© 2013 kit

Keeping the habit

(My secret: it’s making sushi regularly. To avoid the long rant, skip to the end with the lunch details.)

It looks like Just Bento‘s 101 course came to an end early this month and I find it commendable to promote an activity that can be beneficial to most people. Though not a bento “beginner” myself Maki’s last lesson did give me something to mull over about how to keep motivated. After all, if there is a simple and fast solution to something you would naturally gravitate towards it. Though with some decisions there are normally caveats attached: for those that have the means to buy a lunch over bringing one in there is no ‘correct’ choice.

  • I can buy a lunch pack that has a main, snack and drink at the local supermarket for £3 but the selection of food isn’t going to win over any nutritionist.
  • I can eat out and be more conscientious about nutrition but still not about the welfare of the animals that end up on my plate nor the distance covered by the produce.
  • I can make my food but then I need to take the time to source the ingredients and then prepare them.
  • I can just eat whatever is around the office, which is typically not healthy consumed constantly (cheap bread and cheese)

Most options that win points with convenience lose out on the cost, health and produce-sourcing dilemmas. So apart from the usual drawbacks (time) and gains (more economical, good for diet monitoring) here are my thoughts on keeping the habit:

You are what you eat

In the UK the hot topic currently is the horsemeat scandal, which is an unfortunate route to spread awareness about being particular about your food but it seems to be lost to the modern world of fast-and-furious convenience.

My partner and I have always been amused with such developments – as the sum of his parent chefs our household has been fairly particular about food. We regularly use the services of the local butcher and farm shop – they keep us informed on where their produce originates (usually local) and the best times to get them in advance when asked.

If you are serious about where your food comes from then packing your own lunch gives you more control.

Nourishing more than the stomach

The cheesy note is optional, the fancy four-seas rolls were finicky but I hope my message was clear.

I can’t deny that though I have a love for food, there are times when hunger and lack of motivation means I eat to fill that void in my stomach. When you’re time poor or exhausted after the end of the day it is a struggle to think of cooking when you are craving a lie-down. Admittedly at times I have summoned my remaining willpower to force myself to pack a lunch, but am rewarded with a satisfying meal for the next day.

It is very easy to fall into the traps of convenience, but from (photo) documenting my lunches over the years I’ve come to realize that the most complaints I’ve had with my lunchtime meals are mostly when I’ve not prepared them myself. I once worked close to a plethora of take-away places and McDonald’s “Happy Meal”s became a regular feature, but I always (and still do) feel that pang of shame that I know I can eat better – and generally I’ve felt better after a home-made meal than one on the go. In addition I believe I have improved my cooking skills too.

If you have ever experienced making a meal for someone, then you may know how satisfying it is to find your efforts appreciated. Preparing a loved one’s lunch is something I use as another gesture to express my feelings and gratitude – the way to the heart is through the stomach and all that. For particularly difficult days at work, having a meal lovingly prepared for you would probably do more good than harm. Bentoist Rie puts it succinctly: vous mettez votre amour sous la forme de nourriture.

Optimize – establish the routine

I can’t say that my lifestyle has remained the same since I have taken on packing my lunch three to five days a week; as previously mentioned time is a basic requirement. I have no idea how parents cope when I don’t have children of my own but feel drained for the lack of time. But if you introduce it into your routine, you may form a habit – and habits are less difficult to drop once established.

There is no universal routine to follow – it is just one of those things to individually tailor to your lifestyle and personal commitments. I don’t regard my routine strict, but it’s definitely close to a being a regular feature:

  • During the weekend, I try to think of a protein that can be cooked in a large batch and dishes based on vegetables that are available. Most of the groceries are bought at this time, and the ‘protein stash’ is normally cooked before the start of the week.
  • I aim to make a week-long lunch stash established before the week starts. Some long-term pantry items like carrots make multiple appearances on different days as different dishes to have a greater sense of variety
  • I normally make my lunches the night before or have the components ready for packing in the morning. Makizushi is best eaten fresh but recently I’ve been doing these in the evening as I savour my sleep!
  • Any cooking done in the morning is normally limited to one item, or extremely simple items like steamed veg. Mid-week evenings may involve topping-up the lunch items – and provide a change so it’s not like having the same thing every day for the week

Also keep in mind food safety – cooling cooked food – before storing lunches. One of the reasons why evenings are ideal for me is I can let things cool overnight, or cool things enough before popping the lunch items in the fridge.

Eat what you want (in moderation)

Having control over your intake certainly is a good health move, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy what you’re eating.

One of the main reasons I got into sushi making was that I absolutely inhale that stuff. When I was starting out sushi-ya were a non-trivial trek for a lunch time fix. However, with research and the handy diverse shops for supplies (Sydney not only has quite a lot of south-east asian supermarkets, the major chains stock a decent range of ‘ethnic’ foods) I got to roll my makizushi and eat it too! Fast-forward to now, and though it is easier to obtain sushi it’s far more convenient for me to make it myself. Exacerbated by the poor general standard of sushi I can at least have my fix when the mood takes me (avoiding any raw items – it’s exceedingly difficult/expensive to get sashimi grade seafood in my part of the UK).

Like a good balanced diet, one needs to have a diverse range of foods that aren’t heavily processed. If your favourite foods are particularly unhealthy, perhaps limit the frequency you pack it and adjust the portions sizes and pad out with something healthy like steamed vegetables.

With this final note, my final March lunch was quite an indulgence: containing smoked salmon and avocado.

I don’t always make sushi for lunch. But when I do, I make it as often as I can stand 😉

Actually, I like food like sushi for it’s ‘naked hand’ factor (with exception to chirashi, no utensils needed!) – this is one of the main reasons I make this for Yvan rather often. In places like Korea and Japan, the rice-filling-nori combination is fairly ordinary like the west considers sandwiches but I think with good technique makizushi/kimbap can be rather fetching to look at (which improves with practice). Rather than repeat my past mistakes, I do make sure that I have a good variety of side-dishes to avoid the carbohydrate overload.

Top tier

Bottom tier

Top tier contents: meat ‘puck’ (a squished mini meatball), soft-boiled egg, steamed carrot with mustard dressing, steamed broccoli, ginger & soy simmered eggplant

Bottom tier contents: sushi (avocado, spring onion, crabstick uramaki draped with smoked salmon) on salad leaves.

The UK has as very social pub culture which they sometimes extend to ‘pub day lunch’ – in that spirit I’ve ensured that I have a ‘sushi day’ once a week to look forward to. Denying that I’m not in a happier mood on these days would be a lie. I’ve argued with myself that if I am capable to expend the effort one day a week on preparing one of my favourite foods then surely I can make more simple lunches for the other days. Provided that you have the time and motivation, I’d say anyone can.

Good luck to anyone endeavouring to keep a good habit! (I’m keeping my fingers crossed myself)

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