Saturday, October 30, 2010

Meet Me in St. Louis: the Details

Our recent trip to St. Louis was one of our easiest and least expensive family vacations ever.  Considering how close we live to St. Louis (it's about a 4 hour drive), I've been surprised at how few of my local friends and neighbors have ever taken the opportunity to enjoy it.  I don't think I've ever visited a city that had so many free activities for families.

This is what we chose to do on this trip, and how much it cost:

Day 1: The City Museum $12 admission +$6 additional admission to aquarium.  We were there from open to close.

Day 2: The St. Lou Zoo FREE admission to the main zoo.  Some activities (children's zoo & petting area, the carousel, etc.) had an additional cost, but were free for the first hour the zoo was open.  We made sure we got there early, and fit in all those activities while they were free.

Day 3: The Saint Louis Science Center  FREE admission to the main museum.  Some activities within the museum do have an additional charge.  This time, we skipped those.   

*Hotel: Springhill Inn & Suites  FREE, included breakfast buffet, swimming pool, and fitness room.  Our room had two queen beds and a sitting area with a full-size couch bed, along with a kitchen sink, microwave, and small fridge/freezer.
*Generally, when we do a non-camping vacation like this, we cash in our Marriott Rewards and stay at Marriotts.  The Bionic Man's company allows him to use points he earns during business travel with hotel or airfare programs for personal travel.  He usually has enough points from business travel to allow us to stay for free at the lower-grade Marriotts (i.e., Fairfield Inns or other Marriott hotels that aren't in high-end locations) several times a year.  If you have a husband who has to travel, I recommend that you look into doing something similar.  We've stayed in Marriotts all over the country, and I haven't yet stayed in a Marriott that wasn't clean to the point of being pristine.  They have free breakfasts with lots of healthy choices, too.

Food: I brought a lot of finger foods and sandwich fixings with us.  Since breakfast was included in our hotel stay, we made sure everyone filled up in the morning.  We picked up frozen meals for dinners at a grocery store, and ate them in our hotel room.  One night, we went to an Italian restaurant for Superkid's birthday dinner.  Because we arrived early to each of our daily activities, we could park very near the entrances, and just went out to grab lunch items that we kept in a cooler in our car. 

We planned this trip around our children's fall break from school.  We left on a Wednesday, when the Bionic Man got home from work, and returned on a Saturday evening.  The weather was perfect: warm enough to be able to enjoy the outdoors, cool enough that it was pleasant.  It didn't seem like the kids in St. Louis had fall break at the same time we did, judging by the lack of crowds.  I've found, over the years, that some of our best family vacations have been quick little trips like this one that we manage to fit in during the workweek, rather than on a weekend.  It just makes such a huge difference in our level of enjoyment when we don't have to fight the crowds.

Guess which song I could not get out of my head during this trip?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Meet Me in St. Louis

I told you a little bit already about our recent trip to St. Louis, Missouri...and what I wore while we were there {sheepish grin}.  Everyone knows about the Gateway Arch, there, but since we saw that recently on one of our cross-country drives to Utah, we skipped it this time.  There were so many great options of what to do in St. Lou, we had to choose the things that we wanted to do the most, this time.  If I were to plan this trip knowing what I know now, I wouldn't have done the City Museum first.  The kids had so much fun there that everything afterwards was a let down--including the zoo, which has earned the rank of America's #1 Zoo--and about an hour into each successive day, they would ask if they could go back to the City Museum.

Since the City Museum was by far the highlight of our trip, and words just can't describe that place, here is the photo tour.  (Sorry about the big blue date, I too lazy to edit all of these photos.)

We'll begin with the museum's exterior.  This is what you see when you approach the entrance:

The City Museum was designed by artist/entrepreneur Bob Cassilly, who basically took an old, downtown shoe factory and transformed it into an amazing place for children and adults to play--using architectural salvage, old pieces of construction equipment, and junk.  Let me tell you, this place is wild.

We went up to the roof, first, and enjoyed the morning sunshine and the fact that we were the only people up there.

 Yes, they made that bus look like it is going to drive off of the 12 story building!
 Justone and Endeavor climbing up the inside of a water tower.

