I think about 80% of eating better rests on being prepared. (Note: This statistic doesn't come from science but instead from mulling over my own durn mistakes.) It's meal planning and thoughtful grocery shopping but also sometimes taking the time to peel/chop ahead of time and having the tools you need.
At the beginning of the year, I got a pocket calendar where I plan suppers.
I used to plan for the week before heading to the grocery store on Sunday afternoons, but then I found there are too many wild cards in a whole week that could throw me off plus my produce was droopy by Thursday. Now I plan menus for two or three days at a time and make mini grocery trips instead.
Suppers and leisurely weekend meals aren't a big deal for me. Kiddo opinion dampens my enthusiasm sometimes, but Brian is easy to please. Now that Eli can either entertain himself in the late afternoons or effectively help me in the kitchen, I like venturing into the sensual world of cooking for a while -- textures, smells, tastes, and sounds while working through the puzzle of how to get a whole meal to taste well and come out on time. It is an art form if you let it be. For a while I felt like I was in a flavor rut, so I quit "winging it" as often and now turn to recipes more -- Cooking Light magazine and cookbook, Clean Eating magazine, Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker by Robin Robertson, etc. Nothing gets me excited about eating well as a new recipe! I toss the ones that turn out mediocre but squirrel away the treasures. I add my cooking notes, writing in my cookbooks while sliding print-out/clipped recipes into plastic sleeves and binders. Later, I can flip through my annotated recipes to plan meals. There are some great cooking blogs out there too and many send out tantalizing recipes if you "like" their Facebook page...
What kills my excitement for eating well and throws me for a loop is having to figure out a strategy beyond those planned suppers. Too tired? I'm slowly but surely training myself to turn to frozen leftovers with added fresh salads/fruits instead of eating out. Yet there are also after-school snacks on the playground, suppers pinned together around weekly soccer practice, nights when Brian is out of town, etc. etc. And every day I have to put together a healthy lunch for Eli to take to school and have something small on hand for my own lunch. I needed strategies for being able to pull a small-quantity healthy meal or snack together quickly, often making it portable as well.
My first step was to gather some small, leak-proof containers. When it comes to dried fruit, dips, or a serving of vegetables for a reluctant kiddo, smaller is often better. Now I have a stash of teeny BPA-free containers. (Left to right: Green Sprouts, Sistema, Pottery Barn Kids, Laptop Lunches, and Munchkin. Many of my finds are from TJ Maxx and Homegoods.)
I also picked up some containers that have a freezable panel on the lid to keep produce fresh. These two-cup boxes from Fit & Fresh hold enough apple slices or grapes for a family car trip or snacks shared with buddies on the playground. (Found at Homegoods but they are for sale online as well.)
When it comes to portability, the real "workhorses" in my kitchen are Laptop Lunches containers. We have two sets and have been using them for years. Nothing beats them for a whole sandwich with a couple of sides. Our two sets can hold enough for two adults and a child to have a picnic. (Click HERE for a post about Laptop Lunches along with pictures. Click HERE for the company website.)
I found, though, that I craved more flexibility, more options. Nobody wants a sandwich all the time and meal leftovers often went unused. Also, preschooler-sized portions sometimes rattle around (and fall apart) in the Laptop Lunches containers, yet a lunchbox full of tiny containers is often difficult for a small hands to manage. After some searching, I found that Thermos makes an insulated short, wide-mouthed steel container that I added to our portable foods tool kit. Very nice for soups and leftovers! And I also found the perfect preschooler bento box...
I'll never forget my first bento box lunch, purchased for a traveling lunch on a train in Japan. There's something so enthralling about lifting a single lid to find a warren of tiny spaces, each filled with a yummy bite or two. (If this is new to you, do an online image search for "bento.") Bentos have caught on here in the USA, especially for kids, because they really do offer a lot of flexibility and creativity. Whole websites and Pinterest boards have popped up to share bento ideas. But I found that overwhelmingly the most popular bento container is the PlanetBox. (Click HERE for their webpage.) Now, I'm not knocking the PlanetBox. Their stainless steel bento is well-made and they offer various sizes for small kids, big kids, and adults. But unless all the foods inside are dry, you really have to carry it horizontally or moisture leaks between the sections. That's not going to work for us.
Then I found some pictures online of a different type of bento box. After tracking it down, I discovered it is the Yumbox. (Click HERE for their webpage. It comes in green and pink.) The portion size works well for a young child and it seals with a single click! On the picture below, you can see the lid has raised rubber sections that match the lunchbox sections. Just close the box and snap the blue latch!
We now have enough containers/tools for a variety of lunch and travel foods, but Eli asks for his Yumbox almost every day. In the mornings before school, we think about eating a rainbow of produce (see previous post) and then construct a lunch for him. Although the box is plastic, it is BPA-free and quite heavy duty. The clear bento tray pops out and the whole box can be submerged in water for easy cleaning. (Note: They don't recommend putting the Yumbox outer shell in the dishwasher as the heat can misshape the seals over time, but the tray can go in.)
We put the Yumbox in an insulated lunchbox for easier carrying and to keep it cool with a freezer pouch. Add some fun animal-shaped food picks to use instead of a fork, and you're in business! (Click HERE for pick pictures.)
I don't know why the bento box so opened my thinking, but it did. I found myself actually enjoying fixing portable meals and it is fun surfing for inspiration...