Retro Blog- The New American Lunch Box

Take a minute to reflect back… Remember when you were kid? Now, try to  conjure up this specific childhood memory – your wonderful lunch box! You were  cool, fun, and felt confident sporting this brand new piece of gear. This box  and what it was filled with often reflected who you were. It was your first  independent introduction into society. After all, didn’t your very own lunch box  mean you were finally a big kid!

Boys often carried western or space themed lunch boxes, girls went with  Barbie, and younger children with a wide variety of Disney characters. All I  remember is that I was stuck carrying the plaid design and the girl across the  street, Cheryl Shelmadine, had a Lassie the Wonder Dog lunch box. I didn’t. What  were my parents thinking? Regardless of the style, lunch boxes have represented,  as well as reflected, a major part of American cultural history.

Luckily for our children, we live in a dynamic area. We can gain access to  the wonderful traditions of so many cultures. Once incorporated with our fresh  local foods, and given a twist on presentation… POOF! The new American lunch  box – the bento box.

Bento boxes surfaced in Japan about 900 years ago with the creation of  hoshi-ii. Hoshi-ii means “dried meal” – it is rice that has been cooked and then  dried. Bento boxes were once simple containers housing individually packaged  portions of rice, meat or fish, and pickled or cooked vegetables. Through the  ages, they have progressed from oak or bamboo leaf wrapped portions into  lacquered wooden boxes, shiny aluminum, and modern day plastics.

There are contests held where people compete to win prizes and prestige for  designing the most elaborate bento boxes. This type of artistic bento is called  a kyaraben. They aesthetically arrange the foods to resemble people, flowers,  plants, or animals. Some are so beautiful they look too good to eat… well  almost!

Of course, bento boxes are still available today in many locations throughout  Japan, but now bento boxes are taking America by storm! Traditional Japanese  bento boxes are quickly becoming the must have lunch box for otherwise brown  paper baggers. A visit to today’s school cafeterias might have some parents  thinking they’ve stepped into a new culture when they see these trendy new lunch  containers. It’s not all about appearances though – bento boxes are fun to fill,  pleasing to the palette, prevent foods from getting smashed, and make packing a  lunch both cost and time effective.

Lunch boxes today are still the ultimate in personal style and expression.  Even not carrying one is often for the sake of fashion. Whatever your taste,  lunch boxes continue to be a reflection of American culture. The bento box is  simply a plastic container housing other various shaped containers for your  foods stuffs. Sometimes they are stacked, square round, flat, or whatever your  desire. There are designer bento boxes are available featuring popular cartoon  characters and fun designs – hopefully not plaid. You can even accessorize your  bento with fun flatware to match, and miniature bottles no larger than your  thumb for salad dressings, soy sauces or other flavorings of your choice.

I recently purchased a “laptop bento” for my daughter, Danielle. It came in a  thermal cooled case that resembles a notebook computer – and of course, it was  almost the same price. It is a typical bento for a “Middle Schooler” – not too  flashy. Once opened, the case reveals spaces for all different kinds of goodies.  Each space has its own lid and they fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. She  absolutely loves it!

Packing A Bento

No matter how old my kids get, they still love helping to pack their lunches  with fun foods. When we go hunting for bento box fun we frequent the Japanese  dollar store in downtown in San Mateo. They have a great variety of kid friendly  lunch packing items. One of my favorites are the food molds. With absolutely no  major artistic kitchen skills you can shape foods into simple animals, cars,  trucks, trains, plants, or people shapes. Try them out with brown rice and  veggies for an Asian flair, tuna or chicken salad, eggs, or even make  must-have-meatballs with them

Just like the use of the Japanese containers – use fusion when packing them.  California nouvelle cuisine is a blend of cultures, using fresh local  ingredients and new fun presentation style on any classic meal. These tiny  treasure chests are great for serving up leftovers in a fresh new way that will  have your children eager to see last night’s meal again. Remember to be creative  and artistic when packing a bento and to involve your child. Use cookie cutters  to make uniquely shaped “tea sandwiches”, layer foods for presentation, and  include little containers of their favorite dips. The better it looks and the  more input they have the more likely they are to eat it!

Use these fun lunch packs and fuse some of your own cultural sensations  inside. Here are some ideas to get you going. Incorporating a variety of foods  your child enjoys will make them much less likely to succumb when they hear  “I’ll trade you!” in the cafeteria.

Mac ‘n Cheese – Left over macaroni and cheese, fresh sliced tomatoes, steamed  veggies, and fresh finger fruits (grapes, berries, cherries, cubed melons,  sliced kiwi, etc.). They’ll be sure to devour this child friendly favorite. All  housed in the separate containers or pressed into fun shapes.

Snack Attack – Diced fresh finger fruits and veggies, sliced cheeses, cubed  turkey breast or ham, and multi-grain crackers make for a delightful blend of  flavors and nutrition. Don’t forget to add crackers and your favorite  vinaigrette in a small fun sized bento squeeze bottle.

Dinner for lunch -Your favorite shaped meatballs, brown rice, sliced fresh  veggies, and low-fat yogurt to dip. This bento is also great with leftover  spaghetti!

Pot Roast Personified – Diced left over pot roast, roasted root veggies,  fresh finger fruits, and a garden salad. Served cold, with a piece of buttered  whole grained pita bread.

Super Salads – Molded tuna, chicken, or seafood salad, whole grain crackers,  fresh fruits and veggies, and cute baby cheese. Don’t forget to add sliced red  bell peppers. They are really sweet to eat – especially with cream cheese to dip  them in. 

Now, with some bento experience under my belt I can honestly say that not  only do kids love these crafty containers – but I do too. They are also great  for picnics, travel lunches, or any time you’ll be away from home. They just  make sense! One more important thing… bento boxes do require some washing  after the box arrives home. This is another great opportunity though to get the  kids involved and teach some early childhood responsibility as they help wash up  their lunch box and get it ready for the next day.

Chef Gigi!

Chef Gigi is the former Dean of the California Culinary Academy in San  Francisco, and Co-founder (with her two teenage daughters) of Kids Culinary  Adventures – A professional cooking school for kids and teens.

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Published by Chef Gigi Gaggero, Host of Silicon Valley's LIVE Food Talk Radio on KSCU 103.3 FM

Professional Chef, Two Time Award-Winning Book Author, Former Academic Director from Le Cordon Bleu, and Host of Silicon Valley's LIVE Food Talk Radio on KSCU 103.3 FM

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