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Back to basics, an intro to bento lunches

I recently connected with a company that is doing great things to support people’s overall health by  allowing adults and children to track their health and wellness.  By adding more fruits and vegetables to diets and staying consistent, KidsFoodJournal.com and www.95210.org are both websites that promote healthier lifestyles by keeping yourself accountable for your daily habits.  KidsFoodJournal asked me to go back to the basics and teach people how to get started doing bento boxes.

I don’t know a parent around that doesn’t have a child who is picky about one thing or another.  When my oldest daughter was 2, she only wanted milk, pasta and cheese…every. single.meal.  I had to bribe her with other things, but she seemed to fill up on dairy all day long and then not eat well.  I was chatting with a dear friend whose children were older about how to interest my little one in healthier foods.  She said she used bento boxes to get her boys to try new foods.  I didn’t even know what they were at the time other than a Japanese box. She sent me a few images, and I told her she was nuts if she thought I had that kind of time.   Hahaha!  Silly me, did I eat those words.  And I owe her a huge thanks for changing the way my family eats today.

WHY BENTO?

MINIMIZING WASTE.  The average student produces about 50 pounds of lunch waste per year. The thing I really admired about bento boxes was that whether cute or plain,  they eliminated my use for any plastic bags, disposable silverware, paper napkins and the like.  I feel much better teaching my children to be respectful of our resources.  Bento boxes began in Japan where most children still get elaborate lunches decorated like their favorite characters.  My friends and I who pack American bento boxes tend to do a more simplified version of the traditional bento lunch boxes.

Lunchbox Love notes in LunchBotsAbove is a LunchBots brand Trio packed with nutritious snacks for school with a Lunchbox Love note.

No more plastic baggies, washing pouches or throwing out plastic disposables.  I found a few boxes that fit everything my toddler could eat.  What my daughter didn’t was sent back home & could still be eaten as a snack later at home.

Seitan wraps in ELBThis Easy Lunchboxes container is filled with seitan (wheat meat) and sauteed vegetables (dinner leftovers) wrapped in flatbread.  I used silicone bento bands to hold them together.  I arranged mini carrots in between and blueberries on a skewer.  The more tightly you pack the food in, the less likely it is to get messy before lunchtime.  In the top are red seedless grapes and raspberries with a Lunchbox Love note.

IT’S FUN! I use a simple theme or ask for my daughters’ involvement to break the monotony of lunch packing every day.  Also, when they give their input and helps choose their foods, they are far more likely to eat them than if I just throw another lunch in a box.  My kids get excited to open their lunch boxes each day to see what they’re having.  It’s my special way to take the time to make nutritious meals and to show them I love them when I can’t be there.  I have made some elaborate bento lunches for them, but now that I have a lunch packing system down, it usually takes me about 5-10 minutes per lunch to pack them both lunch and a snack each day.

Bentoriffic LunchBots Trio of Mini GnocchiThe LunchBots Trio above has leftover mini potato gnocchi pasta with dairy free pesto sauce, edamame and olives from dinner, sliced pineapple and kiwi in the bottom section and blueberries and peaches in the top left compartment.

START SIMPLY

There is no need to do some time-consuming crazy lunch art to get started.  Get yourself a simple bento box to start.  It does eliminate the use of plastic bags and disposables.

Many of the boxes I use already have separate compartments for food, and they pack a whole lot of lunch into a small space.  Even if you do nothing fancy, you’re creating a new way to present the same foods. I have provided an extensive list of recommendations at the bottom of the page.

Bentoriffic Strawberries and almond butter roll upsInstead of peanut butter and jelly, I made an almond butter and sliced strawberry roll up on a whole grain tortilla.  Use WOWbutter brand for a great nut-free soy spread for allergy friendly versions.

I also recommend adding one small piece of fruit or vegetable that your child wouldn’t normally eat.  It can take up to 20 times before children decide they like a food so just add a small piece, but keep doing it to encourage variety.  It really does work.  In this lunch I added celery which my kids don’t normally eat. But when I fill it with something, they will eat it.

