Smile Politely

Back to School Bento Boxes: An attempt at a Japanese boxed lunch

This week as classes begin, students of all ages create resolutions to form good habits, achieve high marks and have fun in the process. The back-to-school ad campaigns have been going strong for weeks now and I can’t help but to think about food. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about bento boxes – those intricate, colorful, Japanese lunches littering Pinterest and intimidating even the best of parents. The Champaign Public Library has quite a few cookbooks on the subject and as I thumbed through one the other day, I was inspired to attempt bento on my own (and without a cookbook to guide me).

According to Wikipedia, bento boxes date back to 12th century Japan. Bento, by definition, means convenience. The boxes contained dried food and were used for traveling long distances. Over time, the boxes were decorated and dividers were created in them to separate the food. In the 19th century, the more modern bento was developed to sell at train stations and was considered the original “fast food”. Currently, more than 12 million bento boxes are sold in Japan each day (The Deluxe Food Lover’s Companion, 2009).

The surge in convenience stores in the 80s propelled, once again, the bento. Plastic, portioned TV dinners and other pre-packaged lunches became a mutated version of the Japanese convenience-food. Traditionally, bento is a lunch and the key to effective bento is having a minimum of 5 colors of food in the box. The 5 colors represent the 5 food groups, thus equaling a balanced meal. 

The balanced food groups and portion control elements bento provide have created a recent surge in Western popularity as tools for diet programs. In addition, turning the food into fun characters or designs has given parents a way to feed their children healthy meals by an easier means. Character bento, or kyaraben, is food made to look like an actual cartoon character. Picture bento, or oekakiben, are made to look like flowers or animals. Bento does not have to be made to look like anything; a nice salad or leftover spaghetti can all be considered bento. It’s the ‘packed’ element that’s key. 

I decided to try my hand at bento to see how hard these are to put together. Using fresh produce I had acquired from the farmers market and only running out to grab some fun picks, I created the following lunches/snacks displayed in the photos.  I had quite a few cherry tomatoes on hand, which proved to be my favorite food to use. I also garnished with spinach leaves, which allowed some arrangements to ‘pop’. Also, during my research, there were many references to silicone cupcake sleeves, but all I had were foil lined. These proved to be very effective and rather attractive. A melon baller was quite useful for rounding out peaches and watermelon for flower petals and a donut-punch was also key for making the eyes on my final salad. 

The overall process was messier than I was expecting and I also felt a little at-a-lossof what designs to make. I wasn’t using a cookbook, but I was attempting to make lunches I thought my spouse would enjoy, and since all of the articles I read said a picture design wasn’t required, I went for aesthetically pleasing. 

While conducting this experiment, the designs became easier and I found some tricks of my own to use for future bento creations:

  1. Invest in some cute toothpicks to add a little flare and keep the workload easy.  Stabbing those cherry tomatoes with the heart picks was easy and made my bento look more authentic. 
  2. This project is a great way to use all those tiny Tupperware containers stored away with the best of intentions, but I also would start saving the soy sauce from Chinese takeout and the other odd condiments we accumulate; they would be incredibly handy for these!  
  3. This is a great opportunity to rummage through the drawers and use all the little trinkets tucked away for a rainy day, or accumulate trinkets you always avoid buying for fear you’ll never use them! 
  4. So many of the examples online use edible markers to draw little designs. I’m not sure where to buy edible markers in Champaign, but if you know, please post below!

A few helpful resources for bento items:

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