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Bento Boxes - Getting Creative With School Lunches

School Lunch

My friend wants you to make her a lunch,” said my daughter, Cadence, as she got off the bus from camp. “Mine too,” added my oldest daughter, Laine. Later on that evening, I received an email from my oldest daughter’s camp counselor expressing how impressed she was with Laine’s “extraordinary lunches.” This was good news; not only were my children eating their lunches, they were making their friends envious. Before you hate me, I must confess, this was not always the case.

As a mother of two extremely picky children, I faced my fair share of uneaten lunches and complaints. It wasn’t until I walked by a Japanese restaurant one afternoon when the solution finally dawned on me. The restaurant boasted an impressive display of very realistic-looking plastic food in the window, presumably menu items, each arranged and garnished beautifully. One of my daughters pressed her face up against the window and, on the verge of salivating, exclaimed, “That looks yuuuuuummmy.” No argument from me there.  It did look yummy. But, what was she talking about? She hates eggs.
And seaweed.
And fish.
Shall I go on?

My daughter’s interest in this newfound “pretty” food led me to the discovery of bento lunches in short order. What’s a bento lunch, exactly? Simply put, it’s a boxed lunch; just unlike any boxed lunch most Americans have probably ever experienced growing up. Boxed lunches are pretty common throughout Asia, manifesting themselves as Indian tiffin, Philippino baon, Korean dosirak, and Taiwanese biandang, to name a few. When I was a girl in Thailand, my aunt used to send a tiffin style lunch to me while I was spending the day with my cousin at her school. As popular and wide spread as these boxed lunches are, the Japanese bento box takes lunch to a whole other level.

A simple Google image search brings up countless images of Japanese-style bento lunches, some featuring amazing food facsimiles of popular cartoon or anime characters, and others, breathtaking sculptural representations of landscapes or naturalistic vignettes; all edible. The format and idea behind a bento lunch can be extremely helpful in packing a healthy and visually interesting school lunch, even for the pickiest eaters.

choosing a bento box

Before you start putting together those boxes, it’s important to pick the right box. As with all other serving containers, there are a variety of shapes and sizes to choose from. Which is right for you? Click here for an overview of boxes including additions to make them even more fun.

Nutritional Balance

While simultaneously providing a feast for the eyes and the stomach, bentos are an excellent way to exercise portion and nutrition control, and the USDA nutritional guidelines dubbed “My Plate” work very nicely here, since the confined space (and compartments, should you choose to use that kind of a box) sets boundaries of how much of each food group to pack. Although children are likely to consume components of various food groups throughout the day, a good place to start is with:

  • Approximately equal parts of vegetables and grains
  • Smaller, but equal parts of fruits and proteins
  • A small, complementary serving of calcium

School lunch ideas:

Traditionally, bento lunches are consumed either cold or at room temperature, but if you have the opportunity and the appropriate box, you could pack just about anything you’d like. Leftovers are a great place to start. Here are some ideas for school lunches that can be eaten cold or at room temperature:

bento options

Sunny Sandwich Box:

  • Sandwich made with sun butter and apple slices (use a bread stamp and/or cookie cutter here)
  • Baby carrots or cut out carrot coins (using cookie cutters)
  • Sliced bell peppers
  • Whole grain muffin
  • Yogurt with berries

Pizza Party Lunch:

  • Two small flat breads or one English muffin, halved
  • Tomato/pizza sauce (in a condiment container)
  • Shredded cheese
  • Steamed or sautéed vegetables
  • Vegetarian “pepperoni”
  • Apple slices 

Asian-Style Lunch:

  • Soba Noodles with Soy-Sesame Dressing: 1 tablespoon low sodium tamari or soy sauce, 1 tablespoon rice vinegar, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil, Sesame seeds, to garnish
  • Steamed broccoli
  • Mandarin orange/ tangerine slices
  • Sliced Asian pear
  • Hard-boiled egg or edamame 

Israeli Lunch:

  • 1-2 slices of pita cut into wedges, or 2 small bourekas
  • Hummus
  • Cut vegetables for dipping, such as bell peppers, carrots, cherry tomatoes, celery, etc.
  • Grilled/roasted eggplant or salad greens
  • 1/2 a segmented orange
  • Small piece of Halvah 

Mish-Mash Lunch:

  • Whole grain crackers
  • Cheese slices
  • Grapes and apple slices
  • Salad greens with sunflower seeds and dressing (in condiment cup)
  • Whole grain muffin 

Mexi-Mix Lunch:

  • 1 tortilla, spread with two tablespoons of refried beans and sprinkled with shredded cheddar cheese
  • Mango slices
  • Tortilla chips
  • Jicama sticks
  • Salsa 

Breakfast for Lunch:

  • Silver-dollar pancakes or French toast sticks with maple syrup (in condiment cup)
  • 1-egg omelet
  • Vanilla yogurt
  • Fresh berries
  • Oven-roasted potatoes

As you can see, the possibilities and combinations are endless, and these meals are highly customizable to suit your child’s taste...or their friends’ for that matter. With a little planning and practice, the lunches will come together.

As seen in Joy of Kosher with Jamie Geller Magazine Fall 2013 - Subscribe Now.