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After realizing that the Laptop Lunch was too small for J’s needs, I despaired a little, as it’s one of the biggest bento boxes on the market (see my complete review of the Laptop Lunch here).  According to the company, it holds 1400 mL or 3 cups, with each of the two larger compartments measuring 8 ounces and the two smaller compartments measuring 4 ounces each.  When filled according to the traditional bento ratio of 3 parts rice/carbohydrates, 2 parts veggies/fruit, and 1 part protein (all by volume), the box would provide a 1,400 calorie lunch.  That ratio, however, is not what works best for us, and our high vegetable consumption really drops the box’s caloric capacity.  What to do?

I zipped through Whole Foods one day on a Coconut Bliss run, when something shiny caught my eye.  A whole display of stacked, two-compartment, sparkly stainless steel lunch boxes, looking rather like an arsenal of space capsules, waved cheerfully at me.  Oh man.  I try to eschew impulse buys, but I just couldn’t resist this one.  It was big and looked easy to clean.  Bingo!

Here it is in action.

Step 1: fill bottom compartment.  This container is so roomy that I fit a generous portion of mixed baby greens, sliced cucumbers, shredded cabbage, sliced green bell pepper, sliced carrots, shredded organic cheddar, and a portion of homemade vinaigrette (the plastic dressing container is from the Laptop Lunch set).

bottom compressed

Step 2: place stainless steel divider over bottom layer.

bottom with lid compressed

Step 3: pack top compartment.  It doesn’t look terribly appealing, I suppose, but this was actually quite tasty — seasoned brown rice, beef and veggie patty (kind of like meatloaf), and an herbed mushroom sauce.

top compressed

Step 4: slap the lid on top, slide it into its carrier, and fasten it securely.  Doesn’t it look just like a space capsule?

whole compressed

Step 5: when  I manage to remember, I like to add a cloth napkin to the package, and on his workout days, I often slip a Lara Bar in the loop too.

whole with napkin compressed

Cool, right?

Downsides:

  • Can’t be microwaved.  This doesn’t bother us since we try to avoid microwaves and don’t mind eating cold leftovers.
  • Doesn’t fit easily into an insulated bag with an ice pack.  Since J drops his lunchbox in the refrigerator as soon as he arrives at the office, though, this doesn’t affect us.

Upsides (compared to the Laptop Lunch Box):

  • So easy to clean!  And only two compartments!
  • No plastic.
  • Very cool retro look.
  • Large capacity.  That leaves lots and lots of room for vegetables.  Sometimes, I fill up the bottom compartment with cut up veggies and fruit and throw in a small container of peanut butter or hummus.

My great sorrow: It doesn’t have a brand name on it anywhere, I threw away the box, and I can’t find anything just like it online!  How awful is that?  They aren’t carrying it at Whole Foods anymore either.  I plan to ask a manager next time I’m there if they have records of the manufacturer.  I’m sure they do, and I would really like to buy another one.

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If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may remember my anticipation as I counted down the days to Valentine’s this past February.  I bought my husband a pile of gifts and could hardly stand the tension with them sitting wrapped on the table for what seemed like forever.

2009 02 11_0272_edited-1 compressed

Do you know that feeling of finding the perfect gift for someone you adore?  One they aren’t expecting?  One they couldn’t guess even if they tried for weeks?  It’s thrilling and excruciating at the same time.  I begged J to open them early.  He refused, of course, but his reaction was worth the wait.

Perhaps not many husbands would ooh and aah over a new lunchbox, but J did.  He loves taking his lunch to work.  It’s healthier than buying a lunch, it saves us a ton of money, and I also think that it’s a way he feels loved and cared for.  So he was tickled pink to discover that I bought him an Americanized bento box called the Laptop Lunch.

closed laptop lunch box

I’m not sure why he felt compelled to deface his lunchbox with all of those stickers, but — alas! — he did, and sometimes we need to allow our husbands such childish expressions.  Sigh.  (I suppose it’s no secret now where he went to school and where he works.  🙂

Have you heard of bento?  According to Biggie, the author of the wildly popular bento blog, Lunch in a Box,

A Bento lunch is a compact, balanced, visually appealing meal packed in a box. Historically, it’s a Japanese box lunch, similar in concept to the Indian tiffin, the Korean dosirak, or the Filipino baon lunch. In Japanese, “bento” or “obento” refers to the packed meal, and “bento-bako” refers to the bento box itself. See the Wikipedia entry on bento for more details.

