Photo: Marvelous Mommy opens in a new tabLooking for a new way to expand your children’s lunch menu? Hoping to introduce new-to-them nutritious foods? Meet the bento box. Although it has a long history in Japanese cuisine, it has been embraced as a fun and creative approach to packing to-go meals around the world. Bonus: It can be as elaborate or simple as you want. We asked a few of our favorite experts for their top tips on packing a bento box. Do try these at home!
Sarah Gonzalez, @lunarbell_lunch opens in a new tab on InstagramSarah discovered food art and bento boxes when she was researching ways to get one of her daughters more interested in lunchtime. With no formal art training, she now has more than 16K followers on Instagram.
Why bento boxes?
"It’s a great way to teach my daughter what a balanced and healthy meal looks like. And hey, healthy food can be fun too! "
How do you start?
"I usually make the sandwich the main attraction of the bento box theme. I place that in the bento box first and then pack in other foods around it tightly so it doesn't move around in the box. I use small amounts of several different food items surrounding the sandwich to give my children a wide range of healthy choices. (I sometimes sneak in a small treat for them to find too.)"
Do you have any favorite tricks?
"My favorite trick is to use a small dab of peanut butter to get the small details to stick to the sandwich, for example the eyes on a character."
Sheri Miya, Happy Little Bento opens in a new tab blogSheri is a former research scientist turned stay-at-home mom of two who got started with making bento boxes in an effort to help her kids learn that eating healthy and nutritious foods can be delicious and fun.
What kind of foods do you use?
"A good rule of thumb is to have something from each color group as well as food group. For example if you pack a sandwich, add a little side salad with some bright grape tomatoes or pickled radishes, a few slices of lightly steamed sweet potatoes or roasted carrots, some edamame (tip: keep some in the freezer — they thaw quickly) or a hard-boiled egg, and whatever fresh fruit happens to be in season. You might be surprised at how satisfying and appealing such an assortment can turn out to be."
Do you have any time-saving tips?
"If you set aside part of the dinner you prepared the night before, you can speed up the bento-making process considerably. Lots of foods taste just as delicious the next day! We love teriyaki salmon or chicken packed over pasta, quinoa or lentils. All kinds of slaw keep very well, and the crunchy nature of cabbage keeps things interesting while the vinegar of the dressing serves to keep ingredients from spoiling."
How do you add special touches?
"Some colorful food picks, a smiley face made with nori, or heart or star shapes using vegetable or cookie cutters can do the trick. If you're handy with a knife, you can cut some nifty shapes opens in a new tab from simple vegetables like carrots, cucumbers, radishes and mushrooms too. It doesn't take much to lift a bento from ordinary to outstanding."
Amy Dingler, Marvelous Mommy opens in a new tab blogAmy is a photography business owner in North Georgia who revealed that both of her daughters are picky eaters, but they will eat just about anything if she presents it to them in a fun way.
Do you need special equipment to make a bento box?
"You don’t need fancy dividers or sandwich cutters, you can use metal cans or glass cups to cut the bread into shapes."
What about storing foods?
"When planning meals, I try to keep all hot foods or all cold foods in one container together. I typically do a protein, a veggie and a fruit."
Candice Kumai, Candice Kumai opens in a new tabblogSandwiches that look like bunnies may not fly in high school or the office, so we turned to Candice Kumai for an alternative for older kids and adults. Candice is a chef, best-selling cookbook author and blogger at Candice Kumai opens in a new tab blog. With colder weather on the way, she suggested a Clean Green Bento Box opens in a new tab, featuring a salad with squash, kale, apple, whole grains and a cider-honey vinaigrette. Complete the meal with a side of nuts, seeds, fermented pickles and fresh fruit. Thirsty for more? Add a matcha green tea smoothie opens in a new tab. (Portrait: Jack Jeffries)
If you’re looking for more back-to-school meal inspiration, check out our favorite recipes for after-school snacks opens in a new tab, weekday breakfasts opens in a new tab and easy dinners opens in a new tab.