The Benefits of Bento
A bento is a meal packed for one person. It’s usually packed in a small ‘bento box.’
A traditional Japanese bento typically contains small portions of rice or noodles, fish or meat, and cooked or pickled vegetables. Some bento presentations are quite artistic, even to the extent of molding or carving the foods into cute shapes. Bentos are fun – so they’re perfect for kids, even if you don’t serve exotic foods or heart-shaped dishes. What I like best is the variety – you can pack several types of food into your bento. And variety is good.
Perfect for Picky Eaters
Picky eaters are tough. I know, because I had two of them. Bentos were one of the things that got my son over his picky eating phase. He loves all things Japanese, and he wanted a bento box -- it helped him want to try new foods.
Research shows a picky eater needs to see a new food at least ten times before he or she likes it (or even tries it, in some cases). And it works much better with just a tiny bite or two each time. Bentos are perfect for that. You can add a little nibble of a new food alongside some old favorites.
Packing a Bento Box
There’s no rule that you have to follow the rules for packing a traditional Japanese bento. You can use whatever foods you like. Do try to keep it balanced – some carbohydrates like rice, pasta or bread, along with a protein source such as lean meat or chicken, and some veggies. Add a little fruit for dessert.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. First, you’ll need a Bento box.
You might be able to find bento boxes in specialty stores near you, or you can order them online. Bento boxes can be plain or decorated with bright colors and anime or manga characters. They usually contain two or three trays that stack inside the box.
You don’t need to invest in a full-fledged bento box -- a small but sturdy plastic container with a tight-fitting lid will do just fine. Like the ones you buy in the store or sometimes get with to-go orders.
Bento trays often have dividers, but a few cupcake cups will do nicely, or you can find the smallest plastic cups with covers.
So – what can you put in a bento? Anything – but keep in mind that your kid’s meal is going to be eaten at a cool or room temperature. Lunch meats and pasta salads are perfect. So are many leftovers.
The foods are usually packed in tight – start with the larger pieces of meat and the pasta or rice, or cooked vegetables, then tuck the fresh vegetables and fruit wherever there’s room.
You could serve foods that need to be heated, but make sure the container you’re using is microwave safe. Or just serve a bento-style dinner at home with tiny dishes that sit on a bigger tray.
On that note – please keep food safety in mind. If you’re sending the bento to school or along for a day trip, be sure to pack it in an insulated bag with some ice packs.
Lunch in a Box is a cool site that has lots of tips and Bento recipes. http://lunchinabox.net/