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School Lunches: Bento Box Revolution

September 4, 2013

I pack my own lunch every day. Well, almost every day. I don’t mind it too much, but there is one thing I absolutely hate about packing a lunch.

The packing.

Man with bag lunch at CHEFScatalog.comI don’t like putting things in little plastic containers, because that means I have to then put the little containers in the dishwasher where the lids often fall down between the cracks and melt on the heating element. But, if I don’t put them in the dishwasher, then they have to be washed by hand.

I don’t do handwashing.

So that means I try to use resealable plastic bags instead of containers. Do you know how many of those plastic bags go into our landfills every day? One statistic claims that more than 20 million—that’s 20,000,000—plastic sandwich bags go into U.S. landfills each day. That bothers me, too.

Well, if you are with me on this, then you may already know about the latest lunchbox craze—the bento. If you haven’t heard of it, don’t fret. It was new to me, too. Bento is a Japanese slang word for “convenient.”

Essentially, a bento box looks kind of like those dishes that TV dinners come in—you know, the ones with the little segments for each different food? You place each course in its own compartment. Some bentos have one lid that closes over the entire segmented dish while with others have lids for each compartment. Still, others don’t use segmented dishes at all, but the lunch packer just puts everything in together—in an artful way, of course—and closes one lid over it all.

Red Benton Lunch at CHEFScatalog.comBecause, see, the bento craze has something else a little different, too.

Design your (child’s) lunch

Whether you’re making a lunch for yourself or for a child to take to school, the bento encourages nutrition and creativity.

According to Wikipedia, the bento is “a single-portion takeout or home-packed meal common in Japanese cuisine.” Normally a bento would hold rice, fish or other meat, vegetables, and a small sweet—all in a box-shaped container.

In Japan, there are different styles of bento boxes. Two of the most interesting are: kyaraben and oekakiben. The kyaraben or “character bento” is a lunch that is typically decorated to look like a popular character from Japanese cartoons (anime), comic books (manga), or video games. The oekakiben or “picture bento” is a lunch decorated to look like people, animals, buildings, monuments, etc. They are so popular in Japan, that contests are held to create the most aesthetically pleasing bentos. (See the videos below for some cute oekakiben).

This is the kind of bento that has garnered the most attention recently. These are made by parents for their children as a way to encourage them to eat. However, most people do not spend time making the elaborate kyaraben and oekakiben—unless they are doing so as a hobby or a craft.

Bento and nutritionBamboo Bento at CHEFScatalog.com

Traditional bento boxes follow a rough guideline that they should be 4 parts rice, 3 parts protein, 2 parts vegetable, and one part sweet. However, this is not a rule.

There are many traditional Japanese foods that are often found in a bento box lunch, but don’t get hung up on the idea that a good bento box must include Japanese food—that’s not true. Bento boxes are more about nutrition and portion control, regardless of the type of cuisine used. For more details on each of the foods listed below, see this page on About.com.

  • Tamagoyaki is Japanese rolled omelet. It’s often served in Japanese-style breakfast and is a popular bento food.
  • Rice balls are called onigiri in Japan and are usually shaped into rounds or triangles by hand. Onigiri are often put in Japanese bento lunch boxes.
  • Inarizushi is known as brown bag sushi. Sushi rice is packed in seasoned aburaage (fried tofu) pouches. Inarizushi is easy to eat, so it’s often put in a bento.
  • Teriyaki chicken, marinated and pan-fried, is easy to make and is a good bento food. Cut chicken into bite-size pieces before packing.
  • Shogayaki (pork slices) are marinated in a ginger-flavored sauce and stir-fried.
  • Apple Rabbits, rabbit-shaped apple pieces, are often packed in bento boxes to please kids.
  • Kinpira Gobo, braised, is a traditional side dish which goes with plain steamed rice.

Diet control

Duralex Glass Storage Containers at CHEFScatalog.comDiet control using a bento box can be fun, since the box makes it easier to control portion sizes and avoid processed foods. A bento box can motivate you (or your kids) to prepare home-cooked food and get creative with leftovers. Because these boxes and their compartments are typically small, calorie and carbohydrate control is built in.

Bento boxes are popular and there are many websites dedicated to them (do a simple Google search if you’d like to learn more). However, you do not need special “bento-approved” gear to participate in the concept of lunch by bento.

Your Turn on Bento Boxes at CHEFScatalog.comYou can use containers like these to experiment with the bento craze and create your own non-segmented bento.

And if you want to get artistic, after making your sandwich use a favorite cookie cutter or biscuit cutter to pack shaped sandwiches in your bento. You can even use a hamburger or slider press to press cooked rice into shape.

Or, consider taking a bento-esque approach to storage of your spices and/or dry goods with containers like these.

Bento boxes have become popular especially with parents who want their families to eat wholesome homemade foods when away from home. Plus, they provide an opportunity for fun, pleasure, and—if you want it—artistic expression.

What will you bento?

Packing school lunches! See more blogs on school lunch tips and ideas, right here at CHEFS Mix.

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Tags: Bento Box, Lunch, Storage

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