The Laptop Lunch contains multiple compartments that keep all of your food separated and even houses utensils.  I call it Americanized for a few reasons.  First, it’s bigger than most Japanese bento boxes.  Second, it’s made in America and contains no BPA, lead, or the other scary things that are coming out of China these days.  Finally, it doesn’t have a Japanese look, though, frankly, I’m a little relieved about that.  The largest authentic Japanese bento box I found online sported the slogan “Pleasure Supply” on top.  Yes, really.  I’m not going to go there, but suffice it to say I thought we might be asking for trouble if J actually toted something like that to work.

Here’s the inside of the Laptop Lunch box:

laptop lunch compressed

Unfortunately, this one of the less visually appealing lunches I’ve packed for him, but I happened to have the camera handy this time.  As you can see, I was able to pack some leftover braised lamb and natural chicken sausage, bell peppers, cucumbers, and potatoes.  The fork and knife are tucked into the slot on the right-hand side.  Because the man burns through so many calories, he also had a little baggie of nuts to go with this meal.

Why I Love the Bento Concept:

  • Bento boxes reduce waste.  No more zippie bags or disposable tupperware!
  • It encourages healthy choices.  The food we make at home is far healthier than almost anything you can buy at a lunch spot.
  • Bento boxes simplify what you carry.  Because I avoided zippie bags, J used to juggle a slew of little glass Pyrex containers on his way to and from work.  Don’t get me wrong; I love my Pyrex, but bento allows me to put it all in one box without all the foods touching each other.
  • No breakage.  Again, better than the Pyrex.
  • It saves money.  Although the boxes are a moderate investment up front (e.g., approximately $23 for the Laptop Lunch), the ability to pack a good, healthy lunch quickly and efficiently every day adds up to major savings over time.
  • I love the idea of making lunch visually appealing.  I think all of our senses are important in our experience of food.  If you want to go the extra mile in this department, there are lots and lots of guides and gadgets out there for making everything from themed lunch boxes to fashioning crabs and octopus out of sausages or piglets out of rice (to see more examples of elaborate bentos, go to Google Images and search for “bento”).  That’s not how I want to spen my time, but I can certainly appreciate those who pour their creativity into their children’s lunches.  I prefer the appeal of different colored fruits and veggies.
  • Compact.  J puts his lunch in the fridge when he gets to work, and taking up less space is definitely desirable.  This is all on top of making it easier for him to tote to and from the office.
  • I find it motivating.  I want to pack lunches for J now.  It’s just plain fun!

Pros of the Laptop Lunch:

  • Made in the USA
  • As safe as plastic can get
  • High quality construction (the plastic is thick and sturdy)
  • Fun to look at, though I do wonder that J never batted an eyelash over the bright purple exterior!  All the fun colors could be a big plus for enticing children to eat healthy lunches.  (By the way, other colors are available at http://www.laptoplunches.com)
  • The size is perfect for older children, women, and men with smaller appetites.  This does depend on what you put in the box, of course.  We try to go heavy on the veggies, and they take up a lot of room without providing many calories.  The picture I showed above has a lot fewer vegetables than we try to eat at each meal, which bothers me.  If your family goes mostly meatless or likes a lot of starches, this size box might be  just right even for dad.  That’s just not how it works in our home.

Cons of the Laptop Lunch:

  • All the tiny compartments can be super annoying to clean all the time.  I highly recommend buying a second set of “innards.”  I caught a sale and was able to do this.  It helps a lot!
  • Too small for really big appetites.  J stands 6’5″ tall, has a naturally high metabolism, and works out on top of it all.  He burns through a lot of calories.  Plus, we like to eat our biggest meals at lunch time, so the Laptop Lunch doesn’t really suit his needs.  He always has to take lots of snacks with him when he uses this box.

