Cozy Food

Toastabag cheese toast and tomato soup

It’s winter in California. The rain’s coming down, day after day. As I look out the window at grey skies and sheets of water, I’m thinking “hygge.”

What’s that? Well, it’s something I learned about while visiting Scandinavia last summer. “Hygge” refers to an ambience of comfort and coziness. There’s a culture around hygge during the winter months in Scandinavia, where friends and relatives spend time with each other equipped with hot cocoa, comfort foods, and candlelight. Given that much of Northern Europe is locked up in ice and snow during winter, the idea of hygge is certainly an attractive one…a great, big winter hug.

Here are some convenient ways to hug yourself with hygge at work:

Hot chocolate.  Instead of coffee, consider packing hot cocoa for work. There are several instant mixes at your local grocery store that you might try. If you still need that caffeine kick, you can add some instant coffee to the mix.

For those of you who have access to Trader Joe’s, I’ve become fond of TJ’s Sipping Chocolate. I usually have that with my Blue Diamond Almond Milk 30, to save on calories.

Hot cereal. There’s nothing that spells H-Y-G-G-E like hot cereal. Even if you don’t have time to make it at home, you can still put something together for the microwave at work. Here’s a recipe I used with TJ’s Instant Oatmeal:

  • One packet Trader Joe’s Unsweetened Instant Oatmeal
  • One tablespoon raisins
  • 1/4 cup Trader Joe’s Crunch Dried Honeycrisp Apples
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • One packet stevia
  • Two teaspoons butter or margarine
  • One cup milk
  • One tablespoon chopped walnuts (optional)

Mix all ingredients, except walnuts, in a loosely covered microwave safe bowl. Cook in microwave on High for 90 seconds. Add the walnuts. Enjoy!

If you want to make this at work, combine the first six ingredients together the night before work, place in a sealed container, and keep it in the frig. Pack the walnuts and milk separately. By the time you get to that workplace microwave, you’re ready to go.

You can also easily nuke this dish at home in the morning and put in a Thermos for work. Add a little extra hot water to keep the oatmeal moist.

Soup. There’s nothing like a hot Thermos full of soup on a cold day. Here are some easy choices.

  • Lentil soup. Long ago, I hit upon a really easy way to spice up pre-made lentil soup. First, I saute chopped onions and other assorted vegetables. I add some curry powder and saute a minute more. Then I add chopped tomatoes and saute another minute. I add a couple of cans of Progresso Lentil Soup, mix it all together, and simmer for about 20 minutes. This is a very easy recipe to make,and it packs well in a metal thermos. You can find the specifics under the “Recipes” category listed on this blog.
  • Asian-style ramen. I’m fond of Top Ramen, but I recently found something better. While shopping at Sprouts Market, I discovered Lotus Foods Millet & Brown Rice Ramen. You can also get it online at amazon.com. This product contains 9 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber per serving. Unfortunately, it’s rather high in sodium, but a low sodium option was listed on amazon.com. I cooked the ramen for 6 minutes to get the noodles to the desired tenderness. To add nutrition to the mix, I would recommend adding some chopped baby bok choy at the beginning of cooking. It should be tender at the end of the cooking time. Add some sliced hard-boiled egg as garnish and you have even more protein. Works well with a metal Thermos.
  • Pacific Foods soup. This company offers a variety of soups packaged in cartons, and you can find them in many main stream stores. One of my favorites is Roasted Red Pepper & Tomato Soup. Heat up and pour into a thermos, or store in a Crockpot Lunch Warmer (see “Gadgets” under my categories). And what goes better with tomato soup than…..
  • Cheese toast. All you need is a toaster. Really. We have a Bed, Bath, and Beyond nearby, and there I discovered Toasta bags. (You can get these online at amazon.com. Look under “toastabags.”) Put a couple of slices of cheese between bread. Add some pop by slipping in three or four slices of dill pickle. Spread the outside of the bread lightly with butter or margarine. Pack in your lunch bag, along with one toasta bag. When you get to work, put the sandwich in the toastabag, and put the entire package in the toaster. You may need to experiment a little to get the right consistency. But I can tell you that the result will be perfectly melted cheese and toasty bread. The instructions for toastabag indicates that you can used the bag again and again after washing. I have yet to test that theory, but I can tell you that my sandwich came out pretty good.

