School is back in session. And for kids, lunch period is the closest you get to being on your own at school. So what do kids actually talk about at lunch? Dan goes to one elementary school to find out. Then we hear from parents dealing with the high-stakes daily routine that is packing a lunch. Food writer J. Kenji López-Alt joins Dan to talk about his tips and tricks for using a bento box to pack lunch for his kids every day. And we hear your stories about school lunch triumphs and tragedies.
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Nora Ritchie, Jared O'Connell, and Julia Russo.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Morning Blues" by James Thomas Bates
- "Mellophone" by James Thomas Bates
- "Legend" by Erick Anderson
- "Sun So Sunny" by Calvin Dashielle
- "Dreamin Long" by Erick Anderson
- "Party Hop"by Jack Ventimiglia
- "Limon Coke" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Lucky Strike" by Erick Anderson
Photo courtesy of J. Kenji López-Alt.
[SCHOOL YARD AMBIANCE]
William: My name is William. I go up to P.S. 216 and I'm 11-years-old. One of my favorite desserts in the world is butter cookies. When we have butter cookie day, you will always see me asking someone for butter cookies. I'd give my whole lunch away from butter cookies. Once I had six packs of butter cookies before.
Dan Pashman: Did your mom know about this?
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
William: Never told her. She’d probably freak out.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show, we obsess about food to learn more about people. School is back in session. And back when I was in school, there was one part of the day that was usually my favorite. Maybe you can guess what it was? Lunch, of course. But now, as a parent, school lunch has become kind of a drag. My wife Janie and I have to figure out what to pack for my two daughters every day. They’re always eating! It’s like, didn’t we just give you lunch yesterday? We're barely a month into the school year and I’m out of ideas. So later on in the show, I’m going to talk to my old friend Kenji Lopez-Alt, a cookbook author and recipe developer who writes for Serious Eats and The New York Times. And he’ll tell me about his secrets to packing lunch for his kids, using a product that’s gotten a lot of attention, and a little bit of pushback, lately: the bento box.
Dan Pashman: But let’s face it, lunchtime is about a lot more than the food. At school, lunch is the closest you get to being on your own. It’s your chance to hang out with your friends, with minimal supervision. I always wonder what my kids are doing at lunch, but if I showed up at their cafeteria, I don’t think that would fly. So a few years ago, I did the next best thing. I went to P.S. 216 in Brooklyn. I started off talking with a fifth grader named Donya.
[SCHOOL YARD AMBIANCE]
Dan Pashman: So who do you usually sit with at lunch?
Donya: I actually say with some of my friends, Stephanie and Christina and sometimes Nina.
Dan Pashman: Do you guys play together outside of school, too?
Dan Pashman: So you guys are like, all best friends.
Dan Pashman: And what do you like to talk about at lunch?
Donya: We sometimes talk about life. [GIGGLES]
Dan Pashman: Like what?
Donya: Like, what are you going to do in the future? What middle school do you want to go to?
Dan Pashman: So when it's your turn to talk about what you want to do in the future, what do you say?
Donya: I want to be a teacher.
Dan Pashman: After Donya, I talked with William, another fifth grader. He's the kid you heard earlier, who loves butter cookies. His mom always packs fruit with his lunch.
William: If I'm lucky, I'll have apples and oranges and maybe grapes.
Dan Pashman: Which do you like better? Apples or oranges? Compare them for me.
Dan Pashman: Really?
Dan Pashman: Why? Why do you like oranges better?
William: Because they're juicier and you can just eat them whole. And you don't have to worry about the rough skin.
Dan Pashman: Yeah. You ever take the orange wedges and, like, kind of let them sit out for a little bit and they get a little bit dry and crusty on the outside, but still super juicy on the inside?
William: Sometimes. Sometimes if I get the wedges or just a regular orange, I'll just leave it in the freezer. So sometimes, and then take it out in 10 minutes and then eat it.
Dan Pashman: How did you discover that?
William: I just once was like, "You know what? I wonder what would happen if I put an orange in the freezer."
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
William: 10 minutes later, there you go. You'll be surprised, but it's actually juicier than a regular orange.
Dan Pashman: Really?
William: And it's kind of crunchy.
Dan Pashman: William likes to sit with his best friend, Timothy, and a few other friends, but they can't always sit with him.
