Despite the fact that my husband says, “kids who bring Bento boxes to school are 300% more likely to get beat up,” I think the Bento craze is here to stay. In case you’re unfamiliar, the word “Bento” means lunch box in Japanese, where a home-packed meal is called “o-bento.” These neatly packed lunches, usually in divided containers wrapped in cloth and tied with chopsticks, traditionally include rice, fish, and some type of pickled vegetable — the goal being to achieve balance, of both foods and colors. Of course, I immediately fell for their compact cuteness (hmmm, maybe there is something to the bullying thing after all?), but now that they’re gaining popularity in the U.S., I see so many more advantages beyond visual appeal.
Japanese-style Bento boxes are great because they keep foods separated without the need for plastic sandwich bags or containers, which means they reduce waste. Foods must be packed fairly compactly to keep from sloshing around, so they’re plenty big for most kids’ lunches, but they also offer automatic portion control. If you get into the spirit of Bento packing and aim for an attractive mix of food colors, you will almost certainly have the added bonus of sending a healthy, balanced lunch in the bargain. And did I mention they’re just so nifty-looking?
There are a zillion Bentos out there to choose from, but I thought finding one that is the right size and not overly precious (Helly Kitty was adorable, but will we still love it next year?) was a bit of a challenge. Some can seem pricey, but keep in mind your savings on Glad bags and hot lunch (most cost less than two weeks of Lunchables, by the way). Here are a few Bento-style items worth checking out:
- Easy LunchBoxes are affordable and easy to use. They’re not really Bentos, but they do the trick. So do Ziploc divided containers, for that matter. They now say “BPA Free,” but I still wouldn’t put them in the dishwasher or microwave. If you use this type of container for perishable foods, definitely pack it inside a regular, insulated lunch sack with ice packs.
- I like Go Green Lunch Boxes because they come with cool outer lunch bags and water bottles. The lid fits very snugly with a silicone seal, so there’s very little chance of things like yogurt squishing between the compartments (I’m skeptical but will try sending soup in one of these and report back). Plus, the company offers these products as part of a school fund-raising program, so definitely worth a look.
- I bought this cute little bento for my daughter. It’s from Japan and looked kinda small when I first got it. But it’s actually the perfect size for a kindergartner’s turkey-avocado wrap, eight grape tomatoes, and cheese stick. I put it inside her regular, insulated lunch bag, and there’s still enough space for a small water bottle. Maybe my favorite thing about this Bento is the awesome inscription on the lid: “It is so wonderful to be able to maintain your dreams.”
- Laptop Lunches have been popular for a while, probably because they are more utilitarian (and slightly less cute) than typical Bentos; heck, even adult men are known to use them (not my spouse, alas). They’re slightly larger than traditional Japanese-style Bentos, which makes them ideal for big American kids’ appetites. One thing to consider is that Laptop Lunches come with several individual containers (each with its own lid, called Laptop Buddies) inside a larger, laptop-style box (which is available as a set with an outer insulated lunch bag). This is a great feature because there’s no spilling or sloshing of foods such as sauces or soups; however, I found that for smaller children (i.e. my daughter), it takes too much time and effort to open all those containers, and I actually prefer the single-lid box for her.
So, now that we’ve had a little fun shopping for fun Bentos (aren’t they easier to get excited about than regular lunch sacks and thermoses?), it’s time to fill them. I am still working on transitioning my lunch-making into a true Bento style. In the meantime, I found a woman who packs crazy-amazing Bento lunches for her lucky child every single morning — and blogs about it. Granted, she spent years in Japan and her kid attends a Japanese-immersion school where Bentos are practically required. Still, it’s awesome. Check out her blog for inspiration and ideas.