When I was a kid, I brought my lunch to school every day, usually in a reusable lunch bag. Each morning, my mom would lovingly pack a healthy meal for me that fit a formula. Sandwich (meat or peanut butter and jelly) + fruit or vegetable (usually an apple half) + two homemade cookies. I then picked up my container of milk at school. I am one of the fortunate few: School food has never touched my lips. In fact, I was almost 13 before I even went to a school that even served food.
Today school food (for kids) and quick restaurant meals (for adults) are a far-too-common easy answer to the question of what to eat for lunch. For the most part, you don’t always know the ingredients that go into the food or how fresh it is, and it costs more than bringing something from home. But if brown bagging it just isn’t your (or your kids’) thing, why not try bento boxes?
The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches To Go is a good introduction to the method of creating healthy and fun meals stuffed in a little box. The book starts out with some rules for making a bento meal, tips for planning ahead, instructions on how to pack a bento, and plenty of safety tips. Since bento meals are made ahead of time and brought with you somewhere, they are usually eaten chilled, though there is nothing stopping you from assembling a hot bento and then eating it right away.
The back of the book describes the hardware and tools you may want to use to create your bento boxes. Bento boxes are usually stainless steel or plastic (though wood and insulated boxes are also options), and they can be cute or ordinary. Some are sectioned, while some are completely open to allow for inserts to divide or organize food. Some of the plastic ones claim to be microwave safe, but I’d prefer to use stainless steel and keep it to chilled meals. For those frugally minded, however, you don’t need a special purpose container to prepare meals in this way. A properly-sized Pyrex dish, Rubbermaid container, or other small food vessel with a lid will work just as well.
The back matter also contains a glossary of Japanese ingredients, a special section of recipes for bento staples, and information on making a weekly meal planner for your bento meals. The author’s website has other recipes, tips, and the printable planners.
The middle of the book, by far the largest section, contains the recipes for both Japanese-style and non-Japanese-style bento meals. Many of the over 150 recipes have some sort of meat or fish in them, but vegetarian and vegan main dish recipes are also included, as well as plenty of vegetable side dishes. Some of the recipes include fancy or adorably cut vegetables, such as fancy-cut radishes and flower-shaped carrots, and visually appealing arrangements, but this kind of detail isn’t necessary if you don’t have the time or the inclination. Diced apples, cherry tomatoes, or orange sections work just as well. While bento boxes can be about presentation, they are also about taking care with your food and eating balanced meals.
That being said, once you start making bento boxes, you’ll probably see new possibilities all over the grocery store. Little foods, and foods that can be made little, may inspire new arrangements.
The book goes into a lot of detail on how to prepare and plan the meals. Much work is done ahead of time, but the overall amount of time to prepare one of these lunches seems impractical to me. But what you create doesn’t need to be fancy with special cutters, and/or you could prepare ingredients for several days’ worth of lunches at once. So in practice this may take much less time than the book describes. In any case, it has given me some great ideas for ways to make lunch fun for my kids, and to help with portion sizes and food variety.
For those trying to decrease their caloric intake, eating a thoughtfully packed bento box can also help with portion control. Pack plenty of fruits and vegetables, and lean protein, to keep the overall calorie count low. If you put a bento box together with color and variety in mind, you will end up with a balanced, properly-sized meal. Since bento boxes come in a variety of shapes and sizes, find the one that best fits your caloric intake needs.
The Just Bento Cookbook has inspired me to attempt some creative lunch packing in the future. However, without my kids going off to school each day, it will be more for fun and novelty than for any practical use.
The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches to Go retails for $19.95, but is much cheaper at Amazon, where there are also sample recipes. This book will inspire you. It may inspire you to create beautiful creations that you eat yourself or serve to your children. Or it might inspire you to eat more balanced meals. Or perhaps to go for quality over quantity. But if you’ve never tried making bento boxes before and want to give it a try, this book is an excellent place to start.
Note: I received a copy of the book for the purpose of this review.