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.


  1. 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! Thank you thank you for posting this with the links. PS - what is the little round container that you used for the marinara?

  2. All I can say is wow...Those pack lunches do really look delicious. I like how the veggies are pack in the container. They looked cute. But if you want, you may also try something different, something stainless and eco-friendly. Stainless steel tiffin container can stack up to 4 different snacks in one single carrier. You can also add note to the container, can stack any liquids such as water, juices, soups, and liquors. No worries, coz, it has side lock that can prevent the food to leak. Try it.