6 Get Started!

So, the first day of school is breathing down your neck.  You want to try the bento-style of lunch for your children, but don't know where to start?  No worries, I've got you covered. If you're new to packing lunches, or just new to bento making, I've put together this guide especially for you.  Warning:  It's wordy.

As I've mentioned in the past, 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 (or even some motivated kids!)  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 Ella 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 Ella!  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? i.e. What should I feed my kid?
A:  That's totally up to you!  But, I do have a spreadsheet I update every once in a while to give me some ideas.  Also, this blog is chock-full of pictures and descriptions, so check the archives. Here is what I do:

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 (like a mini Sigg)

My style of 'bento' is a more relaxed and easy.  I call it 'American bento'.  Traditional Japanese bento uses primarily Asian foods - rice, tofu, fish, nori, etc..  For those kids who haven't gone from breast to table with these foods, it's likely that you'll meet with some resistance if you plop a traditional bento box in front of them.  So, I tend to use a mix of American foods, and other ethnic foods to complement, as well as an array of fruits and vegetables.  Why do I do it?  Because I think that lunchtime is a great opportunity to introduce your kids to new and healthy foods for two reasons.  One: they are hungry!  Two: they don't have a whole lot of other food options available to them. 

You may notice that I use very little sugar or sugary treats.  That's my personal preference.  I don't feel that my child needs a sugary sweet to end a meal.  I like her to think of her fruit as her dessert (and she does save it for last.)  Likewise, I don't add a lot of carby snack-style sides.  Usually the carbs are part of the main entree. 

Okay, enough preaching.  On to the fun stuff!

Q. Where do you get your bento supplies online?
A. First, I have to say that I am an affiliate partner with AllThingsForSale.  These days I buy almost all of my specialty items, decorative food cutters and food picks from these guys.  They are based right here in the United States, their prices are really reasonable, and it's shipped really fast.  You'll even get 5% off if you use the code Bentobloggy2.  You can also find tons of options at places like eBay, Amazon, and other independent online stores.  Find something you like?  Grab it up!  A lot of places discontinue items fairly quickly.  For stainless steel options, there is the Planetbox, and Greentainer which I really like.

I've said this before and I'll say it again...do a test-drive of more complicated bento boxes before sending one in with your kid.  Some kids just don't have the manual dexterity to put all those tiers back together, and in the correct order!  It can even be difficult for adults (myself included.)  I've had to put several boxes away for when Ella gets older for this very reason.
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? I don't have time to wait for something shipped...I need it today!
A.  No problem!  I'll let you in on a little secret.  What you buy doesn't have to say bento.  Or even lunch.  As long as it's food safe, (and BPA-free) give it a try.  Look around your kitchen.  Do you have a good-sized piece of Tupperware?  Some silicone baking cups or pinch pots?  How about a non-breakable egg cup?  I know you have lots of cookie cutters.  Use your imagination.  My favorite stores to find bento accessories locally are:

World Market (kitchen section)
Super H Mart (or any ethnic grocery near you)
Disney Store (you'd be surprised)
The Container Store (they have LOTS of items these days that work great for bento making)
Craft stores
Dollar Tree (occasionally you'll find some gems)
Specialty kitchen stores like Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma
Asian novelty stores (Sanrio, Niko-Niko, etc....  They have real bento boxes at these places.)
IKEA
Joann's
Michael's
Bed Bath & Beyond
REI
If you visit the West Coast you can visit Daiso, they bento Holy Land
Sanrio reseller stores (many different names, mostly the same Sanrio-branded items)

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 Snapwarehttp://www.assoc-amazon.com/e/ir?t=bentobloggy-20&l=btl&camp=213689&creative=392969&o=1&a=B001DQY5T2 and Lock & Lockhttp://www.assoc-amazon.com/e/ir?t=bentobloggy-20&l=btl&camp=213689&creative=392969&o=1&a=B002SB9L2M 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 cupshttp://www.assoc-amazon.com/e/ir?t=bentobloggy-20&l=btl&camp=213689&creative=392969&o=1&a= are also pretty much found anywhere.   

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.

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

Q: What kind of lunch carrier (a.k.a. lunch box/bag) is the best?
A:  This is a question I didn't really consider when I started, but I quickly realized was very important.  If at all possible, find an insulated lunch bag that is a top-carry style.  With a traditional lunchbox, the food gets thrown around like crazy and it makes a mess.  Not a big deal for a bagged sandwich, but potentially disastrous for a bento.  And, they can be frustratingly difficult to locate.  Check out my effusive post on this style of lunchbox here for an idea of what to look out for.  This is the holy grail of lunch bags, in my opinion. Easy Lunch Boxes also has a great and affordable bag.

-A roomy, and affordable option from 
Leaps & Bounds.
-Adorable and dependable from 
PBK.
-The elusive 
HK bag for 2011 from Sanrio!
-Large Double Decker lunch bag from Wildkin


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.

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,  because her lunch box insulation is really good.  What I also do now is refrigerate her aluminum bottle of water which sits in the space on top of her lunch, and that helps keep things cold until lunchtime.  By the time she comes home any leftover food is still pretty cool, so I'm not too 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 judgment 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.  



Now moms & dads, welcome to the world of bento!  If you’ve enjoyed this presentation, please Like Bentobloggy on Facebook www.facebook.com/bentobloggy on Pinterest www.pinterest.com/bentobloggy Twitter & Instagram @Bentobloggy and follow Bentobloggy at www.bentobloggy.com with Google Friend Connect! J


Originally posted "Back to School!" on August 8th, 2010

Also check out "Back to School 2011 Tips & Tricks" from August 7th, 2011
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6 comments:

Mari said...

Thank you for this post. I just learned of this idea today, so I am blog hopping and following, though theres no email updates on any any bento blogs? :( I am a newbie so this post helps in letting us know where to start. Can you also add any videos on how to's and steps, etc.?

Emily - Bentobloggy.com said...

Hi Mari, you can subscribe via RSS feed to get email updates to this blog :) I will soon be adding some videos, stay tuned!

kewkew said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog. I have learned a lot about Bento lunches from your blog. I've been seeing Bento mentioned around the blogosphere, but really didn't understand what was involved. Thanks for sharing.

Jackie H. said...

Very informative. I've heard of bentos on other blogs but I never knew what they were talking about. I have a picky eater but I've found when I try to make his food look fun, he will give it a shot. I'm following back now and look forward to more ideas!

Anonymous said...

World market as bento boxes (they even say bento box on the label) for 4.99 and if you go their website and sign up for their free members club you get a 15% off coupon that makes it even cheaper..they have a good selection of other bento accessories also

Faiz Israili said...

Thanks for this article

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