Missy Dietsch of Wesley Chapel has a problem, and it's becoming more pressing as her three children head back to school this week.
The food she packs in their insulated containers isn't hot at lunchtime. Gumbo is tepid. Spaghetti is lukewarm. Chicken soup is cold.
She has tried cheap containers and expensive ones. She pours in boiling water to heat them for five minutes before adding hot food — just as the directions say — but it makes no difference.
Still, she is determined to use up leftovers and send her children — 8, 10 and 12 — off to school with a wholesome meal.
Missy, we're here to help.
Our test of five insulated containers claiming to keep food hot for hours revealed some information that may solve the hot lunch dilemma. "Hot" being the key word.
All insulated containers, even the most expensive and well-known, lose heat over time. Understandably, that's not a fact made apparent on labels or directions. Yet our tests showed that if food is not warmed to nearly boiling (212 degrees) before it goes into the container, it likely won't be hot at lunch.
If you're using the microwave for a morning warmup, the food probably isn't getting hot enough. Generally, the microwave is used to heat a dish until it's just warm enough to eat immediately. That's what Missy said she was doing.
"I heat is as hot as I would normally serve it for dinner," Missy says.
But that heat won't be maintained for four hours, even in an insulated container.
Another factor that can affect the temperature of your lunch is the quality of the container. The five insulated containers we tested lost between 35 and 100 degrees in 4 ½ hours. To put the degree thing into perspective, know that a standard cup of Starbucks coffee is 160 degrees. At that temperature, you're taking sips rather than big gulps. Once the coffee drops to 100 degrees, you definitely want a warmup.
The containers were purchased at a Target in St. Petersburg, but they are widely available, and all can be found online.
We tested the insulated containers three times, heating them with boiling water for five minutes before adding the food each time. The first time, we brought canned chicken noodle soup to boiling on the stove. We filled the containers and noted the temperature: about 200 degrees. The lids went on tight at 7:30 a.m. and came off at noon.
The winner was the mega-industrial Stanley "vacuum food jar," which yielded 165-degree soup. That was almost too hot for children who barely have 20 minutes to eat lunch. Much blowing would be required. However, if you want the food to stay piping hot, Stanley will do it for you.
Our second test was conducted in the same way, except the soup was heated in the microwave. It took more than 8 minutes on high for 4 cups of cold soup, with all those noodles, to reach 200 degrees. At that amount of time, we figured it would have been just as easy to use the stove. That's what brought us to the realization that most people using the microwave aren't making the food hot enough. Who microwaves anything that long?
A third test confirmed the theory. We heated soup in the microwave to a suitable temperature for immediate eating, about 150 degrees. In just three hours, the soup in all but the Stanley was barely lukewarm and completely unappetizing.
Our advice is to buy the best container you can afford and make sure it suits your needs. Open it up at the store and look at the serving cup lid. Does it come with a spoon (and can you keep up with it)? Inspect the opening and make sure it's wide enough to clean and load.
Ask yourself: Is it the right size for my child's lunch box? Does it hold enough food for my teenager? Will my kindergartener be able to open it easily?
And, lastly, crank up the heat on the food. That way, no one will eat tepid gumbo again.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8586.
HOW DO THE INSULATED CONTAINERS STACK UP?
17-ounce capacity stainless. Hand wash; no dishwasher.
Temperature of 200-degree soup after 4 ½ hours: 165 degrees.
Recommended? Yes, especially for adults and teenagers with big appetites and lockers.
16-ounce capacity stainless. Dishwasher-safe, top rack.
Temperature of 200-degree soup after 4 ½ hours: 150 degrees.
Recommended? Yes, for middle school students and older.
12-ounce capacity stainless. Dishwasher-safe.
Temperature of 200-degree soup after 4 ½ hours: 100 degrees.
Recommended? No. It's difficult to open and the outside of the container gets too hot.
12-ounce capacity BPA-free plastic. Dishwasher- and microwave-safe.
Temperature of 200-degree soup after 4 ½ hours: 112 degrees.
Recommended? Yes, but only for adult and office use if there's a microwave oven to reheat the food.
10-ounce capacity FUNtainer stainless. Handwashing recommended.
Temperature of 200-degree soup after 4 ½ hours: 125 degrees.
Recommended? Yes, for young children who don't have more than three hours between when food is packed and eaten.
Tips: Packing lunch
Stuffing insulated containers with hot food for a school lunch takes some planning, especially if your goal is to get your child to eat more healthfully.
Some tips to get you started:
• Introduce one new item at a time. A child used to eating lots of fast food is likely to balk at tofu crumbles and spelt.
• Think about other grains. There are whole-grain versions for white rice and pasta. Also, consider soups with barley, pearl couscous, farro and buckwheat.
• Pack crunchy items separately. For instance, include a small plastic bag of croutons to go with tomato soup or tortilla strips to top chili.
• Seek input in the planning and preparing, but offer some ground rules. Chocolate chip cookies and potato chips are not lunch.
• Test out dishes at dinner. Leftover soups and casseroles make good lunches. You'll know how they like them by what they leave on their plates.
• Don't give up on nutritious foods because your child won't eat them today. Keep offering — and eat them yourself. Opportunity and example are the best ways to influence what your child eats.
• Most important, do not chastise your child for not eating something she doesn't really like. Explain that if the container comes home empty, you'll think the dish was gobbled up with glee and you'll pack it again. Throwing it away to save your feelings will backfire.
Janet K. Keeler
Pros: Kept food hottest of five products tested. Good size for adults and teenagers. Besides cap to close container, has a 12-ounce cup to serve food in. Wide mouth makes it easy to clean and load. Lifetime warranty.
