Honestly, is there anything cuter than Hello Kitty molded to perfection out of sticky rice? Or more enticing to your kids than hard-boiled eggs pressed into the shape of Mr. and Mrs. Pac Man complete with nori Power Dots?
If you think I’m kidding, try searching “Bento” on flickr.com, and you’ll find over 67,000 images of the most adorable array of edible treats one could imagine all packed into equally as irresistible lunch boxes.
Historically, “bento” or “obento” refers to a Japanese boxed lunch. Although Japanese people do not generally spend their time laboring over elaborate daily lunches, ‘cute bento’ has become a popular international past time. You will find websites and resources galore for packing, creating, and mastering the art of bento. The selection of bento boxes is equally expansive, most of which feature divided compartments to allow for small portions of a variety of foods.
But there’s more to Bento than general cuteness. First and foremost, I’m attracted to the nutritional aspects that bento style lunches offer. They allow us to present a balanced meal offering a range of food groups in small portions (un-super-sized!). And for notoriously picky eaters like my youngest son, the visual presentation is a big plus. Bento lunches traditionally include a variety of color, textures, and shapes. And let me tell you from experience, my son is much more likely to try a hard-boiled egg if it’s molded into the shape of Pikachu.
If nutrition and the cute factor aren’t enough, bento boxes are reusable (be gone baggies and plastic wrap). And as I’m making an effort to monitor the types of plastic we’re using for food storage, I am also pleased to find lead-free and BPA-free bento boxes, such as the Laptop Lunch Bento Box, created by Obento. These bento boxes are dishwasher safe and include a neoprene carrying case, reusable water bottle, utensil set, and guide book with helpful tips and recipes. It’s a perfect product for picnicking or school lunches.
So what business does a busy mother of four like myself have attempting to make bento lunches?
Well, my efforts to create “cute bento” have been limited to rainy days when the kids are in need of a project. So maybe our elephant rice mold didn’t turn out exactly like the one we saw online, but we had a blast in the process. But in the end, slicing tiny elephant eyes out of dried seaweed involves the kind of time that I rarely have for meal prep.
I have, however, found ways to integrate the concept of bento lunches into our lunch routine. The bento box compartments are great for packing simple foods like grape tomatoes, baby carrots, small cubes of cheese, crackers, fruit, or any other healthy snack. I also purchased miniature forks in the shapes of circus animals which make munching these mini-snacks even more fun.
Other quick and easy bento suggestions:
Peanut Butter Sushi (you can swap out the peanut butter for almond butter, hummus, cream cheese and jelly, or anything else spreadable). Start with a piece of sliced bread. Use a rolling pin to roll the bread as thin as possible. Spread with filling of your choice. Roll the bread into a tight roll, and slice like sushi.
This is, hands down, my kids’ latest food obsession. Egg molds transform any hardboiled egg into an instant hit. Molds come in a variety of shapes, in our case we ordered a car and airplane. After boiling an egg, peel off the shell while egg is still warm. Place egg in mold, press and lock, and refrigerate for approximately 15 minutes. Remove the egg from mold and serve.
Like egg molds, rice molds can be purchased in an endless array of shapes. Scoop cooked sticky rice into mold, press firmly, and remove. The sticky rice will hold the shape and can be accessorized with nori accents, although I plan to save the nori cutting for days when I have more time to prep. My kids love to dip the molded rice into light soy sauce.
Helpful Bento Sources I’ve Found Along the Way:
• Lunch in a Box: Provides helpful bento tips, recipes, product reviews, and links for shopping.
• Laptop Lunches: Creators of the Lap Top Lunch System, a plastic bento-inspired lunch box using FDA-approved materials for food use. Made in California, these products are not manufactured with any binding agents or plasticizers. Lap Top Lunches was co-founded by two moms searching for a safe alternative for packed lunches.
• I love Obento: Great online source for rice and egg molds, nori punches and stencils, and adorable bento boxes and accessories galore.
• Asiana Japanese and Korean Market
92 Warren Avenue, East Providence, RI (off exit 5 from Rte. 195).
Asiana offers a full selection of Japanese and Korean food and some basic bento accessories. The biggest hit with my kids was Asiana’s adorable selection of Japanese candy!
• Ichiban Kan, on-line store featuring a huge selection of bento supplies and non-perishable food items from Japan.
Photo Credits: Jaci Arnone