 Endeavor chickened out, but Justone kept climbing.....
....all the way to the top, where he could mess around in this cage thing suspended on the ceiling.
The view from the ferris wheel--which, incidentally, was the fastest spinning ferris wheel I've ever encountered.

Notice how I don't have many pictures of Justone?  It's because he was too busy having the time of his life to stop and pose for pictures.  This place was like a boy's dreamscape.
So, yes, this isn't exactly a place were they worry about law suits.  You pretty much participate at your own risk.  But I didn't find anything to be too extreme--we've definitely taken our kids to recreate in higher-risk locations (hello, Mt. Timpanogas).   This sign was at the top of a 10 story spiral slide.

The Bionic Man heroically tried the slide first.  And climbed all the way back up to tell the children how much fun it had been. 

At the bottom of the slides, you enter an absolutely amazing world of man-made caves and tunnels.  Unfortunately, the realistic lighting made it really hard to take pictures.  But trust me, the caves were awesome.  We spent hours exploring.
 Then, still inside the museum, we went on a train ride, visited the circus and an aquarium,
played in a skate park without skates,
 and climbed up into trees and down out of the belly of a whale.

 Then we went back outside for more fun and climbing and huge slides.

Honestly, this place defies description.  You just have to visit, someday.  And when you do, let us know so that we can meet you there!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Thrifty Outfits

Anyone out there remember me mentioning how I'd had a highly successful thrifty shopping trip?  I enjoyed wearing some of my finds while we were in St. Louis.  I feel kind of silly posting pictures of my outfits, because I make no claims to being a fashionista.  But I do love a good bargain, so I'm here to prove that you can find gooooood stuff if you just sort through all the really awful stuff at your local thrift shop and if you hit the clearance racks at the Bullseye Boutique.  Talk about cheap thrills!

Um, can I just provide the disclaimer that when I appear in a photo, it is because the Bionic Man has the camera and has given me no warning, so you see me as I really am.  I guess.  

Outfit #1(at the City Museum):
 brown cardigan: Ann Taylor Loft, bought on clearance last year
white v-neck tee: Banana Republic, thrifted for $2
jade green scarf: Mossimo, bought on clearance at Target for $2.49
belt: ?, thrifted for $1, has lots of fun colors including the green in my scarf
chinos: Banana Republic, thrifted for $3, hemmed by me

Outfit #2 (at the St. Lou zoo):
cashmere sweater (and the only part of the outfit you can really see):
J.Crew, thrifted, $2
white tee: Mossimo (Target), thrifted for $2 (looked brand new)
brown jeans: Coldwater Creek, thrifted for $3
cute purse which you can't even see: Mossimo (Target), thrifted for $2 (still had the $14.99 tags!)

Outfit #3 (at the science museum):
sweater: Daisy Fuentas (Kohl's?), thrifted, $3
layering tee: Downeast Basics, bought a couple years ago so I can't remember price!
jeans: Gap, thrifted for $4, hemmed by me
shoes: probably Target on clearance?  
My feet were so sore from all the walking around the two days before, they demanded flip-flops.
pedicure: OPI "Baguette Me Not", Bionic Man's treat after I ran the half-marathon!
brown leather purse (hard to see under my right arm): thrifted for $2 last year

And, yes, my hair is not blonde anymore.  Don't ask.  The point is, my outfits were under $10 each. 

I've only been willing to look in thrift stores for my clothes in the last year.  Here are a couple of things I've learned:
  • Goodwill stores located near malls generally have the best selection of clothing, and--in my experience--offer the most shoes and purses.
  • It takes time to thrift shop, since thrifting is like playing hide-n-seek.  You really do have to go through all the racks to find the best items.  I plan on 60-90 minutes per store to find a selection of things I want to try on, and another 30-60 minutes in the fitting room.  I don't go into the fitting room until I have a huge pile.  In the fitting room, I look at things very carefully.  For instance, the ultra-flattering pair of corduroy pants I found, that didn't even need to be hemmed...ended up being very worn through the inner thigh area, upon closer inspection.  I didn't buy those.
  • You'll have a better chance of finding items that are less worn (or new) or that are designer brand if you visit the thrift stores near wealthier areas.  I drove for 45 minutes to get to the north side of our city (considered the swanky side of town), but found some incredible stuff.  (Hello, J.Crew cashmere!)  Therefore, my savings definitely made it worth the drive. 
I'm linking this post to The Pleated Poppy's
What I Wore Wednesday.
Go here to read an explanation of what WIWW is all about.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Few Things I want to Share

1.  You know how I said I was completely swamped?  I'm still swamped.  The much needed TLC my house needs?  Haven't been able to give it yet, not even scratch the surface.  Why am I telling you this, instead of doing something about it?  Probably because misery loves company.  And I'm behind anyway.  And I'm very practiced in the art of procrastination.

