Bentos and Quick Meals

I haven’t had time to write an in-depth post, so here’s a quick one about quick meals.

I’ve already written a bit about food on the fly, but I’ve been hearing more requests for classes and information about meal planning and quick meals, so here are a couple of other tips and suggestions.

Now this might not work for everybody, but I have found bento (Japanese lunchbox) blogs to be a great resource for quick meals. For me, a bento usually takes 20-40 minutes to cook and put together, and I often increase certain portions of the dish (for example, cook more black bean burgers) so I can use that as a base for other meals (dinner, for instance). In 20-40 minutes, I can have one to three separate meals prepared – not bad! My favorite blog at the moment is Just Bento, but I’ve used Lunch in a Box quite a bit, too.

The meal on the left took maybe ten minutes to put together; you can find its more attractively-photographed equivalent here. I had black bean burgers left over from another bento, and following food on the fly strategy, I had pita, yogurt, garlic powder, salt, jam, fruits, and veggies on hand (my salad mix got a little frosty in my fridge, so try to ignore how wilted it looks). I bought the starfruit on a whim – star-shaped fruit! It’s important to remember that adults -not just kids- can find food boring. If you always have sandwiches for lunch and find yourself making poorer food choices as time goes on, I encourage you to mix it up a little – try soup once, or add a special or interesting food like starfruit. One thing I like about bentos is that they help reduce the “bored” factor – in this meal especially, as you can customize your pita to the savoriness (with garlic salt and yogurt) and your yogurt treat to the sweetness (with the jam) that you’d like. Don’t forget that natural colors and textures are a great way to add variety to your meals!

I’ll often sit down at the beginning of the week with a list of what’s in my fridge and plan my meals for the rest of the week. Again, this might not work for you, but I find that looking over food blogs and my cookbooks (on a full stomach) gives me a lot of ideas about how I can use the foods I have on hand to make tasty, diverse meals. I’ve often planned a couple of bentos for the week, used components of the bentos to make two different dinner options, and made a crock pot meal, and that will feed me (a single person) for the week. For the one or two meals I inevitably don’t have planned each week, I improvise. Pictured on the right is such an improvisation: I had some cooked rice left over, some salad I needed to eat up, and some Quorn meatless & soy-free tenders I wanted to try out (they’re delicious, for the record). I added some flavor by cooking the Quorn with Worcestershire sauce (I’m allergic to soy, otherwise I would’ve used that), rice vinegar, walnut oil, and spices, and sprinkled it all with sesame seeds for good measure. It was super easy (maybe 10 minutes total), super tasty, and super healthy.

Once again along the “mix it up” lines: don’t be afraid to try new things with breakfast, too. I get tired of oatmeal very easily, no matter what proportions of brown sugar, nuts and seeds, fruit, maple syrup, nut butters, and so forth that I add, so I’m always looking for new breakfast options. I had some mashed sweet potato left over from a bento, so I decided to chance it and have that for breakfast. Oh. My. Goodness. Delicious. I added walnuts, a little brown sugar, and heated it up mixed with a little milk. It was creamy, sweet but not overly so, and filling without feeling like cement in my stomach, like oatmeal often does. I used this recipe as my inspiration, but altered it considerably.

When you’re trying new recipes or combinations, start by only making one or two meals’ worth at a time – on the off chance that you make something inedible, you won’t have wasted as much food. I don’t consider myself a very good cook -and certainly not a creative one- but only two of the dishes out of the hundreds that I’ve cooked have been inedible. Don’t let fear hold you back – there’s a world of new culinary tastes and sights awaiting you! (Feel free to share any food blogs you’ve found helpful or your cooking tips and tricks in the comments!)

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Food on the Fly

I’m a champ at not having my meals prepared on time. I usually don’t begin cooking until I realize I’m hungry, and so I end up eating an hour or two later than I intended to. This is fine on Fridays and weekends. It’s not so fine, say, when it’s 12:15 and I need to be at work by one, such as was the case last week.

So, what to do? I tend to have a handy stash of oh-so-quick (and oh-so-environmentally-unfriendly) instant soups and quick-cooking grains. While these are good for a snack or filling up the stomach, they’re not great for meals – too little protein and too much sodium. While there’s not much you can do in ten minutes about the sodium (if you have an hour, soaking a peeled piece of potato in the soup will soak up the sodium), you can remedy the protein deficiency with beans, peas, or legumes.