Let’s here it for hygge!

Instant Oatmeal Plus

Let me start off by saying that I’m not a big fan of instant oatmeal.

The made-by-scratch stuff—oat bran, steel-cut oats, rolled oats–are what I love to eat in the morning. The quickie stuff, well…. in the past I’ve found that most instant brands taste like cardboard.

However, a good friend of mine persuaded me to try Trader Joe’s Unsweetened Instant Oatmeal. It is advertised as gluten-free with quinoa, amaranth, flax seeds, and chia seeds added. The nutrition facts are impressive: 4 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein. (Advisory to low-carb people–it also contains 26 grams of carbohydrate.)

I experimented a little with some additional ingredients, and came up with a pretty tasty dish.

INSTANT OATMEAL PLUS

  • One package Trader Joe’s Unsweetened Instant Oatmeal
  • One tablespoon raisins
  • 1/4 cup Trader Joe’s Crunch Dried Honeycrisp Apples
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • One packet stevia
  • Two teaspoons butter or margarine
  • One cup milk
  • One tablespoon chopped walnuts (optional)

Mix all ingredients, except walnuts, in a loosely covered microwave safe bowl. Cook in microwave on High for 90 seconds. Add the walnuts. Enjoy!

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If you want to make this at work, combine the first six ingredients together the night before work, place in a sealed container, and keep it in the frig. Pack the walnuts and milk separately. By the time you get to that workplace microwave, you’re ready to go.

You can also very easily nuke this dish at home in the morning and put in a Thermos for work. Add a little extra hot water to keep the oatmeal moist.

 

Brown Bag Breakfast

Kashi Go Lean cereal with bananas and milk

Many of us have made a New Year’s resolution to eat better and lose weight. In order to achieve this goal, I would encourage you to make this preliminary resolution:

Eat breakfast.

Eat breakfast everyday, even if you have to do it at work.

My own experience has taught me that skipping breakfast results in fatigue throughout the morning. At about 10 o’clock, my appetite starts to kick in. If I haven’t eaten up to that point, I will make a beeline for the vending machine and load up on cookies, sweet rolls, or some other carb-rich treat. Not conducive to a balanced diet.

So in this post, I’m going to provide suggestions for breakfast foods that provide a combination of carbs and protein to sustain you until lunch. By the way, I’m categorizing breakfast as a brown bag issue, because many people simply don’t have an appetite when they first wake up on a week day and prefer to eat at work.

Have your meal ready to eat as soon as you enter the work area. Why? Because most employers are not crazy about workers who show up at their desk, drop their belongings, and then immediately go to the breakroom or cafeteria to fix their meal. This sort of thing will not help your career. Your management wants to see you at your desk at the beginning of shift, ready to work.

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Morning beverage. If you are lucky, you have some sort of coffee/tea station at the office when you arrive at work. I have not always find that to be true, and I.need.my.caffeine. So I got into the habit of preparing my morning brew before going to work. I bought a 5 cup Mr. Coffee with a delay setting. I place the filter, grounds, and water in the device the night before. I choose the time that I want my coffee brewed, and then hit the delay button. Next morning, the coffee is made. All that’s left to do is to put my nice, hot morning drink into a Thermos and place it in my rolling backpack. No muss. No fuss. No long lines at Starbucks.

If tea is your preference, you can make it in the microwave before you go to work. Put the teabag and water into a tall, wide mug or ceramic teapot. (Make sure you remove any metal staples in the bags prior to nuking.) Hit the “Beverage” button. Then take your shower, put on your makeup, or something else for about ten minutes. By then, you’ll have a hot, hearty brew. Pour your tea into a Thermos and pack it.

Eggs. Next time that you go to the market, check out the egg section, which is usually next to the dairy section. You will find eggs that have already been hard-boiled and peeled. You’ll pay more than you would buying raw eggs and cooking them yourself. Still, it’s a nice convenience.

