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Posted on Apr 23, 2007 in Parent Hacks, Tips, Tutorial or How-to | 36 comments

Need for speed: A mommy’s lunch manifesto

Need for speed: A mommy’s lunch manifesto


The face of the enemy

I’m a mom who packs lunch. What’s important to a mom? Nutrition and speed: I want to feed my family nutritious food, but spending a lot of time on every meal isn’t feasible. I strive to achieve balance between the two — losing this battle would either have me waking up hours before everyone else to cook lunch, or reaching for a Lunchable processed lunch (the face of the enemy, pictured above).

Spending an hour preparing a weekday lunch is only going to happen in my house if it’s a special occasion like a birthday or holiday — I spend my morning getting myself and a preschooler ready to go out. Although ornate lunches shaped like cartoon characters and whimsical shapes are artistic and intriguing, I know my limits. I would burn out if I tried to do that every day. For me it’s got to be sustainable over the long run, which is why I make speed bentos.

How did I get to this point? I lived in Japan as an expat for nine years and am fluent in Japanese, but didn’t pay much attention to the whole lunch-packing (“bento”) culture there until my husband was misdiagnosed with a food intolerance that ruled out restaurant meals. Back in San Francisco, I decided to send him to work with delicious lunches that would make him feel like he was eating better than his colleagues who were going out to eat. A trip to the local Japanese-language bookstore turned up bento cookbooks that I started studying, especially the creative packing tips and techniques that could be adapted to our normal diet. My husband has since been “undiagnosed” with the food intolerance, but then I found myself carting around a diaper bag stuffed full of little Tupperware containers for my toddler son (“Bug”), or leaving the playground early to go get lunch. Time to pull out those bento boxes again so we can spend more fun time out and about!

So now I’m learning to think on my feet when I look at the refrigerator in the morning. Where I used to see either uninspiring food or time-consuming meals, I can now see quick lunches taking shape. I have fast lunch items in the freezer and fridge, and speedy prep techniques at my fingertips. Let me tell you about some of the speed techniques I’ve picked up from reading Japanese packed lunch cookbooks.

Use your leftovers!
Don’t hesitate to pack food left over from dinner! Leftovers can be your weapons against boring lunches — maximize payout for the time you already put into dinner by making a little extra food. Granted, eating the same thing again can get boring, so look at your leftovers creatively and find ways to give them a makeover. Potato salad can become potato pancakes or faux Scotch eggs, leftover curry can become the base for a curry noodle dish or the stuffing for dumplings.

Faux latkes with tuna Leftover remake: Scotch quail egg with potato salad

Pre-pack lunches when possible
If you find yourself with dinner leftovers, get a head start on the next day’s lunch by packing up some of the meal directly into your lunch container (Tupperware, Laptop Lunchbox, bento box, thermos, etc.) when cleaning up the evening meal. This way you have most of the next morning’s work done already, and lunch will be ready with only minimal preparation like cutting up some fruit.

Ready-made foods
You don’t have to make everything for lunch the same day. Make full use of frozen foods and canned foods to speed things up. Frozen vegetables can go into quick sautes or little frittatas, canned beans can become quick salads. Ready-made deli foods such as hummus or tabbouleh are quick lunch additions. Also, ready-made foods don’t have to be store-bought: many dishes can be made in advance, batch frozen in individual portions (spaghetti cups, unsauced pasta, sandwiches, rice balls), and either defrosted naturally or in the microwave. A well-stocked freezer can save the day on time-pressed mornings.


Frozen spaghetti for packed lunches Wrapped cutout sandwiches for freezing: speed bento technique Frozen yaki onigiri for bento lunches

Pre-made sauces give fast flavor
Stock your pantry or refrigerator with a few flavorful sauces that can be added to simple sliced vegetables or sauteed protein/vegetables. These sauces (homemade or store-bought) can be varied to suit your family’s dietary preferences; think black bean sauce, barbeque sauce, teriyaki sauce, cooked salsas, curry sauces, noodle dipping sauce, vinaigrettes or Italian dressing, Korean barbeque sauce, etc.

Make full use of the microwave and toaster oven (or broiler)!
Japanese bento cookbooks often tout the time-saving technique of cooking multiple items simultaneously: in the microwave, toaster oven, frying pan, etc. This saves time and energy; the trick is to select foods that will cook well with the same method and to check doneness periodically (don’t assume all dishes will be done at the same time). Click on any of the photos below for full details.

Speedy prep for mushroom lunches Prep for quail eggs and sausages Frying pan does double duty

Time-saving kitchen tools
Lastly, a couple of tools are particularly useful in speeding up lunch prep. A quick slicer (mini mandoline) makes short work of slicing vegetables and is easy to clean. A microwave mini steamer reduces cook time by 50%, quickly cooking vegetables or frozen dumplings.

Cross-posted to The Daily Tiffin family and lifestyle blog, where I will be contributing to the Tiffin Tuesday column every other week. Lunch in a Box is nominated for Best Food Blog in the Blogger’s Choice Awards. If you’d like to cast your vote for speedy lunch packing, click here (you can vote for multiple blogs in the same category).