Watch the recipe on Zero Waste TV:
Our first Bento Box starts with a staple side dish in our home – dairy-free mac n cheese. Unlike boxes mac n cheese, this actually tastes really good when you re-heat it in the oven next day. So making this ahead a time is an easy way to pack-n-go in the morning when you’re prepping your lunch box.
Next, the baked potato.
If you have the time, you can bake it, which takes about an hour. But if you’re in a rush, microwaving works just as well. Microwaving requires less energy than heating an oven for an hour, but microwaving food in general zaps away a lot of the nutrients. It’s sort of a double-edged sword.
My favorite way to bake a Russet potato is to give it a good wash, scrub, and towel dry, then pierce the potato all over with a fork. Slather on some olive or canola oil, or whatever cooking oil you enjoy, I don’t think it really matters for this recipe. Then, pat some salt all over the potato.
You don’t need to pre-heat an oven when you bake a potato, so that’s nice.
Set the oven to 350F and arrange a rack 3/4 from the top of the oven, with another rack placed beneath it. Here’s why: you’ll place the potato on the top rack, and then insert a piece of parchment paper under the potato the catch any liquid drippings that will inevitably come out of the fork holes and otherwise hit the bottom of your oven, creating smoke. This keeps things tidy, and you can always compost the parchment afterwards.
Bake the potato for about an hour, until the skin is crispy and you can pierce a fork into the center like butter.
Carefully remove the potato and with a fork, pierce the potato lengthwise down the center. When cool enough to handle, press the ends of the potato to pop it open. I learned this trick from Alton Brown. Of course you can cut the potato however you’d like, this just looks impressive. Wink.
Your baked potato is a blank canvas. You can top with anything you like! I generally keep it simple with Miyoko’s butter, salt, pepper, maybe some nutritional yeast or chives… but I’m a potato purist, I enjoy them for what they are: miraculous.
Time saver tip: Bake the potato the night before and re-heat the next day 🙂
For the middle rack in the bento box, I kept things simple and healthy. Using whatever fresh veg I had in my produce drawer, I chopped them into sticks. Celery, carrots, cucumbers, those are usually my staples. I love red bell peppers but I was out that day. Cauliflower, broccoli, green beans or even sugar snap peas would’ve worked well too. And for a dip, I just used my homemade hummus, because I can never find hummus packaged in anything besides plastic. Of course you can use a salad dressing or whatever dip you prefer!
Again, no need to go crazy. I make these lunches in the morning and generally don’t have a lot of time. Definitely not enough time to cook a meal and a dessert. I love sweet and salty so I did a little bit of both. For sweet, I poured in some espresso chocolate covered almonds from a bulk food store, and for salty I poured in some salted pistachios.
Did you know pistachio shells probably shouldn’t go into your compost? They’re too hard for most decomposers to break down. I struggled to find a way to dispose of them without throwing them into landfill. Eventually, the solution I found was to wash them (to get rid of any salt) and then grind them down. I spread the sandy-gritty-saltless mixture over my garden and it sort of works like a pebbly-mulch coating that my plants don’t mind at all.
Hah, get it? Because it’s take away food? Anyway, here’s the takeaway: you don’t have to work so hard on your bento box that you’re too tired to go to work after. Be realistic and do yourself some favors by prepping ahead of time, or using a few pre-made items like the bulk almonds. If you’re cooking for someone else and have the time, of course it’s wonderful to make things special and mold a ball of rice to look like Hello Kitty is climbing the Eiffel Tower. But not everyone has that kind of time. Even though it’s heckin’ fun to watch these beauties be created on YouTube, I personally just want a lunch that tastes good, is healthy, and doesn’t create waste. If it happens to have a smily face on it, that’s just a happy bonus.