Saturday, September 27, 2008

Out to lunch

Now that we all seem to be settling into our routines, I am starting to get back into better lunch planning and packing habits. I like to sleep in the morning. For as obsessive as I am about lunch, odd as it seems, I like to sleep more than I like to make lunch. Go figure.

This was the older one's lunch on Friday. He got a clementine, a reusable bottle of Powerade (diluted with some water), graham crackers, smoked turkey with white American cheese on whole wheat bread, trail mix with cashews, raisins, and yogurt raisins, raw green beans (my weird kids like to snack on these and make a beeline for them when we go to the grocery store), and honey wheat pretzels, a recent discovery that none of us can get enough of.

The little one got mostly the same thing without the sandwich. She also requested animal crackers in lieu of graham crackers. She is in half day Kindergarten, so she eats lunch before she leaves for school and gets a snack.

Now that the nights and mornings are getting a bit chilly, I am going to start filling their thermal containers for lunch. The older one has already made specific requests, so he'll start getting a container a few days a week.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Stressed in the City

Dear Patty Perfect,

I am a stressed out mom of two who has a new job, a new schedule, and a food blog about healthy eco-friendly lunches for kids with no new entries in nearly three weeks!


Stressed in the City

Dear Stressed,

Fear not, my fine friend! Inspiration and organization will get you, your family, and your blog back in business in no time. With a good bit of advanced planning, your kids' lunches will once again be the envy of the cafeteria.

Patty Perfect

Um, ok. I'll let you know how that works out for me.

My first full week at my new job was last week, so I was happy to get through it. Lunches, for all three of us, were less than inspired, and while blogworthy, did not get photographed, documented, or posted in a timely manner. My only noteworthy lunch was leftover lemon rosemary chicken with mixed vegetables over penne that my husband made that was out of this world. The rest of the week was yogurt, a Clif bar, water, and a handful of Teddy Grahams to have with my coffee.

This week my focus is dinner. Apparently my kids need to eat. Apparently this phenomenon called dinner takes place in the evenings and regularly. I'm still figuring that out.

I have a plan, so I am well on my way with dinner, so I am hoping to be back to lunch by next week.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Autumn is coming!

Change is in the air. In some parts of the country, the cooler mornings are a sure sign that autumn is on its way. With rising food costs, apparently there are parents who are changing their spending and lunch packing habits as well, looking to economize where they can.

I just read this article released just this afternoon about how more parents are jumping on the economizing bandwagon. One of the first items to go? Prepackaged snacks, especially 100-calorie snacks! The article mentioned that a grocery store is making suggestions for budget-friendly lunch items and outlining the cost per serving.

According to Marcia Mogelonsky, a senior research analyst at Mintel International, "It's a good time to teach economics, nutrition and budgeting. It could become a major focus in parent-child relations, making lunches." I couldn't agree more.

I am excited for the school year to begin in just a few days. My daughter is starting kindergarten and will have a healthy snack sent to school with her each day, much like last school year. My son will be in third grade and will be bringing his lunch to school at least four out of five days a week. We will continue to allow him to buy his lunch one day a week if he wants.

I am also starting a new job tomorrow, which means I will be packing something healthy for breakfast and lunch outside the home. Breakfast will have to be something fast and easy to eat in the car during my morning commute. Lunch will likely be the same as my job entails being out of the office and having a quick bite between appointments, often in the car, sometimes at my desk. It's crazy, I know, but that's my life for the moment. I have resolved to make sure that I have something more inventive than a Clif bar and water, which is my standby. Additionally, both kids will be in after school activities and after care, so I will be packing snacks for them for those days as well.

I'm looking forward to making lots fun, healthy, interesting, and cost-effective lunches this school year. With my job changing, both kids will have to get more involved with helping make their own lunches this year than in the past. They want to get involved and help so this will be their opportunity.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

How 'bout them apples?

Aren't they gorgeous? We picked up these glorious locally grown apples from a farm stand a few miles away from our house. They were sweet, tart, and juicy and the flesh had a wash of pink close to the skin, as if the brilliant red skin had seeped into the fruit like water color paint. I would have taken a picture, but the kids and I inhaled them too quickly.
I think they are red delicious, but they might be something else. There were some stunning heirloom tomatoes at the stand as well, but I resisted the temptation to buy them because we have so many tomatoes from our garden.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Cereal on the Go containers

I found these containers for cereal and milk at The Container Store the other day and I love them. I have seen them at other stores, such as Staples or Office Depot, with the back to school supplies as well, but only bought them recently.

The bottom container has a contained gel that will keep things cold when it is frozen and the lid has a folding spoon that snaps in place. Normally I shy away from unitaskers, Alton Brown's term for things that do only one thing. With this, however, I like that everything is self-contained when it is fully assembled.

My kids love cereal and although it can be very healthy and economical, it is rarely convenient or practical to have away from home. Lately we have been leaving the house very early, too early for breakfast, so these containers fit the bill nicely. I see a world of possibilities for these containers beyond cereal and milk. I'm thinking yogurt and granola, berries and cream, crackers and dip, veggies and dip. Just the other day a girl was having crackers and lobster spread and this apparatus would have been perfect. If I had something like this when my children were babies, I might have used it for formula and infant cereal when we were out of the house.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Munchkin Snack Bento

Apparently my obsession with selecting and artfully arranging meals and snacks is contagious. My little one made this snack bento all by herself while I was outside working in the garden the other day. Smiling from ear to ear, she brought it outside to show me.

Munchkin's snack bento contents: animal crackers, pretzels, sesame crackers, goldfish, honey roasted peanuts, Oatmeal Squares, and peanut butter filled Ritz Bits in the middle.

It's a little heavier on the sugar and salt than what I would make, but it's pretty good for a five year old! On a related note, she and my son were riding bikes and playing outside. They were complaining about being thirsty and my son ran inside and shouted, "I'll take care of it!" He emerged from the house a few moments later with their reusable juice boxes filled with ice and lemonade. They really get it; I am so proud.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Eating locally

While we and the rest of the world cheer on all of the athletes at the Olympics in Beijing this week, dinner tonight was made from ingredients much closer to home. In fact, it doesn't get much closer than this.

Tonight's dinner was eggplant and tomatoes sauteed in a little olive oil with a bit of garlic (from mom's garden last year) and some onion. Spaghetti with freshly made pesto made with basil, romano cheese, walnuts, and some of olive oil - I used the good stuff.

The eggplant, basil, and grape tomatoes are all from our garden. The olive oil is local too, although not from North America. It is a locally produced olive oil from a small town in Italy near Siena that one of my skating students brought back from her visit there earlier this summer. It's really good too - the kind worthy of dunking a nice slice of crusty artisanal bread. She knows me too well. I don't cook that often, but when I do, I appreciate wonderful locally crafted ingredients.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Three C's

Ok there are more than three things here, and some don't start with C, but c'mon, just go with, ok?

Contents of the children's snack this afternoon:
cheese crackers, cashews, canteloupe, cookies (animal crackers), carrots, chocolate milk, and citrus beverage (lemonade).

I just noticed that everything is green and orange too, so it's color coordinated! Ok, I obviously need some therapy.

By the way, no waste. I gave them reusable forks for the canteloupe. They were green too.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Birthday Picnic Lunch

No food pictures pictures, so put your thinking caps on and use your imagination.

Last week, before the fabulous birthday torte cake, we took the kids to a kiddie amusement park near us called The Land of Make Believe that has an amazing water park called Pirate's Cove geared to the under 10 set and their parents. In the interest of both healthy food choices and budget consciousness, I hastily packed a picnic lunch for all four of us that consisted of some of my standbys from packing lunches for the kids. My friend commented, "I'm sure they were all in bento boxes," but I was in a rush and family style sufficed considering we are, by most descriptions, a family.

I packed three sandwiches: one smoked turkey with white American cheese, one maple ham and turkey with baby Swiss cheese, and one baked ham with baby Swiss, all on standard grocery store variety whole wheat bread. I cut the sandwiches into square quarters since my kids usually only eat about one quarter each. They were cute and the right size for little hands. Also in our lunch were two kinds of fruit, strawberries and green grapes, carrot and green pepper slices, goldfish crackers and pretzels, and chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies. To drink I packed two different flavors of Gatorade and some plastic cups.
While our lunch itself was kind of run of the mill, I am quite proud of the fact that there was very little waste. The two containers of Gatorade were the only disposables, which we recycled. I calculated the total cost of our lunch and it was a total of about $13.00. That's what I call ECO! I have to confess, however, that ended up buying french fries only because they are so darn good at this place, but otherwise, we didn't spend anything more than the cost of admission.

