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Ready-made meals in sealed Jars reduce need for refrigerationAlyson McClelland’s mom cans everything from barbecue sauce to fig jam.

Once the delicious condiments are consumed, McClelland gives new life to all those empty Mason jars by filling them with quick and easy meals.

“There are so many jars left over, it’s nice to be able to use them for something,” she says.

McClelland, who blogs at EatMeLancaster.com with her husband Brian, uses canning castoffs for sandwiches, salads and desserts. She got the idea from a local restaurant, which serves peanut butter mousse in a tiny jar.

McClelland and many others are sold on packing make-ahead meals in Mason jars instead of baggies or plastic wrap – an earth- friendly, cost-effective alternative that’s just plain fun.

For one jar meal, McClelland riffs on a combo her big Italian family usually stuffs in a sandwich: roast pork with broccoli rabe, roasted red pepper, provolone and toasted Italian bread.

“Sandwiches can be messy,” she says. “This is kind of like eating a sandwich, but you use a fork.”

McClelland also makes a jarred salad of arugula, red and orange beets, fennel, goat cheese and candied pecans with a triple citrus vinaigrette.

“All of the sudden beets are popping up in everything,” she says. “(The salad in a jar) just looks really pretty because the beets are really colorful.”

If you plan to eat the salad in an hour or two, it’s fine to drizzle dressing between layers, McClelland says. Otherwise it’s best to serve the dressing on the side.

Strategic layering is the key to avoiding a soggy salad in a jar, says Janelle Yoder, who owns Lettuce Toss Salad stand at Lancaster Central Market with her husband Kendal.

“If you’re keeping it in the fridge for a couple days, the order that you put things in the jar would be the most important thing,” she says.

For best results, use the freshest produce. And keep lettuce, cheese, nuts and other crunchy or crisp ingredients away from the dressing, she says.

First pour dressing into the bottom of the jar. Then add meat, chickpeas or thickly sliced cucumbers, which will come out marinated or almost pickled if the salad sits for a while.

“You could chop up plain tofu and throw it in the dressing, and in two days, it would have a lot of flavor,” Yoder says.

Next, add layers of lettuce, lighter veggies (such as carrots) and cheese. To eat the salad straight from the jar – which is part of the fun – pack ingredients loosely. Then simply shake the jar to distribute the dressing.

“If you pack the jar really full, you probably need to dump it out on a plate and stir it to eat it,” Yoder says.

Lisa Reinhart, of Fillmore Container, East Lampeter Township, says everything from built-in portion control to easy washability and less waste has made Mason-jar meals a hit with customers.

Using wide-mouth jars makes it easier to layer ingredients and eat the meal, she says.

To make chicken fajitas, she uses one jar for cooked meat and veggies, another for guacamole and a third for shredded cheese. In a fourth, extra-tall jar, she places a folded tortilla rolled up in a large paper towel.

Reinhart also makes “sandwiches” by layering goat cheese and multigrain crackers. The crackers stay crisp if eaten within a few hours, she says.

For snacks and sides, her family packs jars of veggies and dip, mixed fruit, yogurt parfaits and oriental slaw. Reinhart freezes leftover soup in Mason jars for quick emergency lunches.

Online shops sell lunch bags complete with separators, so jars don’t clang together during transport. People also could cushion jars with a cloth napkin or dish towel, Reinhart says.

Fears over the safety of plastic are driving many people to embrace Mason jars, she says.

“There are so many conflicting reports out there,” she says. “We know that at this point, with glass, we don’t have to worry about it.”

But people should use caution when cooking or storing food in jars, she says. Remove lids before microwaving, and don’t move jars directly from the freezer to the oven.

Reinhart – and many others – successfully bake desserts and other dishes in jars, even though manufacturers don’t recommend it.

“We’re just encouraging people to use common sense,” she says.

Don’t forget food safety in a race to embrace Mason-jar meals, says Martha Zepp, food preservation consultant with Penn State Cooperative Extension, Lancaster.

“Meals in Mason jars sound great and may look attractive, but there are lots of food safety issues as they are presented on the Internet,” she says.

After reviewing popular websites, Zepp offers these tips:

Many websites suggest making and storing meals in Mason jars for five to seven days. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends keeping perishable foods refrigerated for no more than three to four days.

Mason jars are glass. There can be breakage issues. This is especially problematic where children are concerned.

Some articles imply that food in jars can be left at room temperature, such as chili topped with corn bread that is capped with a decorative lid and given as a gift. This would be very dangerous, since bacteria grow rapidly at room temperature.

Foods like quick breads or cakes should never be baked in Mason jars, sealed and stored at room temperature. There is a danger of botulism and jars breaking from high oven temperatures.

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