I’ve read that there’s a lot of pressure on Japanese mothers to make kawaii (cute) bento lunches for their kids. I’m sure you’ve seen photos of some of the more elaborate creations.
As grandma of a 3 ½-year old preschooler, I’ve started to make my granddaughter a bento lunch every Friday. Her mom stops by to pick it up on the way to school.
I’m not in it for the glory.
Little Miss T, a delight in every other way, is a picky eater and prefers to play at lunchtime rather than sit down to eat. Her lunchbox, packed with a sizable quantity of food, returns home daily with most of it untouched.
So, I thought if I could find a cute little lunchbox and make her a cute little lunch, packed with just a little bit of cute little food, she might be enticed to eat it.
With this idea in mind, I purchased a Rilakkuma lunchbox (she doesn’t know the Japanese bear character but it was in her favorite color, pink) and a few bento-making accoutrements when we were vacationing in Japan in November. Here’s what I found:
- A set of colorful, fluted silicone flower cups
- A punch to cut out facial features from nori (dried seaweed sheets)
- Plastic leaf dividers
- Picks with funny eyes to turn any food into a face
- A few vegetable cutters
- A Rilakkuma bear sandwich cutter
My first effort is pictured above. The menu: soy-sauce-seasoned omelet rolled in nori, carrots in the shape of maple leaves, half a boiled egg cut free-hand to look like a flower, two little onigiri (rice wrapped with nori and topped with the Japanese rice seasoning, furikake), and two slices of Granny Smith apple.
The lunchbox came back empty and Little Miss T was named the best eater of her class that day!
The second Friday, I made her a ham and cheese sandwich cut in the shape of the Rilakkuma bear, with cherry tomatoes, edamame and a few strawberries. Another hit!
Motivated by the results of my first attempts and now pressured to keep my winning streak going, I turned to an expert for advice. Sheri Chen has been blogging about kids’ bento since 2009. Her blog, Happy Little Bento, is delightful, showcasing beautiful and creative bento ideas. She has been featured in The New York Times, the New Yorker and other national media.
Sheri and I have been social media friends on Twitter and Instagram, and while she lives in the Bay Area, we have never met. So, I was delighted when she consented to a phone conversation to share some bento-making tips.
A former research scientist, Sheri turned stay-at-home mom when the first of her two children was born. She can trace her first bento efforts to the days when she’d cook and purée meals for her baby. Instead of putting each food item in a separate container, she used a little partitioned dish, with each food in its own section.
For Sheri, making bento lunches for her kids is a labor of love. “It’s about building a relationship between me and my kids by the message I’m giving them through their lunch,” she says. “They see how important it is for me to do this every day. I make time to do it. They understand that their meal is my expression of my love for them.”
Lunch is more than about nourishment and sustenance, in Sheri’s view. “It’s also something that makes them happy. When they open their bento, they think of me, thinking of them. It’s one way I can interact with them, even when they’re not at home.”
While making extraordinary lunches as Sheri does many seem daunting, she reassures me that a bento lunch doesn’t have to be time-consuming or difficult if you rely on a few strategies like using leftovers from the previous night’s dinner, adding fun picks, and employing vegetable cutters to transform ordinary fruits or vegetables into appealing shapes.
The Bento Container
- Go for a smaller size than you think you need, Sheri advises. A bento box is meant to be packed completely full so the contents won’t shift and decorations will stay put. A loosely packed lunchbox can turn into a mess, negating your precious work. For adult meals, a smaller box ensures portion control—you tend to eat more if you pack more.
- Make sure your bento container latches securely and that it is leakproof and watertight. Even if you’re not putting liquids such as soup in the container, dressings or sauces can seep out. Sheri likes stainless steel containers. They are not reactive with food, don’t stain like plastic and they last forever.
- For a very young child and a picky eater, like my preschooler, the 350 ml size is perfect, Sheri says. You don’t want to overwhelm your child with large quantities of food. With the smaller-size container, the child sees the diminutive size as approachable. You can find the capacity of your bento box imprinted on the bottom. (I checked on mine and indeed, it was 350 ml.)
- Vegetable cutters and cookie cutters can turn fruits and vegetables or sandwiches into works of art. It takes no time to cut out a leaf, heart or star from a carrot or a sweet potato. There are even cutters that are puzzle pieces that your child can assemble.
- Punches (they look like craft punches) are designed to cut shapes from nori. A punch that makes facial features, such as eyes, noses and mouths, can be used to turn a hard-boiled egg or a sandwich into a funny face.
- Ichiban Kan and Daiso in San Francisco’s Japantown are good sources for bento supplies, Sheri says. Online, she suggests Bento and Co. (“I love browsing Bento and Co. because they carry bento stock from cute kids’ stuff to good-quality items.”) and J-List (“The bento and kitchen section is quite good but be careful because the site has an over-18 section.”)
- An assortment of picks are the simplest way to dress up your bento. These plastic picks might have a leaf attached at the end, or eyes, for example. You can poke them into a cherry tomato, strawberries or chunks of vegetables to create faces or add decorative touches, effortlessly.
- For a picky eater, Sheri says that you should avoid giving them a lot of any one thing. If the child sees a whole pile of carrots, it seems insurmountable and discouraging. She suggests you try one carrot, one peapod, a small pinch of sprouts, one meatball, and so forth. After the child grazes on each of the small portions, she will have eaten a full, balanced meal.
- Make everything round, Sheri suggests. She uses a melon baller to make balls of fruits and vegetables. If you make them round and add fun picks, the child can pick up the food by the picks. For produce that isn’t soft enough, like carrots or squash, steam them first to soften, then scoop out the balls. You can thread a few balls on a skewer to make a mini kabob.
- Pack the bento box with an array of different things–and add a dip. Hummus, garlicky bean dip, cheese dip—food is more fun when it’s interactive and dips add a boost of flavor.
- Always pack one food item that’s a sure thing on your child’s favorites list; then you can sneak in a few other foods.
Some Lunchbox Ideas
- Crispy garbanzos—drain and roast garbanzos until crisp and season. Some seasoning choices include furikake, curry, chile, cumin, garlic or parsley—experiment with different flavors.
- Hard-boiled eggs—regular hens’ eggs and little quail eggs—are good standbys. Sheri has turned the two sizes of eggs into a mama hen and baby chick in a previous bento.
- Cold somen or soba noodles are quick-cooking; surround with shredded vegetables and pack sauce in a separate container.
- Hot dog rice rolls can be made by spreading rice on a sheet of nori; add a hot dog and roll up; cut into 1-inch cylinders. You can do this with other protein sources for the filling.
- Vegetable salads provide infinite variety, depending on your choice of ingredients—buy a little sauce container for the dressing.
Where I had been befuddled about what other bento lunches to make, now I’m fired up with ideas and ready for next Friday. Whether you have a child who takes lunch to school or are only in need of ideas for your own brown bag lunch, I hope you’re inspired to join the bento bandwagon!
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