Thursday, October 23, 2014
Create a Rice Bowl- cheap, easy, healthy and customized school lunch idea
I discovered 'The Tightwad Gazette'about 20 years ago, when I was a teenager living at home and really had no need for anything in it. Yet the contents of that book stayed with me and influenced me in a lot of ways over the years. It allowed me to pay off all my student loans quickly, save for our house and these days it allows our family to live on 1.2 incomes. Without the Tightwad Gazette and everything it taught me about frugal living I never would have been able to substitute teach one or two days a week and spend the rest of my time at home with my youngest.
One of my favorite things in her books were her 'universal recipes', which I still use to this day. They allow you to mix and match ingredients that you have on hand/want to use up to create many variations of the same meal or snack. This is where I got the idea to create my own universal recipe for my daughter's school lunches last month: Create a rice bowl.
My daughter has been on a gluten free diet for about 10 months now, and gluten free bread is both expensive and pretty gross. I was tired of spending 3 times as much money for bread that came home half eaten every day and was trying to think of an alternative to sandwiches. I wanted something that was going to be easy, cheap, nutritious and that would actually get eaten. Something that could taste different yet was generally the same to prepare so it could just become another routine to follow without thinking. And since my daughter loves rice, ADORES rice, I thought a rice bowl would fit all these criteria.
Universal Rice Bowl Recipe
1 cup uncooked rice
2 cups vegetables (any type)
1 can beans, drained and rinsed
2 1/2 cups water
2 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon salt
Combine all ingredients in a pot and simmer until rice is cooked, or place everything in a microwave safe casserole dish and cook for up to 20 minutes in the microwave.
Here is the breakdown of ingredients variations:
Rice- I use either regular rice or basmati, but you can use any type
Vegetables- anything you have works. Cauliflower and carrots are nice for an Indian based dish, peas, carrots and broccoli for Chinese, while corn and peppers are good for Mexican. I usually use frozen mixed veggies (with the peas, green beans, corn, carrots and lima beans) because they're my daughter's favorite.
Beans- I use chickpeas for Indian, black beans for Mexican, ect. To cut the cost of the recipe even further you can substitute the can of beans with 1 cup dried lentils plus 1 extra cup of water. I do this about half the time. It does not add any more work or cooking time to the recipe and the kids seem to like it just as much. You can also throw in leftover cooked meat or eggs, but my daughter prefers the beans and I prefer the price of beans!
Oil- I use olive oil, but any oil will work. Sesame oil would add a nice touch to Chinese and plain vegetable oil is cheapest. You can also add as much oil as you want to make it more filling or tasty. I usually just pour the oil right in without measuring.
Seasoning- this is where I have the most variation. I use 2 teaspoons curry powder for an Indian inspired dish, or 2 teaspoons of chili powder for Mexican. You can simulate fried rice by adding 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 1 teaspoon onion powder and perhaps some dried ginger, chives and soy sauce (in lieu of salt) as well. Italian style rice can be made by adding tomato paste and basil or oregano. Feel free to experiment with different tastes your kids will like. The good thing about this is it's just rice, so any flavors that are too strong for them can be recycled into a side dish for the grown ups at dinner time.
Heating and packing:
I make about 2 pots of this a week, usually on Sunday and Wednesday nights. The whole pot will serve one child at least 5 lunches, but to offer variety and make sure it's fresh I make it twice as often and use the extras as lunch for my 2 year old when we're home, or for dinner. The kids even like eating it for breakfast.
In the morning I fill her thermos with boiling water to heat up the inside (I put the serving spoon inside too to make it nice and hot) and microwave a bowl of the rice mixture. I used to measure it out, but now I just heap it in the bowl and if any doesn't fit in the thermos the kids will gladly eat it at breakfast. Once the rice is heated I pour the boiling water out of the thermos and put the rice in right away. This ensures it's nice and hot at lunch time. I have 2 thermoses for her just in case I forget to unpack her bag and wash it so there is always a clean one available.
I pack her a spoon and cloth napkin, as well as 2 inexpensive healthy snacks. These are usually apples, bananas, carrot sticks, or any leftover fruit or vegetable we might have available. As an occasional 'treat' I might pack her air popped popcorn, a tiny container of chocolate chips or raisins or the rare baked good we might have left over from a special occasion. This seems to be the magic amount of food- if I pack a 3rd snack one comes home uneaten.
My kid isn't going to school with fancy lunches made to look like cartoon characters. She doesn't bring hand crafted snacks and home baked goods. She also doesn't bring packaged treats and lunch foods (which from what I've seen while teaching is the norm). Her lunches are simple, inexpensive, and made from real food. But every bite gets eaten, every day, so she can't be suffering too much.