“It Takes A Village to Pack a Lunch” – Thermos Tips and Tricks!

by Bettina Elias Siegel on September 27, 2012

I just looked at the calendar and realized that September – the designated month for TLT’s “It Takes a Village to Pack a Lunch” series — is almost over.  How on earth did that happen?  Well, get ready for a lot of lunch-packing resources and information in the next few days!  (And yeah, I might drift into October a little bit.  I trust you won’t mind.)

Today’s weighty topic is . . . [drum roll] . . .  the Thermos!

If you’re a regular reader you know that I rely heavily on Thermoses in packing my kids’ lunches, particularly for my sandwich-spurning daughter.  But I haven’t been so happy with my old jars, which looked like this:

I never felt they were keeping the food warm enough, plus the black lid made it hard for me to tell if I was thoroughly cleaning the cap’s inner grooves, which are already so maddeningly recessed that it’s hard to get a soapy sponge in there.

A reader mentioned on TLT’s Facebook page that she found a new type of Thermos jar she liked, so I did some digging. I’m not sure exactly what she was referring to, but I just bought two of these at Target:

It’s from the Thermos Sipp line and I like it so much better than my old jars.  It has a wider mouth so it’s easier to fill, it has a white lid that’s easier to be sure is clean, and I swear it’s keeping food warmer than the old jar did.  It also seemed easier to open than the plastic Thermos food jars (based on my unscientific test in Target), and the sleek design is nice for older kids who no longer want Hello Kitty or a superhero in their lunch box.  If you have another brand or style you like, be sure to let us all know in a comment below.

And now for some tips on using a Thermos:

Warm It Up

First, I urge you to follow the advice of blogger Bri of Red, Round or Green and first fill the Thermos jar with boiling water, letting it sit for ten minutes or so while you prepare the food.  This tip has helped a lot in keeping food warm at lunch time.  And yeah, I know the little instruction sheet that comes with the Thermos tells you to do this (with hot tap water), but I paid no attention until Bri told me to!  :-)    Neat freak that I am, I also like the added (possible?) sterilization from the boiling water.

Take Off The Gasket

You might already know this, but you really need to remove that thin rubber gasket from around the inner rim of the lid every time you clean the Thermos.  Over time, failure to do so will result in . . . well, let’s just say it’s not pretty.

Be Creative In Filling It Up

A few of you have asked me what exactly I put in the Thermos and the answer is – everything!  I pack soup, of course, but also turkey and bean chili; vegetarian chili; whole grain spaghetti and turkey meatballs; steamed Asian dumplings; all-natural ravioli or tortellini; a frozen, all-natural saag paneer (an Indian spinach dish) my daughter likes, and much more.  My theory is, if you can eat it hot, you can put it in a Thermos.

Make Meals Just for Thermos Use

I used to rely on leftovers to fill the Thermos but those aren’t always on hand and some days, when I was low on non-Thermos choices, I’d be at a loss for what to pack.  So I finally forced myself to make entire batches of some of my kids’ favorite dishes just for school lunch, then I divided the cooled food into small containers and put them in the freezer.  It’s a pain to do — a lot of cooking without an immediate payoff — but in the morning it only takes a few minutes to defrost a serving (while that Thermos is heating!) and it’s such a boon to have a hot, nutritious lunch at the ready whenever you need one.

Any Thermos tips I forgot?  Share them with the rest of us!

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Karen September 27, 2012 at 12:35 pm

Sometimes I use the thermos for packing food to be eaten at room temp, like cheese ravioli + pesto. I heat the thermos up like you said, but I don’t heat the refrigerated ravioli. I just empty the cold ravioli into the warm thermos and send it to school. The Pickiest Eater in the World likes it just fine. [if there are horrible bacteria issues inherent in this plan do I want to know?]

