I read an article in the New York Times recently about the growing popularity of bento boxes for packing lunch. My boys had bento lunches for 3 years while they attended Japanese kindergarten. I was daunted at first but started to enjoy the process after awhile. A few rice balls (onigiri), some vegetables (sometimes frozen edamame just tucked into the lunch box and perfectly thawed by lunchtime), a small portion of fish, meat, egg or tofu (sometimes using leftovers from dinner the night before, sometimes using frozen food sold for this purpose), and then a bit of fruit for dessert. Once I got into a rhythm it wasn't all that overwhelming. Japanese mothers sometimes put a lot of effort into making bento lunches attractive for their children, but I don't think that it really involves that much more time than making a sandwich.
There are a lot of quick and easy ways to make food appealing-looking to children. Keeping portions small and having some variety and balance is important. One trick is to have small cookie cutters on hand. I have tiny flower-shaped cutters which can cut carrots into flowery shapes, and I also have these contraptions that are like paper punches, which cut nori (seaweed) into shapes to sprinkle on top of rice. However, most days call for simple and fast preparation.
We usually have rice every day for dinner, so there is often quite a bit leftover for lunch. Fried rice is really easy to make - best made with cold leftover rice - and you can throw just about anything in there that you like. In Japan it's common to flavor fried rice with ketchup, but I usually use garlic and a bit of soy sauce and sesame oil for something that tastes more Korean.
My children's kindergarten asked parents to provide a little lunch mat (preferably handmade), and then the children stacked their utensil sets and their little bento boxes on top. They also brought their own little cups to school.
Our babysitter and my dear friend often helped me out by making bento lunch for my sons, especially when Mia was a baby and mornings were hectic. Here's an adorable one she made, much to my son's delight.
Another thing that is really useful are these little picks:
We still use them all the time when serving cut fruit, etc. One or two can be easily tucked into a bento box and make lunchtime a little more fun for your little one.
One more thing that is pretty neat are rice ball molds. These help you form rice into cute little shapes that you can then decorate (if so inclined) to make little faces. I confess I didn't do this that often, but when I did have the time the kids were delighted.
The molds come in two parts. Take it apart, fill the canister with rice about halfway up:
and fit the two parts back together again to smush the rice down into the canister.
So.....big moment for me, I am going to do a giveaway of these picks and molds! I am so appreciative of all of you who come by and visit, read, subscribe, and comment, and I'd love the chance to send these out to one of you.
All you have to do to enter this giveaway is comment on this post down below and mention what is your child's (or your) favorite thing to pack for lunch. The giveaway will last 2 weeks and end on October 11th at midnight EST, and then I will send these items to the lucky winner. The one caveat is, that is so close to my due date, that there may be a delay in sending - but I won't forget. :-) Good luck.