Tick, tick, tick…
You hear that? It is the clock, starting to count down those final days of summer. All around you stores are running sales on crisp new marble notebooks and bringing in rack after rack of sweaters in wintry colors. But last I checked the air was still hot and sticky and the calendar said that there are another six weeks left of summer, so instead of jumping on the cold weather bandwagon, I am going to do my best to enjoy the great outdoors and all of its associated benefits.
One of the things that I enjoy most about summer is the opportunity to move my life outdoors when the weather allows for it. Being able to take long morning hikes through my neighborhood and work on the back porch instead of at my desk always makes me smile, but the true mark of summer for me is the ability to eat outside.
Why is dining al fresco more fun? I don’t really know. It just is, despite the bugs, the sun in your eyes and the disposable plates and cups that fly away every time the wind blows. While just eating outside on your porch can kick up the fun factor of any meal, consider switching things up a little by gathering up your food and heading for the great outdoors. Whether you decide to take a family trip for a few days or just go for a picnic at a local park, eating somewhere unique and different makes any meal more memorable.
For those of you who aren’t in love with sandwiches or are trying to go carb-free, rest assured that packing up your food in a picnic cooler doesn’t mean that you have to be stuck eating PB&J. And while I don’t advocate strapping a roast to your engine block before taking a long drive in the hopes of having a fully cooked meal by the time you arrive at your destination, there are lots of intriguing products that let you mix things up a little so you can enjoy outdoor meals that make you smile instead of cringe.
Take Packit, for example, a company founded by an Iowa mom of three that makes a whole line of products that are, literally, cool. Available in a variety of sizes including lunch boxes, wine and can coolers and picnic and grocery bags, Packits look like regular insulated bags, but embedded inside their walls is a secret weapon: layers of freezable gel. Freeze your Packit bag overnight, and wake up to a bag that keeps food chilled and fresh for hours, with none of the annoying messes or drips you typically get with melting ice packs. While the lunch box size is a no brainer for school or brown bagging your midday meal at work, the grocery bag is great for hot weather grocery shopping. And, of course, the picnic and cooler bags are the answer when it comes time for your summer picnics and road trips.
On the other end of the spectrum are products that sizzle with possibilities. Hot Logic’s mini ovens, which look like regular insulated bags (albeit with an attached power cord), have practically unlimited potential. Inside each one is a small metal plate that uses conduction heating to warm up food or even cook from scratch at a constant temperature of 165°F. Food heats evenly, can stay hot for hours without burning, and when paired with an inverter for a car’s cigarette lighter, can even be cooked in your car. Best of all, Hot Logic works with any flat-bottomed dish, including cardboard boxes, aluminum foil pans, glass dishes or even plastic containers. No matter where you cook or which size you choose (the popular 9 x 7 x 3, or the new larger size that can accommodate 9 x 13 pans), assume it will take one hour to heat up refrigerated foods and two hours for frozen items.
Are you ready for the Wonderbag? A colorful mushroom-like bag filled with foam pellets that looks like a mutant pincushion that escaped from your grandma’s house, the Wonderbag is a portable, non-electric slow cooker that hails from South Africa. Let me repeat that again because it bears repeating. Assuming your food has been brought to a steady boil, the Wonderbag requires no external heat source, because it uses the heat trapped inside your pot and plenty of serious insulation to continue the cooking process. It is important to realize that thermal cooking is a little tricky and significantly less forgiving than conventional methods, so you really need to follow the instructions here. You need to have a short-handled, metal pot with a tightly-fitting lid that is filled to capacity with boiling food to make this work, but if you stick to the plan and keep the Wonderbag sealed up super tight, it really does work. According to the manufacturer, it can maintain food at a safely heated temperature for up to 12 hours and, because it is so well insulated, can also double as a cooler.
Of course, not everyone wants to cook when they plan an outdoor meal, so finding ways to make sure that your food tastes just as good when you eat it as it did when you left the house is definitely a good idea. While there are zillions of plastic containers, bento boxes and disposable solutions out there, the ECOlunchbox Three-in-One Giant stainless steel lunchbox may be a worthwhile investment. It’s two 3 ½ cup containers stack on top of each other, keeping your foods separate, with a cute little one-cup lidded container that can be used either on its own or stashed inside one of the larger containers. Once your containers are filled, they nest on top of each other, with a sturdy pair of stainless steel clips keeping everything together. The Three-in-One is great for both adults and kids who don’t like their different food groups to come in contact with one other, but be aware that this is not a leak-proof lunchbox, so use caution with any liquids, sauces or salad dressings.
I have to admit that one of the hardest parts about becoming an adult is knowing that summer doesn’t automatically mean vacation like it did when you were a kid. There are jobs to think about, kids that need your attention, laundry to wash and other responsibilities that still need to be taken care of, making it all the more important to seize those great summer moments whenever you can. So the next time you find yourself facing a great summer day, capture that vacation vibe with an outdoor meal. Oh, and grab some soap bubbles while you’re at it. Trust me. You’ll be glad you did.