lunch logistics

Much cooler -- and smaller -- than the Cabbage Patch Kids lunchbox I had 25 years ago.

Much cooler -- and smaller -- than the Cabbage Patch Kids lunchbox I had 25 years ago.

I take my lunch to work every day except for days when lunch is sushi with the Paternal Unit. Considering my love of all things bread and that I have home-baked sandwich loaves in the house at all times except Pesach, it may be odd that I rarely make sandwiches, but I don’t. Once or twice a month there will be PB&J, but after that it’s whatever’s in the fridge that can reasonably fit in my modest collection of bento containers and can stand to be eaten cold or room-temp. Usually to be decided upon at around 7:45 am.

I started following Lunch In a Box a couple of years ago, but Biggie’s and Bug’s meals don’t really overlap with what I eat, so it has generally been for the odd packing tip and the photography. Over the last few months, though, I’ve tried to make a more concerted effort to actually plan meals. Getting enough (any) protein into my lunch is often a challenge, especially because I have a love/hate relationship with taking yogurt — love yogurt, but hate the idea of cold food after a morning of sitting in my arctic cubicle.

But planning requires supplies. I’ve had a modest collection of Japanese bento containers for a few years, ranging between 300ml and 600ml, plus one cold bento kit (2x150ml + 340ml), but I’m usually scrounging on Thursdays and Fridays because I don’t have enough of the smaller ones and I’ve been a sloth replacing them because I have to plan a trip to Flushing to investigate alternate suppliers. Everything in the picture was purchased at the local Japanese store, which was a font of bento awesomeness with everything cute and nifty for food storage, plus a separate area for pencil and stationery awesomeness. And it was all very cheap –all but the kit was under $2. But late last year, the Japanese store of wonderful became the Korean store of shlock — gone were the pencils and the bento gear and the mysterious Japanese snack foods, in their place were aisles of cheap costume jewelry and large pleather purses. Most shocking and dismaying.

Nonetheless, despite my sloth and with my dwindling supply of bento gear (I’ve wrecked a couple of lids, which makes the shortage worse), I’ve made do. I’m supposed to hand-wash anyway, right?

On the other hand, I’ve yet to find a good insulated wrapper, or, really any good wrapper period for the larger items that can’t be maneuvered into a sandwich baggie, so my lunch can look a little ghetto by bento standards.

I kind of suspect that I’m wrapping my lunch in an old diaper, but I won’t tell if you don’t.

To make progress on the hot-food front, I asked for a ‘proper’ bento set for my birthday and Best Friend provided. It’s an adorable little thing that, hilariously, matches my late 1970’s kitchen decor. (Hilarious because nothing matches my kitchen, as I’ve found out when it comes time to buy kitchen towels and potholders and other accessories that you vaguely hope to coordinate.) I did not take a picture of it in the kitchen; it would camouflage too well.

The set is a Zojirushi Mini bento box has a main ‘insulated’ bowl, two smaller containers, and chopsticks with a case. I put insulated in scare quotes because it’s absolutely not a thermos. The inside is double-layer plastic and sits freely in the green steel outer bowl. The lid has a rubber gasket, but I’m not sure I’d try soup in it — there was a tiny bit of leakage when I did a spill test. Nonetheless, it does keep things warm — I put boiling water in it and it was still hot enough to burn a couple of hours later and had not cooled completely by the next morning. The bag comes with padding on the bottom for the metal container. It fits together nicely inside with a security strap to replace the traditional belt and a drawstring top.

The reviews for this over at Amazon are funny; everyone thinks it’s very cute, but for a pre-schooler because of its size. Except for the one person who understands that bento packing is about cramming as much useful food as possible into a tiny container. That said, this is pretty small and you really do have to maximize filling food. According to this bento sizing chart, it’s the right size for someone of my proportions, but I’m still deciding if a more committed bento lifestyle should be accompanied by a more committed rice-and-grains lifestyle. I’m working on the grains part anyway, but, given my druthers, I’d rather have an extra portion of greens than rice. I’m going to be hungry by the time I get home regardless.

I did try to keep to the bento ‘rules’ when I took it for its maiden voyage this week. I warmed up the main container with boiling water and set to making my fancy-pants lunch. The entrée of the day was leftover beans/veggies/meat sauce with pasta, heated up in the microwave. The container itself’s pretty substantial, but you have to leave an inch or so at the top for the lid to squeeze in. That said, I managed to get a soup bowl’s worth in, which is more than respectable and a decent portion for lunch. The perspective’s a little skewed, so it perhaps looks a little tardis-like.

The two ‘side dish’ containers are straightforward units, one smaller than the other, but you can wedge a fair bit into it if you try. I should have taken before-and-after shots, since it’s hard to show without pictures how I got what might have been a quarter-pound of swiss chard into container the size of a hockey puck. I figured I’d wedge what I could in and leave the rest over for dinner, but I kept going and going and it was all in.

The same was true of the smaller container, which accepted two apricots and some very plump blueberries.

The entire set is small enough to fit into my petite backpack, although it may be a little less comfy when I’m carrying a fatter book to read. (Although I did wedge groceries in with it on the way home, so it’s not that much of a space-filler.) It was certainly fun eating at lunch. I put the two small containers in the fridge and kept the rest at my desk; I usually eat in shifts, anyway. Eating blueberries with chopsticks is completely unnecessary, but a delight nonetheless.

Next on the purchase list — after hauling the lazy tuchus to Flushing — will be a true thermos. I still have the one from high school and it still works well almost twenty years later, but it’s missing the cup/cap and I’m a little nervous to toss it into my backpack without it. And from there, soup for lunch!

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