2.  Just to confess and relieve my guilty conscious, despite everything I need to get done around my house, I managaed to find time yesterday to finish my book club book, North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell.  It's a book best read when the house is quiet (that Victorian dialogue requires undivided attention), but I loved it.  Mrs. Gaskell is a new favorite; I love her books even more than I love the BBC movie adaptations of her books.  If you don't have time for a difficult read, go find these adaptions:  North and South, Wives and Daughters, and Cranford.  (I found them for you, here.)  Watch them with tissues! 

3.  Somehow--don't ask me how, mostly it involves long stories you won't be interested in--I have myself scheduled to do the following over the next three days:  plan and host a cub scout pack meeting at my house, chaparone the fourth grade field trip, and single-handedly throw the first grade fall party. How and why I have myself signed up for all these things remains a mystery, even to me.

4.  Last week our schools had fall break.  The Bionic Man took time off from work, and we took the children on a surprise trip to St. Louis.  I packed in secret so they wouldn't suspect a thing, and the Bionic Man went into great detail about all the jobs he had for them to do during fall break.  They were thrilled to find themselves in St. Louis, instead.  Have you ever surprised your family this way?  I don't know if we'll ever get away with it again, but it was certainly fun to pull off.  I'll go into more detail on our trip another day, because there are great times to be had in St. Louis: it is a fantastically family-friendly city, with many free or low-cost activities.  Our children said that this place was better than Disney World. 

5.  Umm....did you catch that?  My children said something was better than Disney World?  That is the most incredible recommendation EVER, considering that we were sent to Disney World for Superkid's Make a Wish trip.  At Disney World, those children did not wait in a single line, got front row seating at every show, and special attention from everyone they encountered--from Tinkerbell to Buzz Lightyear.  If my children say something is more fun than Disney World, you'd better find out quick what it is.  In this case, it was also cheaper than Disney World.

6.  Remind me to tell you about our Make a Wish trip, sometime.  We are forever indebted to the Wish Foundation.  They really do know how to make wishes come true.

7.  And, while we are on the topic of good things.....Superkid did see a neurologist last week, and we definitely got some effective help, there.  The neurologist knew of a non-habit forming antihistamine that has proven to be really helpful for young children who suffer from migraines.  I'm so grateful!  We've had a week free of migraines since Superkid started taking it, despite all the migraine triggers that are par for the course with family vacations (motion of the car, late nights, change in diet, etc.).  That is HUGE!  I am thrilled.

8.  I made beef and vegetable soup last night, with whole wheat sourdough bread.  I even made a pumpkin-gingerbread pie for dessert.  I felt completely heroic, considering I also had bread rising on the countertop, had made all the phone calls I needed to, loaded the dishwasher, gone grocery shopping, survived a tornado (there is a trampoline on a garage roof just down the street), AND finished reading my book club book!  Apparently, I'm accomplished, but lacking in humility.  Lest you think me a paragon of domestic capability (that Victorian dialogue sucks me in every time) I shall inform you that there is a pile of unfolded laundry in my bedroom soon to be listed as the highest point of elevation in Indiana, and the pie was a mix I found at Aldi.

9.  I hereby promise to share my recipe for whole wheat sourdough bread with you very soon, because--guess what?--you can make it in your bread machine and you don't need to use a sourdough starter.  

