Thinking of jumping on the bento box lunch trend this school year?
Don’t be intimidated by awe-inspiring Pinterest images of Pokémon characters carefully crafted out of rice, oranges half-peeled to resemble octopuses, or other artfully arranged edibles.
If food art is your thing, by all means, go for it. If not, close your browser window and take another approach. Bento comes from a word that means convenient. And a summer of packing lunches for two newly minted kindergartners showed me that that’s exactly what bento can be.
First, a bit of background: According to “The Just Bento Cookbook,” a bento is simply a meal that’s packed in a box. Bento box lunches, which originated in Japan and have recently become popular in the U.S., don’t have to be cute. But they are designed to make it easy to pack a healthful, balanced meal with kid appeal.
You’ll find a wide variety of bento boxes for sale online. They’re hard-sided and have multiple compartments for food. Some — like the Bentgo Kids Lunch Boxes I purchased for my boys — feature leak-proof dividers, so you can even place dips, juicy fruits (like watermelon) and applesauce in the tray without worrying about spillover.
You’ll also want a soft-sided zipper-closure lunch bag to place the bento box in, and an ice pack to keep it cold, too.
Many bento boxes, including the ones we use, feature a large compartment for a sandwich, roll-up, pasta salad or other main dish; smaller compartments for fruits, veggies and other sides; and a very small area for dips or a sweet treat. Silicone baking cups can offer an easy, eco-friendly way to further divide up compartments.
The divided compartment approach has so many benefits. It’s eco-friendly. It makes my keep-all-my-foods-separated-please 5-year-old happy. And it means I need to keep track of and wash only one container instead of getting buried in a tangle of plastic lids and cups.
We kept bento lunches simple by following a few basic guidelines.
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First, I used in-season fruits and vegetables as much as possible. For summer, that meant lots of berries, sugar snap peas, and cherry tomatoes. As we move into fall and winter, we’ll shift to things like apples, citrus fruits and cauliflower.
Second, we relied on a combination of planned leftovers and lunchtime staples, such as hard-boiled eggs, deli meat and cheese. Sometimes the “planned leftovers” element was as simple as cutting extra strips of red pepper or carrot sticks during dinner prep and setting them aside for lunch-making later.
Finally, I tried to make the lunches colorful as much as possible. That helps ensure they’re packed with a variety of nutrients, but also makes the lunches look fun and appealing (despite the lack of traditional Bento extras).
But the best part about bentos for me? My kids finished their entire lunch nearly every day. That’s something that didn’t happen with traditional-style sack lunches I packed on the occasional field trip days during the school year. That makes bento boxes a packed-lunch win in my book.