One way to make going back to school extra special is to pack a bento box lunch. A bento is the Japanese version of a convenient lunch to-go. These typically consist of healthy home-made meals with rice, meat or fish, vegetables, and sometimes fruit packed in a box shaped container. Bentos can be made for adults or children and customized to each individual’s taste and nutritional needs. And, if you’re looking for a waste-free or zero-waste lunch, bentos are a great place to start.
Each meal can be decorated with simple food art too, transforming a boring lunch into something delightful. For example, a basic peanut butter and jelly sandwich can be cut into small triangles or embossed with a with a bear shaped bread stamper. A food cutter shaped like a flower can transform a plain slice of cheese into a pretty edible decoration sure to bring a smile to a child’s face. If you’re more artistically inclined you can make a character bento with rice balls and thin egg omelets shaped like Pikachu or other anime characters.
Besides the creative expression, one of the best things about bento box lunches is that they are waste-free by design. The bento box itself is reusable. And, with their multiple compartments, you can avoid using single-use disposable plastic sandwich bags. Chopsticks and cutlery are usually also reusable, replacing hundreds of single-use disposable plastic forks during the course of a year. A cloth napkin and reusable water bottle or thermos help reduce even more waste.
To get started with bento choose reusable food containers, and an appropriately sized lunch box or bag that can accommodate the containers and an ice pack or two. Bento boxes are usually a square or rectangular shaped and have tight-fitting, spill proof lids. Some are single tiered with just one box, while others come in a stackable two or three tier set with a lid and carrying handle. For children, there are character shaped bento boxes and those with colorful graphics.
Once you choose your box, you’ll need a reusable lunch bag, ice packs, utensils, water bottle, thermos, cloth napkin, and any additional accessories you may need for your particular lunches. Some to consider are silicone baking cups that can be used for dividers to hold small items like grapes or nuts. Small refillable condiment bottles are perfect for transporting just the right amount of salad dressing or other sauces.
If you’re planning on doing food art you’ll need some additional tools that will make creating shapes much more convenient. A small paring knife and kitchen scissors are helpful, but to make things quicker you should have food cutters with fun shapes. There are also molds to help shape rice and hard-boiled eggs. Bread stampers and cutter sets help bring character to sandwiches by first cutting the shape, then embossing a face onto the bread.
A nori punch is used to punch out shapes, like eyes and hearts, from sheets of dried seaweed. A pair of tweezers dedicated to food can help placing these thin cutouts on your food. You may even find yourself looking for hot dog cutters that cut a pattern of lines into hot dogs revealing the shape of a bunny or octopus once the hot dog expands while cooking. To add the finishing touches to your bento you can add reusable food picks topped with cute character faces like smiling panda bears, or small trains.
Cutting out shapes from food will leave some food scraps behind. However, there’s no need to throw away that bread crust or leftover bits of lunch meat. With a little planning, you can collect the leftover bits of bread and use them to make croutons or a French toast casserole. Leftover ham and cheese make the perfect filling for quesadillas or the star ingredient for your next quiche. As a last resort, you can add most food scraps to your compost pile.
While the appearance of the bento is key, the star of the show is the meal itself. Pack a balanced meal that includes all of the food groups, and consist of fresh, unprocessed foods. If you’re at a loss for what to make, there are plenty of recipes online, and several books available with a range of authentic Japanese meals and simple meals for kids. For adult meals, I recommend “The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches To Go” by Makiko Itoh, and for children “Little Bento: 32 Irresistible Bento Box Lunches for Kids” by Michele Olivier. (Books link to Amazon.com).