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Cooking with Joy

This Years Lunchbox:
Waste Not, Want Not


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By Joy Rotondi

If the words "brown-bagging" give you flashbacks to soggy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, don't panic. Joy Rotondi offers suggestions for homemade lunches that neither your kids nor you will trade away.

Whats for lunch? has become a loaded question. Shall we pack it, run out for a sandwich, or brave the school cafeteria? This year, as the cost of food continues to rise, more of us will pack a lunchbox for ourselves and for our kids.

Headlines everywhere are announcing a rise in the cost of a school lunch and a decline in quality. CNN.com writes School kids feel the bite of high food prices: Administrators are cutting corners and considering lay-offs to make up for the price spike in milk, eggs and flour. The New York Times warns, As Food Costs Rise, So Do School Lunch Prices.

About the Author

Joy Rotondi

Joy Rotondi recently returned to the classroom and teaches sixth-grade language arts near Boston, Massachusetts. She was raised in an Italian-American family happily obsessed with good food. Her prowess in the kitchen was first noted when she whipped lime Jello to a mousse at age 7. By age 12 she'd advanced to the salmon mousse in aspic featured on the cover of Gourmet.

On Thanksgiving Day 1996, with the help of friend and culinary cohort Cindy Blandino, she launched Foodies.com, a playful site dedicated to serious American cooking.

Foodies.com has been featured on CNN, Better Homes and Gardens , and in The Wall Street Journal, among other places. Her bread and butter for the last 11 years has been designing and maintaining Web sites for the culinary world, including restaurants, culinarians, and food marketers. Rotondi lives on Boston's North Shore with her 12-year-old, a Shetland sheepdog, and four hens.

Visit her Web site Foodies.com.

Simultaneously, many school cafeterias across the country are racing to meet more stringent nutritional standards and answer the public cry for less junk, less fat, and more fresh, unprocessed food on the tray. Unfortunately, many school kitchens have been forced to cut corners and cut staff. Food prices nationwide rose 4.5 percent between March 2007 and March 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Price Index. And I dont know about you, but I see a jump every time I walk into a market.

On top of the economic and nutritional pressures, we are often reminded by our very own children and students to eliminate unnecessary packing and waste. Schools are composting, recycling, growing their own produce, sponsoring Waste-Not days, all in the spirit of green. You may be one of the teachers running those programs! Filling the lunchbox has become a highly-charged task. Were busy, and the temptation to buy highly-processed and elaborately packaged food meets us on every shelf. But leave that stuff (and it is, for the most part, just stuff) for emergencies only, if that.

I predict the comeback of the Thermos and the metal lunchbox. The small, soft-sided, and inevitably smelly lunchboxes of yore will be tossed to make way for more efficiently-designed and more durable pieces of equipment that are easier to clean, pack, and most of all, empty. In other words, were going retro with the construction workers domed lunch box and Thermos -- a bit of Americana every noontime -- or, the Japanese bento box, which has compartments for different types of foods -- adapted for today. Were finding some of these products on the market now. Using them already? I welcome any feedback on the new old lunchboxes.

Here are some tips on how to quickly pack a nutritious, economical, environmentally- friendly, and appetizing lunchbox.

