Need for speed: A mommy's lunch manifesto

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Posted by Biggie

The face of the enemy

I'm a mom who packs lunch. What's important to a mom? Nutrition and speed: I want to feed my family nutritious food, but spending a lot of time on every meal isn't feasible. I strive to achieve balance between the two -- losing this battle would either have me waking up hours before everyone else to cook lunch, or reaching for a Lunchable processed lunch (the face of the enemy, pictured above).

Spending an hour preparing a weekday lunch is only going to happen in my house if it's a special occasion like a birthday or holiday -- I spend my morning getting myself and a preschooler ready to go out. Although ornate lunches shaped like cartoon characters and whimsical shapes are artistic and intriguing, I know my limits. I would burn out if I tried to do that every day. For me it's got to be sustainable over the long run, which is why I make speed bentos.

How did I arrive at this point? I lived in Japan as an expat for nine years and am fluent in Japanese, but didn't pay much attention to the whole lunch-packing ("bento") culture there until my husband was misdiagnosed with a food intolerance that ruled out restaurant meals. Back in San Francisco, I decided to send him to work with delicious lunches that would make him feel like he was eating better than his colleagues who were going out to eat. A trip to the local Japanese-language bookstore turned up bento cookbooks that I started studying, especially the creative packing tips and techniques that could be adapted to our normal diet. My husband has since been "undiagnosed" with the food intolerance, but then I found myself carting around a diaper bag stuffed full of little Tupperware containers for my toddler son ("Bug"), leaving the playground early to go get lunch. Time to pull out those bento boxes again so we can spend more fun time out and about!

So now I'm learning to think on my feet when I look at the refrigerator in the morning. Where I used to see either uninspiring food or time-consuming meals, I can now see quick lunches taking shape. I have fast lunch items in the freezer and fridge, and speedy prep techniques at my fingertips. Let me tell you about some of the speed techniques I've picked up from reading Japanese packed lunch cookbooks.

Use your leftovers!
Don't hesitate to pack food left over from dinner! Leftovers can be your weapons against boring lunches -- maximize payout for the time you already put into dinner by making a little extra food. Granted, eating the same thing again can get boring, so look at your leftovers creatively and find ways to give them a makeover. Potato salad can become potato pancakes or faux Scotch eggs, leftover curry can become the base for a noodle dish or the stuffing for dumplings.

Faux latkes with tuna Leftover remake: Scotch quail egg with potato salad

Pre-pack lunches when possible
If you find yourself with dinner leftovers, get a head start on the next day's lunch by packing up some of the meal directly into your lunch container (Tupperware, Laptop Lunchbox, tiffin, bento box, thermos, etc.) when cleaning up the evening meal. This way you have most of the next morning's work done already, and lunch will be ready with only minimal preparation like cutting up fruit.

Ready-made foods
You don't have to make everything for lunch the same day. Make full use of frozen foods and canned foods to speed things up. Frozen vegetables can go into quick sautes or little frittatas, canned beans can become quick salads. Ready-made deli foods such as hummus or tabbouleh are quick lunch additions. Additionally, ready-made foods don't have to be store-bought: many dishes can be made in advance, batch frozen in individual portions (spaghetti cups, sandwiches, rice balls), and either defrosted naturally or in the microwave. A well-stocked freezer can save the day on time-pressed mornings.

Frozen spaghetti for packed lunches Wrapped cutout sandwiches for freezing: speed bento technique Frozen yaki onigiri for bento lunches

Pre-made sauces for a fast flavor boost
Stock your pantry or refrigerator with a few flavorful sauces that can be add to simply sliced vegetables or sauteed protein/vegetable dishes. These sauces (homemade or store-bought) can be varied to suit your family's dietary preferences; think black bean sauce, barbeque sauce, teriyaki sauce, cooked salsas, curry sauces, noodle dipping sauce, vinaigrettes or Italian dressing, Korean barbeque sauce, etc.

Make full use of the microwave and toaster oven (or broiler)
Japanese bento cookbooks often tout the time-saving technique of cooking multiple items simultaneously: in the microwave, toaster oven, frying pan, etc. This saves energy and time; the trick is to select foods that will cook well with the same method and to check doneness periodically (don't assume all dishes will be done at the same time). Click on any of the photos below for details.

Speedy prep for mushroom lunches Prep for quail eggs and sausages Frying pan does double duty

Time-saving kitchen tools
Lastly, a couple of tools are particularly useful in speeding up lunch prep. A quick slicer (mini mandoline) makes short work of slicing vegetables and is easily cleaned. A mini microwave steamer reduces cook time by 50%, quickly cooking vegetables or frozen dumplings.

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This Post was written by Biggie from Lunch in a Box.


Biggie, this is am incredibly helpful post. It is something that one can keep coming back to and always get inspired with. A real treasure.

Meeta K. Wolff said...
April 24, 2007 at 10:13:00 PM GMT+2  

Hi Biggie! Great tips... it's always good to get more inspiration when you make lunches everyday!

Anonymous said...
April 24, 2007 at 11:29:00 PM GMT+2  

this is a good one. i struggle every day and its useful for the speed tips.. is that quail eggs that boiling?

Shah cooks said...
April 25, 2007 at 3:20:00 AM GMT+2  

Thank you all!
mallugirl> Yes, those are quail eggs boiling with chicken and apple mini sausages (no gluten or MSG, nice short/natural ingredient list). If you click on the photo itself, you'll be taken to my full post with the lunch it went into (curried quail eggs, Puerto Rican yellow rice, sausages, etc.). A reader pointed out back then that the quail eggs that they see in their market are often dirty, so it would be best to thoroughly wash quail eggs before co-boiling them with other ingredients for best food safety practices.

Biggie said...
April 25, 2007 at 3:34:00 AM GMT+2  

Hi Biggie
Great Tips. Though I don't have to pack lunch for my daughter every day, I do it at times and this will come in useful then

Bong Mom said...
April 25, 2007 at 3:04:00 PM GMT+2  

Great tips. thank you, biggie!

This blog is super-cool, I should say. I'm learning a lot, right from child care selection and foods to pack. Thanks you, girls!

Kay said...
April 25, 2007 at 6:06:00 PM GMT+2  

thanks Meeta, very informative. I will bookmark this. my kid is really getting fussy about eating. have to adopt some new tricks.

Sharmi said...
April 25, 2007 at 8:26:00 PM GMT+2  

Hi ,
This is my first time here. Came thru desi moms club..Wonderful tips and creativity.I am sure in Japan you got a lot of inspiration.. Please could you share the name of the book from which you learned some of the techniques.

Anonymous said...
April 25, 2007 at 9:02:00 PM GMT+2  

Thanks all!

Vinita> Do you read Japanese? I'm using a dozen or so Japanese-language bento cookbooks, a couple of J-lang books on freezing, and J-lang magazines from the library here (Shufu no Tomo, Lettuce Club, Orange Page). I can recommend any bento cookbook published by Shufu no Tomo (Shinjitsuyou Books), the book arm of Shufu no Tomo, one of Japan's oldest home magazines.

Biggie said...
April 26, 2007 at 12:47:00 AM GMT+2  

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