If you are a parent, you may have rejoiced when summer break started because you no longer had to pack your kids a lunch every day—until you realized that these little people still needed to eat and the brown paper bag lunch wasn’t cutting it. Or maybe you panicked because your children buy a school lunch, and suddenly you are responsible for coming up with healthy lunches. Heck, maybe you don’t even have children but you are tired of the same ol’ same ol’ for your lunches. Well I am here to change your world! OK, probably not, but here is a fun new way to look at healthy lunches for kids or adults!
When we moved to Japan almost two years ago, I noticed the “bento” phenomenon. What is bento? Roughly translated to English, bento simply means boxed lunch. But these aren’t just plain ol’ boxed lunches! No, no, no. They are these adorably jam-packed HEALTHY lunches for both kids and adults. The children’s lunches are elaborately filled with animals, flowers and fun faces all made from food! I was immediately smitten with these tiny food creations! Adult bento lunches are elaborate but are rarely “cute.” You can enjoy one at a restaurant, and there are even to go versions available all over Japan at grocery stores and shops.
After seeing examples of “real life” bento box lunches (translation: I could actually make these!) on the Internet, I was hooked and knew that this was something I had to do! You don’t have to prepare Asian cuisine in order to design a bento lunch. You can literally use any food you want. The key is to remember that bento is a fun way to present food, so that your picky kiddos (and you!) are enticed to eat everything!
You first step in designing bento will be to obtain a bento box and any supplies. You can purchase an authentic bento box at a Japanese store or online. However, be warned that Japanese bento boxes are MUCH smaller than American lunchbox standards. This can be great if you are watching your waistline. Even though Japanese bento boxes can hold more food than you think, you might be better off purchasing a larger size bento box. Also, a square or rectangle reusable plastic container can work just as well! No need to get a divided container because you can get creative with non-permanent dividers like food and plastic grass dividers. Check out “onigiri forms” on the Internet to make decorative rice balls. Also look into reusable silicone cups to help keep food separated. Another good idea is to get reusable “dip” containers. It is also very popular in Japan to have plastic pokes of little animals to place in “boring” food items. Seriously, who can resist a grape tomato with a cute little tiger poke sticking out of it?
The important things to remember are portion size, variety and color. In traditional bento, a starch takes up the majority of the bento. Usually this is rice, but for an American style bento, a sandwich or main entrée could be interchanged easily. Remember to make your bento as colorful as possible. Just like they say in a nutrition class to “eat the rainbow,” make sure your bento has a variety of colors. This will help make it more appealing to the eye (plus you will be eating more fruits and veggies!). I have seen color themed bentos, and they are adorable and nutritionally sound. However, I wouldn’t make a habit of having only a one color themed bento! Also make sure to balance the flavors of the bento. Think something salty, something savory and something sweet. Same with textures!
No matter what, just have fun with it! Creating sophisticated bento boxes (like all the ones you will find on the Internet) takes practice! For me, just spending that few extra minutes making my leftovers or plain sandwich look artisan is enough to inspire me to actually eat my meal instead of opting for takeout! And what kid doesn’t like eating food that is in the shape of stars, hearts, animals, or that has happy faces on it!?
Food Ideas for bento include:
- Sandwich sushi (peanut butter and jelly or your favorite sandwich rolled up and cut like a sushi roll)
- Rice balls (or onigiri)
- Veggie kabobs
- Decorative fruit arrangements (like scooped melon balls or fruit arranged to look like a rainbow)
- Pita pizza
- Mini bite-sized sandwiches
- Ants on a log (celery with peanut butter and raisins)
- Mini cookies (enough to satisfy the sweet tooth without too many calories)
- Hummus and veggies
- Cheese cut out with cookie cutters
- Pinwheels (tortillas filled with favorite sandwich ingredients rolled up and sliced)
- Any bite-sized vegetable or fruit
- Leftover dinner “bento-ed”