Pack a couple of hard-boiled eggs for some extra protein in the morning. You also might want to pack a high-quality bread which has been spread with butter or cheese for some carbohydrate, fat, and additional protein. If you like bagels but are watching your weight, I recommend Thomas’ Bagel Thins, which have less than half the calories of most standard-sized bagels.

Nut butter sandwich. Speaking of bagels, a multi-grain bread or bagel spread with nut butter is a good choice. Almond butter, peanut butter, sunflower butter, etc. provide healthy fats and protein. Look for brands with no added sugar. Maranatha is a good choice, as well as Laura Scudders Old Fashioned Peanut Butter.

Cold cereal. An extremely easy item to prepare. I like Go Lean Kashi, because it contains 12 grams of protein and 13 grams of fiber per serving. Pack the cereal separately from the milk and fruit. If your fruit of choice is banana, you will need to slice it immediately before you place it on your cereal. So don’t forget to pack a paring knife with your food.

Check out the photo at the top of this post. You will note that I used the lunchpail and container set that I recommended in my October 18th post concerning brown bag equipment. If you are interested in learning more about these items, please check out the October 18th post.

Yogurt. A great source of carbs, protein, and calcium. Look for plain, unsweetened brands to avoid a sugar overdose. My favorites are Mountain High Plain Yogurt and Strauss Family Creamery Plain Yogurt. They taste wonderful when combined with diced strawberries, blackberries, or mangoes. If you can’t find fresh fruit, look in the freezer section for frozen. If needed, add an envelope of stevia to your yogurt to cut the tartness.

Nutrition bars. I suggest this as a last resort. Even the best of us forgets to pack food for the day. For that reason, I ALWAYS carry a protein bar or two in my purse for emergencies. My favorite brand is Atkins; their bars provide lots of protein, fiber, and vitamins.

NEXT WEEK: More about breakfast

My Brown Bag Resolutions

Many of us are off work this week, and perhaps not thinking a lot about how to pack a lunch for the office. So I’m not going to discuss any specific recipe or technique for brown bagging today. But I am developing some New Year’s resolutions regarding content for this blog. Here are a few:

  • Lunches that are easy to assemble and pack;
  • Paleo lunches;
  • Gluten-free lunches (you might be surprised at what you can come up with that does not emanate from a package marked “gluten-free.”)
  • Vegetarian and vegan lunches;
  • Interesting books and articles about food;
  • Gadgets that will make brown-bagging easier

I’m sure I’ll think of more as the new year wears on. If there’s anything you would like to see, please leave a comment on this blog. Meanwhile, Happy Holidays, and I’ll be back with you next week!

Brown Bag Side Dishes

In the brown bag world, potato chips are to sandwiches as….yin is to yang, mac is to cheese, Laurel is to Hardy……and so on. I love potato chips as an occasional snack with sour cream dip. But chips as a regular part of lunch? Let’s look at the nutritional content of one serving of potato chips before we make a judgement about that.

The above chart is for a popular brand of chips, and there are some pluses here. 15 potato chips contain noticeable percentages of Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Vitamin B6, and niacin. Some thiamin also. But you must sacrifice 160 calories, 10 grams of fat and 15 carbohydrates to get the good stuff.

Let’s look at some alternatives that will supply crunch and salt, without so many calories. In researching all of this, I checked my local Albertsons.

Pickles. Go to your local lunch counter, ask for a sandwich, and what do you frequently get with it? Pickles.

Pickles are marinated cucumbers. There are two types, sweet and dill (salty/savory). I prefer dill myself, and Vlasic is one of my favorites. By the way, if you don’t get the Groucho Marx reference on the label, you need to go on YouTube immediately and see some 1930’s Marx Brothers film segments. I guarantee that you will chuckle.

Below is the nutritional info for Vlasic kosher dills. The sodium is a little high at 10% DV, but one serving is essentially no calories. Plus, lots of flavor and crunch.

Raw vegetables. I cruised the Albertson’s produce department and found these individually wrapped carrot sticks. Just as easy as packing a small bag of potato chips. Carrots are chock full of carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A, and they are relatively low in calories. (One medium raw carrot is approximately 25 calories.). I find that the sweetness of carrots complements a hummus dip.

