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Posted on Oct 27, 2008 | 44 comments

Enchilada and Sloppy Joe bento lunches

Enchilada and Sloppy Joe bento lunches

I’m not one to spend a lot of time making decorative food art, but I’m not totally averse to giving my four-year-old son fun lunches. My speedy versions use playful accessories and visually interesting food instead of ornate food sculpture. The first lunch below is more of an exercise in accessories and shortcut cooking for dinner, while the second lunch is more interesting-looking food with a review of frozen potato Smiles.

Chicken mole enchilada bento lunch for preschooler

Contents of preschooler bento lunch: Fast chicken mole enchiladas (loose recipe below) with a squeeze bottle of crema (sour cream), sauteed asparagus, nectarine slices, and cheese cubes.

Morning prep time: 10 minutes, using leftover enchiladas that I’d packed up the night before after dinner. In the morning I filled the condiment bottle with crema, sliced the nectarine and sauteed two stalks of asparagus. (Read on for the enchilada recipe, a review of shaped potato Smiles, lunch details, and an additional Sloppy Joe lunch.)

Packing: I used a flip-top squeeze bottle with an egg head to hold the crema; the whole white plastic top unscrews off to allow for easier filling. I used a small tasting spoon to spoon in the crema, but you could also squirt in ketchup from a squeeze bottle, or use the suction method to fill it (squeeze the little bottle, upend it and put the opening down into the condiment, and release pressure on the bottle, sucking the condiment in). This bottle came in a set of two; the other one is shaped like a tomato, and is shown in the lunch below.

Because it’s difficult to cut food once it’s packed inside of a box, I went ahead and sliced up the enchilada before packing it up. The slices are quite small to make for easier eating for little hands. I made an asparagus tip into a fake umbrella with the little picks below (from Ichiban Kan in San Francisco’s Japantown, also available from their online store). I’ve used picks from this set before to turn cherry tomatoes into little balloons — fast and easy food fun!

Decorative food picks for packed lunches

Verdict: Bug ate all of this lunch at preschool, no leftovers. I was actually amazed at this, as I knowingly packed the asparagus tips, which he doesn’t like. When I asked him about it, he said he still doesn’t like the texture of the tips, but he ate them anyway. Woo hoo!

Cooking: I used a number of shortcuts in making these dinner enchiladas, turning leftover roast chicken into a Leftover Remake. I’ve made homemade mole sauce before, but oh man, it took me hours and hours! The jarred mole paste (just add stock) is a speedy alternative that makes mole a weekday option. My husband and son both raved about the mole enchiladas and strongly requested them for dinner again sometime.

I shredded two thirds of a sizable roast chicken from the deli (everything except the legs & thighs, which I saved for bento lunches), simmered some store-bought mole sauce concentrate with chicken stock to make 2.5 cups of mole sauce, and combined about half of it with the shredded chicken. I dipped small corn tortillas in the reserved mole sauce to soften and flavor them, rolled the chicken filling inside the tortillas, and placed them into a baking dish seam side down. The remaining mole sauce goes over the top, followed by about a cup of shredded cheese (mozzarella in this case, but you can use another melting cheese, or bake them plain and sprinkle cilantro and Parmesan or queso anejo on top afterwards). Bake in a 375° F oven until warmed through and the cheese is melted.

I was initially unsure if Bug would be able to handle the mild spiciness of the mole sauce, so I had him taste the sauce before I combined it with the chicken. Got the thumbs up from him on the spiciness, so I went ahead and sauced all of the shredded chicken. It made enough for dinner for the three of us, and the leftovers yielded lunch for Bug and myself.

* * * * *

Bug is a bit of a neatnik, and eating Sloppy Joes on a bun frustrates him. When he’s eating with us at home, I talk him through it and tell him, “Hey, Sloppy Joes are sloppy! Don’t worry about it!” But I don’t see any point in setting him up for frustration when he’s eating on his own at school. Bug initially protested when he saw me heating up leftover Sloppy Joe filling for his bento, but I explained that I’d figured out an easy way for him to eat it on his own…

Sloppy Joe filling bento lunch for preschooler

Contents of preschooler bento lunch: Homemade Sloppy Joe filling with carrots, red bell peppers, celery and onions. Potato Smiles (reviewed below) with ketchup, and a mango pudding cup.

Morning prep time: 20 minutes, mostly inactive prep time waiting for the potato Smiles to cook in my convection toaster oven.

