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Posted on Jul 5, 2008 | 16 comments

Double-decker microwaving for a donburi thermal jar lunch

Double-decker microwaving for a donburi thermal jar lunch

Japanese curry bento lunch for preschoolerAt first glance this may not seem like a particularly interesting lunch, but I’ve actually taken a couple of new approaches to packing that can be applied to other dishes. Double-decker heating of multiple dishes in the microwave oven saves time and energy, and I created a do-it-yourself thermal donburi bento box for a child out of an adult-sized thermal lunch jar.

Contents of preschooler bento lunch: Mild Japanese curry made with chicken, carrots, onions and purple potatoes (see my cooking notes). Accompaniments are rakkyo pickled scallions and rice.

Morning prep time: 6 minutes, using leftover curry and rice. In the morning I microwaved the rice and curry in microwave-safe ceramic bowls while preheating the outer thermal food jar with hot tap water. Preheating the outer thermal jar helps the container retain heat longer, keeping your food nice and warm.

Gear: Although microwave ovens are usually a pretty good size on the inside, the limiting factor on how much food I can warm at once is usually the diameter of the round glass carousel on the bottom. It makes sense to take advantage of the oven’s vertical space to warm multiple dishes at once, though, reducing the time the microwave is running and saving money on electricity.

Microwave stand for double-decker heating  Double-decker heating with a microwave stand

I’ve found a few different stands and plate covers that let you stack plates and bowls on top of each other in the microwave or refrigerator. I keep them next to the microwave and reach for them every day — the covers are faster than reaching for plastic wrap when nuking even a single plate of food, and the plastic doesn’t touch the food directly. An added benefit is that they’re reusable and reduce kitchen waste. I happened to pick them all up at at the Daiso discount store in Daly City, CA (branches internationally) because at US$1.50 they’re cheap there, but you can also find these sorts of microwave plate covers on Amazon in different designs. (Read on for more microwave covers and lunch packing details.)

Reusable bowl covers for double-decker microwavingOne is a little plastic tray with folding legs; there’s no metal in the hinges so it’s safe for the microwave. Larger plates can go on the top, while smaller plates and bowls fit underneath. It’s 9 3/8″ wide (24 cm), 7.5″ deep (19 cm), and 3.5″ high (9 cm).

Other alternatives are hard plastic bowl and plate covers that replace plastic wrap and let you stack things in the microwave or refrigerator. These flat covers come in two different sizes. The smaller one is about 5.5″ in diameter (13.5 cm), and the larger one is 7 7/8″ (20 cm), with ridges in the middle to fit smaller bowls. The manufacturer points out that depending on the size and shape of the bowls you’re using, turning the covers upside down may provide more stability when stacking.

Reusable plate cover for double-decker microwavingAnother option for larger bowls or medium-size plates is a raised plate cover with a half-inch lip around the outer edge. It can be used as either a bowl cover for food that sticks up above the rim of a large bowl, or as a platform to stack another plate or bowl on top for double-decker microwaving. The funny little legs sticking out on the left provide stability when odd-shaped plates are balanced on top, and double as steam vents when microwaving. It’s 8 5/8″ (22 cm) in diameter and about 2″ (5cm) high, with a little built-in knob on top for easy removal. I’ve had this and the flat covers above for at least a year now; they’re really handy and work better in my kitchen than fitted silicone covers or other reusable soft plastic covers that look like showercaps. I find them faster and easier to clean as they can go into the dishwasher.

Packing: The other twist in today’s curry lunch is using an adult-sized thermal lunch jar as a DIY thermal donburi bento box. I’ve gone through a number of different ways of packing curry or stew with rice:

  1. The “rice lid” method packs hot stew on the bottom of a thermal food jar with a layer of rice on the topJapanese curry rice bento (assembled)Curry rice bento lunch in donburi bento box (unassembled)
  2. Packing cold rice and curry separately in a donburi bento box, microwaving them right before eating, and pouring the hot curry on top of the rice in the large container (shown at right)
  3. Packing the stew in a thermal food jar and the rice separately in a room temp container
  4. Packing separate containers of a thermal lunch jar full of rice and curry to be eaten separately

Sancocho stew in thermal lunch jarMy three-year-old complains about the rice lid method (#1, shown at left) as food tends to spill out when he tries to stir everything up himself (we’re talking preschooler coordination here, folks!). There’s no microwave at Bug’s preschool, so the donburi bento box (#2) doesn’t do him much good. Option #3 leaves Bug with room temperature rice, which is not the end of the world or anything, but it’s difficult for him to combine the rice and stew in the small food jar we have.

Chinese lunch jar with containersA combination of the donburi bento box and #4 is closest to what I did with this lunch, but I only filled the thermal lunch jar’s big rice container about a third full of rice, and the top container half full of curry and rakkyo. This way Bug was able to open his lunch, pour all of the warm curry right on top of the rice in the big container, and eat it all with a spoon. The rice wasn’t soggy because it had been kept separate from the curry until right before eating, and both rice and curry were warm without a microwave.

I packed the lunch in a cheap knockoff thermal lunch jar with only two inner containers, available at Kamei and many Chinese discount stores in San Francisco. It’s about the same size as the Ms. Bento, but smaller than a Mr. Bento or its cheaper but good quality Nissan Thermos equivalent shown below. Quality and heat retention of the small knockoff is not as good as the Mr./Ms. Bento or the Nissan Thermos, but at $8 it’s a nice option for smaller lunches.