William: Sometimes they can't, because I’m really, really allergic to peanut butter.
Dan Pashman: Oh, so those kids can't sit too close to you?
Dan Pashman: When you see other kids sitting far away eating peanut butter foods, how do you feel about that?
William: I'm not in danger. Thank goodness.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] Yes. What do you guys talk about at lunch?
William: We usually play this game called Minecraft.
Dan Pashman: I hear some of the girls at their lunch table, they talk about the future and what they're going to do with their lives. Do you guys ever talk about that?
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
William: Because none of us know what we're going to do. Some of us want to be computer geniuses. Some of us want to be programmers. Some of us want to create new ideas. Some of us want to save this world.
Dan Pashman: Sometimes in the cafeteria, who sits where creates drama. Gina is another fifth grader. She said kids switch tables when they're in a fight with someone.
Gina: So fifth grade, we have prom. And, you know, I don't know why, but they are like, oh, I want to go out with her. Know what I asked first? No, you can't. You can't do that. I asked first, and then they start fighting with each other. And then the girls have to, like, avoid them to just get away with them because they're like, "Who do you want more? Me or him?", a nd then I'm just standing over there watching and I'm thinking to myself, "Why is this happening?".
Dan Pashman: Are you going to the prom?
Gina: I'm going with my friends because I have no intention of going with a boy because I'm too young. Too young.
Dan Pashman:I wasn’t just at P.S. 216 to hang out with some awesome fifth graders. There was another reason. All across New York City, big changes were happening in school lunchrooms. Schools were getting rid of their plastic sporks. Tragic, I know. But with good reason, they were replacing them with compostable utensils. And you got to realize, New York City schools serve over a million meals a day. That adds up to a lot of sporks.
Stephen O’Brien: So in New York City alone, we use 124 million sporks a year.
Dan Pashman: This is Stephen O’Brien, Director of Food and Menu Management for New York’s public schools. Part of his job was to help lead the transition from sporks to compostable forks and knives, which are better for the environment, and more like what most kids use at home. Schools had already replaced the square styrofoam trays with compostable round plates, but they hadn’t yet decided which type of compostable utensils to buy. And New York wasn’t alone. They were teaming up with school districts in L.A., Chicago, Miami, Dallas and Orlando to make one of the biggest utensil purchases in history.
Stephen O’Brien: So we'd be talking about a purchase of somewhere in the realm of 500 million utensils being used in all of these cities combined.
Dan Pashman: Per year.
Stephen O’Brien: Per year.
Dan Pashman: So clearly, this is a big decision. Literally, hundreds of millions of utensils are waiting to hear their fate.
Dan Pashman: I'm sure that cost is a huge concern, as it should be. Public school budgets I know are tight.
Stephen O’Brien: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: Beyond cost, what are the other considerations that you're looking at?
Stephen O’Brien: So when we've done some initial research, for example, we found that some of the compostable utensils melted. We found that some of the compostable utensils broke.
Dan Pashman: Do you have like a team of fifth graders in a lab who are just like, banging forks against a plate?
Stephen O’Brien: We actually do.
Dan Pashman: Really?
Stephen O’Brien: So in New York City schools, we have a taste testing group that comes to our headquarters office twice a week. We see about 2,000 students a year who develop the products that we offer in our schools.
Dan Pashman: I wondered how students were feeling about these changes. Donya, the fifth grader you heard from earlier, told me that she has some issues with the new compostable plates.
Donya: When you have macaroni and cheese or chicken, the wet parts, like, stays on the table and you have to clean it up. And the foam, like all we have to do is just eat and throw it in the trash can.
Dan Pashman: So you said mac and cheese is what always bleeds through.
Dan Pashman: Hmm. That's a problem. You could, like, put a leaf of lettuce on the plate, and then put the mac and cheese on top of the lettuce leaf. And that would create a barrier to help protect the plate.
Dan Pashman: What do you think?
Donya: Yeah, I think that's smart.
Dan Pashman: Now, Donya, I don't know if you know about this, but they're probably going be changing the spork at some point.
Donya: Um, yes.
Dan Pashman: Have you heard about this?
Dan Pashman: How do you feel about that?
Donya: I feel weird because we got used to this spork that they created, a fork and a spoon. But when they will create a new one, I would like — we think it would be a waste. It's a pro and it's a con.