Believe it or not, the kids didn't really complain about the packed lunch as much as I would have thought. The fact that there were at least a hundred (no exaggeration) coolers there besides ours reinforced the concept of bringing your own lunch, so I think they felt that they were in good company with lunch from home. At the first signs of whining, I reminded them that we were going out to dinner in the evening for the birthday celebration and that we are going to the Jersey Shore in two weeks where they can gorge themselves on junk since my mother-in-law is in charge.

Since I don't have a picture of the food, I thought I would include this shot. They are on a pirate ship in the middle of a massive kiddie pool. It was so much fun!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Happy Birthday!

Ok, this post is not about lunch, nothing to do with anything Indian, definitely not economical, and it's not even healthy.

It was my daughter's 5th birthday yesterday and we had a lovely dinner in her honor at the restaurant where dh is the manager. He asked the pastry chef to make a birthday cake for her and this was the result.

Dh asked for a vanilla cake with raspberry and white chocolate mousse filling. What we got was this beautiful confection. Apparently the signage is all edible, though according to the waiter, we would not want to eat it. The outside is coated with crushed candied walnuts. The flowers were made of gumpaste and airbrushed and the leaves were marzipan. The puffy scallops around the perimeter were white chocolate mousse. This is much more than I expected from a restaurant and Mackenzie was thrilled.

After the requisite singing, wishing, and candle extinguishing, the waiter whisked the cake off to the kitchen for serving. Expecting a vanilla cake with raspberry and white chocolate mousse filling, I mindlessly plunged my fork into the slice on my plate expecting cake, mousse, and raspberry, which I got, but not in the proportions I expected. I stopped mid-sentence to inspect the cake and figured out that it was more like a white chocolate mousse torte which was frosted in white chocolate mousse. Oh my goodness was it good!

The remains of the torte cake are in my refrigerator, but not nearly as pretty as they were last night. Fortunately for me, the kids were not as fond of it as dh and I were, so we'll be having some of that later tonight.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Summer Camp

This week my kids are in summer day camps for the week for the first time so I have been packing their lunches. On Monday they both got maple ham and swiss on whole wheat bread, animal crackers, chips, raisins, lemonade and watermelon. I had a typical summer picnic lunch in mind for them, so that's what they got. Of course my son got his Transformers napkin in lieu of Tinkerbell and a drink container with a blue lid instead of purple. Normally I wouldn't give them chips, but they have them so rarely that it's ok. Plus, I can't imagine having a ham sandwich without chips!

The only garbage generated was their toothpicks for the watermelon, which they ended up eating with their fingers anyway. (I included mini bottles of Germ-X in their lunch boxes).

As for the day camps, this is a new experience for them. The little one, who is turning five in one week, is in our town's rec department camp along with some of her preschool pals. She came home the first day dirty, exhausted, but with the biggest smile on her face. They rode the bus to camp like big kids, played games, ran around, had "icicle" pops. The older one is in a science camp for geeky little tech heads along with his friend and the brother of one of their friends. The activities in this camp range from exploring technology, discussing jet propulsion and rocket motion, learning about how to solve environmental issues, all disguised as fun and games. My friend drove carpool yesterday and said that the three little scientists sat in the back discussing technology, robotics, and physics (frisbee motion) on the whole ride home. They were all so happy being geeky with one another. Maybe this will encourage them to solve the world's real problems.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

New Lunch Sacks

Now that the end of the school year is upon us, it's not exactly the time of year most people are thinking about lunch boxes. Then again, I am not most people and I think about lunch all the time, so it's as good a time a year as any. I found these lunch sacks on the Lands' End web site in the clearance section for a really great price, $6.99, so I picked them up for the squirts. The regular price for the newer, updated is $10.50 or 2 for $20.00, so not bad for a good quality sack. The lilac is M's, something other than pink for a change, and the bright red is for Z.

They are very durable and sturdy, which is what I expect from Lands' End. The exterior is a durable woven nylon and the interior is a heavy weight PVC that can be pulled out and cleaned very easily. The top folds over and secures with velcro and there is a plastic handle at the top along with a nifty carabiner clip to hook onto backpacks or, in our case, the rolling backpacks my kids use for their skates. The shape is more of a flatter rectangle than I thought, taller and longer and about the same width as my ipod, so it will probably work better lying down than standing up.

Lands' End has quite a selection of lunch boxes in various sizes. While they are not inexpensive, they are very durable and will take a beating. One that I like is the Uniform HotStuff Lunch Box which includes a thermal container. At $29.50, it's a pretty good value considering that the thermal containers alone are around $14.00 at Target.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Summer snack

We had our normal Monday after school routine in which I have to work and Z has two 45-minute sessions of practice. Add thirty-five minute rides each way and it's 7:30 before we have dinner. Although the brutally hot weather has subsided, for now, it was quite warm today, so I made today's snacks with all of that in mind.

I gave them some amazing, super sweet watermelon chunks and fruit punch flavored G2 Gatorade. In the middle row are Trader Joe's Oat 'n Wheat Bran Swirls - think mini oatmeal cookies with a hint of toasted coconut - oh my are they good! In the next container are raisins and some Omega-3 packed walnuts. Some pretzels, green bell pepper slices, and some Trader Joe's Veggie Sticks finished things off. Toss in a reusable fork and a Tinkerbell napkin and we were good to go. I gave Z the identical snack, with a Transformers napkin instead of Tinkerbell.

They were both so happy about the cool watermelon and green peppers and were surprised to find the G2 to drink. Usually it's milk or soy milk, although lately I have been giving them water as well in the afternoon. We are all loving the TJ's Oat 'n Wheat Bran Swirls - thanks for the tip on those, Jeannine! Z asked if he could have them for breakfast tomorrow and I had to think of a good reason why he can't. The best I could come up with on the fly was that they are not high enough in protein. He bought it, for the moment. We'll see what happens in the morning.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Mango lassis for everyone!

OK, not everyone. Apparently not everyone likes them, which works out well for M and me, who LOVE them.

When the temperature soars, a mango lassi is the perfect treat to cool off. Last weekend we had our first official heat wave in the northeast with temperatures over 95 degrees for four days in a row, so mango lassis were definitely in order. Sweet, slightly tart, tropical, healthy, and refreshing, it's a tasty grown up milkshake that is the original smoothie. Indian and other South Asian people have been drinking them for years and they are a classic treat. In India, mango lassis are served with snacks and appetizers any time there is a party. They are de riguer during Indian wedding celebrations, particularly those held outdoors in the warm weather.
My son doesn't like them, nor does my husband, but my daughter and I love them and will probably have them every day this summer. They are loaded with carbs, but with the milk, mango pulp, and yogurt, they are a lower fat option to an ice cream milk shake.

I don't really measure anything when I make these, but these are roughly the quantities I use to make two servings:

1/2 cup mango pulp
1/4 cup plain yogurt, low fat or fat free
1 cup milk, 1%, 2% or skim
2 tsp sugar (more or less to taste)

Blend and serve over ice. Makes two servings.
Mango pulp is readily available at Indian markets. It's a big can (appoximately 28oz) for about less than $3.00. One can of mango pulp will make a lot of mango lassis considering that most restaurants charge around $3.00 and up for one. Plain yogurt can be lowfat. I have made this with vanilla in a pinch and it was fine, although a little sweeter than I prefer. The milk can be low fat or skim milk, although 2% seems to render the best consistency. I have seen a number of different garnishes, ranging from the ubiquitous mint leaf to crushed pistachio to a pinch of crushed cardamom or black pepper. Yes, that's right, black pepper. It gives the mango lassi an little bite that you wouldn't expect to work, but does. My favorite, however, is a sprinkle of shredded sweetened coconut.
Now that summer is upon us, I will be making these again and again. M will be happy, as will I.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

It's Summer!

Ok, well almost, but it has been quite warm here during the day and increasingly humid.

The pink concoction on the right is falooda. Say it with me now, "Fa-LOO-da." Go ahead and laugh. It's funny. It's weird. Willy Wonka would agree. The flavor is weird and the texture is even weirder. But it's definitely refreshing.

When it's hot outside, my people have it down when it comes to cold refreshing drinks. These are drinks that predate smoothies and Pinkberry treats by hundreds of years. Lassis and other cool drinks have been part of Indian culture forever. It's hot in those parts, damn hot!

