Making Lunch Fun and Healthy: Back-to-School Bento Boxes

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine
By Alyson Gregory

Let’s set the record straight: You don’t need to be able to carve emojis out of sticky rice and prawns, parent a child who will eat exotic foods, or even understand what a Pokémon is in order to get in on the fun and hop on the bento bus!

In fact, if you ride it back to its origins in fifth-century Japan, the bento can be traced to farmers who needed to carry food with them into the fields. It was simply a nutritious, home-packed meal in a lunch box with multiple compartments designed for traveling and eating on-the-go.

Brush off the intimidation factor! This is a culinary tradition worth adopting for developing your child’s healthy, whole-food-eating habits and fueling them with the slow release of energy and staying power they need for their school day — because you are what you eat — and so are they.

So, if you’re still standing in the grocery store aisle staring at a dizzying assortment of Ziplocs while trying to conjure up the distant memory of last school year’s lunch-packing routine, it is without a doubt time for a makeover. Breathe a sigh of relief, ditch the plastic bags you know are leaching chemicals into your kids’ food and dangerously polluting the environment, and move on down the aisles toward these surefire, healthy bento box lunch recipes. Your children will feel special, your conscience will lighten (you’re one step closer to breaking up with disposable plastic), and, hey, you’ll have some DIY Pinterest material for those run-of- the-mill weeks leading up to Halloween, if that’s your thing!

Head online and you’ll find a host of companies that offer bento boxes of many shapes and sizes (many even specifically designed for children), as well as tools to create cute food shapes and figures, like molds that turn rice or hard-boiled eggs into smiling animal faces, reusable food picks, heart- and star-shaped food cutters, and more. Popular vendors include Bentology (pictured above), PlanetBox, Yumbox, ECOlunchbox, and many others.

Bento Box Salads

Kids love to eat salad when it’s deconstructed. Get rid of the wilted lettuce (we don’t like it either), aim for exciting colors and textures, and let your kids assemble these healthy salads themselves. They will love sticking cute-faced panda food picks in their veggies and feel proud and satisfied all the way through lunch.

Cross the Border

* Southwest cubed or shredded antibiotic-free chicken

* Grape tomatoes

* Ripe avocado

* Corn kernels (use leftovers from a steamed cob)

* Black or kidney beans drained and rinsed

* Cubed Monterey Jack cheese

Mexican flavor combinations are for everyone. Ready to introduce a new spice? The corn and beans can be mixed together with a pinch of cumin. Turn the avocado into stars and hearts with veggie cutters, and use ladybug food picks for the tomatoes. Shortcut prep with ready-to-eat, natural, fajita-style grilled chicken strips, and squeeze some lime onto the avocado to keep it green. A blue corn tortilla cut into wedges and a quick honey-lime dressing they can drizzle come lunchtime completes this balanced meal.

Go Greek

* Whole grain pasta

* Cucumber (1/2 diced, 1/2 saved for peeling a cucumber ribbon)

* Greek or Kalamata pitted olives

* Crumbled feta

* Diced tomatoes

* Fresh lemon juice

This quick pasta salad can be neatly separated into a bento and mixed together for your lunch. Combine the tomatoes and feta with lemon juice, and box the olives and pasta on their own. Don’t forget the bento food picks for the olives, and top with a fancy cucumber ribbon elegantly laid out across their lunch.

Buddha’s Bento

Break out your most adorable food molds for this power-packed Buddha bowl. Similar to a rice bowl, this nourishing ratio of whole grains, roasted and fresh veggies, and protein has endless options to take you right through the school year and eat seasonally from your local farmers market. Transform your child’s food into delightful characters, like a bunny or bear, using a rice mold and let the fun begin.

* Grains/carbohydrates (whole-wheat couscous, brown rice,  bulgur wheat, wheat, berries, millet, roasted sweet potato)

* Protein (chickpeas, lentils, edamame, cannellini beans, preservative-free chicken or turkey)

* Veggies (cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, peas, cucumbers, radishes, green beans, carrots)

* Toppings (nuts, sunflower or pumpkin seeds, dried fruit, tahini yogurt dressing, creamy avocado dressing)

Classic Bento

Bring any classic sandwich favorite to life with a few tweaks and fun shapes. You can even make a fabulous “ham flower” blossoming out of your child’s lunch with a few simple cuts. Swap your usual bread for a whole wheat rollup or handheld lettuce wrap (perfect for tuna salad or hummus), and make a “smoothie bowl” lunch dessert out of yogurt and toppings. Bento box containers are leak-resistant, so you’re covered.

Try these bento mainstays, go for the colors of the rainbow with fruit and veg, and get creative:

* Hard-boiled egg (use egg/rice mold for shaping)

* Meatballs

* Zucchini pancakes

* Rice cake

* Tuna salad with craisins (swap mayo for avocado)

* Egg salad

* Preservative-free hummus

* Preservative-free turkey/ham

* Cheese (forget the sticks, go for the shapes)

* Nut butter

* Yogurt

* Seasonal fruit

* Shredded coconut

* Chocolate chips

* Nuts

* Dried fruit

* No-bake energy bars

* Homemade oatmeal cookie

* Peanut butter-banana muffin