Overall, I highly recommend Laptop Lunch boxes.  They are safe, well-constructed, and well-designed.  My only real complaint is the availability of only one size.  I’d love a larger one for my husband, but this size probably works beautifully for most people.

I have since bought something that suits J’s needs even better, so I’ll share about that next time.

Definitely check out the Lunch in a Box blog if you want to learn more about all of this.  I find it all quite fascinating, though I’m happy to enjoy bento at far less sophisticated (and time-consuming!) level.

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I started switching out conventional body care, skin care, and cosmetic products for healthier alternatives long ago, but one major hold-out has been mascara.  It’s my favorite cosmetic by far, and I just couldn’t believe that a healthy one could do the job.  Recently, though, I impulsively added two of the more popular “natural” options on the market, Ecco Bella and Reviva, to my cart while placing an order with Vitacost.  Some persistent eye burning and itching over the previous few weeks nudged me over the edge.

My experience with these products has left me with mixed feelings.  One one hand, I am encouraged that less toxic mascaras can perform really well.  Not only do these mascaras not irritate my eyes, but they really do thicken and lengthen my lashes without clumping.  (I’ve noticed that they perform better after about a week of use than right after opening, by the way.)  I can’t tell a major difference between my old favorite and these new brands.  I can even use multiple coats for a more dramatic effect.  Yippee!

On the other hand, I’m quite annoyed that I didn’t do more research first.  The ingredient lists on these brands are not ideal, dumping both products into the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database’s “moderate risk” category.  Argh.  I like to keep the things I put on my body in the “low hazard” zone, but given that my old favorite mascara rated a 9 out of 10 (yikes!), I’m looking at this as a major step in the right direction.  Now that I’ve had a positive experience with alternative products, I’m willing to go out of my way to seek out purer options.  Since Ecco Bella and Reviva are so much healthier than most drugstore and department store options, and since they’re also easier to find than a lot of healthier brands, they make a great baby step for those of us who can’t quite pry our fingers off that magic wand.  Thus, here are my thoughts on these two brands:

Ecco Bella

Cost: $9.57 through Vitacost; more through retail stores

Risk: 3 out of 10, according to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database (if you’ve never visited this site, I highly recommend doing so; it’s quite an eye-opener)

Pros:
Has a nice mirror on the side of the tube
Lower hazard rating than Reviva
Seems quite resistant to wear and tears (though not at the level of a waterproof product)

Cons:
About twice the price of Reviva
Creates a stiffer, less natural texture than Reviva

Reviva

Cost: $4.59 through Vitacost; more at retail locations

Risk: EWG gives it a 5 out of 10, again naming it a moderately risky product.

Pros:
My lashes feel softer and more natural with this mascara than with Ecco Bella
Resistant to wear and tears
Half the price of Ecco Bella
Washes off more easily than Ecco Bella (I see this as a pro because I don’t want to use eye makeup removers)
Seems to create a little bit more volume and oomph

Cons:
Higher risk rating

Honestly, even though I know I should be using the lower-rated Ecco Bella, I favor Reviva for its softer texture, better results, and easier removal.  Next time around, I’m going to order a product called Ultra Lengthening Fruit Pigmented Mascara by 100% Pure.  A blogger I follow said she found it on eBay and that it’s a dream to use.  Its ingredient list is pristine, so I hope she’s right!

Do you use, or have you ever used, natural mascaras?  What is your experience?  Are there any brands you recommend?

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This review might seem redundant given yesterday’s overall (wildly favorable) Coconut Bliss review, but I thought it was worth following up on this particular flavor because, if you’re anything like me, the thought of mint and coconut together falls rather short of appealing.  Coconut and vanilla?  Sure.  Coconut and chocolate?  Gimme more!  But coconut and mint?  Blech.  I hastily skipped over this combo on our first two forays to the store.  The “on sale” sticker in front of it only inflamed my suspicion.