Falooda was first brought to India by the Persians who sought refuge there and is believed to be a version of a Persian dessert. This drink is very popular among Farsis of South India, but is also well known and enjoyed throughout India. Falooda consists of vermicelli noodles, yes noodles in your drink, which are floated in a solution of milk or ice cream, water, and flavored syrup. The little seedy looking things at the bottom of the glass are exactly that. They are called tukmaria seeds, which I believe are a type of basil. I think they are actually berries though because they become chewy when soaked in water for faloodas. The noodles are actually short, very skinny little noodles about 3/4" long and tiny like angel hair pasta.

This particular concoction was made from a kit which included packets of vermicelli noodles, tukmaria seeds, and the flavoring. In this case it was rosewater syrup, which is a common flavor component of many Indian desserts. I have seen other flavors of falooda, such as mango, pistachio, and tutti frutti, all of which are popular kulfi flavors.

This was not my first falooda, but it was the first time I made it at home. Z and M were suspicious from the begining. They agreed to try it when they saw me scoop the vanilla ice cream into the glass. It's ice cream. How bad can it be? Z made a grimace when he saw the tukmaria seeds at the bottom. M, following his lead, made a similar face and giggled. They both tried it and neither was thrilled with the flavor or the texture and would have preferred a traditional American milkshake. Although the texture was kind of strange, admittedly I was not fond of the rosewater flavoring and will use less than what is included in the packet. This would actually be really good with Hershey's Strawberry Syrup. I'll have to keep that in mind for next time.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Cool Gear Snack Time containers review

I bought these Cool Gear Snack Time containers at the container store the other day to take on our road trip over the Memorial Day holiday weekend. This company makes some fun and imaginative containers, many with gel inserts embedded into the walls of the vessels which can be frozen to keep things cold. I like the concept because it can eliminate the need for a separate ice pack and save space.

I saw them and immediately thought of the endless combinations of snacks I could assemble: dry cereal and milk, milk and cookies, cereal and milk, juice and crackers, soy milk and trail mix, yogurt smoothie and berries, etc.

The top container is a straw type cup with a straw insert that extends to the bottom of the container. The container itself has gel sandwiched between two layers of thick plastic which can be frozen. The claim is that it keeps liquids cold for four hours. The bottom container screws on to the bottom and can making a nifty compact vessel.

For our road trip I packed milk in the top and dry cereal in the bottom. I'm not sure if the gel cup kept things cold for four hours, but it was a hot day and the milk stayed cold for quite a while. The only concern I have about this product is that the vessel for the liquids is a bit small holding only 4oz of liquid. That size is just right for my kids with the tiny appetites, but might not be enough for most others.

The bright fun colors drew my attention immediately. I had a hard time choosing between the vibrant orange, lime green, aqua, and hot pink. Choosing the hot pink for my daughter was easy, but I kept going back and forth between the other colors for my son, finally settling on aqua Predictable pink and blue. I noticed on the company website that they have a product specifically for cereal and milk which includes a spoon. Very cool indeed. As far as BPA in this product, I'm not sure if it has it or not. It didn't have one of those "BPA free" labels, so I don't know for sure. The company's website prominently promoted a new line of products that is completely BPA free, so they are well aware that it is of concern to many consumers.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

After school snack for two

Friday was a particularly busy day. Z had school and M had sports camp in the morning and both had skating in the afternoon. It was a particularly warm day as well, good for wearing shorts and playing outside. Late spring is finally here.

Although M did not have school, a healthy but substantial snack was in order for both of them.
On the far left are mini fruit bentos with grapes, plum slices, and half of an apricot. In the middle are mozzarella cheese cubes and Wheatables, and on the right are some baby carrots and sliced celery. In the reusable drink boxes on the left is diluted blue Powerade with ice.

On the right are very cool pink and blue reusable gel filled drink cups with snack container on the bottom. I found these at the Container Store recently and thought they would be a fun variation on the reusable drink boxes we usually use. They were particularly handy on our Memorial Day road trip because the gel in the upper container can be frozen and will stay cold supposedly for four hours. For our road trip, I put milk in the top and dry cereal in the bottom for breakfast in the car. For this snack, they got vanilla soy milk and some cookies.

As far as the Powerade, that is a compromise. They both have water bottles (reusable, of course) that they keep handy for activities. When they are actively playing or doing sports, I allow them to have diluted sports drinks to replenish their potassium and sodium. They barely notice that it's diluted and for them it's just plain fun to drink something that is in such an unnatural color. (rolling eyes). Oh well.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Disposable Lunch Bento

Yes, that's right. Disposable. I'm not happy.

A note was sent home to all second grade parents last week requesting that a disposable, yes, a disposable, lunch be provided to all children attending the field trip. I stopped in my tracks as I read and then re-read the letter, which, by the way, was from the principal.

My son is a follower. If the teacher tells him to solve a math problem differently than how I have shown him how to do it (and believe me, I am well qualified to teach the kid math), then he'll do it her way, even if it's longer and cumbersome and despite knowing how to solve it more quickly and efficiently. He argues, "That's the way our teacher wants us to do it!" It's maddening. I get it, but it's still maddening.

Needless to say, when I said, "This is going to be a problem. We don't do disposable lunches," he whined, "But mommy, it HAS to be disposable! The principal's letter said so!" My response was, "Well, I guess I am just going to have to talk to her because I have an issue with this." Unfortunately, with many other things going on this week, I did not get a chance to pursue this with the principal.

In my annoyed state of mind, however, I did the resourceful thing and came up with a satisfactory compromise of recycled and recyclable items for an appropriate outdoor picnic style lunch bento. I reused a recyclable plastic take out food container for the outer box. Inside is a smoked turkey and white american cheese rolled into a tortilla, an apricot, some dried pineapple wedges, edamame, Ritz Bits cheese sandwich crackers, two Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies, two mini peanut butter cups, and a Horizon chocolate milk. He picked out most of the items to be packed, so hopefully he will eat it. I have packed little bentos like these for myself for flights and situations when it's not practical to carry around containers.

The crowning glory didn't make the picture because we were running late for school. I didn't have a paper bag, so I used a page of the Sunday cartoon pages for an inner wrapper that he can use as a placemat and an outer wrapper from a larger spread of the cartoon pages. I taped it all together and fashioned a rolled handle for his lunch "bag", put his name on it, and sent him on his way. As I dropped him off I reminded him that the outer plastic container and the newspaper are both recyclable and he should look for the appropriate bins wherever they have lunch.

Waste generated: one drink box, two small foil and paper wrappers, and a paper napkin. Recyclables: outer container and newspaper wrappers. Although this lunch generated more garbage than I am usually comfortable with, I am sure that it is still far less than most of the other kids. Even if he isn't fully on the bandwagon, at least the kid knows to think about these things.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Breakfast for lunch

My husband's breakfast this morning provided the inspiration for M's lunch/snack for preschool. When it comes to mass marketed boxed cereals, we are very uncomplicated, opting for Cheerios, Rice Krisipies, and either corn flakes or bran flakes. Sometimes I buy organic Amaranth flakes, but I have to buy several boxes because my husband will finish half a box of those at one sitting. We were recently introduced to Quaker Oatmeal Squares by a fellow skating coach and mom who included them in a lunchbox for herself and her daughter one early spring morning. I tried one and fell in love instantly, thus breaking me out of my breakfast cereal routine for the first time in years. My husband tried them and loved them as well, and both kids like them dry, so they are a winner all around. They are lightly sweet, crunchy, and have a bit of cinnamon and brown sugar flavor. They are tasty dry and stay crunchy in milk and are tasty with regular milk, soy milk, and rice milk (which I don't buy very often because I'm the only one who likes it).

Today she got a container of Oatmeal Squares, some fresh strawberries, and some whole wheat and multigrain crakers with vanilla soy milk in the reusable drink container. Not pictured are the Tinkerbell cloth napkin and the Backyardigans lunchbox and a note from me. No waste (except for the note), yummy cereal, juicy berries, and some crackers. Gotta love it.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Wasted Food

I subscribe to the New York Times Learning Network. Each weekday I get an e-mail with a link to a current article from the New York Times and links to lesson plans, vocabulary words, geography links, etc. The topics range from politics and religion to science and art. It's interesting, it's relevant, and it's something different.