Cons: Not suitable for younger children because of size — it's nearly 7 1/2 inches high and won't fit in many lunch boxes. Price is steep if you have a child who tends to misplace belongings.
Pros: Foldable metal spoon included. Size (less than 6 inches tall) suitable for most soft-sided lunch boxes. Wide mouth makes it easy to clean and load. In addition to cap to close container, comes with a small cup to serve food in.
Cons: The foldable spoon is a bit difficult to handle and could be easily lost.
Pros: Cute Hello Kitty container appeals to children (among other styles are Batman, Spider-Man and Barbie). Very wide mouth makes it easy to load, clean and eat from. Lightweight and small, just 4 ½ inches tall.
Cons: No cup for serving (but that also means fewer parts to lose), and stainless rim is a bit sharp. Food cools down more quickly than in better insulated containers.
Pros: Good size and weight for most lunch boxes. Wide mouth makes it easy to load, clean and eat from. Blue plastic covering on container edge is appealing and child-friendly.
Cons: Food temperature dropped to an unappetizing level. Difficult to open. In three tests, it took two people and a lot of muscle to get the lid off.
Pros: Slide-out drawer with spoon. A wide, mug-looking container that's easy to clean and load. There's no Bisphenol-A on the container's surface; some critics say products with the chemical may not be safe after many uses. Great for the office because it can be popped into the microwave.
Cons: The size is unwieldy for many lunch boxes, and the lid is so wide that small hands will have trouble opening it. Also, spilling is a concern. Most important, it did not hold heat well compared with other containers.
Zesty Meatballs and Pasta Soup
2 cans (14 ½ ounces each) beef or chicken broth
1 can (14 ½ ounces) whole tomatoes, with juice, cut up
½ cup chopped yellow onion
1 garlic clove, minced
½ teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt, divided use
Freshly ground pepper to taste
¾ pound ground beef or turkey
¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for sprinkling
½ can (2 ounces) diced green chilies, drained
2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) whole-wheat spaghetti, broken into 1-inch pieces
1 small zucchini, unpeeled, cut into ½-inch dice (about 1 cup)
In a large soup pot over high heat, combine broth, tomatoes, onion, garlic, oregano, ½ teaspoon salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, 10 minutes.
In a medium bowl, combine ground beef or turkey, remaining ½ teaspoon salt, ¼ cup Parmesan and chilies. Form into ½- to 1-inch meatballs (about 20) and add to broth. Add pasta and simmer, covered, until meatballs are cooked and pasta is tender, about 10 minutes. Add zucchini and cook for another 5 minutes. Serve in bowls, sprinkled with Parmesan.
Serves 4 to 6.
Source: Adapted from the The Big Book of Easy Suppers by Maryana Vollstedt (Chronicle Books, 2005)
Mexican Chicken and Rice
1 ½ tablespoons vegetable oil, divided use
6 boned and skinned chicken thighs (1 ½ to 2 pounds) (see note)
1 cup chopped yellow onion
½ cup chopped green bell pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
¾ cup long-grain white rice
1 can (14 ½ ounces) whole tomatoes, with juice, cut up
1 cup chicken broth
½ cup fresh tomato salsa
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a Dutch oven over medium-high heat, warm 1 tablespoon oil. Add chicken and cook until lightly browned, about 5 minutes on each side. Transfer chicken to a plate.
In the same Dutch oven over medium heat, warm remaining ½ tablespoon oil. Add onion, bell pepper and garlic and saute until tender, about 4 minutes. Stir in rice. Add tomatoes with juice, broth, salsa, cumin, salt and pepper and cook for 2 minutes. Return chicken to pot and mix well. Cover and bake until rice is tender and chicken is no longer pink in the center, 45 to 50 minutes.
Note: For a dinner dish, leave chicken pieces whole. For lunch box servings, cut in smaller pieces to fit into insulated containers and alleviate the need for a knife.
Serves 4 to 6.
Source: The Big Book of Easy Suppers by Maryana Vollstedt (Chronicle Books, 2005)
Rotisserie Chicken Noodle Soup
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped carrot
½ celery rib, sliced
5 cups low-sodium, nonfat chicken broth
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 bay leaf
1 ½ cups dried egg noodles
2 cups diced rotisserie chicken breast (save dark meat for another use)
¼ cup fresh parsley (optional)
In a large soup pot or dutch oven, heat olive oil. Saute onion, carrots and celery over medium heat for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add chicken broth, basil, oregano, black pepper and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 5 minutes.
Add dried egg noodles. Cover and simmer 8 minutes; discard bay leaf. Add chopped, cooked chicken and heat through. Add parsley, if using, and serve immediately.
Serves 3 to 4.
Source: Janet K. Keeler, St. Petersburg Times
Better-for-You Pepperoni Pizza Pasta
2 cups uncooked whole-wheat pasta spirals
1 pound ground turkey
1 medium onion, chopped
2 1/2 cups chunky spaghetti sauce
1 can (14 1/2 ounces) diced tomatoes, undrained
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/8 teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
4 ounces sliced turkey pepperoni (see note)
1/2 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
Cook pasta according to package directions.
Meanwhile, in a large nonstick skillet, cook turkey and onion over medium heat until meat is no longer pink; drain. Stir in the spaghetti sauce, tomatoes, basil, oregano, Worcestershire sauce and pepper; set aside.
Drain pasta. Transfer to a 9- by 13-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray; sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Top with spaghetti sauce mixture and pepperoni. Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese.
Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes or until heated through.
Note: Look for turkey pepperoni in whole foods stores or in the natural foods section of your grocery store.
Nutritional information per serving: 299 calories, 10g fat, 30g carbohydrates, 5g fiber, 22g protein.
Source: Taste of Home Healthy Cooking, August/September 2010