Well, this particular day last week, I didn’t have any instant soups. I didn’t have any bread, pita, or tortillas, so no sandwiches or wraps. No leftovers in the fridge. (Sound familiar yet?) What could I eat?

Just the previous day, I had dog-eared the page on tabbouleh (a Middle-Eastern grain salad) in one of my cookbooks (Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe – totally worth another blog post on my end and a reading through on yours). At a loss for what else to do, I took it out and skimmed the ingredients list. I had no cooked garbanzo beans, not enough parsley, no mint, no scallions, not enough tomatoes, and no lemons – in short, I lacked about half the ingredients.

This is where normal people give up and grab something on the way to work (especially easy for me, seeing as I work at Common Ground). For better or worse, I am not normal. I immediately noted which of the ingredients I did have -lentils instead of garbanzo beans, bulgur, some parsley and tomatoes in my garden, onions instead of scallions, lime juice instead of lemons, and olive oil- and decided I could make my lunch from scratch and get to work on time.

Knowing what will make a quick lunch is no superpower. Let me walk you through the process of food on the fly:

    1. KNOW WHAT YOU HAVE. You can’t make food on the fly if you spend half an hour figuring out what ingredients you have. Organize your shelves and fridge so you can see what food you have at a glance, clearly labeling anything that’s in an opaque container. If you want to go the extra mile, keep a running inventory of what you have in stock (this really helps you figure out what to buy on your next shopping trip, too). Regardless of what method you use, make sure to organize your food storage in a way that makes sense to YOU; if you put your pickles in the door of the fridge because that’s where they should be -not because that’s where you would naturally put them- it’s going to cost you time.
    2. KEEP YOUR OPTIONS OPEN. If you don’t have baked goods (read: bread, tortillas, pitas, crackers, rice cakes, etc.), you’re not going to be able to make a sandwich. If you don’t have veggies, you can’t make a salad. This sounds more intuitive than it is. I don’t eat my bread fast enough to keep it from molding, so I freeze it. Guess what? You can’t make and eat a sandwich in half an hour with frozen bread. Similarly, if you don’t have beans or peas or nuts/seeds (canned, cooked from bulk and refrigerated, in nut butter form, chopped, etc.), dairy products or substitutes, or meats on hand, you won’t be able to get your protein on quick notice. Keep your options open – have basic staples prepared and on hand. Depending on who you are and what you eat, this could be a diverse as chopped vegetables, single-serve containers of pre-cooked rice, sliced deli meat, chopped nuts, canned kidney beans, soy cheese, or yogurt. Keeping your options open takes some prep time in advance, but it makes making lunch a snap. And then, for example, you have chopped vegetables all prepared for that stir fry dinner you wanted to make!
    3. HAVE FAVORITES AND KNOW HOW TO SUBSTITUTE. Know what you like and run with it. Food on the fly is not the time to be experimenting with new recipes. Either have a few simple, fast recipes you love, or a couple of formulas that always work for you. An example of a recipe would be Confetti Rice (again from Diet for a Small Planet), which I can make in 15 minutes flat if I’ve made the rice and ground the sesame seeds in advance, and which I always love. An example of a formula would be a sandwich, or a grain salad, or a stir fry – we have a good idea of what goes into the “formula” and what’s supposed to come out, so we can substitute fairly easily: pitas for bread for a sandwich, yogurt for pre-made dressing for salads, lentils for garbanzo beans for a grain salad, etc. Formulas are my favorite way to go – once you’ve made a certain type of dish enough times (hopefully not all last-minute!), finding substitute ingredients becomes second nature.

Here’s how I used the Food on the Fly strategy for my last minute lunch:

  1. Know what you have: I knew what I had. My fridge and pantry shelves were organized in a way that made sense to me and my ingredients were labeled (as easy as masking tape and a pen).
  2. Keep your options open: I had quick-cooking grains available, I had beans pre-cooked, and I had my staple ingredients stocked.
  3. Have favorites and know how to substitute: I like grain salads and knew what the end result should look like. I had an understanding of what ingredients could be substituted and what I could leave out without hurting the dish’s taste and nutrition.

Voila – tabbouleh for lunch in 15 minutes!

I recommend making your meals further in advance than I do, but if you ever find yourself in that hour-or-less crunch, I recommend the Food on the Fly strategy: it’s saved my stomach many a time. As always, if you have any strategies of your own or questions, please share them!