Today's article was about the increase in worldwide food shortages and wastefulness in industrialized nations. Most of us grew up with moms who said that there were children starving in India (or Africa if you were my mom). My smart-mouthed reply was to not give me as much and Fed Ex it to them. While there are logistical challenges to that scenario, the harsh reality is that starvation and malnourishment continue to plague many parts of the world while in others wastefulness is the norm.

The article makes some suggestions on how to minimize waste and one important one is portion control. One of the principles of my blog is properly tailoring portions, so I was glad to see that this was mentioned. Not only is managing portion sizes better for nutrition, it's less wasteful. As much as I loathe those 100-calorie packets of cookies and crackers, at least in theory, they are starting to get it right, nutritionally and economically. There is a link to a photo essay on Time magazine's web page from a book called Hungry Planet. It is about what families around the world eat and what their weekly expenditure is. It's interesting and astonishing, at both ends of the financial spectrum.

I'll forgive the writer's comment "frugal mommy blog" comment because the article points out just how widespread the problem of waste really is.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Local Artisanal Cheese

M's preschool went on a field trip today to the Valley Shepherd Creamery, a local sheep farm, for a Spring Lambing Tour. The sheep farm produces a number of sheep's milk and related products including artisanal cheeses and yogurt. The drive was a bit further than we anticipated, a good thirty minutes away. The creamery is nestled in a beautiful area with mountains and rolling hills in Hunterdon County called the Black River Valley. It is way off the beaten path, at least half an hour away from anywhere, but the scenery is postively breathtaking. A world away from the Newark Airport, the Jersey Shore, and the Garden State Parkway, it's hard to believe that such a scenic and pastoral countryside exists about an hour away from Midtown Manhattan.

The tour began a video about the farm and the cheesemaking process. Then they saw the ewes, the milking parlor, and the cheese room. After that, they went into the area where the lambs are kept and M and her classmates got to hold a one month old lamb. I held it too and it was so cuddly and cute.

This is all that remains of a small wedge of cheese an aged romano style cheese which we thoroughly enjoyed. This variety is called Black River and was amazing. It was sharp, nutty, and rich but more fragrant and pungent than the imported aged romano cheese we normally buy. It's the kind of cheese I would buy and eat with a baguette and a glass of wine at an impromptu outdoor picnic. I would have bought more, but it was kind of expensive at $19.00 per pound. I will keep it in mind if we ever want some really good cheese for a very special occasion.

On the ride home, after stopping at Dunkin Donuts for my free promotional iced coffee, we stopped by a farm and store called Alstede Farms, which is a well known local farm. We went into the store and bought some of their home grown asparagus. I was bit disappointed to see that their store offered only a small selection of locally grown produce and a fair amount of not-so-locally grown items. However, they regularly have stands at local farmer's markets throughout northern NJ, so their products are getting out to the larger market.
It was a fun and interesting outing for both of us. I'm going to do some research and plan a day trip to the area for the summer since it's relatively close and do a really nice picnic lunch. There are a lot of historical sights in the area to see, not to mention the gorgeous views.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Thermos lunch... again!

My son has not had much of an appetite lately, at least not at lunchtime. This is inconvenient considering I write a food blog. Not much fodder if you have a kid that won't eat! Plus he's kind of a skinny thing too. My mother in law already thinks I starve the poor kid.

Today's lunch is mostly last night's dinner:

Rice and my not so pretty tamago in the thermos, strawberries and kiwi spears (a requested shape from him while I was cutting the kiwi this morning), multigrain crackers and alphabet cookies, and chocolate milk made with homemade chocolate syrup in the reusable straw container.

Everything is sitting on the Transformers napkin with a reusable fork. I'm just hoping he eats SOMETHING because we have a busy afternoon of a music lesson and track practice. Dinner won't be until 7 and there's not much time for a snack after school.

About the chocolate syrup.... I have been doing some experimenting in the kitchen, which is scary because I don't cook. Anyway, I found some recipes for chocolate syrup that were insanely easy so I made them with the politically correct fair trade cocoa and even more correct organic sugar. It's stupid easy to make. If I can make it and not mess it up, anyone can. It's sooooo good.... I have been known to just have it straight up from the container. I'll post the recipe soon.

Friday, May 9, 2008

There is more to life than plastic

Poor stretchy Plastic Man is so two (or is that three?) decades ago. I remember this guy from Saturday morning cartoons - he could reshape himself, stretch out like a rubber band and roll up into a ball. Personally, as far as stretchy superheroes, he's got nothing on Elastigirl. She's a superhero and a cool mom who wears spandex. She packs a heck of a punch. I'll bet she packs a good lunch too.

Ah, but I digress... I am always on the lookout for eco-friendly (and economical) products and solutions for food storage and portability, preferably BPA free. I'm not an alarmist. I still use plastic, although I try to use it less than I did a few months ago. My kids have probably been exposed to quite a bit of BPA thanks to me. Sorry for that, guys. Who knew? I don't necessarily believe in the hype, but at the same time, better to be safe than sorry.

One of my good friends is expecting a baby in June and has been concerned about the recent publicity about BPA leaching out of baby bottles. I used Avent bottles, but with the concern about BPA exposure, many parents are looking for BPA-free alternatives. Enter glass bottles, circa 1970 that my generation, and most of the current generation of new moms grew up on.
Some good options are the classic Evenflo glass bottles, which are available at my Amazon store, as well as the big box retailers like Target, Wal-Mart, BabiesRUs, and BuyBuyBaby. If you're a little more modern, these Weego bottles from are pretty cool too. They're not cheap, but the outer cover makes them quite safe. There are also some other BPA free plastic bottle and cups made by BornFree and Momo, both of which are available at Amazon. BornFree Also has a glass version available on their website.

I am also sharing this information that I received from my Ideal Bite daily e-mail about a boy from the NYC metro area who has created some fun and kid friendly products that are environmentally friendly. Hunter Gross, a 7th grader, was inspired to create eco-friendly lunch sacks and totebags, among other things as a way to reduce the number of plastic bags. Check out the ProjectKool website and products here. Way to go, Hunter! Keep up the great work!

(picture courtesy of these folks

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Spring Lunch

Zachary's lunch today contained egg noodles with broccoli sprinkled with pecorino romano cheese a thermos, some spectacular sweet strawberries, Teddy Grahams and alphabet cookies, and on the right, some Trader Joe's multigrain crackers and some mozzarella cheese chunks. In the reusable container is some soy milk.

Talk about a tasty waste-free mostly vegetarian lunch. He had several bites of the noodles and broccoli before I packed them, so I know he'll like them. All of this went into his Transformers lunch box with a reusable plastic fork and his Transformers cloth napkin. See? You can be waste-free, veggie-friendly, and still fun.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The best laid plans...

Not that I am the best by any stretch of the imagination, but I am pretty good, usually.... This weekend we had a really long day of activities and sports. I packed a substantial lunch and snack for Zachary, which included a Clif Bar and a container of yogurt for myself. Mackenzie and I had to leave the house a little earlier for skating and Zachary was going to his track meet with my friend and her husband whose son is also on the track team. In the haste of getting out the door, Zachary forgot to take his lunchbox.

Fortunately he had his tote bag with his number for track and his sweats, but no lunch. My husband called me shortly after he left feeling bad that he had sent him off for the day with no food and no money. I reassured him that my friends would not let him starve and that I would make sure that Mackenzie shared her lunch and snack with him when we arrived later. I always pack more than what they will eat, not to be wasteful, but to give them a choice, to have enough to share (usually with me!), and enough just in case there is a delay in getting home, which happens from time to time. I would rather overpack than go through the infernal drive through.

Our day on Sunday was pretty long, but not unusual for us. M and I had to be out the door by 9:30 to be on the ice at 10:30. On mornings like this breakfast is almost always to go since we have a 40 minute ride to the rink. Since Z wasn't being picked up until 10:15, Daddy took care of breakfast for him.

I made a microwave cheese omelet and wheat toast with butter and jam for M. Normally I am not for prepackaged convenience foods, but I bought these from a school fundraiser for her preschool, so we'll eat them. I can truly appreciate the appeal of convenience foods; it took 30 seconds to remove the omelet, nuke it, and put it into a container for her. It's fast, it's nutritious, I get it.I put it into a Rubbermaid sandwich container and gave her a Light My Fire spork and a cloth napkin for breakfast in the car.