  • One chocolate kiss or coin or caramel or hard candy is all you need to satisfy your inner child or your actual child. So many of these types of treats find their way into my house that I rarely have to buy them. Pass by the expensive, elaborately packaged, wasted-calorie cookie packs at the supermarket and instead drop one small sweet in with lunch.
  • Decrease the quantity of plastic wrap and plastic bags that leave your kitchen. These products are expensive, tough on the environment, and most of all, unnecessary. Use wax paper or recycle small paper bags that accompany books and greeting cards and prescriptions as well as the newsprint often used for wrapping breakables at stores. Purchase a wide assortment of lunchbox-friendly plastic containers and be sure to reuse plastic containers from your food store purchases.
  • Kids are more likely to eat a small piece of fruit than, say, a huge Red Delicious apple, and they are more likely to eat something they picked out -- or better yet, picked! Have Junior select a bag of small apples from a local farm this fall such as Macouns or Lady Apples. Other diminutive fruits include Seckel pears (also called sugar pears), Lady Finger bananas (baby bananas), and apricots.
  • If you feel you need some fruit on stand-by, stock a few jars of applesauce or peaches or mandarin oranges in the refrigerator. When you run out of fresh fruit, divvy up the jar or can into small, washable, and reusable plastic containers. Youll get several days worth of servings ready to go. This is so much cheaper, greener, and more versatile. For fun, top a serving with a surprise of cinnamon or sprinkles just before packing.
  • Dont forget to pack dishwasher-safe utensils if necessary. Avoid plastic, please. My teenager gets a kick out of seeing the Mickey Mouse spoon from high-chair days. If it gets lost, well get over it.
  • Dried fruit, wrapped simply in wax paper or tucked in a used envelope, is a chewy and nutritious sweet ending to lunch. So are nuts or dried cherries or raisins paired with chocolate chips.
  • Now that some schools are selling a carton of milk for more than they charge at the supermarket, the lunch drink is getting as expensive as the sandwich. Invest in a Thermos or dishwasher-safe beverage bottle. Personally, I reuse plastic water bottles ad infinitum, but once something goes in one other than water, off it goes to the recycling bin.
  • To keep food cold during the day, fill a small, used, clean water bottle 3/4 full, cap it, and lie it on its side in the freezer -- it makes a great, free ice pack!
  • For yourself, make your own iced tea or coffee and put it in a Thermos. You also can mix orange juice or cranberry juice with bubbly spring water in place of soda. Another option: Buy your favorite beverage in the big family size and portion it out each morning. Save time by filling a few small bottles in the beginning of the week so theyll be in the fridge when you need them.
  • Out of bread? Panic not. On a sheet of wax paper, stack a layer of sliced meat, cheese, and a vegetable of choice. Sure, add a thin squirt of mustard or mayo. You might add a pickle spear or strip of cucumber or carrot stick to one end. Turkey, cheddar, and a strip of apple is scrumptious! Roll em up. Wrap two or three tightly in the wax paper and you have the easiest sandwich replacement known to man. Placemat included.
  • Never underestimate the power of the hard boiled egg. It takes 30 seconds to prepare a color bath and brighten up the lunchbox. See endbar for more instructions..
  • Think about tomorrows lunch while youre making dinner. Cook extra! In the morning, the microwave is your friend. Fill that new Thermos.

How to Hard Cook Eggs
Without Cracking Them

In a saucepan, bring to a boil enough water to cover the eggs. With a slotted spoon, lower the eggs into the water. Quickly, bring the water back to a boil. Lower the temperature to medium heat and simmer 10 minutes. Remove the eggs with a slotted spoon and gently tip into a bowl of cold tap water. The cold water will stop further cooking and create a gap between shell and egg for easier peeling. You may put the eggs right into a color bath now if you wish.

Hints
Handle like eggs. Or nitroglycerin. Really, use a slotted spoon. Bring eggs to room temperature before cooking. This helps prevent cracking due to the sudden shock of temperature change and ensures a properly-cooked egg. If you do use eggs right out of the refrigerator, add a minute or two to the cooking time. Simmer eggs. A roiling boil is too violent. Call them "hard cooked" instead of "hard boiled" and you'll remember this hint. Don't crowd the pan. The eggs will knock each other and crack.

How to Color Eggs Without the Silly Kit
In a bowl or big coffee mug (not metal), pour in enough water and white distilled vinegar to cover the egg or eggs. For pastel colors, use one cup of water to 1 tablespoon of vinegar. Using basic food coloring, mix your own shade in the water and vinegar. Be sure the food coloring is completely blended so there are no "stains" on the eggs. (Intensify the color by reducing the amount of water used or leaving the eggs in the dye for longer periods of time.) Carefully submerge hard cooked eggs in the color bath, rotating frequently, until of desired intensity. You can also leave them partially submerged for a very cute bi-color look.

If you cook the eggs in a glass pan, you can save a step and some washing up. Simply drain the hot water, cool the eggs with cold water from the tap, and then color the eggs in the same glass pan. Although were used to coloring white eggs, they are not always available. Red or purple works well with brown eggs.