10.  Superkid's official birthday was on Saturday.  She's 7 now.  Wow.  Today, while I was straightening up around the house, I found a little birthday card addressed to her.  It had been handmade by one of the children in her Sunday school class.  The outside of the card read, "Happy Birthday Superkid!" and was decorated with colorful balloons, party hats, and a cake.  Opening the card, I found a very detailed drawing inside: a hillside covered with flowers, and two stick figures.  It looked like there was a doorway into the hillside, with a big rock next to it.  The little artist who had drawn this picture had carefully labeled everything.  An arrow pointing to the flowers said "flowers".  An arrow pointing to the stick girl said, "Superkid".  Another arrow pointed to the stick man, "Jesus." And a fourth arrow identified the hill as "tombstone."  There were instructions: "Color it."  The very best part?  Next to the large letters that spelled "Happy Birthday Superkid" was the speech bubble coming from Jesus.  He was saying, "COME FORTH Superkid!"  Not to lesson the sweet, child-like faith of the little artist, but I had a good laugh over that one.  Isn't that the perfect birthday card?  Hallmark, take note!  Forget all the over the hill business, I say we go with, "You may be another year older, but you've got resurrection to look forward to.  Happy Birthday!"

11.  A friend stopped by with her little boy yesterday for a short visit.  Hunter the dog looked extremely disappointed when they departed.  I felt so sorry for him that, as our friends walked down the sidewalk, I lifted Hunter's paw up so that he could "wave" to them.  In the middle of helping my dog wave bye-bye, I realized that I was helping my dog wave bye-bye.  It's not like Hunter is some kind of little pomeranian....the dog weighs 50 lbs.....and I'm waving his paw?  It was a shocking moment.  I've become one of those people, apparently, who treats their dog more like a child than a dog.  Luckily, I don't know how to knit, so you don't have to worry about seeing me and the dog wearing matching sweaters. 

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go sew Hunter's Halloween costume. 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Aren't the fairies lucky?

This post was originally published in September 2009.
I love the pictures.  Enjoy! 

On Wednesday night, I discovered my girls playing in the front garden. Upon closer inspection, I found they were busy creating something.
Not just something. Something magical.

They told me it was a fairy spa.

As the seasons come and go,
Here's something you might like to know.
There are fairies everywhere:
Under bushes, in the air,
Playing games just like you play,
Singing through their busy day.
So listen, touch, and look around--
In their air and on the ground.
And if you watch all nature's things,
You might just see a fairy's wing.
- Author Unknown

One more picture. I had to put this one in because of the spider web. I didn't see it when I knelt down to take this picture. (I was holding the camera in between my porch railings to get this angle.) Isn't that funny? What if the spider had been home? Yikes!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mommy Eyes

This post was originally published 10.13.09
I didn't think I would ever forget something little S said to me a couple of years ago.  But I did!  I didn't literally forget it.....I just forgot the lesson I learned from it.  Something nudged it back from the recesses of my mind today, and I realized it is a lesson I need to re-learn and live.

Let me tell you the story.  A couple of years ago, I was finally back at home after L's first long hospital stay.  I was trying to catch up with everything.  Literally, everything.  Besides all the things that needed to be done around the house, and for the children, and all of the crazy medical procedures I was doing at home for L, I was still trying to keep up with a small home business.  I don't like to use the word "stupid, but I was really stupid when it came to running this business.  Business is just not my thing.  I'm not sure what possessed me to do it.  But I did, and I had to keep doing it.  And it meant I had to spend a lot of time on the computer doing marketing things, and custom designs, and placing orders for people.

But I digress.  The point is, I had finally made L comfortable and had sat down at the computer to do something.  S was bored, and wanted my attention, and I had absentmindedly directed her to paper and crayons so that I could keep doing what I was doing.  I had smiled and mumbled at the appropriate times when she came to show me her picture.  (Come on, be honest with me, you know exactly what I mean, right?  Please tell me I'm not the only mother out there who has done this.)

It was after this that S came back into the office, rested her curly head on the crook of my typing elbow, and looked up at me with those pretty blue eyes of hers. "Mommy," she asked politely, "When am I going to get my mommy eyes?"

That question got my attention.  "Impressive," I thought to myself.  "She's learned that she can't get away with anything, and thinks I have some kind of superhuman vision capabilities or an extra set of eyes that help me detect misbehavior--now she wants her own set!  I must be really on the ball."  But I played dumb.  "What kind of mommy eyes do you mean?" I replied.

"You know," S prompted me, "the kind of eyes you have.  The kind that let you see my picture and so you can tell me how pretty it is without even looking."  She smiled up at me warmly, genuinely interested in my response.


