Back-to-School Bento Box

“What should I pack for lunch?” is a question many parents grapple with at the beginning of the school year. It’s not as simple as it seems to provide a healthy, nutritious meal that will actually be eaten by your child. One fun and creative solution is to send your child to school with your version of the Japanese bento box.

Bento boxes are compartmentalized lunch boxes from Japan. Traditionally, they are beautiful lacquered wooden works of art. Japanese moms artfully craft kyaraben, or character bento boxes. They sculpt the food to look like Japanese comic book characters. For younger children, they make oekakiben, or picture bentos, where the food may look like flowers or animals.

In the United States, you may purchase stainless steel or plastic versions of the traditional bento box. Some of them are microwavable, dishwasher safe and insulated. Many American parents lack the time and skill to create artistic lunches for their children. The advantage of the bento box is that it is easy to present a variety of healthy choices, separated into different compartments.

For a nutritious lunch, each bento box should contain some fruit and/or vegetables, a whole grain starch and some protein. Parents can be very creative with what they put into each section.

Starches
Whole grains are healthy and keep your child satiated for a long time. The body has to work hard to break down unrefined grains. As a result, there is a constant slow release of sugar into the blood, which prevents the feeling of hunger. Examples of foods containing whole grains are whole wheat bread, pretzels, tortillas, pitas, bagels, crackers and pasta. Brown rice, oatmeal and popcorn are also sources of whole grains.

Protein
For children over the age of two, 2% milk is recommended, as well as dairy products containing 2% milk, such as yogurt, cheese and pudding.

If permitted in school, nuts or nut butters are also excellent sources of protein. Other options include fish, eggs, lentils, refried beans, hummus, tofu, chicken, turkey and beef.

Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables with bright colors have more vitamins. With imports readily available in the supermarket year-round, it is possible to provide healthy fresh fruits and vegetables even in the middle of winter. The following are examples of some good lunch choices:

  • Carrots
  • Bell peppers
  • Broccoli
  • Strawberries
  • Blueberries
  • Raspberries
  • Blackberries
  • Mangoes
  • Cantaloupe
  • Oranges
  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Peaches
  • Plums
  • Pineapple

The most important part of the packed lunch is the note from the parent. Surprise your child with a message of love and support. You may not be able to sculpt a panda bear out of rice and nori (seaweed), but you can draw a cute cartoon or heart and add a personal message. Your child will treasure it!

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