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 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.