Tonawanda News

November 7, 2012

Bento boxes help keep lunches fun, healthy

By Danielle Haynes
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — We’re about a quarter of the way through the school year and if you pack your kids’ school lunches, you might be looking for a little inspiration to keep things interesting. Or perhaps you’re starting to realize how costly it can be to buy your noon-time meals every day from the fast-food joint near your office.

Whatever your reasoning, you might want to consider one of the latest rages in lunch-making: bento boxes.

These Japanese-inspired lunch cases come in a variety of shapes and sizes with an even larger assortment of accessories and compartments, making them one of the most versatile ways to keep lunch interesting, healthy, inexpensive and just plain fun.

We spoke with a couple of bento bloggers about their favorite way to bento (yes, it’s a verb in the bento world), what works, what doesn’t and where to find the best tools.

The boxes

When it comes to the actual hardware, the possibilities are endless. Bento boxes can be small, with a single compartment, or larger with stackable tiers or multiple compartments. They can be plain, they can have Hello Kitty decals, or they can be more traditional. 

Sheri Chen, author of Happy Little Bento blog — www.happy

littlebento.blogspot.com — said if you’re looking to bento your kids’ lunches, she’d start with a small box that can hold about 350 to 55 mililiters. 

“It may look small, but you’d be surprised at how much you can fit into this space when you plan wisely. A well-packed (snug) box also has the benefit of keeping the food from shifting around and mixing together,” she wrote in an email to the News.

Both she and Crystal Watanabe of Adventures in Bentomaking — www.aibento.com — suggested using cupcake cups to separate foods in a box that doesn’t already have compartments. Watanabe likes disposable paper cupcake cups for ease of cleaning, while Chen is a fan of the reusable silicone ones.  

“I use them for corn, berries, edamame, even pickles,” Chen said. 

Watanabe said a good online source to find the bento box that best suits your needs can be found at www.allthingsforsale.com, though she cautions against getting too carried away if you’re new to the hobby. She owns at least 200 bento boxes, after all.

“Everytime something new comes in the mail (my husband) says ‘oh no, another one,’ “ she said with a laugh. “When you first start you see all these things and you want to buy everything and it can get a little out of control.”

She suggested buying just a couple bentos to begin with and swap them out every other day. You can get more if you see the need for more variety or prefer a different sort of box. When it comes to accessories, Watanable advocates using what you already have in the kitchen.

“If your child just likes sandwiches, there’s a lot you can do with cookie cutters. You don’t have to go out and buy things, you can just use what you have on hand,” she said.

The food

When it comes to using bento boxes, anything goes. 

The containers are traditionally Japanese, so many people may associate sushi or other Asian foods, but anything from bits of fruits and veggies, to sandwiches to leftovers from last night’s dinner can work.

Watanabe said using bentos for work lunches was a great way to make last night’s dinner more exciting for her the next day.

“It makes your lunch time a lot more interesting. I like to put a small portion of entree and some starch and vegetables and fruit. Fruit makes a good dessert for lunch. Instead of just eating something out of Tupperware, it’s a lot more exciting ... a nice variety,” she said.

Her interest in bento boxes started as a way to lose weight, but avoid getting bored with healthy foods while at the same time focusing on portion control. Watanabe lost 20 pounds in the first two months of bento making.

“They’re smaller than most people expect,” she said with a laugh.

Chen added it’s a great way to get the kids to try new foods, or foods they perhaps didn’t like before.

“In a bento, it’s possible to offer a single new vegetable or other food where it won’t be as offensive as it might in a larger bunch. For example, I can nestle a small piece of beet next to some carrots or broccoli and my kids might be more willing to pop it into their mouths since it’s just one piece. Or, one or two peapods stuck into the gaps between the main protein are more likely to be eaten than if they were piled together,” she said.

“Who wants to eat a Ziploc baggie of baby carrots? Boring. But carve a few into flower shapes, and they’re suddenly a lot more fun and easier to get down.”

Getting creative

Using bento is a great way to be a little creative with your or your kids’ meals.

A search of bento images online will show people a variety of ideas, from creating cartoon character faces and scenes, to simple, yet beautiful flowers made out of carrots or other vegetables. 

Watanabe said her favorite item to use in a bento box is rice balls.

“You can put a face on it and it suddenly looks cute,” she said.

Chen said she doesn’t always have time to be really cutesy with her bentos, but will make exceptions for certain holidays or if her kids have specific requests.

“Usually they’ll be characters from a movie or cartoon that my kids want. I like to make Hello Kitty because my daughter loves her, and Totoro and other Japanese film or TV characters,” she said. “Sometimes I take a cue from the food itself. I like to make eggs into creatures like bunnies or bears. A radish can become a mushroom and a cherry tomato can become a ladybug. A round sandwich thin is just begging to have a face of some kind. A sprig of broccoli becomes a tree with a food pick shaped like a trunk. But usually, my emphasis is on bright, colorful and varied food items. I find that if everything looks fresh and appetizing, it’s like a beautiful meal that they look forward to eating.”

Searching postings on Chen’s and Watanabe’s blogs might be a good source of inspiration.

“Most children will be tickled to see their lunch smiling back at them,” Chen added.

Maybe even us adults out there might get a good chuckle as well.

ON THE WEB • Happy Little Bento -- www.happylittlebento.blogspot.com • Adventures in Bentomaking -- www.aibento.com • Bento supplies -- www.allthingsforsale.com

Contact features editor Danielle Haynes at 693-1000, ext. 4116.