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.