Hot water bottles to warm up 2020’s chilly COVID socializing & studies

It’s 2020, autumn, and the pandemic did not miraculously resolve after the election. For those of us who believe in science and value the health of others, the only safe way to socialize these days is to take our meetings outdoors.

Red autumn plant by fence - 1I suffer more from the cold since developing an autoimmune disease, but November in New England isn’t traditionally known for sedentary al fresco activities. Even hale and hearty young people become uncomfortable sitting still as the mercury drops much below room* temperature.

Snow sprinkled evergreen trees in autumnAnd, of course, we got weather like this in October!

The first step to staying comfortable outdoors is wearing appropriate clothing. It is always wise to bring at least one layer more than one thinks is necessary for extended jaunts on cool days. Wear a cap, and bring your gloves, too, of course. But if the sun sets, or the temperature drops below 60º F or so, the amount of clothing required—or the need for expensive, highly specialized gear in which you may not wish to invest—can become burdensome.

teal softshell rain

Why I use hot water bottles at home and outdoors

I send my child to outdoor classes—and welcome visitors to our yard for socially distanced visits—with a cheap, simple, classic, soothingly warm hot water bottle. Adding a source of radiating heat beneath a blanket or tucked into a jacket can add hours of comfort for anyone, and, as a bonus, it also helps ease pain for those of us with arthritis.

Unlike a heating pad, you aren’t tied to an electrical outlet with a hot water bottle. And, while I also use microwaveable “warm bags” —which I’ve heard friends call “rice sacks,” “heat pillows,” and also “heating pads”— the grain filled type weigh just as much, yet cool down relatively quickly compared with the long sustained warmth of water with its very high specific heat capacity.

Red rubber hot water bottle on bed

My history with hot water bottles

Before I married my husband, I’d never even seen a hot water bottle in real life. I knew what they were from old novels and cartoons, but hadn’t noticed they were still sold in stores.

Quaint and old-fashioned hot water bottles may be, but I’ve become a convert. I’ve found them readily available in major chains and tiny Main Street Mom & Pop drug stores across America. Ask the pharmacist—or the oldest person on staff—at your local shop, and you will probably get what you need.

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Freeze meals in silicone bakeware to store more foodsicles in limited space

Freezing leftovers is not a new idea. Making a big batch of food and storing individual portions for later has been popular at least since mass production made containers cheaper than a home cook’s time. Sheltering at home due to COVID-19 has increased the frequency with which I do this kind of batch cooking.

Mushroom broth frozen in silicone muffin tray and stored in baggie

Recently, while browsing on Amazon, I noticed a product called Souper Cubes. These are specifically designed for freezing food in tidy, portion sized, rectangular chunks. They look incredibly functional, and I’ve added some to my Wish List.

This fairly expensive* specialty kitchen product reminded me of a similar hack I’ve employed for years. It might work just as well for you as it does for me, and it could save you money, too.

Smartware blue silicone brownie and bread pansWhen silicone baking pans first showed up at mass market stores a decade or so ago, I received a Smartware set as a gift. Since then, I’ve added a few shapes of individual silicone “muffin cups” to my collection of full size baking pans, mostly for use to create “bento style” packed lunches for my kids.

My orange Wilton muffin pan snuck into the kitchen along the way.

Frozen broth popping out of flexed silicone muffin tray

A standard size muffin compartment creates a very useful “puck” of homemade stock or broth. Half a dozen fit in a quart size freezer bag. These are easy to combine for recipes requiring larger quantities, and the small rounds melt more quickly than a solid frozen quart or even pint would.

A bread pan freezes the right portion of soup or stew for nights when I’m feeding just the kids. Couples with desk jobs would probably find this a useful size for the purpose; one large, athletic type might eat just as much. Keeping the fill to half depth or less, these “bricks” defrost in a reasonable amount of time. I reheat them back in that same blue bread pan. Being silicone, it is suitable for use in the microwave or oven.

Several stew bricks fit in a single gallon size Ziploc bag. I separate the bricks in the bag with parchment or freezer paper for tidiness and convenience.

Writing identifying descriptions and the date directly on each wrapped brick also prevents loss of external labels that tend to peel off in the chill of my freezer. I re-use the same large Ziploc over and over as long as there’s no obvious food residue inside.

A typical muffin tin or metal bread pan could obviously be used to freeze portions just as well. The main benefit of silicone containers is their flexibility. One would have to allow frozen portions to defrost quite a bit more in a rigid dish on the counter to remove them for more compact long term storage in baggies.

I think most of us are trying to shop less often to help prevent community spread during the pandemic. Freezing perishables helps me do that while avoiding feeding my family too many processed foods.

freeze silicone packed freezer - 1My freezer is crammed full, so every efficient storage trick is worth a try.

My scientist husband is particularly nonplussed by my use of the same Rubbermaid Commercial bins he uses to move frogs around his lab. It’s weird for him to pull the kids’ dinner out of one when his day-to-day experience primes him to expect a fecund xenopus.

I would enjoy the convenience of a Souper Cubes tray with its calibrated portion sizes stamped right onto the container. Those tidy rectangular prisms would probably improve the appearance of my messy freezer compartment, too. That said, I’m getting most of the usefulness of this method by using silicone items I already had at a cost of $0.

* ≈ $20/tray

Or in a Stasher silicone bag for those aiming to live plastic free. I’ve tucked a quart size Ziploc bag between the largest Stasher Half Gallon (white) and the pink Sandwich bag for scale in my photo here. The little aqua one is Stasher’s Silicone Pocket. I’ve purchased most of my Stasher stash at a slight member’s discount from online organic grocer Thrive Market.

Large, medium & small Stasher silicone storage bags with quart size Ziploc bag to show size