15 Back to School!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Here in the United States it's the most wonderful time of the year (at least for parents) - back to school time!  If you're new to packing lunches, or just new to bento making, I've put together this post especially for you.  Warning:  It's wordy.

As I've mentioned a few times, I'm by no means a bento "expert", and you don't need to be either.  In perfect honesty, I look at some amazingly detailed bentos on other sites and feel completely intimidated!  I feel like my brand of bento is simple and accessible for the average lunch-packing mom or dad.  The main reason for packing lunches like I do is to make sure my young one has healthy, wholesome food to eat that is interesting and attractive.  Isn't there a saying that you eat first with your eyes?  I think that's especially true for kids.

Q. What's your philosophy?
  • If you make it look interesting, they are more likely to eat it (or at least give it a try.)
  • Keep offering.  Don't just offer something a couple times.  I must have offered E egg yolks 20 times before she finally decided she liked them.
  • Don't be shy - talk it up!  I totally admit to brainwashing. "Oh my goodness, look E!  These Brussels sprouts are SO delicious!  They are so good for you, they are good for your tummy, make you smarter and have X-ray vision!" (Okay, maybe the X-ray vision is a little over the top....)
  • If they're hungry, they're more likely to eat it.  That's why I think school lunches are a good time for them to try new things.  Not many other options.
  • Be a good example.  All of you.  Make sure you all get the same things on your plate, and even if you hate broccoli, make a good effort to at least try it.  Truth be told, I've been encouraging my veggie-hating husband right alongside our daughter, and he admittedly eats more of them now than he ever has.
  • When possible, have your kids help you make food ahead of time, and give them a couple choices - carrots or snap peas?  Gyoza or hard boiled eggs?  Should we add broccoli to the mini quiche or spinach?
  • I really watch sugar consumption.  It's rare for me to add a sugary dessert, (cookies are usually as good as it gets!) so fresh fruit is the natural healthy sugar treat.  It's actually the way my mom raised us, and it works really well in our house too.  As a side note, I don't believe fat is bad, so I don't buy reduced-fat items (it's usually filled with undesirable stuff to make up for the lack of fat.)
  • Read labels.  
Q. What IS a bento?
A. A bento is simply a meal in a divided, compartmentalized box, and it hails from Japan. These days bentos are getting popular for kids and adults alike as a way to decorate or shape food into pleasing characters or add fun items to the food to help get kids interested in what they're eating. The food doesn't have to be Japanese, though it certainly lends to the authenticity, and palate-broadening power of the bento!

Q.  What do you normally include in your bento boxes?
1 protein
1-2 fresh veggies
1 fresh fruit or dried fruit for dessert
an occasional carby-item like crackers if the main protein doesn't also have carbs (i.e. chicken and rice)
water to drink in a reusable aluminum bottle

Okay, enough preaching.  Onto the fun stuff!

Q. Where do you get your bento supplies online?
A. While bento making is getting more and more popular, it's still somewhat difficult to find supplies in most areas.  That's why I buy the small items like picks, sauce bottles, forks, and fancier bento boxes online.  Try some of these sites:

Q. Where do you get your bento supplies locally?
A. The only items I can consistently find locally are silicone baking cups, cookie cutters, and simple bento boxes.  But, use your imagination while shopping - it doesn't have to say "bento" or even "lunch".  I've found cool drink stirrers can be used as food picks.  Pretty cupcake papers can do double duty.  I also really like brands like Snapware and Lock & Lock which you can find just about anywhere these days, even in your local grocery store.  They aren't as cute, but they are very functional.  Wilton silicone cups are also pretty much found anywhere.  Try peeking in the following stores for bento items.

Bed Bath & Beyond
Disney Store
World Market
Sur La Table
H Mart
The Dollar Tree
If you live on the West Coast you can visit Daiso
Sanrio reseller stores (many different names, mostly the same Sanrio-branded items)

To get some ideas of accessories, check out my bento accessory organizer

A note on bento boxes - when shopping, be really aware of your kid's manual dexterity level.  I've learned the hard way and bought bento boxes, while super adorable, are totally impossible for my pre-schooler to either open, or more commonly, reassemble and close securely.  It makes for a very messy lunch box upon return home.  Simple snap-sides are best for little ones.  Save the stackable boxes which require precise reassembly for older kids.  I also like boxes that have belts to hold tops and bottoms together.