My kids spill. It's sad and sometimes annoying, but true. Finding suitable non-spill tumblers for them proved challenging indeed. The straw style containers are fine for clear liquids, but I am wary of them for milk products. There is something about dairy going through a straw that is icky to me. Don't ask. I have a few quirky food issues like that. The adult style travel mugs work a bit better, but many of those are not truly spill-proof. They will minimize spills, but not eliminate them altogether. Enter the Playtex Coolster Tumbler Sippy Cup. It has the sippy style silicone valve to prevent spillage but the profile looks like a grown up coffee cup. I have read that the valves are not good for older children, but I'm not worried about it too much. My kids take the lids off to get the last little bit out of the cups. At some point soon I they will graduate to grown up reusable non-spill travel mugs, but for now this is what they have.

Sunday wasn't a complete bust. Mackenzie shared her snack, although there wasn't enough fruit or drinks for both of them. During the track meet Zachary asked for some money to get something from the snack bar and I let him. He wanted a soft pretzel, but they were out of them, so he got some Gatorade instead. He could have easily gotten candy or chips or something else that I wouldn't have preferred, but he didn't. He's learning to make good choices and it makes me proud.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Animal Farm

This was M's preschool snack the other day. I made onigiri (Japanese rice balls made from sushi rice) for the first time using my Williams Sonoma ice cream molds. They turned out awesome. M is even starting to like the nori (toasted seaweed used in sushi). Also included in the snack are some animal crackers, a big strawberry, a piece of broccoli, and four mini cracker sandwiches made from Trader Joe's mini sesame crackers and some goat cheese. Not pictured is her apple juice in a reusable container and a cloth napkin. The only waste generated was one small piece of waxed paper used to separate the strawberry from the cracker sandwiches. I think George Orwell would approve.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

After School Snack

My kids like raw vegetables and have never complained about having them in their after school snack. That is not to say that they don't reach for the cookies or fruit snacks first. They're weird, but not that weird. However, they happily munch on veggies or fruit knowing that dinner is often hours away.

This is the afternoon snack I put together for Zachary the other day before track practice. Raw green beans, carrot sticks, red bell pepper slices, cucumber spears, and strawberry yogurt in the middle. Not pictured are whole wheat crackers, a granola bar, some graham crackers, and some apple juice, all in reusable containers of course. When packing their snacks, I load them up on protein and vegetables, particularly when we are en route to sports practice. On the way there they have a few bites, but on the ride home will finish everything in sight. I don't mind them filling up on this stuff before dinner because it's healthy and buys me the 20 minutes I need to get dinner ready for them upon returning home.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Happy Birthday, Happy Earth Day!

I love Earth Day, perhaps even more than my birthday. That might seem strange, but it's true. Earth Day was started on April 22, 1970, the day after I was born. Do the math; I am 38. Sad, but true. I have friends that are ok with their age and darn proud of it. I am ok with my age, but I don't wear it like a badge of honor like they do. If someone calls me ma'am I still cringe. But I digress.

In addition to celebrating my 28th birthday for the tenth time, I made a point this year to really play up Earth Day. Truth be told, this is the first year that I have ever given much thought about Earth Day. I have friends who have been all about Earth Day for years. These are the same friends who are ok with their age. They are also much healthier and skinner than me, so they must be doing something right. Again, I digress. Anyway, being mental is nothing new for me, but being environmental is relatively new. For me, being "eco-" means making choices that are both economically and ecologically sound.

To that end, I have some thoughts on the eco-friendly choices that we make as a family that hopefully are trickling down to our children. They are, in many ways, lifestyle choices that are vastly different from when I was growing up, some of which are harder to incorporate than others. For this generation of children, being eco-friendly is not just trendy or normal, it's a societal necessity.

1. Minimize waste. By packing foods that are nutritious in proper portions, we waste little food. Buying in the largest and most practical quantities for our family avoids the markup for packaging convenience items. Likewise, by using reusable containers, we are minimizing the amount of waste that goes into landfills. To be fair, I still buy drink boxes, juice in pouches, and small packets of crackers and snacks, but very rarely. Convenience packaging is a personal choice which I can appreciate. However, doing it yourself is relatively easy, although it does require a bit more time. On a scale of 1 to 5, the difficulty for us to adopt this strategy has been a 3. Not easy, but not impossible.

2. Waste-free or minimally wasteful lunches. Since lunch is the meal that most school-age children eat outside of home on a regular basis, families that choose to do this are doing the right thing. On a larger scale, schools that have adopted waste-free lunch programs are on the leading edge. Waste-free school lunches is still in its infancy. With the exception of some schools on the west coast and a few other environmentally forward-thinking schools, it's virtually unheard of. The parents of the preschool my daughter attends have agreed to adopt a waste-free lunch policy starting the next school year. My prediction is that it is a matter of time before waste-free cafeterias and on-site composting is done on a large scale. For more information about waste-free lunch programs at your school, this EPA website is a great place to start. On a scale of 1 to 5, this has been a 2 for us.

2. Using reusable canvas or recycled, post-consumer waste bags for groceries. Getting into the habit of remembering to put the reusable grocery bags in the car has been the biggest challenge about this habit. Likewise, remembering to bring them into the store with us has also been a bit challenging. Our local supermarket has been selling some really nice bags made of 100% post-consumer waste, so I bought four of them. They are large, very sturdy, and their bright colors and vibrant graphics are very cool and are being sold for the Elizabeth Haub Foundation. I must admit that I am a little annoyed that their are more designs available than the four our store has.... Grrr.... Seriously, though, using reusable bags is a no-brainer. This one is a 1 out of 5. Plus our store gives us a $0.02 credit per bag. Not that 0.02 is going to get you anywhere, but it's one or two fewer plastic bags going into a landfill.

3. Unplugging our electronics when we are not using them. This one has been hard. I am guilty of leaving our computer, tv, and many household electronics 24-7. I have recently begun unplugging the coffee pot and toaster oven when they are not in use. I also unplug the nightlights in our house, all three of them, when we are not using them. Admittedly, I should turn off the computer, but the power strip is so out of reach. It's a lame excuse. I should just buy some new power strips, one with a longer cord for the computer and one for the tv, cable box, dvd player, etc.

4. Composting and recycling. Composting was somewhat challenging at first, but we have gotten used to it. I have a ceramic canister with a tight seal and latching lid that I keep on the kitchen counter for fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells, and coffee grinds. Initially the ick factor kept me from doing it, but a few heaping spoonfuls of baking soda in the bottom of the container eliminated the odor factor. It is about a quart-sized container and once a week I take the contents out to our compost pile and with my rake, toss it in, and cover it up. Recycling is not even a question. Our town has a schedule to pick up recyclable plastic, glass, cans, cardboard, paper, etc. Composting was about a 3 in terms of difficulty to do and recycling is a 1.

Living in a more environmentally friendly way is definitely more mainstream than it was a few years ago. My prediction is that many things that seem trendy now, like waste-free school cafeterias and solar panels, will become de rigeur in the very foreseeable future. Some things, like reducing the amount of packaging, plastic, and paper products people use are easy things to do that take some time, but cost very little to do. Other things, like getting solar panels on your house or heat exchangers instead of hot water heaters, are still largely out of reach for the average consumer because equipment and installation costs are so high. At the moment, the $16,000+ investment in solar panels for my house is much to exorbitant for me, even with a state-sponsored and funded rebate. However, my hope is that if everyone wants solar panels and heat exchangers, then the basic economics of supply and demand will bring the prices down so normal people with kids and dogs, minivans and mortgages, can afford them. You can bet that I will be first in line when that day comes.

Happy Earth Day, everyone!

Photo credits: Microsoft Windows sample images

Monday, April 14, 2008

Warm, cozy, and chocolate

Despite being mid-April, it is still quite chilly here in the northeast, particularly overnight and first thing in the morning. There are few things that warm one up more than a nice, hot steamy cup of hot cocoa. I am a big fan of hot cocoa. This past winter I discovered Dunkin' Donuts white hot chocolate. Good stuff. Those product developers knew what they were doing. It's a little sweeter than it needs to be, but I don't mind because the velvety texture and just the right amount of froth make it taste like a giant marshmallow that you can drink. Mmmm....

Hot milk based beverages are a classic evening treat for children before bedtime in India. Every child in India knows Bournvita, although whether you get it depends on your family's income level. My mom's family, for example, rarely got Bournvita but got Horlicks instead, also a malt based product, whereas in my father's family that's all they got. When I was growing up, Bournvita was hard to come by in the United States. Occasionally you would see a tin at the Indian store or at someone's house that they brought back from India. Most Indian families settled for Ovaltine. There simply was no American equivalent to Horlicks, so for people who grew up on that, there was nothing.