Is that what I'd been doing?  Mumbling about the pretty picture she'd drawn when I hadn't really looked at it?  Is that who I had become?  I never intended to be that woman.  I had a long list of thoughtful, introspective discussions I had planned to have with my children about their artwork long before I even had children!  Discussions like, "Wow, you used a lot of colors when you made this picture.  Tell me why you used purple over here."  Or here's another good one, "This picture must have a very interesting story to go with it.  Tell it to me."

I had gone on Mommy Auto Pilot.  Or Mommy Cruise Control.  Or I was faxing it in.  Or something.  Whatever it was, it wasn't right.  But Sariah was still looking up at me, waiting for an answer.  "You'll get those eyes, someday...." I said weakly.  "......someday after your second child is born.  That's when mommies usually get their mommy eyes."

I may be right about when we get them, but should we keep them?  I think mommy eyes are like wisdom teeth, which we don't keep: not very useful, and they can get in the way and cause big problems if you don't watch out.  Going along with that metaphor, I'd have to say that mommy eyes can be just as painful to get rid of as the wisdom teeth.  You know, you get used to them after a while.  You hardly even notice they are there.  They might even come in handy now and then.  But dependence upon mommy eyes really isn't healthy for anyone.

So what is the alternative?  I haven't put a lot of thought into what the opposite of mommy eyes should be called ("daddy eyes" doesn't seem to cut it), so let's just go with "Mother eyes."  Note the capital M.  I'm going to begin a list, right here, of what I think my Mother eyes are capable of.

1. Looking at the children's artwork/craft projects/smiley face homework/collections.  Not just glancing at them, but really looking.  Seeing the effort that has gone into the making, and appreciating that effort.  And being able to enjoy the fact that they want me to look.

2. Seeing beyond the tantrums/sassy responses/negative responses/grunts.  Stopping my own impatient reply to gain insight into what is causing the child to respond like that.  Taking the time to soothe and reassure.

3.  Looking at the messes and disorder and sixteen shoes scattered in various parts of the house, and appreciating the fact that it is a small price to pay for the love my children give me.

4.  Putting a positive spin on the parts of parenting that are difficult for me.  For instance, teaching J to get his work done in a timely fashion is not easy.  But my Mother eyes can help me think of the long term rewards and persevere.

5.  Reminding me that "this, too, shall pass"......and I'll miss it when it does.

My list could be longer, but that's enough to get me started.  What can can Mother eyes do for you?  I'd love to hear your ideas.

I'll end with two favorite pictures of me using my Mother eyes.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

October without Thrills

Be forewarned:  Blogger's image uploading is disabled for the next two hours, and I don't have time to wait around.  No pictures today!

So, an explanation.  I haven't posted this all.  Didn't post much last week, either.  I've been a little swamped.  I've had all kinds of doctor and dentist appointments to get everyone to in the last week, not to mention two parent teacher conferences I almost forgot, a couple school projects, food that had to be made for school and church activities, a surprise vacation to plan, and various other items of household business.

Also, did I mention I ran 13.1 miles on Saturday?  A half-marathon?  I did.  It was fun for the first ten miles, thinking about how when I was done I could say I'd just run half of a marathon, but by mile 11 I WAS SO OVER IT!  If there had been anyone nearby who looked like they could have helped me, I would have asked them to drive me home.  But I finished.  Some of the full marathoners finished before I did (which means I'm S-L-O-W), but instead of beating myself up about it, I'm enjoying the fact that I kept all my toenails, and the marathoners likely did not.

FYI....if you ever run in a half marathon, I recommend a pedicure afterwards, if you have all your toenails.  You and your feet deserve it!

Now, there are all kinds of things I'd love to the highly successful shopping expedition I had at Goodwill, the yummy caramel sauce I served with fresh apples the other night, and the funny thing Justone said to me recently.  BUT.....I'm swamped.  Really, truly, I am swamped and my house and children and spouse are in desperate need of some TLC.  So, I'm going to figure out how to re-post a few things I wrote a while ago for you to enjoy again or for the first time or to just ignore and hopefully you won't mind too much and I'll be back with new stuff in a week or so. 

