Don't get boxed in with boring back-to-school lunches
When it comes to packing your kid's lunch, why not think outside the traditional lunch box? Ditch the same old cartoon box and opt for something inspired by Japanese culture — a Bento box.
A Bento box is essentially the Japanese version of fast food, said Michael Marcus, chef/owner of Bizen Gourmet Japanese Cuisine & Sushi Bar in Great Barrington, Mass.
"The Bento box comes from everyday common sense," said Marcus, who lived in Japan for four years. "It is used as a vehicle for channeling their leftover foods. Despite what many think, the Bento was not born in a restaurant it was born in the home."
In Japan, the box — which is composed of small compartments within the main box — is often filled with leftovers from the night before, some rice, steamed vegetables and a sweet treat like organic fruit or a pickle, said Marcus, whose restaurant serves 30 different Bento boxes.
"It's honoring the leftover," Marcus said of the box, which he said can be simple or elaborate.
The box, which is traditionally lacquered, is a vehicle for presenting the food in an aesthetically pleasing manner, something that all kids will appreciate, according to Deanna F. Cook, a kids cookbook author from Northampton, Mass., whose most recent cookbook "Cooking Class" offers fun lunch ideas made from healthy ingredients in a fun presentation.
Cook, a mother of two teenagers who have had a hand at making their own lunches for years now, loves Bento boxes for kids because the small compartments are appetizing in many ways.
"They need little snacks throughout the day," she said "The school day is long and the Bento box gives them the opportunity to nibble. ... I feel like for picky eater the Bento box is perfect, too — being able to not have food touching each other."
If you're worried about your picky eater, or your little eater in general, wolfing down a Japanese-inspired lunch, you don't have to envision exotic cuisine in the cafeteria, instead, said both Cook and Marcus, keep it fresh, local and fun.
"Right now, we stock up on lunch supplies at our local farmers market," Cook said. "Or go out to your garden, if you have one, and remind [your kids] you don't have to go to the supermarket for food."
She also suggests having your kids shop with you, and be involved with the lunch process from the beginning. A little per pressure at the cafeteria table, she said, can also be a good thing sometimes.
"Ask them, 'What did your friends have for lunch?'" she said. "If they do some trading in the lunch room, you want to know. It's always interesting to hear what your kids will eat."
Taking the time to fill the individual compartments in the Bento is also a way to not only honor the food, but the little hungry stomach you're packing for.
"It's a wonderful way to enjoy a nice lunch," said Marcus, who remembers seeing Japanese children being sent to school with their packed Bentos and a thermos of tea. "You're getting a little bit of everything. It's very sweet."
Bento Box Tips
What kid doesn't love to dip? (Reminder: the double-dipping rule goes out the box when you have your own special lunch!) Cook suggests dedicating a compartment for dips. This could be hummus and veggies, some refried beans or salsa and tortilla chips. Or put your condiments here — mustard, mayonnaise or jam — to keep your sandwich from getting soggy. We opted for ranch dressing and carrots, which can also be used for dipping the salad on a stick.
Taste the rainbow
"You should try to get kids to eat a rainbow of different colors," Cook said. "Colorful lunches are healthier and a little bit more fun to look at." Don't be afraid to get creative with your kids' favorite fruits. You can go as far as making silly faces on oranges and bananas, or rainbow fruit kabobs, or you can simply organize them in a pleasing way. Our orange slices fan out like flower petals with a raspberry center.
Put a stick in it
Cook is a big fan of what she calls "lunch on a stick." Using a small skewer or cocktail party toothpicks, assemble mini kabobs that are fun to eat and tasty. (Just make sure your little eater knows how to safely remove the stick.) Some ideas could include hunks of ham with cheese and cheery tomatoes. Make it Italian inspired with mozzarella balls, tomatoes, French bread and basil leaves. Or for a dessert-inspired stick, Cook suggests grapes, strawberries and mini marshmallows. We created a "salad on a stick" with tomatoes, cucumbers, cheddar cheese and lettuce — perfect for dipping in our ranch dressing with carrot sticks.
If we're honest with ourselves, we're all a little tired of the traditional sandwich. Why not roll with it — literally? For a fun nod to the traditional Japanese Bento boxes, which often include sushi, we created sushi-inspired ham sandwiches. To make your own variation: Cut off the crusts from two pieces of whole wheat bread and flatten the remaining bread with a rolling pin. Put a thin layer of vegetable cream cheese on the center of the each piece of bread and then layer with one piece of your favorite deli meat. Roll each piece of bread tightly into a log and wrap with wax paper. Let sit in the fridge over night to set. Unwrap and slice into 2-inch rolls.
Try something new
"You usually want to introduce something new three or four times before you can decide if your kids like it," Cook said. "If you try something and they don't like it, try it again a month later or so. It takes a while to acquire a taste, don't just assume they will never like it." For something different, yet Bento-box worthy, we turned to the green soybean edamame, which is often served at Japanese restaurants as soon as you sit down. This snack is high in fiber and protein. You can serve it plain, or toss the beans with a little olive oil, garlic powder and Parmesan cheese and roast in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes or the coating becomes browned.
Traditional Bento boxes, like the ones used every day in Japan are a thing of beauty — not only because the food it carries, but the box itself. Marcus, who is also a ceramic artist, strongly prefers the real-deal to our American, plastic version used above.
"The Japanese have given us a sense of asthetics," Marcus said. "You can't just serve the food in a plastic container. You have to honor the food by preparing and serving it in an equally loving way."
This Bento box was purchased on Amazon.com and is FDA-approved and free of BPA, PVC and phthalates.There are a number of Bento-box lunch boxes on the market to choose from. If your box doesn't have enough compartments for all the servings of your meal, use a cupcake liner to keep foods separate.
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