Dan Pashman: Donya said the pro is that the new forks and knives would be compostable. The con is that kids will use two utensils in every meal instead of just one. She’s pretty sharp.
Dan Pashman: Stephen O’Brien said that sauce isn’t actually seeping through the plates. It’s that the plates are more breathable, so when the heat from the food on the plate hits the cold table, there’s steam, which creates condensation on the table. The moisture kids see is condensation, not sauce. Still I pitched him on my “Line Your Plate With Lettuce” campaign. I figured the cooler lettuce could be a temperature buffer and reduce condensation.
Stephen O’Brien: I would actually take it a step further. As a chef, I would be looking for it to be spinach, because then you would end up having the spinach wilts a little bit and you would have cheesy spinach, sort of like a creamed spinach.
Dan Pashman: Woah. Are you a chef?
Stephen O’Brien: Yes.
Dan Pashman: Oh, wow. That's — and I'm not. And you can tell the difference. You see? [LAUGHS]
Stephen O’Brien: There you go.
Dan Pashman: That's why you figured that out and I didn't.
Stephen O’Brien: But I wouldn't have thought of that unless you actually started with your concept, first.
Dan Pashman: Okay. See, that's a creative idea.
Stephen O’Brien: That's is.
Dan Pashman: We're brainstorming.
Dan Pashman: So keep your eyes peeled for the big "Line Your Plate with Spinach" campaign. It’s not quite as alliterative as "Line Your Plate With Lettuce", but it is healthier. Coming soon to a school near you. Maybe?
Dan Pashman: Now my visit to P.S. 216 and to see Stephen O’Brien actually happened a few years ago. More recently, New York City Schools signed a five-year contract for compostable cutlery, and began rolling them out these knew forks and knives all over the city. And Stephen O’Brien got promoted to Director of Strategic Partnerships and Policy. Congratulations, Stephen.
Dan Pashman: Coming up after the break, we hear some of your school lunch stories, and then, my friend Kenji Lopez-Alt shares his strategies for using his favorite school lunch accessory … the bento box. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Check out last week’s show, where I spoke with Natasha Leggero and Moshe Kasher. They’re married comedians who have a podcast where they dispense advice to couples. So I figured I would put them to work. I had my wife Janie call in, and asked Natasha and Moshe to weigh in on some issues.
CLIP (MOSHE KASHER): What do you guys fight about the most that is not your fault?
CLIP (JANIE PASHMAN): Nothing is my fault.
Dan Pashman: Can Natasha and Moshe save our marriage? You’ll just have to listen to find out. That episode is up now, check it out. Okay, back to the show.
Dan Pashman: A little while back, we asked for your memories from school lunch, and you sent in so many good ones! Here’s Kate in North Dallas.
Kate: When I was in third grade, all I wanted was to be accepted by this particular group of guys. They were super cool. They were super smart. I probably had crushes on most of them. [LAUGHS] And one of the ways that I could impress them was to take them up on food dares. And the one I remember being the most impressive to them was when they dared me to take a small cup of chocolate milk and put pepper and salt and pickles into it and drink the whole thing and eat the pickle, too. And I did it. And they were grossed out and I was awesome, at least for that day.
Dan Pashman: That was great, although I was hoping that story would end with, “And now we’re married and we served pickled chocolate milk at our wedding!”
Dan Pashman: Anyway, not all lunchtime stories are so triumphant. Like for Joanne, who grew up in the Bay Area. She’s Filipino American, and one day in kindergarten, her grandmother packed lunch for her. Inside the lunchbox she found …
Joanne: Steamed rice. Sweet sausages called longonisa and that infamous blood stew called dinuguan. It sounds like a horror movie, but it is one of the most delicious dishes I've ever had in my entire life. By the time lunchtime came, my lunch had already gotten cold and the rice got hard and the blood stew coagulated. So, of course, you know, I needed to get it heat up. My teacher forced me to go to the eighth grade class because it was the only classroom that had a microwave. I already was a nervous kindergartner, but walking into a classroom full of upperclassmen made me even more anxious. I handed my tupperware to the eighth grade teacher and she proceeded to open the lid and look in there, which I didn't want her to do. [LAUGHS] She twitched her nose and made this look that made me not want to bring Filipino food to my class ever again. It was safe to say that after that I bought school lunch rather than bring any more Filipino food to class.