Fast forward to 2008 and rows and rows of Bournvita and Horlicks, as well as their competitors, line the shelves of the Indian grocery stores, which are starting to look more like American supermarkets each year. My daughter loves Bournvita almost as much as I do. My son, however, is not as keen on it and prefers traditional instant hot chocolate. My husband is not a fan at all and prefers Ovaltine as his chocolaty-malty milk mix in.
I love Bournvita on cold nights before bed, or first thing in the morning, or right after coming home from shoveling or playing in the snow, or when I'm cold, which is quite often since I am a figure skating coach. Seriously. Don't laugh. I swear it's a real job, although my husband might disagree.
Aside from being really good, it warms my heart to share something comforting with my kids that their grandparents enjoyed too. There's definitely some value in shared experience across generations and around the world. Drinking Bournvita makes me feel very Indian. Giving it to my kids connects them to their ethnic roots, even if they don't see it.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Bagel Box, take two

"Mommy," my seven-year-old began quite seriously, "if you won't let me buy a bagel bag at school, at least make one that has the same stuff in it."

This is another attempt at the now infamous bagel box. Upon extended discussion, Zachary pointed out that the bagel bag at school did not include fruit, crackers, or cookies as packed in the first bagel box a few weeks ago.

"Fine," I retorted, "then you will have neither cookies nor crackers. I hope you don't starve"

So this is what we wound up with: half of a plain bagel, carrot sticks in a silicone diamond shaped cupcake form, a schmear of cream cheese, and a brownie. I felt bad not giving him anything sweet, so the brownie was a bonus. Apple juice is in the reusable box and I included a small kiddie knife and a Transformers cloth napkin.

The kiddie knife is a relic from a preschool cutlery set made by The First Years that used to go back and forth with him to school. It has a little fork and spoon also and a durable plastic covered case. I wish I had bought two of them back then, but with only one child at the time, there was no point. On a recent trip to buy a gift for a friend, I looked for them at Buy Buy Baby, but they seemed to only have the reusable disposable cutlery sets. Oh well.

Waste generated: zero

When I emptied his lunch box in the evening, I said, "Oh, wow, sweetie, I'm really sorry you got a brownie in your lunch. You weren't supposed to. I know they don't have brownies in the bagel bag, so I'll remember next time." Needless to say he chirped up, "No! I like brownies in my lunch!" I responded, "So what are you saying, then? What I pack is better than school?" Conceding defeat, he gave me one of those cartoon looks when the smart-aleck character is outwitted. Hee hee....

Score another for mommy on the bagel box: Mommy 2, Daddy 1

Saturday, April 12, 2008

After school snack

My kids, like many, have activities every day after school each week which run the gamut of music lessons to sports. My son is usually starving after school and on some days he will munch on the remains of his lunch, but like most of us, he likes to dig into his packed snack to see what I packed. Typically on these nights, it is well after 7PM before we get home, so I pack something substantial enough to hold him over until dinner. I tend to pack more than they will eat so there is enough for me to graze a bit as well.

This is a typical snack before athletic days: Air popped popcorn; mini fruit bento consisting of half a sliced kiwi, sliced strawberries, and red grapes, sandwich bento containing a mini corn muffin, tuna salad wedge - solid white tuna, mayonnaise, salt, pepper, and a bit of horseradish on whole wheat bread and a bit of lettuce, sliced red and yellow bell peppers and cucumbers, and a mini corn muffin; homemade trail mix containing walnuts (great vegan source of Omega-3's), raisins, and milk chocolate chips; chocolate soy milk in a reusable drink container.

When I make after school snacks, I make a point to include a healthy dose of protein, whether it's some tuna or peanut butter. I also include some whole grains as either bread or crackers. Air popped popcorn is a great choice because it has a fun texture and flavor and it's quite filling without saturated fats found in many other salty snacks. Fruit, in some form or another, is a must and in the warmer months I make sure there is a bottle of water, reusable, of course.

Sometimes I throw in a fruit bar, such as the ones available at Trader Joe's because my son doesn't like raisins. My daughter, on the other hand, picks them out of the trail mix with the chocolate chips and leaves behind the walnuts. While some parents might question the chocolate chips and chocolate milk, my feeling is that a little bit of chocolate is ok in moderation. I don't want my kids to feel deprived of treats, so a few chocolate chips and some chocolate milk a few times a week goes a long way.

One treat that they get once a week at most on skating days is a drink box of Horizon Organic Chocolate milk. It's sooooooo good. I started buying it as a healthier alternative to the nasty, sugary sweet hot cocoa at the concession stand at the skating rink. Normally I avoid drink boxes in favor of reusable containers, but when it comes to this chocolate milk, I just don't have the self discipline to let a half-gallon container sit in the refrigerator, lonely, dejected, and sad among the juice, soy milk, and regular milk. Out of pity, guilt, I could polish off a gallon of this stuff at one sitting. It's that good. So in favor of my budget and my waistline, drink boxes it is. Exercising the restraint not to drink those is tough enough. Our rink is so cold, however, that occasionally I give in and let them have cocoa, although I split the contents into two cups and add a bit of milk to cut the sugar factor a bit. Having the really yummy chocolate milk, however, has proven to be a tasty alternative for them and now they rarely ask for cocoa.

Thank you, Shushi Masi, for the lovely hand-loomed and handpainted napkin brought back from India. Profits from these homemade textiles can support an entire family in rural India for a month. We are very lucky to have a set of six of them!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Bread, fruit, and cheese

When I was an undergrad, there was a campus non-alcoholic pub that had a very shi-shi platter called bread, fruit, and cheese. It was half of a baguette, a small tub of Boursin or Alouette garlic and herb cheese spread, an apple and some grapes. It wasn't exactly fancy, but a nice departure from the cafeteria fare.

I made this snack for Mackenzie as a modern mommy interpretation of bread, fruit, and cheese:

I made mini cracker sandwiches out of goat cheese and mini sesame crackers from Trader Joe's. In the middle are graham crackers and on the left are some strawberries and granny smith apple slices. I made a little wax paper wrap to surround the fruit and contain any seepage into the other items. I also gave her a reusable drink box with apple juice and her Tinkerbell cloth napkin.

Review: Pretty good. She ate two of the mini cracker sandwiches, one strawberry and one graham crackerShe forgot that she likes goat cheese and turned her nose up at it at first (while I was making them). Then she tried one and remembered that she likes goat cheese, so all was well. Waste generated: one small piece of wax paper.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Pittsburgh lunch

Around once a year or so I get a hankerin' for some good old Pittsburgh style grub. Ok, I don't really know what a hankerin' is, but according to Schoolhouse Rock, one can hanker for a hunk o' cheese. Or was that a PSA? Usually it's in the midst of football season when the weather is chilly and some stick-to-your-ribs stuff is just what the doctor ordered.

Football season is long gone, and the next one is still months away, but I was in the mood for good, old-fashioned Pittsburgh-style Ham Barbecue sandwiches the other day. I made them for dinner the other night with pierogies, complete with sour cream on the side. Feeling guilty about stuffing my kids with calories, carbs, and cholesterol, not to mention processed meats and not a whole grain in sight, I made some steamed broccoli on the side.

There were no pierogies leftover because that would be wrong. There is a law about that in Pittsburgh. Thou shalt not leave uneaten pierogies at the table. They must all be consumed - no matter what. Waistline and diet complaints will not be tolerated.

I made enough of the Ham Barbecue concoction for Zachary's lunch the next day and sent him off to school with a potato roll and two mini corn muffins on the side. I don't even want to contemplate the fat, sodium, sugar, and carbohydrate count on this lunch, but it sure was good.

Ham Barbecue Sandwiches
1 12-oz can of Coca-Cola - use Classic Coke, not diet
1 cup of Heinz ketchup
1 lb of Isaly's chipped ham *
6 hamburger rolls

Combine Coke, ketchup, and ham in a saucepan over medium heat, simmer. Serve on rolls.

* Chipped ham is product found in western Pennsylvania and surrounding areas. I used a similar product available in NJ called Smithfield Chopped ham and had it shaved. Even turkey ham will work.

