For a lot of school lunch makers, the mention of a bento box lunch brings one of two thoughts to mind: ‘how cute’, or ‘never going to happen’. And there’s almost always an assumption that bento-packing parents are creative lunch-making wizzes.
I am an exception to all of the above.
The only thought that came to my mind at the end of each school day as I dumped uneaten food out of my kids’ lunch bags on repeat, was, please eat. Would you please, please just eat something?
I was just a confused mom who knew my grade one son was struggling to get through the afternoons at school—because he was hungry. Then I volunteered in his classroom and watched horrified as he spent most of his lunch break pulling the lids off containers and deciding whether or not he should eat what he saw inside, before running out of time to actually put any of it in his mouth.
I knew I had to make a change, and after seeing the bento-style lunch box of one of his classmates that same day, I figured I had nothing to lose. That was five years ago, and I haven’t looked back since. The open style of this lunch box system works for my son and his three sisters, and it pushes me to be more accountable for what I pack.
Here are my top five tips for how to pull together a bento box lunch:
Go Back to Basics
You don’t have to create works of art. Keep it simple. Add food that you already know your child will eat, and then occasionally add something new (to see if it passes muster). Keep a collection of mini cookie cutters and wavy knives (for cheese and bread, veggies and fruit) on hand to make things fun—I’ve picked up mine from places like Bulk Barn, Winners and Michael’s.
Bentology makes my favourite bento boxes, which have sets of containers in a variety of bright and bold colours. I’ve bought sets at Fenigo, Chapters and Indigo, and Mastermind. For added fun (or when I’m too bleary-eyed to notice) I’ll switch up the containers from the different sets. I promise the bright colours will inspire you to add brightly-coloured food, too.
Make it a Bite-Sized Buffet
One of my kids’ favourite weekend lunches is the Ploughman’s lunch platter (a plate of various bite-sized pieces of cold food, think cheese, bread, pickles and hard-boiled egg). And they always get excited at the prospect of visiting a buffet-style restaurant. The layout of a bento lunch box is very similar. Once the lid is open, there are numerous choices on display. It gives my kids a sense of control about what they eat, without losing a lot of time opening individual containers.
Bake It in Batches
Like it or not, an open concept lunch box means everything inside is easily viewed by those who sneak a peek of your child’s lunch. I’ll confess, it made me rethink what I was adding to those containers. Crackers and cheese strings still find their way inside, but I’ve done away with processed baked goods or snacks. I set aside time on the weekend, as often as I can, to batch bake cookies and muffins. I store them in an airtight freezer bag and defrost them as needed for the morning bento.
Box It and Bag It
A lot of people wonder if the food gets all mixed together by the time your kid sits down to lunch. It’s a question I get a lot—and the answer is that the designers knew what they were doing. The outer box-like container is airtight once it’s closed and keeps food from moving around. Two of the four containers in the system I use also come with individual lids for days we send yogurt or a fruit salad. I order all my outer boxes (they come in different colours) from Fenigo. Once the box is put together, you can find a lot of lunch bags that will hold it. My son likes a very plain bag, while my middle daughter went for a fun design from Ivivva. My youngest daughter, with the biggest school day appetite, has a double-decker bag that allows her to add a thermos of warm food to her bento each day.
After years of listening to me go on about bentos and being flogged with my Instagram photos, a friend of mine decided she had nothing to lose and decided to give it a try with her youngest son. She soon contacted me and said, ‘Why did I wait so long?!’ after a run of successful lunches.
Bento lunches are nothing to be afraid of, I promise. If I can make them (and I make a lot of lunches) you can, too.