Dan Pashman: So school lunch can be high stakes for kids, creating memories that last a lifetime. But as I said, it can also be stressful for parents. As a parent, you want to pack your kids something healthy, with a little variety. You want to try make sure they're actually gonna eat it, and all in a relatively short amount of time they have for lunch. On top of all that, it has to be easy enough that you can crank it out quickly every day. Enter the school lunch bento box. And of course, bento boxes are not new. They've been a part of Japanese food culture for centuries. But they are having a bit of a moment on social media, thanks to the popularization of plastic bento boxes, made specifically for kids and grown ups to take their lunch in. Now bento boxes are basically a tray with a bunch of different compartments, all different sizes — which is the way that traditional Japanese bento boxes are laid out.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Honestly, I find, you know, having the bento box itself, just like the physical divided box actually makes packing lunch a lot easier for me because it's — I follow kind of like a blueprint and I don't really have to think too much about it. If you have those compartments there, you don't really have to think about portion size because it's all pre portioned for you.
Dan Pashman: That’s food writer Kenji Lopez-Alt. A few months ago, I saw him posting pictures on instagram of bento box lunches that he was packing for his kids. And he also wrote a story about his bento box lunches for The New York Times. Now this isn’t a new fad for Kenji. His grandmother, who emigrated to the U.S. from Japan, would make him bento box meals as a kid, using tupperware. But as bento boxes have become a bit of fad a on social media, I do worry that some people might be getting a little carried away.
Dan Pashman: There are some folks with the bento boxes and they're like carving cucumbers into penguins.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: They have a carrot flower with a blueberry center.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Yup.
Dan Pashman: And rose petals carved from tomatoes. And it gets a lot of likes on instagram.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Right.
Dan Pashman: I will admit that I'm skeptical of, first of all, like who has the time?
Kenji Lopez-Alt: I mean, the people who have — the people who have the time to do that are the people who are able to monetize that on Instagram.
Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS]
Kenji Lopez-Alt: And can rationalize spending the time to do it because they are making money. Yeah. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Right. If your job is to turn cucumbers into penguins for your kid's lunchbox, [Kenji Lopez-Alt: Yeah.] then maybe it's worth the time
Kenji Lopez-Alt: I don't do that. Sometimes I will do, like, a little — I might cut like a little carrot into a flower. You know, that takes 30 seconds for me to do. You know, I might — very rarely I might cut an apple into a little rabbit, which I remember my mom used to do, and that's just like cutting two little slits and peeling up the skin. But sometimes I'll turn a little breakfast sausage into an octopus. You know, what I do try and do sometimes is add like a little bit of a colorful garnish. So I might just like — if I put some some melon, cubed up melon in there, like I’ll give it a little drizzle of olive oil and throw a couple of mint leaves or basil leaves in there if I have them.
Dan Pashman: The longer you talk, Kenji, the more you're sounding like one of these influencers.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: But I would — well, that's just , like, I got the olive oil right there.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: The things that I will do are things that both look pretty and add some kind of flavor element to it that I think would make lunch interesting or fun for my kid.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: But also, you have to know your kid, right? Like, if your kid's not the kind of kid who's gonna want some mint leaves on their melon, then don't put the mint leaves on the melon. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: My daughter, Emily loves to put her food together. She loves assembly.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: So I would love to give her something that gave her some freedom at lunch to take different components and mix and match.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Oh, yeah.
Dan Pashman: Obviously look, there's a big reason why Lunchables were such a hit when we were kids was because kids felt empowered to assemble the food themselves.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Oh yeah, yeah. Giving kids, whether it's in lunchboxes or at dinnertime, like giving them some amount of agency is really useful. So whether it's a D.I.Y thing — so if I'm giving her like a tuna sandwich, she'll probably like it better if the bread's separate and the tuna salad's in a compartment and she can put it on herself, you know? Or like sometimes in the morning I'll say "Hey, Alicia, do you want do you want like blueberries or orange slices?", and so a little choice here and there where they feel like they're in control, cause kids feel like they're — and I mean, they are, just constantly being told what they can and can't do. And there are barriers around them all the time, so I feel like any chance you can give for a kid to like safely express some level of control over their own destiny is appreciated by them. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Now, Kenji, I know that as a person who writes articles and posts on social media, you've heard the old rule, don't read the comments.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: But I couldn't resist looking at the comments on The New York Times website.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Oh jeez. I didn't look at those, but ...