Condiment containers for packed lunches

Packing: Cold, congealed Sloppy Joe filling is pretty gross, so I wanted to keep it warm without using a microwave (none at my son’s school). The little thermal jar kept things warm with the help of a hot tap water preheat when I microwaved the Sloppy Joe filling in a microwave-safe bowl. I packed a regular-sized spoon so that Bug could either spoon up the Sloppy Joe filling and eat it that way, or dunk the potato Smiles in the filling. The ketchup went into a flip-top squeeze bottle like the egg-shaped one above, and I tucked in a little tasting spoon for the pudding. I packed the meal in a little thermal bento set (similar collapsible ones sold here in green and blue metallic). At 540ml, it’s bit too large for a four-year-old according to the bento box size guidelines, so the second side dish container is packed mostly with the ketchup.

Verdict: Surprisingly, Bug ate everything at preschool except the pudding cup. When I asked him how he ate the Sloppy Joe filling, he said he ate it with the spoon, and ate the potatoes separately with ketchup with his fingers.

Product review: I spied these shaped potato Smiles from McCain Foods at the BlogHer conference that I attended a few months ago in San Francisco, and they instantly reminded me of little Anpanman-shaped oven fries I’ve seen in Japanese bento lunches like this one from Bento Corner. I was curious about how they’d fare in bentos and in my toaster oven, so the company sent me some to try out.

To an adult palate they’re fine, not phenomenal, as it’s just shaped processed potato. But to a four-year-old, they’re fun and fantastic! Evidently Bug made a point of showing them to his friends at lunch time, and he said that most got excited about them too. Granted, he’s a bit of an unreliable witness, but he’s enthusiastic about them and requested them for future lunches.

The potato Smiles come frozen loose in a bag, so you fish out as many as you want, plop them on a baking sheet, and put them in a 425° F oven for 6-8 minutes per side until they’re golden brown and crispy. Let them cool on a rack before packing them up in a bento box so that they retain their crispiness; shutting them in a box when they’re still hot will just trap condensation and lead to soggy potatoes. The potato Smiles don’t have trans fats, but remember that it’s still processed food. The playful aspect is the real draw here.

FURTHER READING:

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  1. So cute!!! And I’m glad to read that Bug ate the entire contents of his lunch :0)

  2. For the second bento, was he supposed to dunk the potatoes to eat the sloppy joe? Then what’s the ketchup for?

    Questions for the ages, I know…

  3. Yummy!

    I was wondering which jarred mole paste you used? I’m a newbie at Mexican cuisine, and can’t tell the difference between the different brands pictured on the Amazon page you linked, but it didn’t look like any of them said that they were a paste that should be mixed with stock?

    Funny about the potato smiles being new in your neck of the woods. They’ve had them here in Pittsburgh for quite a while–and they’re only just discovering sushi here!!!! (We’re usually a few decades behind the times over here, which is good for some things and not so good for others….)

  4. So what is the “easy way for him to eat it on his own” that you figured out? Did he eat all that sloppiness with a tiny tasting spoon?

  5. My daughters love the smile fries too! I must say I’m envious of what an adventurous eater your son is. My eldest is living proof of the Parents’ Curse…”someday you’ll have a child like you!”

    PS: You must have the nicest readers out there in the blogosphere. It’s so refreshing to see comments that are always well-mannered. :-)

  6. Reminds me of the Ian’s Alphatots my boys like. It’s a fun treat once in a while.

  7. Kawaii!
    Sorry but I love those food picks, no luck finding anything like them in the UK so far (and even Jbox doesn’t do them)

    Is crema fake cream? I remember you mentioned before that Bug’s pre-school has a no-liquid-dairy rule.

  8. @2 from Darryl Papa-sensei: Good question, Darryl Papa-sensei! (I just edited the post to include the answer.) I threw in a regular-sized spoon so that Bug could either eat the filling as is, or dunk the potatoes in it. When I asked him afterwards how he ate it, he said he ate them separately: filling with the spoon, and potatoes with ketchup with his fingers.

  9. those enchiladas look yumm. I have never tried it with mole sauce. I may do so now. I do a similar thing with store bought rotisserie chicken,and along with the chckn i saute some veggies(onion and green peppers) and use enchilada sauce instead. check my blog.

  10. @3 from Alison: I used El Mexicano brand jarred mole paste; it’s similar to both the Dona Maria and Rogelio Bueno mole sauces shown in the link. They don’t specifically say that they need stock on the Amazon link, but they do. It makes them cheaper than the totally 100%-ready mole sauces.

    Once I saw the potato Smiles at BlogHer I started to keep an eye out for them at the stores I shop at here, but never seemed to notice them. Maybe they’re common in some areas but not others? That, or I’m just blind (always a possibility!). ;-)

  11. @4 from Amy: D’oh! I added the answer to the post above. Bug wound up eating all the filling with a regular-sized spoon that I packed, and ate the potatoes with ketchup separately with his hands. I packed it sort of open-endedly so that he had two options (but should have included the conclusion in the post originally!). Thanks for the follow-up.