Battle of the lunch jars: Nissan Stainless vs. Chinese knockoffVerdict: Big thumbs up; Bug ate up everything at preschool. He got worried when he saw me reaching for the large lunch jar in the morning, thinking it would be too much. But he was fine with it once I explained that it would only be packed partway with food, and showed him how to pour the curry over the rice. I wound up repeating this lunch again later in the week to use up the leftover curry and rice, but no complaints from Bug as it’s one of his favorites.

(Disclaimer: I have no commercial affiliations with Daiso. Amazon links are affiliate links that give Lunch in a Box pennies on the dollar when you use them to get to Amazon when shopping.)

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  1. Hey Biggie,

    I just wanted to drop you a note saying that though putting more food into a microwave oven might seem like a good idea for energy saving, that might not be the case. Microwaves only put out a certain amount of energy via microwave heat. This energy is absorbed my the water in food, which cooks it. Because there is a limited amount of energy that the appliance puts out, you may find yourself having to put your microwavables in for longer than expected.

    Just a thought :]

  2. @1 from Ashley: Okay, I pulled out my copy of Barbara Kafka’s book Microwave Gourmet to see what an expert says. While it’s true that the more food there is in the microwave the longer it needs to cook, the cook time is often not proportional to the amount of additional food. Kafka’s instructions for cooking raw unshelled chestnuts, for example, calls for 6 minutes for 1/2 pound of chestnuts, but only 8 minutes for a full pound (in a 700W oven). Other ingredients listed in her section “Dictionary of Foods and Techniques” show similarly shortened cook times when doubling.

    The use of a rack and two cooking containers does complicate matters, though, as there are now two containers that need heating instead of more food in a single container. When cooking two portions on separate plates on a rack, Kafka recommends upping the cook time slightly, and exchanging the position of the plates halfway through.

    For me, I can say I definitely save time by not having to futz around with plates halfway through, and when packing hot food in a thermal container it’s nice to have both dishes come out hot at the same time.

  3. I don’t know if they still have them, but I bought my microwave plate cover from ikea for cheap. I haven’t tried stacking anything on top of it though.

  4. This isn’t related to this post, but I am looking to purchase a rice cooker, as with a 3 year old & newborn I have not had good luck watching & cooking sticky rice on the stove lately. I couldn’t locate a review of a rice cooker on your webiste, and wondered what you thought about this one. Thanks, and I can’t wait to look further into your site, I ordered our first bento boxes and they should arrive tomorrow.

    http://www.overstock.com/Home-Garden/Stylish-Microcomputerized-10-cup-Rice-Cooker/3105419/product.html?

  5. Hi Biggie. I also use these thermal gear but i’m afraid to put soup in it.

  6. This is great. Mr. Bento is way too much food for me but I bet I could use it for donburi in this fashion too!… Actually I’m perfectly satisfied with the rice lid method, but like you mention, pre-schooler coordination makes that difficult for Bug.
    Speaking of which, I spent a lot of time with my nephews this weekend, and watching the 10 month old try to put puffs in his mouth (these dissolving banana puffs that I think Gerber makes?) was sooo cute. Of course I helped him but initially, I thought he could do it, and seeing him jam his whole fist in his mouth, then opening it so the tiny puff would go in… ahh, priceless

  7. Speaking of which, I spent a lot of time with my nephews this weekend, and watching the 10 month old try to put puffs in his mouth (these dissolving banana puffs that I think Gerber makes?) was sooo cute. Of course I helped him but initially, I thought he could do it, and seeing him jam his whole fist in his mouth, then opening it so the tiny puff would go in… ahh, priceless

  8. @4 from Becca: Hmm, the photo on the Overstock.com website shows the Sunpentown logo on the rice cooker. I believe it’s this one: http://sunpentown.com/sc10cumirico.html While Sunpentown isn’t one of the big Japanese brands, it’s still fine, and the model you’re looking at is their top-of-the-line rice cooker. I like that it’s got a timer and different settings for white, brown and sweet rice. Looks like a bargain! Maybe you can find user feedback on the web now that you’ve got a brand name and model number…

  9. @5 from fossettes: Why are you afraid of putting soup in your thermal lunch jar? If you have the same knockoff jar, though, I understand because it doesn’t have a properly sealing container for soup. The soup containers on the Mr. Bento and Nissan Stainless lunch jar I have do an excellent job of keeping soup without leakage.

  10. @3 from Faer: An IKEA source for microwave plate covers would be great! I can’t seem to locate them on IKEA’s U.S. website, though. I don’t suppose there’s a model name or any identifying info on your plate cover, is there?

  11. Wow that’s pretty cool. Now if my microwave was only a little bigger I could get use out of it! :-p

  12. No, it’s not part of any series that I know of. I got mine in the impulse buy section of ikea (lol, ie in the boxes by the register). I also saw them in the kitchen section, by the food containers. If I remember correctly it was like $3 or so. Maybe less. It’s a pretty deep cover, I can stick it over a bowl, and it’s maybe 25cm wide (or so). Has a little handle impression-like thing on the top, probably not stackable.

  13. @13 from Faer: Thanks for the details on your Ikea plate cover, Faer! I’ll keep my eyes peeled next time I’m there.

  14. @6 from Yvo: I know those puffs! It actually took Bug a long time to get used to solid foods (without returning them to sender — ick), and initially the only way he could handle those tiny puffs was if I broke them up into like five tiny pieces that would melt on his tongue. Seems like forever ago now!

  15. I am desperate–where can I find that double decker stnd for microwave heating? I tried the Daiso website and they don’t show it. Do you know where I can get one(or several)?
    Thanks,
    Shei