Education Week: The Working Mom’s Guide to Bento Lunches

Until recently, I thought making cute bento lunches was for stay-at-home moms, or at least moms with more time than me. I work a demanding full time job, spend more hours a day commuting than I’d like to admit, have deadlines for my writing, *and* there’s my family (and the cleaning and such). I also am a disaster in the kitchen domestically awkward.

I have a picky eater with food allergies and needed to get creative not only to give her a balanced lunch, but to get my busy, social girl to actually *eat* it. As I soon learned, quick lunches don’t have to be unhealthy and cute bento lunches don’t have to be out of your grasp. Granted, elaborate Power Puff Girls are out of my league, but there’s still a lot a busy mom can do that’s quick and easy, with tools you own, food you already have, and most importantly, things your kids will eat. (And I do use these as a vehicle to get her to try different foods, too.)

As cute as bento lunch boxes are and as fun as the tools can be, you don’t need anything fancy to make cute lunches. I started off with an old school divided Tupperware dish with a lid.

Sandwich holders also make great bento boxes for little eaters or for snacks. Cookie cutters can go far, but I’ve been known to use little shaped containers as cookie cutters, too.

As far as time goes, I pack her lunch the night before while making dinner, often using either leftovers from the night before or leftovers from what I’m cooking. I like looking at the photos at Bentolunch.net for ideas because she does a lot of simple, easy lunches using leftovers and food my child might actually eat.

Bento is about making a healthy lunch that’s not only appetizing, but also pretty. They usually include protein, starch, fruit and vegetables. Another great thing about bento is that it reduces waste instead of using baggies and is less cluttered than a series of plastic containers.

Let’s take the idea of a ham and cheese sandwich. You could make a sandwich and put it in a baggy (quick and easy). Or you can take a few seconds and cut it out with cookie cutter shaped like a flower. (Not hard.) You can take a few more seconds and add either half and olive or half a grape to the center of the flower. In only a few extra seconds you have this:

Missy likes her sandwiches open faced, but both are ham and cheese. Since bento is also about color, I added a few strawberry slices for color. If you feel inclined you could easily add stems and leaves made of celery, green apples, or bell pepper, depending on what your child likes. Green corkscrew noodles make great grass (and are yummy cold). Her lunchbox has two stacking trays, so on the bottom tray there are grapes, olives, and baby corn to make a nice balanced lunch, and this didn’t take long at all.

I often like to give her two different colored fruits mixed together, to make it more “pretty” (which also means it gets eaten). Strawberries and green grapes is a pretty color combo. Sometimes, as a treat, I have been known to put white chocolate chips inside of raspberries.

For me it’s about keeping it easy and using what I have in the fridge, though I make an effort to keep several kinds of fruits and veggies that she actually likes on hand. I find taking her shopping with me and letting her choose what things will go in her lunch that week goes far in ending food battles. I’ll also often let her choose her lunch theme, like “hearts”, “butterflies” or “cats.”

A bagel, some olives, and cheese can quickly become a cat. (The heart shaped container holds jam for her bagel).

Since quantities in bento are often small, especially when making lunch for a small child (think 1-2 strawberries and half a plum is half the bottom section of her lunch box), I’ll use scraps and leftovers for either her school snacks or for a bedtime snack.

All these pictures are of lunches I’ve made myself. None of them are terribly hard (really, cake pops make me cry, I am *not* a cook, just ask my hubby– believe me, if I can do this, you can, too). Start thinking outside the box, slices of lunch meat can become butterflies and hearts, and sandwiches, bagels, and flat bread can become animals. Fruit can be skewered or pieced together to make snails and caterpillars. Food coloring is also your friend and applied with a toothpick can make faces on sandwich balls, add color to bread, or dye rice. Again, none of this is that hard or takes that much time.

If your child likes hard boiled eggs, I would recommend buying egg molds, which I bought on Amazon for a few dollars. These transform your hard boiled eggs into stars and hearts, bunnies, cars, and even Hello Kitty. They can turn an ordinary lunch into a bento lunch really, really fast. I especially use these on those days I am exhausted or just can’t face coming up with an idea, so I’ll make a hard boiled egg, maybe add something for decoration, the add the fruit and veggies as usual (and maybe some rice or cheese shaped like something, using a cookie cutter depending on what food groups I need to fill).

Since converting to bento lunches, we’ve had fewer food battles, she has tried more foods, and her lunch now comes home empty, as do her snacks, which means she’s not a total hungry cranky pants when I pick her up from after school care. Though sometimes she does take “requests” from her friends and will come home with “so and so wants a heart shaped egg” or the like.

I put the bento box in the fridge overnight. In the morning I put it in her lunchbox along with an ice pack. I also usually throw in a frozen juice box, which will defrost by lunch.

I’ll continue this series with a couple more posts including some easy lunches for your arsenal using sandwich balls and making things out of rice (which is a lot easier than it sounds).

If you want to foray into the more exotic you can check out a cookbook, such as the Just Bento Cookbook.

What are your favorite easy and cute lunch ideas?

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