Serendipitously, however, my hubby suggested a sweet treat last night as a reward for…wait a minute, what was it a reward for?  Maybe I unpacked another box?  (There’s a reason I haven’t posted pictures of our new place.)  Or maybe it was a thinly veiled excuse to try more Coconut Bliss

Nah.

In any case, I agreed and promised to return from Whole Paycheck with a new flavor in tow.  With only two more to try, Mint Galactica and Naked Coconut, I decided to be bold and save a buck on the marked-down one.  How very frugal of me.

I’m so glad my tightwad leanings kicked in at that moment.  Mint Galactica turned out to be delightful!  It was everything mint chocolate chip ice cream should be — smooth and refreshing with real mint flavor, real rich chocolate, and none of the crazy-scary food colorings so often observed in this classic combo.  Only the tiniest tinge of coconut came through and only at the end.  It was very subtle.  I think only the seriously coconut-averse would dislike this ice cream. 

The only downside to this Coconut Bliss flavor?  It feels lighter than the others because the mint makes it so darn refreshing, so I wanted to eat more.  In other words, it didn’t “do me in” quite as quickly as the Chocolate Hazelnut Fudge.  Hm.  I think my hips will forgive me.

But will my fabulous new jeans?

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coconut bliss compressedBelieve it or not, I still have a pulse — and taste buds.  And those taste buds have been dancing with delight over a new discovery.  Have you heard about Coconut Bliss?  If you haven’t, allow me to share the good news.  It’s a dairy-free ice cream made from coconut milk that you can buy in your health food store, and it’s oh-so-heavenly.

See, I’m on a dairy-free kick for a bit to check for sensitivities, and I really wanted an ice cream fix the other day.  I needed ice cream.  While I’m all about making coconut ice cream at home (hats off to Kimifor that brilliant idea), my new itty-bitty freezer doesn’t provide sufficient room for my Kitchen Aid ice cream maker bowl.  Oh woe.  Until I procure an additional freezer, then, I have to buy my frozen treats in the store. 

Fortunately, I remembered seeing an ad for coconut ice cream and decided to check out Whole Foods’ offerings.  Sure enough, both Nada Moo and Coconut Blissgraced the shelves.  We nabbed Maple Pecan Nada Moo (giggle with me over their tag line: “When Having a Cow Is Out of the Question”) and Vanilla Island Coconut Bliss.  We needed one of each.  For research purposes, you see. 

The Nada Moo was yummy, yes, and far better than rice milk ice cream, but it didn’t come close to touching the profound excellence of Coconut Bliss.  CB was rich, velvety, full-flavored, sweetened perfectly, and just plain fabulous.  My mother-in-law said she might like it even better than regular ice cream.  We all agreed that we’d consider it on even footing with gourmet ice cream. 

Because I wanted to be absolutely sure about this recommendation before posting it, ahem, I bought another pint over the weekend, this time of Chocolate Hazelnut Fudge.  Studded with gorgeous chunks of hazelnuts and a thin fudgy ribbon, it was heaven on a spoon.  I’m so hooked.

So if you’re dairy-free, vegan, or if you’re merely an ice cream fanatic looking for the next thrill, you musttry this stuff.  It costs a pretty penny ($5 to $6 a pint), but it’s made with only organic and fair trade ingredients, and the dessert is so rich, a pint can satisfy four people.  Even once I get my home ice cream maker up and running, I’ll indulge in CB’s version regularly.  You simply can’t get that knock-your-socks-off texture at home.  Check out CB’s website for more info on their ingredients, story, and where to buy their products.

One last thought: The Vanilla Island flavor was awesome topped with fresh, local peaches.  Mmmm!

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mayo-compressedMy friend entertains a theory that the world consists of two kinds of people: mayonnaise people and mustard people.  It seems condiment preference indicates personality.  Mayonnaise people, she argues, are bland, pasty, and boring.  Mustard people, on the other hand, are zesty, fun, and interesting.