SMALL TRICKS OF THE TRADE

I didn’t have a big budget to begin doing bento boxes.  I purchased a couple of simple, small boxes I thought fit enough food for my girls’ appetites.  I used cookie cutters I already had at home for cutting sandwiches.  I raided my kids Play Doh and play kitchen cookie cutters, washed them well and used them to cut shapes out of fruits and vegetables.  I also use stir sticks, toothpicks, kabob skewers and patterns to make food look colorful and different.  The same peanut butter and jelly sandwich gets completely eaten some days when it’s cut up in small squares and put on a stick rather than a huge sandwich cut in half.  Kids love small portions and things their size .

Lunch Punch Car and traffic lunchThis sandwich is made with a LunchPunch brand sandwich cutter.  All I did to dress it up was to add small bento picks for a driver and riders.  The stop sign and one way picks are cupcake toppers I found at a local party store.  I used green beans as the stripes in the road and dried apricots for wheels.  Packed in an Easy Lunchboxes container, everything’s already separated.  Just pack and go.

Once your child starts paying closer attention to what it is that you’re doing, they become interested in the food simply because it’s cut into a shape or poked on a stick.  It could be the same foods they’ve always eaten, but because it is presented in a new way they will eat more of it.  One of my dear bento friends says all of us “eat with our eyes”, and she’s right.  Things thrown in a lunchbox haphazardly are far more likely to come home than when you add a cute bento or cupcake pick to it to make it more fun. I also use silicone baking cups to prevent foods from leaking into each other and provide fun color in the lunchbox.

Bentoriffic beans rice & tulip muffinAbove is a LunchBots Quad stainless lunch container.  I placed square silicone cups in each space to provide color and prevent any foods leaking into each other.  Leftover black beans, rice, tomatoes and cilantro were the entree with a homemade cornbread muffin, kiwi and strawberry slices for lunch.

SAVE MONEY BY TRANSFORMING LEFTOVERS

Black bean & Wholly Guac in ELB Black beans and stars in ELB Black bean and rice lunch in LunchBots Uno

It’s no secret to anyone who reads my blog that I love to double my recipes for dinner and use leftovers for lunch.  It means I only cook once and get to serve the meal a few times.  Above is a great example of a taco style meal at our house.  I made brown rice with black beans, sauteed onions and a bit of sea salt.  I topped them off with fresh tomatoes, spinach and lettuce, scallions, black olives and Wholly Guacamole.    From the left is my husband’s lunch packed for the next day in an Easy Lunchboxes container, my 5 year old’s lunch and my 3 year old’s smaller version packed in a LunchBots container.  For the kids, I froze the guacamole the night before in a star shaped silicone ice cube mold.  Right before they head out the door in the morning, I pop out the stars of guacamole (it works for hummus too!) and they thaw in time for lunch while staying cool.  You can also give the guacamole shapes a quick squirt of lemon or lime juice to prevent browning.  In any case, you can see the same exact 3 lunches all presented a bit differently.

WHERE TO PURCHASE ALL THESE WONDERFUL LUNCH ITEMS:

My recommendations are based on my family’s personal use.  I have not been compensated by the companies in order to promote their products here.  If purchases are made, my affiliate links may receive a small credit for purchases made.

Please click on the individual photos to see where to purchase these items.

Bento food picks, boxes and any imaginable accessories can be found at my favorite and most affordable store called AllThingsForSale. They are California based for those of us not anywhere near Japanese bento stores, they have extremely competitive pricing and excellent customer service. Here are some examples of my favorites that they carry.  The rest of the items listed can be found on Amazon.

Lady bugs, bees, clovers and daisy food bento picks CuteZCute animal face sandwich cutter Animal face food picks Animal bear and rabbit cutters

Want more bento box and healthy eating ideas?  Please visit my other social media links:

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A hearty salad and pockets made with love

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Grilled (dairy free) cheese all around

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