If this sounds cloyingly sweet, it is, but it's also really, really good. There are other versions of this recipe that are more involved with cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, and mustard, but this one is quick and easy. You can also make this with your favorite bottled barbecue sauce. Ham barbecues are a Pittsburgh classic, served at picnics, potlucks, tailgates, and lunch counters for years and years. Potato chips and a pickle are the classic accompaniment. I like the rolls toasted and coleslaw or potato salad on the side. This also works really well in a slow-cooker, the longer it cooks the better.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Contain this!

I went to The Container Store on Saturday for the first time. I have driven by this store hundreds, perhaps thousands of times. I have friends who are neat freaks and compulsively organized who love this store. Since I do not share their affliction, I have never needed to go there. After dropping Zachary off with a friend for a sleepover, Mackenzie and I headed over there to see what all of the fuss is about.

My squeals of glee upon finding the kitchen section must have been loud because at least one passing customer gave me one of those looks like I had just landed from another planet. They have a small selection of Rubbermaid containers, including both the rectangular and round style reusable juice boxes.

They also have an impressive selection of containers with locking or latched lids, including these from Sistema, similar to Lock'n'Lock from no fewer than three different manufacturers. The latched containers ranged in size from 100ml and up. There were some nice ones that would make nice grownup size bento boxes, complete with adjustable food dividers inside.

Although I could have bought many, many nice things at this store, inlcuding some perfectly lovely lunch sacks and 9-can coolers from Milano at very reasonable prices, I exercised restraint. I bought two small latched containers from a manufacturer from New Zealand called Sistema. I also bought a package of four 4-0z snack sized rectangular containers from an Australian manufacturer called Decor. And, drum roll please, they had the Guateplast lidded dip container that I had found for my daughter a few months ago. I have been looking everywhere for another one for my son, so I was thrilled. He was equally thrilled to see it when he got home yesterday and immediately began contemplating what I should put in the middle.

It was definitely a worthwhile trip. I didn't necessarily need more containers, but I will definitely use them. I have quite a few of the reusable Gladware small rounds which are 4-oz as well, but the rectangular ones are better for efficient packing. The locking containers are especially good for fruit since they have a silicone seal and won't leak in their lunch boxes.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

You're having....twins!

Relax, everyone, I am not pregnant, and definitely not with twins. That ship has sailed! Zachary and Mackenzie, who are three years apart, get on these kicks every now and then of pretending to be twins. In honor of their fun, I made them matching twin snack bentos after school yesterday.

Each of them got some wheat crackers, cubes of mozzarella cheese, some gala apple chunks and green grapes packed into 180ml Lock 'n' Lock containers. In addition to the containers they got some apple grape juice in reusable juice box containers and some graham crackers. Waste: zero!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Lunch Buckets, Lunch Pails, call 'em what you want

One of my favorite blogs is Lunch Bucket Bento. The author is an exceptionally witty and talented writer who makes very cool lunches for her family. Anyone who makes hot dog curry is a fun person in my estimation. The title of her blog brought back a term that I had not heard in years - lunch bucket. My caregivers when I was very young, five or six years old, would use this term, and its close cousin, lunch pail, to refer to my Snow White lunch box or their husbands' large, black steel or aluminum manly man lunch boxes, much like this one.

I grew up in western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh to be exact, where coal mining and steel making were once a vital part of the local economy. My caregivers and many of my parents' patients came from mining and steelmaking families. Over the years, we became very close with many of these families, and remain so today. These were women whose fathers, brothers, uncles, and husbands worked in the mines or the mills for generations. Long before OSHA, these men endured long hours, unspeakably dangerous conditions, and meager pay.

They were working class families, who made enough to get by and maybe send their children to college, if they were lucky. Their wives and loved ones would send them off to work with trepidation, praying that they would not be hurt or injured, or worse, killed, on the job. The physical demands of their jobs aged them rapidly; men of forty would look old and haggard from years of hard labor. It was a hard life for everyone. Injuries were financially crippling, which is often how we got to know them as my father was a doctor. It was a lifestyle; not an enviable one by any stretch of the imagination, but reality for thousands upon thousands of families. I sometimes wondered why they would call them lunch buckets, but never questioned it. I accepted that it was an old-fashioned term and that older folks were set in their ways. I grew to appreciate the care with which they would pack chipped ham sandwiches on Town Talk bread with mustard, a plastic bag of chips, and some Ho-ho's or devil dogs, with some napkins until they came home.

It turns out that there is such a thing as a lunch bucket or a lunch pail, not surprisingly something that is associated very closely with coal mining, and likely steel making. I came across these on Ebay the other day (while I was looking for something else entirely) .

This one is a three piece aluminum lunch bucket or lunch pail which the seller dates around the late 40's or early 50's. The seller bought it from a woman who said it belonged to her grandfather, who was a coal miner who had a mine right on his farm. What surprised me about this, and other similar specimens, is how similar they look to tiffin boxes and bento boxes, complete with removable inserts. I can just picture a wife in her housecoat 40 or 50 years ago packing this up with sandwiches or maybe a hearty stew. I doubt very seriously if she obsessed over making things cute or packed rice or curry, but I would think that the meals, probably simple, humble comfort foods, were packed with the same care and love.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Shapes for lunch

My daughter, now fully on the bento and cute lunch bandwagon, has begun making requests. Today she said, "Mommy, I want shapes today," and promptly removed the little tin of Pampered Chef mini cutters out of the drawer. "Here," she proclaimed, "I want a heart, a star, and a flower."

Well, by golly, little lady, then that is what you shall have.

Munchkin 4-year-old's snack/lunch consisted of three miniature shape sandwiches made in the aforementioned heart, star, and flower motifs from whole wheat bread and cream cheese. Grapes and sliced strawberries are in the cupcake holder, a few animal crackers, and some walnuts and raisins to fill the empty spaces. I also gave her some grape juice in a reusable juice box.

Review: One very satisfied 4-1/2-year-old. She ate one and a half of the sandwiches, 1 strawberry slice, two grapes, one of the animal crackers and a few walnuts and raisins. She's not a big eater and has yet to finish her whole snack at school, so she usually has more after school. Waste: zero.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Bagel Box

When my son entered first grade, one of the first things he wanted to do was buy his lunch. Buying every day was not an option. However, my husband lobbied on his behalf, citing all of the ways that he is different from other kids, and in his closing arguments, went for the jugular and appealed to my desire to fit in with the other kids. Rats! I was outwitted.

Grumbling, I conceded that round to my husband and we agreed to let him buy his lunch at school once a week. Once a week, he is average, running with the pack, in the middle of the bell curve, a drone in a sea of second graders in a cafeteria. This bothers me. It goes against my very nature, my aspirations of re-engineering school lunch with healthy, economical, and environmentally friendly lunches. It blatantly relegates my desire for innovation and efficiency in midday meals, my obsession with packing things into small containers to a passing fancy. But, sigh, this is a battle not worth fighting. I would rather lose this battle and win the war. Daddy 1, Mommy 0.

A few weeks ago, he came home from school and excitedly described the Bagel Bag he had chosen for his lunch. I asked what was in it and he said it had a plain bagel, an apple, and the best part, "...a little silver container of cream cheese, you know, just like the kind they have at the store, Philadelphia. And guess what? You spread it on your bagel!" Hmmm.... I bet no one's ever thought of that before. Mind you, we live just outside of New York City, a city well-known for its superior bagels and likely the birthplace of the schmear of cream cheese . Apparently packaging matters a lot to my son, the consumer, because he usually turns his nose up at cream cheese. Anyway, rather than go into a dissertation about how he has had bagels and cream cheese before, I let him have his moment.

Last week he mentioned that he might want a bagel bag for his one day of school lunch. It's a pretty good choice, but then I gave him an option. If I made him a version of a bagel bag, he would still have his school lunch for later in the week. Why waste the free pass on something just as easily packed from home? He agreed, so this is what I made:

1/2 plain bagel (he's not a big eater and has never eaten a whole bagel), some grapes and strawberries in the silicone cupcake holder, two vanilla sandwich cookies, some wheat thins, and some cream cheese. I couldn't replicate the round silver tub, so a small square container is what he got. On the side I gave him some apple juice in a reusable juice box.

Review: He loved it. He ate most of the bagel, a few crackers, 1 cookie, some of the crackers, and most of the fruit. Waste: zero!

