While bento boxes are now popping up all over the world- from preschools to anime- in Japan they have been around for centuries. A bento (弁当) box is simply a compact lunchbox (sometimes with 2 tiers) whose compartments are traditionally filled with rice, pickled vegetables and fish or meat. Although they do not have to be an intricate work of art, it is fun to create little details for your kids while making a nutritious, homemade meal.
Now let’s be honest readers. Do I have time to do this every day for 4 kids? (hold the snarky chuckles). I might only have artsy bits once a month, or for a special occasion- but we do use the bento boxes daily to carry their lunches to school. And we are healthier and greener because of it. Here are 10 reasons you and your kids will love Japanese bento boxes:
1). Release your inner artist. Envious of my friends and family who are amazing artists, I personally am not that creative. However I do know how to use a computer- try a google-search for bento boxes, or search for kyaraben (Japanese term for making food into popular characters from anime or videogames) and be awed and inspired by the thousands of way people are making food into art. Send me a picture of your creative bento box, and I’ll post it on Kid World Citizen!
2). Healthy, homemade food. I had a roommate from Japan in college who would sit down at our dinner table with a beautiful rainbow of colors on her plate. She taught us of the Japanese belief that each meal should have five colors — a version of the food pyramid. Having many colors helps people remember to vary their fruits and vegetables to pack in the most vitamins. Plus homemade food tells your kids that someone spent extra time on them:).
3). Less expensive than processed, packaged food. Save of money by not buying individually prepackaged food. A lot of the food I pack into the bento boxes is re-purposed leftovers from the night before.
If you’re making rice for dinner, make some onigiri (rice balls)or separate some veggies for tomorrow’s lunch. Buying seasonal, local produce will not only save you money, it will be healthier as well.
4). Free yourself! Stainless steel bento boxes are lead-free, BPA-free, vinyl-free, PVC-free.
5). Go green. No more plastic baggies to throw away!
6). They are fun! Encourage your kids to eat their veggies by offering a wide-variety every day. Broccoli and asparagus as trees, cucumber and carrot flowers, edamame or pea pebbles- walk through the produce department and get inspired.
7). Portion-control. Bento boxes seemed small when I first got them. But when I started to read about them, and pack the food in, I was pleasantly surprised. Traditionally, the bento box would include 4 parts rice to 2 parts protein to 1 part other ingredients. Today, nutritionists recommend less rice and more of those colorful veggies. When you prepare the lean meats, whole grains, and vegetables without deep-frying and minimal salt, you will typically pack a lunch that is around 600 calories- ideal for a growing child.
8). More exciting than sandwiches every day. This is worth mentioning again:). Sometimes we get in a rut of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, carrot sticks, and grapes. (repeat) What is more exciting? An octopus hot-dog! A baby chick rice ball! A rainbow of fruit! Hard-boiled bunny egg!
9). Little bites of a variety of foods. When kids are offered a lot of options, they are more likely to try a little bite of each. Try to give some favorite foods, with one new item; include different textures, different food groups, different tastes.
10). Another way to add a cultural activity into your everyday lives. Take out your map, and show your kids where Japan is. Talk about how kids and grown-ups have been bringing bento boxes to school and work for hundreds of years. Read how parents in Japan prepare their kindergarteners’ lunches.
Warch an elementary school lunch in Japan:
Shop for Bento supplies:
From Japan with Love (supplies shipped from Japan)
JBox (supplies shipped from Japan)
Japan Centre (supplies shipped from the UK)
Bento Crazy (supplies shipped from the US)
Adventures in Bentomaking (fantastic blog)
Lunch in a Box (another great blog)
But most of all, have fun with it!