In the meantime....guess what?  I finally got my 2010 medical bills up to date.  Such a relief.  I'm grateful for good insurance, but the paper trail we create is enormous, and it can be sooooo difficult to keep track of what the insurance has paid, what we are waiting for them to pay, and if what I'm being asked to pay is the correct percentage.  I feel like a superstar for getting caught up.  And for running 13.1 miles.  And for not having any cavities at my dentist appointment. 

What have you accomplished recently that made you feel like a superstar?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

More Bentos

Just to prove to you that bentos aren't one of my many passing phases (yet), AND that they really aren't that tricky to put together, I'm going to show you Endeavor's lunch.
Of my three bento packing children, Endeavor is probably the one who enjoys and appreciates the bentos the most.  She loves hearing her friends ooh and ahh over them at lunchtime.  Justone, on the other hand, tolerates them, and Superkid seems to be completely uninterested.  Despite their malaise, they bring their bento boxes home empty, which is the point, so I still feel successful.

Anyway, these pics are to prove that bentos needn't be complex.
All that went into this bento were a few leftovers and some typical lunch items that went to the bento side via some plastic picks.

Clockwise from the upper left:  mini cupcake (leftover from the teeny-tiny party we had this weekend), fresh peach chunks, skewers of pepper jack cheese (the only cheese Endeavor will eat cold), skewers of thin sliced roast turkey breast, wheat crackers (I put extras in a ziplock bag, as well), and small celery sticks.  Every food group represented, boo-yah!
I whipped today's bentos up  in less that five minutes.  Now I have to work on making sure everyone gets their bento boxes unpacked and into the dishwasher every day after school, so I'm not scrambling to get things washed up before I can pack them in the morning.

I love that since I featured my first bentos, one of my sisters and one of my sister-in-laws have become really excited about them, too.  See?  It's not just me.  SIL Kris left me this comment:
Cue Angels singing and light streaming from heaven as the Bento lunches are illuminated from above! I have really struggled with my kids taking lunches because they always bring them back home with barely a nibble consumed. I think this could very well be our answer. I need to do some Bento shopping!
I, in turn, told Kris that if she ever made a bento, it was her civic duty to post a picture of it.  After all, she is a nationally award winning photographer.  Well, Kris has not only done her civic duty, she did it very well.  You can see her bento here (a Yoda sandwich!).  I'm not going to let my kids see it, because their cousins' bentos are officially way cooler than theirs.  If you stop by Kris's blog, don't leave without checking out the amazing costume shoots she does with children and families.  All I'm saying is, these ain't your mamas Halloween snapshots.

If you are jumping on the bento bandwagon, too, make sure you send me pictures!  I'm especially interested in creative ways to bento without breaking the bank-o.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Teeny Tiny Celebration

We celebrated Superkid's 7th birthday yesterday at a party with her friends.  I was so happy with how it turned out; my early preparations turned into a delightful little event.  Want to see?

Our party theme was "teeny-tiny with a touch of fall."  You can view the invitations and the blogs that inspired the theme here.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Bento Lunch, Yet?

My children usually eat lunches that we pack at home.  While I'm fairly confident that our school lunch program tries to provide food that is healthier for the students than what they could get for the same price from McDonald's, it's still heavily processed food.  Not to mention, at an average price of $2.50/day per student, it would cost me about $150 each month to let my kids have school lunch every day.

I don't think so.

This year I have three children with widely varying tastes and appetites.  Superkid would eat PB&J for every meal, if I let her.  Justone would fill up on pudding and granola bars, if I let him.  And Endeavor is at the point where she has to learn to fill up her always empty stomach with things other than empty carbs.  I made a goal at the beginning of this school year to come up with lunches that would give them variety, healthy choices, be filling, and that they would be able to enjoy despite the tempting highly processed foods everyone around them eats at lunch time.

