rest at the playground after school.

Sloppy Joes

(Adapted from a recipe in Betty Crocker’s Cookbook, makes 6 sandwiches)

  • 1 pound ground beef (if you have excess ground meat, freeze it in small portions using this trick)
  • 1/2 medium onion, chopped (about 1/3 cup)
  • 1/2 cup chopped zucchini (courgette)
  • 1/2 cup chopped red bell pepper (or any other color bell pepper)
  • 1/3 cup ketchup, or more to taste
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1.5 Tb Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 6 hamburger buns
  1. Heat a 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat and brown the ground beef and onion until browned, then drain off excess liquid and fat.
  2. Stir in the other ingredients except the buns, cover and reduce heat to low.
  3. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes until the vegetables are tender, and fill buns with the beef mixture. For packed lunches, pack the hot filling in a thermal food jar to keep warm, and assemble the sandwich just prior to eating.


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  1. Kids are so weird. Imagine apple skin being ‘not to their liking’.. hehe not a mom myself but an active aunt. Love your blog!

  2. You inspired me to make sloppy joes tonight! I’m also breaking out my new Zojirushi thermal lunch set to bring some to work tomorrow.

  3. I found your site via I enjoy reading about your bentos and your tips for preparing them quickly. I hope your grandmother is all right- I live in Philadelphia, and this post prompted me to de-lurk and say hi. Wishing you well.

  4. Your use of tinned foods just made me realise that even if I have nothing left over from dinner I could still quickly put together a warm lunch this winter. We have something here in Aus called “Stagg Chili” which are very nice, almost mexican flavoured take on beans. I don’t like tinned baked beans at all, but Stagg Chili is great. There is a “classic” a “lean beef” a “extra hot” and a “vegetarian” one here. Surprisingly most people seem to like the vegetarian one best. It comes in cans like this:

  5. Your kid is just amazing. I always marvel at what he’ll eat. If I tried serving mo pa tofu at home, my husband would look at me and say, “What’re you trying to do, KILL me?!”

  6. @1 from Diane: Kids really are funny — Bug can be dead set against something, then change his mind a minute later. Go with the flow, I guess!

  7. @2 from Sharon: Sloppy Joes are a real blast back to childhood for me — I had some ground beef that I hadn’t frozen yet that needed using up, and lots of zucchini. Mmm!

  8. @3 from yoko: Thanks for the kind thoughts about my grandmother; it’s not a super-happy type of visit, unfortunately. (What’s UP with me lately, anyway?!)

  9. @4 from Metanoia: Thanks for the info on that Stagg Chili — it’s always good to have product feedback from people whose taste you trust.

  10. @5 from Jeff: Bwah ha hah! Well, since I met my husband in Japan I think we were exposed to a lot of the same things and crave some of the same foods. With Bug — start ‘em early and make ‘em think all your family’s weird food is normal! ;-)

  11. @5 and @10, I must say that I am very thankful that my husband likes as diverse a range of foods as I do. I grew up with a wide range of foods (due to thai mother, kiwi father and growing up in Thailand/NZ with a year in Pakistan too).

    Also, I just bought some ground beef and was wondering what to do. Your recipe seems so easy and straight forward. I also have some bread mix (just add water brown soda bread), so might make it up in rolls to go with! mmm :)

  12. Kids are so transitional about their food habits. My brother once went from refusing to eat the peel to insisting on eating the peel, and only the peel, but only if we could peel it off in the longest strip possible.

    Who knows why, but for the most part they all manage to keep growing anyway!

  13. @13 from reece: Can you have poultry? If so, try ground turkey or chicken.

  14. Hey…i luv your blog…I’ve recently become obsessed with bento and i’m learning lots from you…I live near philly(in new jersey)…do you know of any shops where i can find bento goodies besides Hmart around here or in south jersey?

  15. tonight the bargain bank (polk st north of california) had 5-6 of the blue Zojirushi-brand sets for $9.99. They have another kind of thermal jar set and rice cookers, too. All the boxes are damaged but the sets are in good condition. the bento boxes are located in the back of the store on the left side by the household products like aluminum foil - sitting on a lower shelf.

  16. @15 from JA: Have you checked the geographic shopping page that the LiveJournal bentolunch community put together? There’s a link on my Shop page:

  17. @16 from hee: Wow, what a great bargain heads-up, hee! I really miss the Bargain Bank on Clement Street now that it closed down.

  18. Very cool Apple Rabbits! I actually thought they looked like tulips until I read the description-I bet I could stick a green frilly toothpick in the bottom :) Great blog, great ideas!

  19. coming out to philly are you, and of course i don’t find out until late!
    as a philly local, let me know if you need any help finding anything, or a ride or something….
    kirsten at fabricdragon dot com or fabricdragon on livejournal.

  20. I just received a copy of The Manga Cookbook and it has a recipe in there for Apple Rabbits! I also received 2 new bento boxes to fill and eat from! Of course they are Hello Kitty (my current obsession) so I’m totally happy!

    I look forward to also incorporating some of your recipes into them as well Biggie!

  21. @19 from Lara: Ha ha, now that you mention it, I can see the resemblance to tulips! :-)

  22. @20 from fabricdragon: Thanks for the offer, fabricdragon! I actually went to some grade school and some high school outside of Philly (and stayed with a high school friend), so didn’t run into any serious issues that I might have in a totally new place. This trip I actually went into the city one night for a party for someone at the Philadelphia Museum of Art — much better than my usual grandma-related trip where I only have time to shuttle back and forth between my grandma’s place and my friend’s house. It’s been a long time! Love the new “Don’t Block the Box” traffic signs downtown — got a giggle out of those.

  23. @21 from Cherie: I’ll have to check that cookbook out!


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