Q.  How in the world do you find time?
A. Well, I can tell you for a certainty I'm not getting up at 6am to do these.  I usually make all the cold bento components the night before and refrigerate.  If something needs to be room-temp like grilled cheese, sometimes I'll do it the morning of.  My daughter isn't temperature-sensitive when it comes to food, so I'm fortunate in that way.  Also, by the time lunch rolls around, most everything in the box has become closer to room temp.

Q.  What about cooler packs, and food safety?  Think of the children!
A. I used to worry about this a lot.  I would stick an ice pack in her insulated lunch box, and by the time she got home around 4, anything leftover in her box would still be very cold.  That's great, but I think it was too cold at lunch time.  Her lunch box insulation is really good.  What I do now is refrigerate her aluminum bottle of water which sits in the space on top of her lunch, and that helps keep things cool until lunchtime, but not too cold.  By the time she comes home any leftover food is still slightly cool, so I'm not worried.  I'm no food safety expert, but she hasn't ever gotten sick, and frankly, I think back to my own school lunch days, and we never packed ice packs, did we?  I had many a turkey sandwich that sat in a plain paper bag until lunch time, and I'm still here, right?!  Anyway, use your best judgement for your own particular child.

Q.  I'm always stumped for ideas - got any for me?
A. Last year I put together this spreadsheet of lunch ideas, and I add to it occasionally.  

If you have questions, please post in the comments section and I will respond there.  Enjoy!
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Kelly Polizzi said...

I love helpful posts like this! I'm still kind of new to bento-ing and I'm finding it so much fun. It's just as much for me these days as for my daughter lol. Thank you for the links! Just love your blog.

lequan@luvtoeat said...

Thank you for all these excellent tips and the wonderful spreadsheet Emily! I absolutely loved this post. My daughter is starting playshool this year and even though they don't bring lunch for playschool, I think it would be a great idea to start packing her lunch so when she does actually need a lunch for school she's (and I) already into the habit. Thank you again for this awesome blog!

Anonymous said...

Great tips, tricks, and ideas! I saw your bento organizer too- very cool! I use one of those boxes for my earrings- it doesn't have the neat bottom compartment, though! Thanks again for sharing!

slushygirl said...

I love the menu planner you created! And I just love the creativity you show in your bentos. So cute! So do you have small containers for preserves/condiments. I see the little bottles for sauces. Do you ever use the little packets?

Emily @ Bentobloggy.com said...

Slushy - I don't usually use packets (at least not at this point) because they would require a teacher's help to open I'd imagine. However, I found these awesome large-ish silicone squeeze bottles for stuff like ranch dressing at REI of all places. They are called GOTOOB Humangear and they work really well! They are marketed for camping to hold shampoos and stuff, but they are food safe and BPA-free.

WEFA said...

Love Love Love with out a doubt your spread sheet!
Now I just have to figure out how to get my fiance to eat his veggies.... His mother spoiled her 3 boys too much, when we lived with them for a year I had to make certain not to use onion or garlic, and one wont even eat mashed potatoes! He is so picky he gets frozen pizzas bought just for him at the age of 25!


Emily @ Bentobloggy.com said...

WEFA, I so hear you on the picky partner! I lamented about it in my Chicken Valentino post a few months back, but after 8 years he's gotten a lot better. I hope you have similar luck!

WEFA said...

... wow the world is small isn't it? I love allrecipes.com and though I never posted any, I have made things from there many a time.
I made your chicken valentino for my grandpa's birthday party two years ago! Everyone loved it!

Kwonsies said...

i love your spreadsheet!!!!

nickandstaci said...

Love this post! So helpful, especially your spread sheet! Thank You!

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Susan Payton said...

I was just blogging around this morning and found your blog. I love those bentos. I wish they had them when my kids were in school. But they actually seem neat for my husband's lunch, if I could find something on one that wouldn't embarrass him. LOL Batman probably wouldn't do. Thank yhou for letting me visit.


*A.J* said...

Don't know about others, i definitely eat with my eyes first. yes...even as a teenager...

Davenz said...

This so useful spreadsheet...Thanks!

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Emily @ Bentobloggy.com said...

WEFA, that is amazing, thank you for telling me that! How cool, it is such a small world!

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