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] You follow the rule.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: I mean, I have seen other New York Times comments and [Dan Pashman: Yeah.] New York Times comments sections are the worst.
Dan Pashman: I will say there were some very positive comments. A lot of people loved your bento box article and added their own suggestions.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: But let's not focus too much on those because those aren't as much fun. Right? [LAUGHS] The comments that skew negative are all saying some version of one of two things, which is either what parent has the time to do this or my kids aren't going to eat all those vegetables.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Yeah, kids aren't gonna eat those vegetables with that attitude.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING]
Kenji Lopez-Alt: The phrase that I really dislike is when some — like, an adult tells a kid, "You're not going to like that or you're not — ", like whether it's food or anything, like telling a kid before they've experienced something that they're going to have a negative experience around it, like to me, you're just setting them up to dislike it. Like why would you say that? Let them figure out for themselves whether they like something or not.
Dan Pashman: But I will say, some of the people commenting also ask if your kids actually eat what you pack them in the bento box. They say, "Yeah, sure, looks nice when you pack it, but what does it look like when it comes home?"
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Sometimes the bento box comes home half full, and sometimes it comes back with one compartment completely untouched and everything else eaten. Some days it’ll come back empty. But really with kids, whether it’s in a bento box or a plate at home, they don't have to finish everything you give to them, but you give them a variety of good choices, and so long as they fill themselves with as much food as they need from among those good choices, then I’m pretty satisfied. So if the bento box comes back half full, I’m not bothered by that.
Dan Pashman: So we talked with kids about lunch today. We talked with adults about their memories of school school lunch. There's one more constituency, that cries out for representation — the parents who are packing lunch for their kids today. And we put put the call out to hear your stories on that front, because that’s a whole other ball game. And when I heard this one from Dennis, in Fredrick, Maryland, I knew that I needed to get Kenji’s take.
Dennis: Back when my daughter was in late grammar and middle school, I was the lunch maker in the morning. At the time, my job required me to travel occasionally. So when I did, I would wait to exit the plane until most people had already done so. That way I could collect a bunch of the barf bags from several seats. These became the lunch bags for my daughter for the next week or so, much to the amusement of both of us. Sure, I made really good lunches for her, but I thought the container would be more interesting.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: In my head, I imagine if I was using a barf bag as a lunch sack for Alicia, I would serve her like a sack of chili or something like that.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Something that like, when you put the bag down, it just plops, you know?
Dan Pashman: So here's a listener with a question.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: She's looking for some advice, Kenji.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Okay.
Katie: Hi Dan, this is Katie from Winter Garden, Florida. School lunch in my house is an exercise in patience. I have twin 3rd graders, who are eight, and are also completely different. My daughter is extremely picky and eats basically the same lunch everyday. Fruit, veggies (which usually comes home after school), a fluffernutter, and a bag of chips. For me, this is terribly boring! I’m someone who looks forward to eating each meal, so this chosen monotony just blows my mind. My son on the other hand requires max creativity. Something different everyday. He’s a mini gourmet. Anything from sushi to pasta salad. He prefers homemade bread to packaged and will tolerate certain packaged premade items like Oreos or Cheetos. He will skip the bottled ranch dressing and say that homemade dressing is better, so why would he bother. So, he leans much closer to my own preferences but there’s got to be a happy medium, right?!
Dan Pashman: I want to hear your response, but I just want to interject real quick to say that we can talk all about what parenting strategies we think work better to get your kids to eat more things, [Kenji Lopez-Alt: Mm-hmm.] but the fact that she has twins [Kenji Lopez-Alt: Yeah.] growing up in the same household [Kenji Lopez-Alt: Yes.] shows you that to some degree different kids just have different eating habits and there is no magical parenting trick that's going to get your kids to eat certain things if they don't want to eat them right now.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: I, personally, someone who now makes a career writing about food and who has a very diverse palate, I was a very picky eater. And it wasn't really until later in life that I started enjoying eating. And so I think the best thing to do is just keep setting good examples. It looks like you and your son are already setting really good examples, and whether she starts eating those things next week or when she's 19 or 20-years-old, like I was, I think that's probably the healthiest thing you can do is just set a good example and give her good options at home.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, I think that's good advice. And I would add, yeah, I wouldn't say that I was a picky eater growing up, but I wasn't especially adventurous. Until I started working on this podcast, honestly. So similar to you, like, when food started becoming my job and I was just sort of ended up in situations where I was encouraged or given a bit more of opportunity to try things, I pushed myself to try more things, and then eventually acquired a taste for them. I think that some parents get too worried about how much healthy food your kids are eating right now at a very young age.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: And like, there's a lot of research that shows, that really what matters is like, learning healthy eating habits for the long haul.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Right.