  12. @5 from t: I’m still knocking on wood that Bug’s non-picky eating habits continue… Fingers crossed!

    I agree that my readers are incredibly well mannered and insightful. It’s always a pleasure to read what you all have to say; it makes me think more about our habits and how to better communicate my thoughts.

  13. @6 from PsychoCelloChica: Hey, my college dorm never served such fun food on any day! LUCKY! (queue Napoleon Dynamite) I can definitely picture college students getting onto that. :-)

  14. McCain Foods website has a locator for where they distribute. Even with that, I had to try a few of stores in the chain that carries them locally.

    My impression of the smiley fries was that they were very much like bland mashed potatoes formed into the shape rather than a die-cut potato that I was expecting. It was certainly a lot mooshier than I was expecting. That said, you’ve got me craving them. I always get on a potato kick in the fall…

  15. Mr T likes “smiley faces” too. They serve them at the Buffalo Wild Wings here and so he ALWAYS wants to go there to eat. Luckily we keep a bag on hand at home. Sanity.

  16. I have a question. Is there a way you can show how you prep the lunch boxes in video? Perhaps once in awhile. It would be great to see.

    I also agree with one of the other comments. It’s nice seeing people being civil.

  17. I did not know Sloppy Joes before to read this post. It seems very delicious and the kind of food I will like. I have some ground beef in my fridge, I will perhaps have a trial. Could you give me a recipe? Thanks.

  18. @20 from Tory: The ads at the bottom of each post are just Google Ads — I have it set to show either text ads or graphic ads, whichever. I don’t custom-select the ads when they come through Google Ads; I think they auto-select according to keywords used on the page. Check another full post and you’ll probably see a different ad. I’d be shocked if my next post brings up a Tyson ad, though, as it won’t be about chicken. Sorry this bugs you; I do see your point!

  19. Dear Biggie,

    I absolutely love you website. We recently received our laptop lunch boxes and I have been checking out some of your lunch ideas. The lunches you pack for your son are totally adorable, my two kids are picky eaters compare with your Bug. However they do like the dino-bite sandwich cutter. While looking around your website I came across one recipe that was gluten free and was wondering if you had any others from your gluten-free year. Recently my alergist told me that I had a mild allergy to wheat and have been trying to come up with some different recipes. However, I am having some difficulty as wheat seems to be in just about everything with the exception of rice.

    Thanks,

    Lisa Sturniolo

  20. Hi Biggie! I just got a Totoro thermal bento set sort of like the one in your sloppy joe picture. Have you been able to pack anything like soup in the metal cannister or is semi-wet food the limit?

    When I was a kid I loved sloppy joes but I was also a very neat eater and it bothered me so much when the filling oozed out of the bun. Now I am probably the messiest eater around. :P

  21. @8 from Amelia: You’re very sharp! Crema is in fact dairy, but it’s really thick so I got an exception from the liquid dairy rule at preschool. In good news, the kid with the milk allergy at Bug’s preschool seems to be outgrowing a number of his food allergies, and is now able to eat both soy and cheese! His mom is talking about trying him out on yogurt at some point in the future, as he did so well with cheese.

  22. @18 from L: You want to come over to my house and take care of the video-taping? I’ll put on makeup and everything! ;-) Filming & editing is kinda beyond my skill set at the moment.

  23. Oh, so your ads appear due to key words…that explains the anti-Obama ad. McCain smiley potatoes=McCain/Palin campaign ad!

  24. @23 from umistudio: Long story short, check to see which company manufactured your Totoro box. I think it’ll be Skater, the same company that made my little bunny & moon thermal bento set above. The food jars in the Skater thermal bento sets actually are the most watertight of these thermal rice containers — more so than the Tiger and even Zojirushi models!

    Check the inner silicone gasket in the lid to be sure that there are no notches. If it goes straight around without notches, you should be okay to pack thick liquids like stews and curries as long as you carry the bento set upright and don’t let it stay tipped over. More info to follow in my full shootout review of thermal bento sets…

  25. @27 from Jeri: Ack, are you serious? Was there actually a political campaign ad on my blog? If so, I need to flag that with Google Ads and have them kill all political ads — I didn’t think anything here would make them appear.

  26. I saw the political ad too, but I don’t even see the ads anymore- I’m too busy being addicted to your posts! I love your notes each day, it’s inspiring. I make bento (and just lunch) for two adult guys who work long hard hours all week, so it’s fun to see if I can get all the calories they need into a bento, in a quantity that’s filling, AND make it cute/interesting enough that when they open the boxes at work, co-workers stop and go “….. whoa, what’s that?”