Generally speaking, I count myself among the mustards.  I’ll almost always choose mustard over mayonnaise.  Yet, for some tasks, like my new favorite salmon melt recipe, only mayo will do.  I don’t know what that means for my personality, but it does present me with a bit of a predicament in the kitchen.

Most commercial mayonnaise blends are prepared with soybean oil, sugar or high fructose corn syrup, “natural flavors” (i.e., hidden MSG), and preservatives like calcium disodium EDTA.  Blech.  Even so-called healthier options use canola oil, another problematic ingredient.  I have occasionally prepared my own mayonnaise (and here’s a recipe from one of my favorite blogs that looks great), but we eat mayo so infrequently that it’s usually not practical to make an entire batch.  We never finish it before it spoils.

That’s where my interest in Wilderness Family Naturals’ mayo started.  After being referred by a friend from church, I browsed the WFN websiteand stumbled across their new product, an organic mayonnaise made with Mary Enig’s signature oil blend of raw extra virgin olive oil, raw unrefined sesame oil, and raw extra virgin coconut oil.  Even without preservatives, it boasts a shelf life of 1 year.  Excited and motivated by their introductory price (no longer available), I ordered one jar along with my many bags of coconut flour.

I wanted to love this mayonnaise.  I really did.  But it had to grow on me.  Although the WFN description doesn’t mention this one tiny detail, the mayonnaise tastes quite sweet — almost more like Miracle Whip than traditional mayonnaise.  Boo.  Over time, however, my taste buds adjusted, and I learned to “cut” the mayo with some plain yogurt, Dijon mustard, or lemon juice to reduce the sweetness.  That helped tremendously, and, thanks to that recent salmon melt kick, I just ran out of the stuff.  (Something else that proved delicious was making chicken salad with the WFN mayo and tarragon.  That played up the sweetness in a really pleasant way.)

I haven’t decided whether or not to order another jar.  The mixture of convenience plus nutrition is awfully tempting.  I may buy one to keep on hand for emergencies and once more try my hand at making my own mayo regularly.  Now that we’re eating more canned fish thanks to our Costco membership and an effort trim our grocery budget, we may actually finish a batch before it goes bad. 

So, here’s the bottom line on WFN mayonnaise:

Pros: Nutrition (excellent blend of healthy fats), texture, richness, color, convenience, good company (I love supporting entrepreneurs who run quality businesses well!)

Cons: Sweet taste (only a problem if you don’t enjoy products like Miracle Whip), price

If you’d like to give this product a try yourself, you can order it online here.

*Note: WFN did not supply me with this product to review.  I purchased it myself.

What do you do about the mayonnaise issue?  Do you have a favorite healthy, store-bought mayonnaise?  Or a favorite recipe that you use?

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Herbal Tea Review

A couple of weeks ago, Penny of Penny Lane Boutique contacted me about a review of her custom herbal tea blend.  I promptly visited her site, and it just about charmed my socks off!  Penny hand crafts natural skin care products like gentle bar soaps, soothing lotions, body wash (no sodium laureth/lauryl sulfate!), and mists.  Many products contain essential oils, and some are custom designed for babies.  Penny Lane Boutique also offers quality hand made candles and tea accessories.  I found the tea bag carriers and tea cozies particularly irresistible!

Larger Image

Seriously, how cute is that?

After receiving the tea sample last week, my husband and I brewed a cup to share.  The Lavender Herbal Blend Tea proved delicious.  A delicate concoction of lavender, hibiscus, lemongrass, peppermint, rosehips, and orange peel, it struck both of us as soothing and calming — perfect for the end of the day.  We enjoyed the floral quality and found the flavors well balanced.  I am not usually an enormous fan of lavender, but I really enjoyed it in this combination. 

If you’re hunting for Christmas gifts, as I am, this would be a great choice, particularly as a stocking stuffer.  (To my family: pretend you never saw this post and act surprised and delighted when investigating your stockings at Christmas.)

To buy some of this tea yourself, or to investigate Penny’s other quality offerings, toddle over to Penny Lane Boutique for a little look-see.

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