When my own daughter started kindergarten 3 years ago, I knew I'd be making her lunches. What I didn't know was what I'd do after the routine sandwich/cookie/apple/drink got tiresome.
In browsing the web for ideas, I discovered bento lunches. Bento is a traditional Japanese style single-serving boxed lunch, noted for its presentation and compactness. Their appeal was instant--healthy, colourful, environmentally friendly, and, most importantly to my then-almost 5 year old daughter, cute! Google was my friend and I found many many wonderful sites and ideas for her lunches.
We tried out some sample lunches for day camp that summer and we were hooked. I sent her kindergarten bentos next, and soon heard from the other moms "my child wants her lunch to look like Faith's"! It was amazing how a little bit of presentation could persuade even picky eaters to want to try a bite!
Three years later, were still enjoying the world of bento lunches. I've found my own niche in how to prepare them and spend a lot of time sharing this with others. So, why Bento?
Bentos are typically served in reusable containers and help reduce lunch waste. There is little need for individual pre-packaged items when the entire lunch container comes back home; it makes buying in bulk more economical as it also eliminates the need for individual baggies. We use assorted containers, stainless steel water bottles, cloth napkins and reusable cutlery.
The initial investment has yielded us over 3 years of use for some of these items, and I cannot even fathom how much less garbage we generate. Estimates are that the average elementary school student generates 67lbs of trash per school year. Imagine how much that could be reduced by even using just a few reusable items.
Much of the appeal of bento is in the presentation, and an entirely brown/beige lunch just isn't visually pleasing. Bright colours are found in nature and add to the visual appeal. Think deep purple blackberries, pure orange carrots, bright red raspberries or lovely green celery sticks to brighten up a box and, by default, add a healthy element. Sliced boiled eggs are great for protein and bring a lovely soft yellow and pure white to the colour palette. Baby tomatoes, green and purple grapes, and strawberries all are great for helping hold food in place in a box and help add fruit and veggies to a meal. The logical choices for colour and style just happen to be healthy too!
The little containers just beg to be filled with simple items. As well, homemade foods are typically healthier than pre-packaged items and pre-packaged items just don't fit the whole bento mindset.
Bento lunches can be as simple or fancy as you want them to be. We typically make one cute item as the centerpiece of the lunch due to time constraints. Like any mom, I don't relish the idea of spending hours in the kitchen. I try to spend no more than 5-10 minutes extra on the bento elements of a lunch (on & above lunch making time, which has to happen anyhow).
There are tons of adorable boxes available--we have ones with Hello Kitty, Go Diego Go, and Elmo for the kids. Decorative items such as sauce bottles, food or cupcake picks, and cupcake wrappers to separate food add instant cute appeal without adding any time to lunch making.
There is an old saying that we partially eat with our eyes, attractive food makes a meal much more palatable. The best part about bento lunches is that there are no hard and fast rules. To begin, all you need is a simple, reusable container, some food and your own creativity. Where it ends is completely up to you.