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Bento Boxing Mama

Inside my child’s lunchbox, there are monsters. Or sometimes butterflies. Or mice, made out of strawberries.

Yes, I am a bento boxing mama.

“Bento,” for the uninitiated, is the Japanese word for a single-portion boxed lunch. The ideal bento box lunch would contain something from each food group, with a variety of flavors and colors. They are intended to be nutritious and attractive cold lunches, typically for children to take to school.

Most importantly, they are cute. Many bento boxes are very elaborate. In Asia, it is popular to create scenes in lunchboxes of cartoon characters. To see many examples of bento boxing, go to flickr.com and search on “bento.” There are many groups dedicated to the topic, including one called “bento porn.” There must be thousands of photographs with bento ideas, from the simple to the amazingly complex.

I do not take the cuteness as far as many. For one thing, it would take too long, and for another, it wouldn’t make my kid eat more. That is one of my goals: to get my little picky eater to eat. There’s a seemingly ever-more limited range of foods that she’ll eat, and I present them in new ways and introduce new things as charmingly as I can. I also know that those works of art would all fall apart as soon as the lunchbox was turned over, so while I think they’re fantastic, I don’t intend to try to replicate them.

If you’re interested in doing a little light bento boxing, here are some details to help you get started.

The first step is acquiring a container. A quick search of amazon.com or ebay.com for “bento boxes” will bring up hundreds of extremely cute boxes shaped like animals and characters, of all shapes and sizes. There are also websites dedicated to bento, including http://www.allthingsforsale.com  and http://store.goodbyn.com, which are very affordable.
Some bento boxes are two or three tiers, some come with bags, some have separate little compartments. Traditional Japanese bento boxes are very small, and crammed with food; the idea is that a bento box crammed full will not allow the food to move around, therefore preserving your design. However, I like the separate compartment boxes; they allow me to pack a serving of watery salad as well as a sandwich, without things getting soggy, and keeps the favors from melding together. My favorite box is the Laptop Lunch system (http://www.laptoplunches.com), which fits nicely into a Crocodile Creek lunchbox with a 9-pillow freezer pack underneath. I use a similar container for my lunch; the separate containers allow me to microwave the leftovers and not the salad.

Another plus for using a bento box is the decrease in trash at the school. No baggies or bags going into the landfill.

The items I most frequently use are cookie cutters and sandwich cutters. If I do nothing other than use a cookie cutter on my daughter’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I feel like I’ve made her lunch a lot more festive. They’re also great for cutting quesadillas or watermelon. A sandwich cutter cuts a whole sandwich into shapes; I have a set that I got on amazon that includes two dolphins and one that makes a big butterfly. Since my daughter likes sandwiches, these get a lot of workout in my kitchen.

Other cool little gadgets I use are silicon baking cups, to separate items; these come in several shapes and sizes. I use incredibly fancy punches to create faces from nori, which I then put on rice balls. Rice balls, or onigiri, are made from sushi rice pressed into shapes - balls or triangles, or into a mold to make little animals.

But the coolest things are made with just a knife and some imagination. Monster faces are simple sandwiches cut with a curve instead of a straight line to form a smiling mouth, then grapes or blueberries become eyes held on with toothpicks. Sometimes celery leaves become eyelashes or pieces of carrot, teeth.

Strawberry mice are made by first cutting the bottom off a strawberry so it sits with the bottom point of the strawberry angled upward. Then two mini chocolate chips are poked in as eyes (don’t use full size chocolate chips, they look really creepy), two almond slivers behind the eyes become ears, and a liquorice whip or noodle can be a tail.

You can make an ordinary sandwich more interesting by making it into a pinwheel. Simply roll the sandwich up and secure with a toothpick or fancy animal-shaped pick. Cut fruit can easily be made into a kabob.

Making bento box lunches for my child has been a simple way to bring a bit of delight into my family’s lives. It almost makes it worth getting up at 5:30 AM.