    Thanks!

  27. @30 from Kyoki: ARGH! I keep reloading this page to see if I can make the political ad reappear so that I can figure out the target URL to add to my block list on Google Ads, but the political ad’s not showing for me for some reason (maybe it ran its course and they’re out of budget?). If anyone happens to see it, I’d appreciate it if you could right click it, View Link Properties, and shoot me an e-mail with the target URL so I can kill it. THANK YOU! And sorry about the political ads — it’s not my intent to have those sorts of irrelevant ads showing here on Lunch in a Box.

  28. @30 from Kyoki: Jeri just sent me the URL for the political ad, and I added it to my Block List on Google Ads. If you ever notice something really out of whack popping up in ads here, let me know and I’ll figure out how to kill it.

  29. i love reading your blog. you have wonderful ideas about bento, we don’t have children yet, but when we do, i’ll be packed full of ideas by then:) thanks!

  30. I am so grateful that I found your blog….you’ve inspired me to pack better and craftier lunches for my niece and nephew that live with me. My niece brings her lunch everyday and I’ve been running out of ideas. Thank you! Thank you! I am running to Michaels after this to buy those silicone cup cake holders.

  31. BTW, what brand do you buy for the smily fries? I’ve been using the Michelina’s frozen kind and my niece complains that they get hard by the time she eats lunch. The packaging lists it was “formed mash potatoes”. Thanks in advance.

  32. Hey I just bought some of those kawaii picks at Ichiban Kan on my last trip to San Fran – They are super cute!

  33. Your lunches are what I imagine every little kid dreams of opening up at school! I would have loved eating such cool bento boxes myself as a child! and though I can’t get my act together yet to do such neat things for my own or my kids’ lunches yet, I can always come here for inspiration at least!

  34. Oh I read the rest of the entry and found my answer……You are so awesome.

  35. Your preschooler is a neatnik as well as an adventurous eater?! You are so lucky!

  36. Excuse me if tons of other people have already asked this in other posts and you have responded somewhere on the site…but where did you get the flip top condiment containers? They are adorable and are just the size I need. Thanks!

  37. @41 from Maegan: I got the flip-top condiment containers a couple of years ago off of eBay — the Tokyo Gift store, I believe. I haven’t found anything better for squeezing out a bit of ketchup neatly and quickly.

  38. @40 from Phoebe: Yeah, go figure! He was also what the pediatrician called a “clean mouth baby” when he was little, meaning he didn’t put anything in his mouth. Evidently this is unusual for babies, but I’m not complaining! Now that he’s older I think that’s morphed into a general neatnik thing about his own body, but he still likes to sow destruction upon the house and his toys like most boys. :-)

  39. Biggie, as always I love reading your site. Just wanted to check in with a “keep up the fab work” comment!

  40. I always see the smiley potatoes in my supermarkets locally (for a few years) but could never bring myself to buy them because it seemed… childish lol (for me, obvs not for Bug!). Thanks for the review though, now I have a good idea of what they taste like, heh.

    Regarding ads (I read through your comments) – I emailed Google Ads once and never got a response – I guess I have to do what you did next time – because “Date Asian Women” ads were appearing on my site. Not only completely irrelevant to my site’s content, but I think a bit offensive too. YUCK.

  41. Errr, I just realized how the end part of my comment sounds, that “Yuck” isn’t targeted towards dating Asian women, it’s towards the Asian fetish that some people seem to have. I don’t want people coming to my page and seeing those ads and thinking I condone Asian fetish or that I buy into it or something. Sorry.

  42. @45 from Yvo: I’m a little fed up with Google Ads at the moment too — I just spied another political ad (text) in the sidebar and added the domain to my block list. Grrr, I had hoped that they were just graphic ads…

  43. You do Mexican as well as Japanese? You are multi-talented. The molé enchiladas are a great quick (assuming the molé is ready!) meal idea and I always have tortillas and grated cheese around. I had lots of leftover rice so made it on rice with my molé negro paste from Puebla, mixing it with stock and adding cheese as you said. (I have no idea what the Spanish instructions are telling me to do) It was really good.

    I also got an insulated lunch pot and used it for my daughter yesterday and my son today. Now that it’s cooler, I want to send him in with a warm lunch. We’ll see if he eats it all.

    Keep the ideas coming, you’re great motivation for me!

  44. Just ran across you blog today looking for school lunch ideas – what I don’t understand is that your kids will eat COLD enchiladas in their lunch box? I am having trouble finding lunch items my kids will eat cold – except for boring sandwiches – will keep checking out your site. But they eat them cold? Really??