Bento, according to Wikipedia is a “single-portion takeout or home-packed meal common in Japanese cuisine.” Typically, they are dressed up meals, sometimes resembling anime (Japanese cartoon), animals or other cartoons. Many times it will include rice and/or seaweed; sometimes sushi.
Bento has since moved to other countries, including America, and has become a fun and artistic way of eating. We love bento in our house. The kids love to see how cool their food can look, and I love it because I can often get them to eat things they might not normally.
It’s wonderful for stretching food as well. I have three boys. Sometimes, while digging in the fridge for lunches or snacks, I come across 3 boiled eggs, an orange, and a collection of snacks. I can slice the orange into six wedges, and each boy gets two pieces. Only have one package of fruit snacks? You can split them evenly between the kids. Oh, whoops! Is there one fruit snack left? That’s for you, Momma!
There really is no limit to what you can put in a bento, as long as you consider how it will be eaten. Our bentos are typically eaten cold. I make them for learning trips. I make them when they’ll be at a church function where they need to bring their own lunch. If we’re headed out and they need a snack for the road, a bento fits the bill! And, of course, we make them just for fun to eat at the dining room table.
If you’ve ever heard of bento and decided to take a look around the web, you may have suffered a little sticker shock. The containers labeled specifically for bento are not cheap. I did a lot more research once I recovered from my own sticker shock and found that any basic flat(ish) container with a snug fitting lid will do (more on lids later). Here is a picture of a few containers that could be used for bento:
(Editors Note: Please note that while plastic may be the most cost effective option, it is not necessarily the safest option. For Bento boxes, the containers are not exposed to heat in any way, which minimizes the toxic effects of plastic. For safer use, purchase BPA-free plastic containers, hand-wash and air dry, and replace frequently. Tomorrow we will talk about alternatives to plastic in the kitchen).
Many Bento boxes you see on the web have special props and cute little flags with little notes for the recipient. You don’t have to specially buy these, be creative! You’ll see later that I used a toothpick and a post-it flag to tell my child that I’m thinking of him. He adored it. They’re young. They just want to see that special note in their lunchbox.Take a cheaper route and make heart shaped boiled eggs.
We like to use cupcake liners in our bentos to keep the food separated. Keeping food separated is wonderful for children with sensory issues. They are inexpensive. While we’re not huge on disposables, this is one area where we like that option.
The food can be as basic or intricate as you like, or as in my case, what you have time to do. We’ve done seaweed wrapped rice balls (onigiri). In times of hurry, a packed scoop of rice, drizzled with a little organic soy sauce or liquid aminos will do. Sprinkle it with toasted sesame seeds and call it done. Sushi is a wonderful addition if you have time and know-how.
However, I find that the most kid-friendly bentos are the ones made with cheese, fruit and hard boiled eggs. Many times our bentos will consist of items like cheese cubes, baby pickles, hard boiled eggs, carrot sticks, fruit, candies, nuts, etc. Slicing, dicing or wedging is good for larger fruit. Grapes and cherries cut in half for the little ones or left whole for the big kids are a quick option too. We’ve also been known to add a scoop of tuna or egg salad and some crackers.
When it comes to the food, the sky is the limit. If your children like cold fried chicken, nuggets are awesome. They work well and fit the Americanized concept of a bento.
For this post, I chose another well-known and widespread chain. It was earlier in the morning when I went shopping, so off to Walmart I went with the kids in tow. I chose a set of three Rubbermaid Takealongs with bright red lids. I also picked up a package of cupcake liners. They picked the plain white ones by vote.
These containers were pretty cool, because they’re divided into 2 sections already . We’re going to divide with liners anyway, but this gives the added option of keeping the dry stuff separated from the wet. It also helps if you have a large portion of something. You can place a whole piece of chicken or a sandwich in one part and use your liners in the other.
As you can see, the cost for this venture is great! The containers are reusable, made in the USA and BPA free, according to the label. The liners came 50 to a pack, so they’ll last a little while. I much prefer the cost of what I was able to acquire at any grocery or big box store over the much spendier options specialized for bento.
Keep a few things in mind when shopping for bento supplies, as well as the food you’ll be putting into them. If you have younger ones, they’ll need to be able to remove the lid easily. Depending on where they’re headed with their bentos, it might be a little while before they can get help opening their bento. Some children don’t like to ask for help, either, so it’s important they can take care of this on their own.
Keep their safety in mind. As I mentioned before, cutting grapes or cherries in half is better for the younger ones. Make sure if you have items that can spoil that they will be kept cold. If there will be no source of cooling, shelf stable foods are the way to go (raisins, nuts, crackers, etc).
Put things in that your child likes or will be receptive to trying. If you know your child will never even consider pickles, don’t add them. Bento can make them more willing to try new things, but we all know those few things our kids won’t touch. Ever.
I hope I’ve made bento more practical for you. Hopefully, I’ve also taken some of the “guesswork” out of it. It’s not difficult to do, and the kids will love it (I love it!). Don’t be intimidated by it!
You don’t have to spend a lot to have a great bento lunch, snack, or even dinner. Have fun with it. Make it enjoyable for the kids. Maybe you can get them to try new things with their new, dressed up meals!
Have you ever tried Bento for packing lunches? What are your kids favorite items in a Bento box?
**This post has been entered into Simple Lives Thursday #112.**