Queen of free: Mason jar helps lock in salad freshness, savings

Every weekday I face a midday quandary.

Each morning, I rise with the sun and pack a lunch for everyone in my house — everyone except me.

Working from home is a blessing, but usually it means lunch is spent standing in the kitchen snacking on something random in a rushed state before I begin a new project or have to run out the door for a meeting or an errand. So this week, I set to work on a grand experiment.

Sprinkled throughout the pages of Pinterest, I’ve seen recipe after recipe for Mason jar salads. Each beautiful picture claims that the salads stay fresh all week long and that the process is simple.

So off to ALDI I went, to see just how many salads I could make with $50 and if the promises were really true. If you’ve always wanted to make a salad like this, here are a few things I learned during the process.

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Do some research

I clicked around on the internet quite a bit before I landed on a specific plan. Not everyone agrees with which ingredients should be added and in what order. But after reading a few posts, I did find a consensus — more on that in a minute.

Buy jars at big box retailer

I had hoped to score an awesome deal on jars at a chain craft store. However, the best prices for jars were hands down at the big box retailers where you can get a dozen for about $10. Buy wide mouthed, quart-sized jars for the optimal size of salad and so you can get a fork easily in and out.

Use ingredients you like

I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but if you’re looking at a recipe that calls for quinoa and you’ve never had it before or don’t like it, don’t think a Mason jar salad will magically transform you into a crunchy hippie who grows her own wheat and drinks green smoothies every morning. Stick to a basic recipe with salad ingredients you’d typically eat.

Assembly line preparation

If you plan on making a mass quantity of salads, you may want to put in a couple of hours of prep work. It’s very important to chop veggies, protein sources and even fruits in small pieces, more than likely smaller than what you would for a more traditional salad. The smaller the pieces, the easier they are to mix in the jar and manage with a fork. I’d also recommend a Zyliss plastic lettuce knife. I’ve found that its serrated blade keeps lettuce from browning. You can even use more temperamental produce like apples and avocados in Mason jar salads. Just be sure to sprinkle them with lemon or lime juice to prevent oxidization which browns the fruit’s flesh. While it may seem tedious work, preparing the individual ingredients in advance makes the assembly of your salads a snap.

Order is everything

To keep the ingredients from wilting or becoming soggy, there is a specific strategy for adding your salad to the jar. At the very bottom, place your salad dressing. Next add hearty veggies. Think grape tomatoes, cucumber slices, carrots, peppers – larger, bulk items. After that come your smaller veggies and maybe even fruits. Then layer in your protein and dairy sources, specifically meats and cheeses.Finally pack your lettuce, spinach, or other green in tightly. The layering process helps you lock in the flavor and packing it tightly will keep extra air out of the jar that might cause items to become soggy or wilt.

After some research and trial and error, I choose to leave both croutons and hard-boiled eggs out of my jars. Instead, I prepare individual serving-sized baggies that can be packed along with the jar for lunch or added at home when you’re ready to eat.

Seal the jar tightly after all of the ingredients are inside. There is no need to vacuum seal them.

Shake and eat

Before eating, you’ll need to vigorously shake the jar to get the ingredients to mix well. Hold the jar tightly and have fun with it. I’ve found that the salads remain crunchy even five days after making them. So you could easily make a healthy lunch for each day of the workweek on a Sunday night. The incredible convenience makes choosing wisely a snap. Who needs a fast food drive through when you can have a highly customized vitamin- and protein-packed alternative in less time?If you are interested in the specific salads I like to make in Mason jars, head to queenoffree.net/mason-jar-salad for all of the details. I’d call the experiment a success, and I’ll be making these healthy lunches on a regular basis now. The process is too easy, healthy, convenient and cost effective not to spend a few minutes in preparation for a great meal.

Greenwood resident Cherie Lowe and her husband paid off $127,000 in debt in four years and now live debt-free every day with their two kids. She is the author of “Slaying the Debt Dragon: How One Family Conquered Their Money Monster and Found an Inspired Happily Ever After.” Send questions, column ideas and comments to newstips@dailyjournal.net.