It’s All in the Bento Box: Fun Lunch Ideas for Kids
My mom always made sure to introduce new, healthy foods to my sister and me when we were little, which is how we learned that strange-looking foods like starfruit, pomegranates, and artichokes are delicious. She made trying new things and eating healthy things fun.
I want to instill healthy eating habits in my kids while they're young so that they don't grow up shunning food that is good for them. So lately, I've been revisiting Japanese eating habits—the ones I learned when I was little from observing my Japanese family members. Their plates always contained a perfectly balanced meal of fish, rice, and a ton of vegetables, and their snacks were sheets of seaweed and tofu.
I always looked forward to seeing what there was to eat at family parties because Japanese food is gorgeous, and our food table was always filled with pretty grub. I couldn't tell you what most of it was—I learned that sometimes it was better not to know, because if you're really enjoying a bowl of fish eyes, do you really want to know that they are actually fish eyes?
I learned not to ask what I was eating the day my auntie said, “Ah, you rike dis, Meranie. Oishi. Must try.” So I did. I took a lovely piece of oishi something from her chopsticks and started to chew right when she said, “Paste. From shark. Anata ga sore o sukidesuka? Do you rike?” And then I said, “Uhhh …” and then she laughed as she exclaimed, “Gaijin!” while standing on her toes to pat my head. Know what? My 10-year-old self may have given it another chew, and maybe even liked it, if I had remained unaware of what it was.
That was a bit of a tangent, I know, and I'm sorry, but it helps explain a point. When my kids ask me what they are eating, I usually don't tell them until they've eaten it and have given it a thumbs up, down, or middle. That way, they can't refuse to try it just because something sounds or looks gross, like boiled octopus. Just kidding. I will probably let that one pass because even I can't stomach that. (We had an octopus instead of a turkey for Thanksgiving once; a big, whole, limp, grayish-purple octopus on a platter, rubbery tentacles and all. Couldn't eat it then, can't eat it now.)
Anyway, like I said before, I'm trying to help my kids remain healthy little eaters. I want them to choose to do it on their own so that when they're grown and in college, they won't eat like crap every day (like their mom did; it was awful), and I'm going to attempt to do this with a little help from a few bentos.
Take a look at these bentos. Aren't they fun?
Bento, in Japanese, means boxed lunch. Makiko Itoh, author of The Just Bento Cookbook, says bentos should be “tasty, nutritious, and filling.” If you pack them right, they are all of those things and more. Bentos are magical.
Let's learn how to make one, shall we?
I love this little bento. It shows the perfect starch, protein, and vegetable ratio, how mixing textures and flavors make it palatable, and how adding simple details makes the entire lunch seem magical. Just look at this adorable meal.
It would seem as if a bento box couldn't hold enough food to fill a hungry belly, but these boxes are meant to be packed full enough so that the contents don't shift around. And also, they make size-appropriate boxes so a child's bento can contain an appropriate amount of food for his or her caloric needs.
Because they are designed to hold just the right amount of food, bentos are fairly inexpensive to pack. You can fill it with dinner from the night before, like this one with small slices of left-over pizza.
Or this one with a few chicken wings and veggie sticks.
Sometimes when I'm looking for bento inspiration, I get a little overwhelmed because some of them look like they require an incredible amount of artistic talent and time. I don't have much of either.
Simple bentos can be made just as appealing by using fun accessories.
Little vegetable cutters, sandwich presses, tiny sauce containers, and food picks can fancy up even the simplest bento meal, just like this one.
You can find all of the fun little bento tools, featured above, right here.
Are you ready to start creating fun little bentos?
Rice balls are fun to put in lunches because you can do so many things with them—stuff them, add a bit of coloring or cut-out veggies to make fun little faces, or you can press them into molds to make different shapes.
Another great money-saving item to put in a lunch is a meatball, or two. Arrange them in a fun design like a caterpillar, or add a circle of cucumber and a bit of olive to make silly googly eyes, or separate them with fun little dividers.
One last food idea to share with you before I leave you to your creative bento plans. The Pioneer Woman shows here, how to make a really good bacon, tomato, and cheese pasta in a special sauce suits a bento just fine. Pack it along side colorful fruits and veggies.
Happy bento making! Don't forget to share your ideas in the comments.