Assembling my own children’s lunches was always a pleasurable activity for me. I too, tried hard to turn their meal away from home into a loving and meaningful experience, even if it meant going to bed a little bit later each night or waking up just a tad earlier each morning. One thing was for certain—their lunch boxes were always ready on time and were always filled with interesting and fun goodies for them to enjoy.
In Japan, homemade, packed lunches are known as Bento boxes. Traditionally, these always contain a portion of cooked rice, a vegetable (steamed or raw), a piece of fruit, and a little bit of protein in the form of fish, eggs or meat. These meals are served in boxed containers that have divided sections, to separate each lunch item from the next.
Today, you can purchase all sorts of portable boxes to send lunches packed in this style. Some are made of plastic, others are made with pretty lacquered wood, yet others are comprised of stackable metal boxes with clips that hold them together. However, and even though you may not find traditional Bento box containers where you live, you can still replicate the idea with a little bit of imagination. For instance, I use individual boxes and place them side by side in a traditional lunch box, or I divide a large plastic container—or the lunchbox itself—by wrapping cardboard dividers with aluminum foil and placing them whimsically inside. Just make sure that your box has a tight-fitting lid to secure its contents, in order to ensure that they don’t land all over the place during a bumpy bus ride or a happy skip down the hallways.
Read Related: Back-to-School: Healthy Whole Grains for the Lunchbox
Lunches that follow the premise of Bento boxes can be fun to make, particularly when it comes to children’s meals. Many of the food items can be cut into shapes, including sandwiches, vegetables, fruits, and cheese. Use cookie cutters to transform them into stars, animals, or flowers. If you choose to include a rice portion, use short grain rice that holds together after it’s cooked, and shape that into shapes that can be decorated with edible garnishes. Transform them into cute little faces or sports balls by using cut-up vegetables, olives, seeds, or nuts. Imitation crab meat, ham, rotisserie chicken or cooked pork, can be cut into batons or cubes and provide a source of protein. Tuna or egg salad can be shaped into scoops and tortilla wraps can be sliced into pretty pinwheels.
The next time that you plan your child’s school lunch, don’t think out of the box. Instead, make a Bento boxed lunch—the kind that will make your child’s eyes open in wonder and their tummies feel very happy.
Author’s Note: Keeping food at the optimum temperature is important in order to prevent food-borne illnesses. For this reason, I recommend that you place a frozen pack into your child’s lunchbox and if possible, use insulated lunchboxes that keep foods cold longer.
This is the perfect way to introduce kids to the concept of sushi and a great addition to a Bento box. Serve this with sliced oranges, and carrot cut-outs. Its presentation is simple but colorful. This rice is easy to shape into any form you wish to give it, once it reaches room temperature. Very small kids may want to keep all of the ingredients separate; in this case, place mounds of plain rice, imitation crab sticks, and sliced cucumbers separately in the lunch box.
MINI SUSHI BALLS Makes: 4-5 servings
Ingredients 1 cup sushi rice 1¼ cups cold water ¼ cup seasoned rice vinegar 2 TSP sugar 1 TSP salt 1¼ cups finely cubed imitation crab meat (surimi) or ham ¾ cup finely minced English cucumber (seeded) Low-sodium soy sauce