Bell peppers are low in calories (approximately 25 calories in one medium pepper) and full of Vitamin C. My favorites are the red ones; they’re the sweetest tasting. At Albertsons, I found a package of pre-cut peppers.

In order to complement the sweetness of the peppers, you might pack some hummus. Or perhaps olives? Five luscious Calamata olives are only 45 calories. Here are some cartons of olives I found at the deli section of Albertsons:

In conclusion, I do hope that I’ve given you some alternatives to the ubiquitous potato chip side car. If there’s any message here, it’s that you should be inquisitive about what your grocery store offers regarding any type of food. Ask questions of your grocers, they’re always happy to help. And so am I. Keep checking out TheBrownBagBlogger.com for tips on how to prepare and eat a tasty brown bag lunch.

Sandwich with baby bell peppers and pitted Calamata olives

References:


Prepping Sandwiches, Salad, Soup

Here are some tips on how to prepare ingredients for lunch at work.  Most of your tasks will be completed during the weekend, with little left to do during the rest of the week.

By the way, much of this information was provided by a good friend of mine who runs a wellness program for her agency.  She’s a very busy lady, especially during the weekends.  If she can find time to prep lunch, so can you! 

During the weekend:

  • Buy your bread and put in the freezer.  (My friend’s favorite is Dave’s Killer Bread, and this writer agrees.  Meaty, satisfying, with lots of protein and fiber.  It’s sold in mainstream supermarkets.) 
  • Use separate zip lock bags for storage of sandwich fillings:  One for meat, one for cheese, and so on.  Make sure that you remove all air from the zip lock.  This ensures the foods stay fresh longer. 
  •  For salads, use the same idea: Separate bags for favorite greens, sliced veggies to add to the salad, halved cherry tomatoes, etc.   (Note:  for vegetables, this writer likes Debbie Meyer’s Green Bags, which can be purchased online.  These bags truly do what the ads promise–they extend the freshness of vege’s and fruits.)
  • Soup:  Many supermarkets offer freshly made soup of the day.  You can usually find this item in the deli section.  My friend strongly recommends Sprouts homemade chicken noodle soup.  8 oz. is 100 calories.

Packing sandwiches the day before:

  • Pull out frozen bread and fill with dressing, meat, and/or cheese.
  • If you wish to use lettuce in your sandwich, pack it separately in a plastic bag or container.  That way you get crunchy vege’s in your sandwich.
  •  If you like tomato and/or avocado in your sandwich, carry them whole in your lunch bag, and slice them up just before eating.  Don’t forget to pack a paring knife.
  • If you have a preference for tuna, egg, or chicken salad sandwiches, I strongly recommend that you pack your salad separately from your bread.  Otherwise, you will likely end up with a soggy mess, especially if you use pita or flatbread.  If you don’t like making your own protein salads, the deli section of your local supermarket usually carries these items.

Packing salads the day before:

  • Place your salad in a sealable plastic container.  The Walmart block containers discussed in a previous post are great for this.
  • Pack your salad dressing in a separate container, and add to the salad at lunch.

Packing soup the day before:

  • If you have time in the morning and don’t want to use the company microwave, fill a metal Thermos with hot water and let sit for 10 minutes.  Meanwhile, nuke the soup.  Pour out water, fill Thermos with soup, seal, and pack away.
  • An alternative is the Crock Pot Lunch Warmer, which will allow you to heat your soup while you work.  
  • For recommendations regarding hot meal containers, please review previous post from October 18, 2018, titled “Starting Right:  Brown Bag Equipment.”

NEXT WEEK:  Brown Bag Side Dishes

About Bread

Home made whole wheat/chickpea bread

For this post, I included a photo of something I made with my Cuisinart bread maker:  Whole wheat/chickpea bread.  Unfortunately, many of us don’t have access to one of these bread-making gadgets.   But who doesn’t enjoy nutritious, tasty bakery items?  

Today, I’ll discuss various breads one can find in a typical supermarket.  Once again, I went to my local Albertson’s to see what is available out there.  And I specifically looked for items that will satisfy a gluten-free and low-carb diet, because so many of my FB friends have requested this information.  I also found some specialty items that are calorie-friendly.