Dan Pashman: And for the rest of your life. Not necessarily are you eating ten servings of vegetables a day at age 2.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Yeah, or is every single plate perfectly balanced?
Dan Pashman: Exactly. And so, uh, two key things that research has shown is number one: What are the parents eating? If kids see their parents eating vegetables, over time, maybe not right away, but over time, they will eat more healthy foods, more vegetables, and have a more balanced diet as they grow older.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Right.
Dan Pashman: And the other thing is that kids — it's not uncommon for them to have to taste something 30 or 40 times [Kenji Lopez-Alt: Right.] before really learning to like it.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: So its always just like planting that in their head that they should be open to retrying things because taste change, and it does take a while to learn to like something. It’s like listening to a new album, you know, you gotta try it around a few times before it clicks, you know?
Dan Pashman: It sounds like Kenji, the other part of Katie's question is just that she's at her wits end with her son, who wants something new [ Kenji Lopez-Alt: Right. LAUGHS] everyday. He must think that he lives in a Michelin star restaurant or something. I mean, I think that's also a little bit like, it's okay to tell your kid, "Look, you're getting the same thing as yesterday."
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Yeah, like we're having leftovers for dinner. You know, maybe part of this is, they're eight-years-old. Eight-years-old is old enough that they can par — you know, really actively participate in the kitchen. And so maybe the trick is teaching them how to start cooking for themselves so that when they want something creative they're in control of adding that creativity to it.
Dan Pashman: Kenji, before we move on, I want to tick through some sort of rapid fire bento box questions, [Kenji Lopez-Alt: Yeah.] because these are questions that I've seen a lot of folks ask, some of the listeners asked us, so we're gonna work through this real fast. You ready?
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: For foods that are normally served hot, like rice or pasta, are you packing them in the bento box straight from the fridge or are you heating them up first?
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Foods that were initially served hot that you're going to serve as leftovers, they always taste better. If they start hot and cool down to room temperature versus start from the fridge and warm up to room temperature. So I like to pack leftover foods — I like to get it really piping hot in the morning, throw it in the microwave, get it to like really piping hot, then pack it in the bento box. So by the time she eats it, like a couple hours later, it'll have cooled down. But things like rice, things like stews, soups, and any, anything that was initially hot is going to have a much better texture and flavor if it starts out hot and cools down over the course of the morning, as opposed to just like packing it in cold and letting it warm up.
Dan Pashman: Does it affect the rest of the stuff in the bento? Is there stuff that like, if you're gonna put something hot in one compartment [Kenji Lopez-Alt: Mm-hmm.] that you don't want to have a cold fruit or vegetable somewhere else? Even if it's a separate compartment.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Yeah. I mean, it really depends on what bento box you have here. So I use the, the BentGo ones, which have these little silicone seals over the top. So they actually keep the foods separated pretty well. By the time a kid eats their food a few hours later, everything in there is going to be room temperature, so I don't really worry too much about, you know, like the keeping hot side hot and the cool side cool. But I've definitely done things like put really hot rice with toppings in one section, and then had a piece of chocolate in the adjacent section, and the chocolate doesn't melt or anything.
Dan Pashman: Kenji says that when he posts pictures of his kids’ bento boxes, he gets a lot of questions about food safety. Is it okay to pack your kids hot food that ends up sitting at room temperature for several hours until lunchtime? Kenji says that he feels confident that the food he packs will be safe. And I’ll add that he has managed to keep his two kids alive for a combined total of 8 years. But I should day, that depending on when your kid has lunch, giving them food that sits at room temp can fall outside of the official FDA food safety guidelines. That being said, I generally agree with Kenji on this one, but of course, do whatever feels right for you.