Chalk one up for Mommy with the winning bagel box. Mommy 1, Daddy 1, not that we're keeping score or anything.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Tummy Trouble Tiffin

The little one was a little under the weather following a two days of a stomach virus, but insistent upon going to preschool because she was scheduled to be the helper. I put together this tummy friendly lunch for her on her first day back to school. In the larger container is some grapes, orange slices, and strawberry slices, and a frilly pick to spike the fruit and make little kabobs, just in case she wants to play with her food. In the smaller container are two caramel corn rice cakes and some small sesame rice crackers from Trader Joe's. Apple juice is in the reusable juice box and it's all spread out on a cloth napkin.
The grapes are mild on the stomach, oranges good for fiber and a little potassium, and the strawberries for fiber and a little more Vitamin C. She normally eats the caramel flavored rice cakes by the handful, and since they are lightly sweet, very dry and crunchy, I thought they would be a good choice in case of unexpected tummy rumbles. It turns that the rice crackers from Trader Joe's are a tasty counter point to the rice cakes. They are lightly salted and have a mild sesame flavor that balances the sweetness of the rice cakes. At parties I often serve cheddar cheese and caramel corn mini rice cakes mixed in a bowl together, so the rice crackers would be a good variation to that.
Waste: one toothpick
Review: Mixed. i don't think she was feeling 100% better, so she picked over everything. She didn't like the oranges and only had one or two of the grapes. She ate all of the strawberries, one rice cake and a few crackers. She had the juice and the other rice cake on the ride home.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Tiffin Bento

At long last, I finally put togehter a true tiffin style bento for my lunch yesterday in a leftover takeout container.

Contents: rice with ghee, leftover shortcut ghugni, two halves of roasted plum tomatoes, multi grain pita wedges, a schmear of sweet mango pickle, some yogurt on the side. I would have liked to have fit it all in the same container, but it wasn't going to happen. I must confess that the yogurt on the side was not raita; it was pina colada flavored yogurt that was leftover from breakfast. It served the purpose in cooling the palate, however, because that mango pickle was spicy!

The ghugni was an total shortcut version to its authentic, and more tasty, long simmering traditional preparation. I made this a few nights ago in a pinch when I wanted something hot and comforting and quick using what I had in my pantry. It fit the bill nicely.

Ghugni on the Go

2 tsp oil

2 tsp ground ginger

2 tsp onion powder or 2 tsp dried onion flakes - do not use onion salt!

2 tsp garlic powder
1 15-oz can chick peas, drained and rinsed
2 tbs tomato paste or 1/4 cup tomato sauce

2 tsp ground coriander

2 tsp ground cumin

1 tbs garam masala (available at Indian grocery stores)*

1 tsp cayenne pepper (adjust to taste)

1 chicken bouillion cube

8 oz water (or skip the bouillion cube and water and use chicken broth if you have it)

salt to taste

Lightly coat the bottom of a hot skillet with a small amount of oil. Put in ground ginger, onion powder, and garlic powder. Stir and cook 1 minute. Reduce heat to medium. Add chickpeas, tomato paste or sauce, and garam masala, stir thoroughly. Add garam masala, cayenne pepper, bouillion cube and water. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer 10 minutes until water has reduced and a sauce remains. Add salt to your taste as needed. Serve with hot rice or pitas.

Notes: As mentioned, this is a very quick version of a very traditional vegetarian Indian dish. I made this up on the fly because I didn't have time, or the foresight for that matter, to soak the chick peas over night and I always have a can or two of chick peas in the pantry. The addition of chicken broth at the end is another departure from tradition, but I like the slow cooked flavor that it adds. Or maybe it doesn't and I have been watching too much food network. Anyway, to make this dish vegan, you can use vegetable broth. Another option would be to use one of those tomato based vegetable juices in place of the tomato sauce/paste/and broth if you have that. I bet that would be good too.

This dish is wonderful for bentos because it is very good at room temperature. I'll post a more traditional recipe for ghugni one of these days too.

Review: I had access to a microwave, so the whole thing went in for 30 seconds and was great. The ghugni was tasty and the combination of the sweet and spicy mango pickle with the ghugni balanced with the rice. The roasted tomatoes were a sweet and juicy addition that I will have to suggest to my mom to bring to parties. So easy and so good. My daughter ate most of the pita wedges, so the one that I had was a good replacement for a traditional flatbreads (paratha, roti, or naan) that would be served with a meal. No waste generated, all containers were brought home and sent straight to the dishwasher.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

So what is a bento anyway?

The question has been posed: "So what the he** is a bento anyway?" While I am at it I might as well answer the next question, "Ok, so what the he** is a tiffin and how is it different from a bento?" (Additional commentary from this friend included that I have way too much time on my hands and that I am completely mental. In all fairness both are completely true statements.)

So what is a bento really? It's essentially a Japanese style lunchbox that predates drive throughs and lunchables by at least 800 years. In true Japanese fashion, a culture that thrives on order, neatness, rigor, and rules, bento traditions have evolved from simply prepared, but compact and portable meals to go to the more elaborate and ornately decorated meals that are de riguer at the moment. You can read more about bento history in the Wikipedia entry here. The premise of the bento is that it is a single serving meal that is well balanced and appetizing to be consumed outside the home. It's the original takeout container. The Japanese were way ahead of their time even then.

Specifically, there is a strong cultural tradition of bento preparation, known as obento in Japan that is directly proportional to a mother and a wife's self worth. Mothers apparently get very competitive in preparing cute and appetizing bentos for their tots. Bentos for school age children must follow strict dietary guidelines for the proper proportions of grains, proteins, vegetables, etc. Furthermore, mothers are encouraged to prepare and decorate the contents in fanciful ways so they appeal to pipsqueaks who must eat them. This link to a PBS article has some very cute bentos.

For adults there are also dietary guidelines for proper bento preparation. They, too, should follow specific dietary guidelines, presumably following the Japanese government issued food guide, the spinning top, which looks like an inverted version of the American food pyramid. For adults, the premise is that if the bento is properly prepared, then the caloric content should be the same as the size of its container, which is calculated in mL. So for an adult who is using an 800mL bento container, the meal, if prepared according to the proper proportions, should be roughly 800 calories. This blog has some terrific information and guidelines about size, proportions of bentos. The benefit of bento is not only portion control, but nutritional balance as well, which is something everyone could use more of.

Bento containers, called bento boxes, like the tradition of obento, have also changed dramatically over time. Once simple bamboo containers that were small and portable, modern bento boxes are made of plastic or aluminum. Elaborate and decorative bentos are often made of highly polished lacquered wood. They are typically two or three tiers of containers, one of which might be sectioned, to hold the food inside. They most often stack or snap together for easy transport.

A tiffin is an Indian (subcontinent) version of a lunch box to go. Like a bento, it is a means of transporting a single serving meal for consumption outside the home. Also, similar to a bento, traditionally Indian mothers, or more likely, servants, prepare tiffins for the children and parents who work outside of the home. A less compulsive version of the lunch to go, tiffins normally contain a bread, rice, dal, and perhaps a potato or egg side dish. There are no governmentally issued dietary guidelines, but any kid's tiffin is probably exactly like two dozen or so of his classmates on any given day. Indian children often complain about the lack of creativity in their tiffins.

Tiffins prepared for adults usually contain the same or similar items to children's tiffins. However, in certain parts of India, most notably Mumbai, there has been a longstanding traditional system of tiffin delivery and pickup by designated couriers called dabbawallas or tiffinwallas. Their processes are low-tech and old school, but masterfully efficient, so much so that books have been written about the process and tradition. The fact that these delivery systems still thrive in today's modern Indian society is a remarkable juxtaposition and reflection of what India has become: a contrast of old and new.

A typical old school tiffin consists of small aluminum or metal containers with lids that stack and snap together with a carrying strap or latch mechanism. Modern tiffins can be found made of melamine or plastic, but the style is reminiscent of the traditional round metal ones that many Indians remember from their own childhoods. There are very decorative tiffin boxes out there, some with stamped designs or carved textures on the outside, others with utensils that attach to the outside.

The main difference that I see between bentos and tiffins are the rules and order, which one can attribute entirely to cultural traditions. Japanese are culturally very ordered and regimented which is a hallmark throughout their history, so it is only fitting that these sensibilities are applied to food preparation. Indians tiffins, on the other hand, are all about simple comfort foods that remind us of home, which is the same for everyone, regardless of caste, education, work position, or social status. Tiffin food by definition should not be elaborate or fancy. However, in theory, the same meal that would feed villagers or peasants is welcomed in the executive offices of titans of industry.

Whether you are packing a bento, a tiffin, or just a good old American lunch, doing it yourself is going to be more economical and nutritious in the long run and way better than the drive through.