Some history.  In preparing this article, I considered how dependent we are on this wonderful food, bread, which is made from flour or meal and then moistened, kneaded, and baked.  How long has bread been with us?  Archeological research tells us that the ancient Egyptians were the first to develop leavened bread.  It was so fundamental to Egyptian life and culture that at the end of a work day, laborers were paid with the stuff.  Maybe that’s where we got the phrase “earned their daily bread.”



Hieroglyph featuring Egyptians making bread

We typically associate bread with sandwiches, and the term “sandwich” comes from another chapter in food history.  John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718 – 1792) was an avid gambler who would play cards into the wee hours of the night.  The story goes that when the Earl got hungry during a gambling session, he asked for meat between two pieces of bread, so he could eat with one hand while holding the cards with another.  This tale may or may not be true. Regardless, we are left with the earl’s namesake, the brown bagger’s most reliable main dish.

John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich

Because most breads are made from wheat flour, they contain a significant amount of gluten and carbohydrate.  This can pose a problem for those who are gluten-intolerant or on low-carb diets, but who also like bread.  In addition, some bakery items such as bagels contain a considerable amount of calories.  So if you’re watching your weight, what can you do?

Low-carb bread.   It’s certainly available, right there in your local grocery store.  As an example, I’ve included some photos of Nature’s Own 100% Whole Wheat Bread.  It is by no means the only low-carb stuff out there, but I’ve seen it in many grocery stores.  The nutritional info shows 11 grams of carbohydrate per slice, which is low compared with many of the other breads I looked at.  Also, less than 1 gram of sugar.  At least two Type 2 diabetics have told me that their physicians have recommended this bread.  But don’t just take their word.  If you’re going low-carb because of diabetes, PLEASE check with your own doctor before considering this or other bakery products.


Gluten-free bread.  Schar Artisan Baker White Bread is sold at the Albertson’s and Ralph’s markets near my home.  Schar is advertised as gluten-free, dairy free, and wheat free (it’s made of rice).  Please note that this does not mean carb-free.  As a matter of fact, nutritional data indicates that one slice is 18 grams of carbohydrate.  Again, if you have problems with gluten PLEASE check with your doctor before considering this or other bakery products.  

I bought some of this stuff and tried it out.  Not bad; slightly sweet.

Specialty bread.   Who doesn’t like a crunchy, chewy toasted bagel with butter or cream cheese?  Unfortunately, most normal-size bagels contain up to 300 calories per serving(!)  Thank goodness for Thomas’ Bagel Thins.   This product has 110 calories per bagel, as well as 5 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein.  Sorry, low-carb people….one Bagel Thin contains 25 grams of carbohydrates.  That’s just the nature of bagels.  

Thomas’, of course, were first known for their English muffins.  But they have branched out.  In addition to the Bagel Thins, Thomas’ also offers a nice pita bread.  Frankly, I think it has a better and chewier taste than other pitas on the market.   One loaf is 140 calories, with 7 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber.  Once again, the low-carb folks won’t be happy to hear that one loaf also contains 27 grams of carbs.

 

Finally, I’m going to throw in Flatout Flatbread, which I discussed in a previous blog.  This is a highly nutritious food product that can be found in the deli section of major grocery stores.  The carbs are rather high at 22 grams per flatbread.  However, the product is only 90 calories per serving, with 7 grams of protein and 10 grams of fiber.  Please see my previous blog, called “Walking the Periphery-Part 4” regarding how to make a flatout sandwich.

In conclusion:  There are many varieties of bread in your local bakery.  You can make wise choices by looking at nutritional information on the packaging.  When it comes to bread, I look for the following:

  • Calories
  • Carbohydrates
  • Sugar content
  • Protein
  • Fiber

By the way, I welcome any and all comments about bakery items that you have been satisfied with.  Please write!

NEXT WEEK:  Packing sandwich ingredients

References:

  • “Bread Cook Book,” Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery, Vol. 2, (1966): p. 222.
  • “13 Ancient Egyptian Food Facts You Should Know,” https://www.historyly.com/egypt-history/popular-ancient-egyptian-food-facts/, 13 September 2016,.  Web.  6 December 2018.
  • “John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich”  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.  30 November 2018,.  Web.  6 December 2018.