Dan Pashman: My next question for Kenji Lopez-Alt: What about leakage? Can you put liquidy items, like a stew, in a bento box?
Kenji Lopez-Alt: In general, one of the basic rules of a bento box is that you don't want to put super liquidy things in there. Or if you are going to put liquidy things, you want to also include like some kind of starchy thing in the same compartment to soak up that excess liquid.
Dan Pashman: Something absorbent.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Yeah, exactly. The times when liquidy things can leak, though, is when your kid is opening them up they, the snaps they require a little force, and so they pop up and down on the table, so then really liquidy things will leak out. The other problem is that, you want to train your kid how to properly seal them, because early on I figured like, she can just figure it out and I didn't really show her how to seal them, latch them properly. So they would come home like only half latched and then a backpack [Dan Pashman: Right.] soaked in soy sauce or something.
Dan Pashman: Can you rapid fire tick through some of your favorite bento boxes?
Kenji Lopez-Alt: By far my daughter's favorite bento box, and one of the easiest to make, is sanshoku-don. So there's a recipe in my book in the wok, but it's essentially rice that has three toppings. It'll have this seasoned ground meat mixture. You seasoned ground beef with like ginger, soy sauce, mirin, and sake. And usually what I'll do is I'll make a big batch of that. And then I'll just have it in the fridge, or you can freeze it also. You microwave that ground beef mixture in the morning, and then in the morning I'll make scrambled eggs for the kids.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: I'll reserve some of those scrambled eggs, and that's the second topping for the rice. So ground beef, scrambled eggs. And then the third topping is just any kind of green vegetable. So usually it's frozen peas. So I'll put some frozen peas in a bowl and just pour boiling water over them for so they defrost in a minute and those go straight on top of the rice. And usually paired with that, I'll have maybe like a little cucumber and tomato salad. I will have some fresh fruit, and then I'll have some kind of like little Japanese crackers or a little Japanese treat for dessert.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Another one that she loves is any kind of, like, short tubular pasta shape. I'll often add little diced potatoes or blanched green beans, maybe split cherry tomatoes in there, so something to add some color and some more vegetables. With that, normally, we'll give her a little bit of melon. Sometimes we'll do a little bit of a salumi tasting. We might have some slices of salami or a little bit of ham if we have it, and cheese. And then just some kind of simple cooked vegetables. So it could be cooked broccoli, cooked asparagus.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: So I put some Kewpie mayo in the dipping container and like mayo or broccoli cold with Kewpie mayo is always a hit. Oh, and then, as far as like the sandwich realm goes, so I like to do D.I.Y. kits where you put like maybe — yeah, I, I mentioned doing like a bagel. So she does love like a bagel spread where you put like a quartered bagel in one compartment and then like some sliced salmon, some sliced cucumber, sliced tomatoes, a little bit of cream cheese and then like maybe a little salad on the side.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: And finally, as a fourth one, one of her favorite ones that she requests frequently is breakfast for lunch, like a sausage and scrambled eggs, maybe a pancake or some toast and then a bunch of fresh fruit. And then, we'll do carrot sticks or something like that as well.
Dan Pashman: All right, those are good options. Now, I want you to make lunch for me.
Dan Pashman: All right, thanks man. Appreciate it, talk to you soon.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Talk to you later.
Dan Pashman: All right, bye
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Bye bye.
Dan Pashman: That's Kenji Lopez-Alt. You can find his recipes and stories at The New York Times and Serious Eats. His most recent cookbook is The Wok, along with this first one, The Food Lab. Those are available wherever books are sold. And his cooking videos on YouTube. He also started a new column with The Times where he will tackle your hard-to-answer cooking questions. So if you have a burning question, email him at AskKenji@NYtimes.com.
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show, I talk with the documentary filmmaker Curtis Chin. In his new memoir, he talks about growing up in Detroit, where his family owned a Chinese restaurant for generations. Curtis had to navigate life in 1980s Detroit, when the crack epidemic was at its peak, and when anti-Asian violence was on the rise. He also had to figure out how to behave around his family, while coming to understand that he was gay. His book is called Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant. It's a great conversation. I can't wait for you to hear it. In the mean time, have some fun with comedians Natasha Leggero and Moshe Kasher. Last week, they gave me some crucial marriage advice. Listen to that episode. It's up right now.