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Bettina Elias Siegel September 29, 2012 at 5:00 pm

Karen: I’m no microbiologist and I really hate to rock your lunch boat, but I seem to recall that the Buitoni refrigerated cheese ravioli I buy says something about “for food safety, cook such and such way.” Just sayin’ :-)

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Sylvie September 27, 2012 at 1:38 pm

I just bought two of that first type. Sigh.

I, honestly, have yet to try them. Does your daughter find them easy to eat out of? They seemed kind of narrow for my not-so-coordinated preschooler, and I didn’t want to have pack another dish for him to use. He has finally stopped complaining about eating room temperature food, so I thought I’d save the introduction of: hot food just like home! – for another day.

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Bettina Elias Siegel September 27, 2012 at 1:45 pm

Sylvie: Don’t despair! I used the gray jar for a really long time and while I do like the new Sipps one better, the gray one is totally functional. And as for whether the Sipps keeps things hotter, this could just be my – or my kids’ – imagination as I have never done a side-by-side test with thermometers. Let me know how it goes!

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Rosemary Evergreen September 27, 2012 at 10:20 pm

This is the Thermos that I use:
http://www.thermos.com/products/stainless-king-food-jar.aspx
It keeps food amazingly hot for at least 4 hours. I actually don’t preheat it because the food would be *too* hot at lunch. My daughter sometimes needs help opening it but I think this is an issue with any food jar that seals well because of the vacuum created as the hot food cools. She especially loves the folding spoon that came with it, which fits neatly on the cover of the Thermos.

Because I am an engineer and a recovering perfectionist, I actually tested this against another food jar I had used which did not keep food very hot. I put boiling water into both, checked the temperature immediately and again 4 hours later – the usual interval between my packing her lunch, and her lunch time. The King Thermos measured about 180 degrees F at the 4-hour mark, while the other food jar measured 100 degrees F.

I also make food specifically for lunches, and when I make soup or chili I freeze a couple of lunch servings to use another week. My daughter would actually gladly eat her favorite chicken spaetzle stew just about every day for lunch, so I cook a batch of that most weeks. If we have tacos for dinner, I’ll pack some taco filling in the food jar, tortillas and cold toppings separately for lunchtime assembly. She also enjoys lentil soup, pasta, black beans, and roasted root vegetables for her lunchtime hot entree.

I think that our schools need to re-name what they currently call “cold lunch” to “packed lunch.”

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Bettina Elias Siegel September 29, 2012 at 4:56 pm

Rosemary: It’s great that you actually tested the temperature. I really ought to do this, too, just to be sure. But what I really want is the recipe for this chicken spaetzle stew! :-)

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Meridith September 30, 2012 at 4:16 pm

We’ve had a lot of luck with Klean Kanteen’s insulated containers. The loop lid is really easy for even little hands to twist and you can use a carabiner to hook it on bags.

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Rosemary Evergreen September 30, 2012 at 9:35 pm

The chicken spaetzle stew is simple – here are the basics (I don’t have a written recipe). Note this is easily made vegetarian by using veg stock and subbing cooked beans (I like cannellini in this) for the chicken.

Start by heating a quart of veg or chicken stock, either purchased or homemade. Add onions, carrots, celery and any other vegetables that need to cook for a bit (e.g. carrots, zucchini, green beans), and cook until mostly softened. Season with salt, pepper, and flavors such as herbes de provence or thyme or rosemary. Add a generous 2 cups of dried spaetzle or egg noodles and cook al dente. {You could of course make your own spaetzle, but after my relatives in Germany said they use the dried variety because it’s almost as good, I decided to take the easy way out, too. (I think the dried spaetzle is fine in soup but fresh spaetzle are much better served as noodles.)} This quantity of dried noodles will mostly use up the broth, giving it more of a stew consistency. Add frozen peas to cool it off and store in fridge until packing for lunch.

Rice or barley can be used in place of noodles if desired – when I sub these I use about 1c and make more of a soup.

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Bettina Elias Siegel September 30, 2012 at 9:38 pm

My daughter is going to LOVE this. She’s a big spaetzle fan. Thank you for taking the time to share the recipe!

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