Easier said than done.  Until Kami of no biggie introduced me to the bento lunch.  I had never heard of bento.  I'm pretty sure no one else in my neighborhood has, either.  But the bento concept was an answer to my lunchtime prep prayers.  (Not to be dramatic, or anything.)  For those of you who--like me--are saying, "ben-whaaa?" right now, here's Wikipedia's description:

Bento (弁当 bentō) is a single-portion takeout or home-packed meal common in Japanese cuisine. A traditional bento consists of rice, fish or meat, and one or more pickled or cooked vegetables, usually in a box-shaped container. Containers range from disposable mass produced to hand crafted lacquerware. Although bento are readily available in many places throughout Japan, including convenience stores, bento shops (弁当屋 bentō-ya?), train stations, and department stores, it is still common for Japanese homemakers to spend time and energy for their spouse, child, or themselves producing a carefully prepared lunch box.
After visiting a few of the sites Kami recommended, I was hooked.  Bento lunches are just plain pretty.  I really felt like I could get both Superkid and Justone to eat more than 2 of 5 items placed in their lunches if they could see all their choices before them.  I was also pretty convinced that they would try more lunch options if those options were presented in a visually appealing way. 

Here are pictures from my first day of bentos:
 All the bentos, lined up in their snap-lock containers.
 Endeavor's bento:  baked whole-wheat crackers, thin-sliced roast beef, strawberries, tiny celery sticks, chocolate chips.
 Justone's bento: sliced strawberris, cubed colby-jack cheese, baked whole wheat crackers, chocolate chips, tiny celery sticks.
 Superkid's bento:  sliced strawberries, cubed colby-jack cheese, chocolate chips, 1/2 hotdog bun, tiny celery sticks.

After the first day, I was really pleased to hear the kids talk about how much they enjoyed lunch AND open their lunch boxes and find empty containers.  Success!  The kids did report that things "spilled" somewhat, so I tried to remedy that the next time around.  Here are some bentos from this week:
 Justone's bento: mini-mini carrots, tomato slices, pepperoni slices, baked whole-wheat crackers, shredded cheddar, marinara sauce.
Superkid's bento: mini-mini carrots, banana, pumkin-shaped swiss cheese on whole wheat sandwiches (2), popcorn

One really interesting benefit of the bento lunch at our house has been that the kids are getting really into the whole concept.  They are making suggestions of things that would fit into the bentos.  I don't have a picture of this one, but one day Endeavor was willing to try cold pizza for the first time at lunch, just because she could see that the mini slices I'd made would fit into her bento.  

It was relatively easy to assemble the non-food supplies for our bentos.
When I first read about bentos, I kind of anticipated buying a bunch of supplies to make this work.  But, when I looked around my house, I was able to find quite a few things I already had that would work.  
Snap-lock containers: I happened to find these at my local Aldi, in a nesting set of 10,
a week or so before I started bento-ing.  I bought a couple of sets for $7.99/each.
Plastic pics:  wooden toothpicks will work just fine, but I decided to get some plastic ones,
since I can wash and reuse them.  I found these in the picnic section of my grocery store
for about $2/box.
Cookie-cutters:  the hallmark of bentos seems to be shaped foods.  I could have spent 
money on fancy sandwich cutters, but I just used cutters I already had as a guide to cut
around the food I made with a knife.
Silicone baking cups: the one thing I decided I was willing to splurge on,
these are invaluable for their flexibility and reusability.  I got mine at JoAnn's,
in the cake decorating section, using my 50% off coupon.  A set of 12 is about $10. 

Are you wondering how much time this is taking me?  Surprisingly, not much more time than it was taking me to pack our former lunches of sandwich-veggies-chips-applesauce-pudding.  You might notice that each bento is slightly different, since I have a child that hates cheese, a child who hates crackers, and a child who will try just about anything once.  The extra time (about 5-10 minutes) required is mitigated by the fact that we're now buying and eating fewer processed foods, and that a lot of the prep I can do the night before.  Plus, I'm using up some leftovers!  And yes, I'm making sure that these bentos are packed with plenty of ice. 

Let me tell you, the extra time was worth it when Endeavor hopped in the car the other day after school and reported, "The girls at my lunch table couldn't stop talking about my lunch!  They said it was the prettiest food they'd ever seen.  One of the girls said it was like edible art.  They couldn't believe that my mom would make my lunch that way."  If packing her lunch like that helps my middle schooler feel special, that totally justifies the extra time and thought.
Here are some of the good bento resources I've been using for ideas.  And, thanks again to Kami for the original inspiration.

Let me know if you have any great lunch-packing ideas or resources, bento-style, or not!  By the way, Melissa at Another Lunch as the BEST recipe for homemade granola bars, here.  They were a hit with my entire family.