Since medieval Japan, the bento box has been a cornerstone of Japanese home cooking. Japanese on average eat more vegetables and fish than Americans, although today, some frozen mini foods are included in bentos. Japanese mothers go to great lengths to make their kids lunches not only nutritious with a variety of foods, but also artistically pleasing and fun with cute characters or faces made out of food. If you want something different for your kids, then you can get started making your own bento boxes. A good bento box doesn't have to be complicated or take a long time. Here are 5 points to making your Japanese style bento.
1. The Bento Box
The first thing you need to do is get a Japanese style bento box. These are relatively easy to find. There are basically two kinds; a simple single rectangular box, sometimes in a cute character shape, or a stackable, 2 tier bento box. The smaller box would be better for preschool/kindergarten age children, while elementary school kids or adult might prefer the two-tier bento. One half is for the "gohan" rice or other carbohydrates and the other half for the "okazu", meat and vegetable dishes. These boxes often contain little dividers to make it easier to place food. Japanese kids will often have another smaller box on the side with dessert of fruit or jelly cups.
2. Food Ratio
Kids bento boxes in miniature, reflect the food balance of a typical Japanese meal. These are just basic guidelines:
50% rice or carbohydrates
+25% vegetable dishes
-25% meat, fish, or egg
5-10% fruit dessert(optional)
Japanese often eat meat, but it's usually the smallest thing on the plate or it's mixed in other dishes like stir-fry.
3. Variety of Food
One thing that always strikes foreigners in Japan is the variety of dishes served at a typical Japanese meal. As opposed to traditional American cooking, Japanese meals are made up of several smaller dishes besides the staple rice including fish, vegetable dishes, soup, and pickles. This is no more apparent than in the bento box with a variety of colorful, bite-sized foods. This variety is not only nutritious and aesthetically pleasing, but stimulates kids and gets them more interested in food. You can expose them to a greater range of food items, instead of always sticking to the normal favorites. Here are some good bento foods:
"Gohan"- You can add variety by rotating the main carbohydrates. First is white rice, the Japanese short grain variety. On top of rice you can add rice sprinkles that are derived from various foods. Or you can lay a few sheets of slightly salty nori seaweed on top. Sometimes you could make rice balls. Rice can be plain or mixed with sprinkles and shaped into triangles or cylinders. Wrap a little nori around for easier handling and wrap completely in plastic wrap. Other than white rice, you can substitute fried rice, spaghetti or pasta, or sandwiches. For sandwiches make several different kinds and cut them into small pieces to fit in the box. Sandwiches could include PB&J, ham and cheese, egg salad, tuna, or chocolate cream.
"Okazu"- This is the meat and vegetables half. Foods should be small and have a variety of colors. Typical bento foods include sausages, mini hamburgers, fried chicken nuggets, ham, omelet, quail eggs, carrots, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, cheese, crab sticks, beans or peas, corn, cucumber, pickles, strawberry, and apple. Foods should be nicely arranged and are often served with small, decorative food picks for smaller children. Instead of plastic dividers, you can use lettuce leaves to sneak in a few extra veggies.
Mothers not only want to provide nutritious meals, but make them fun and cute. Make a few cuts in the end of a sausage, add eyes to make an octopus. Cheese and nori can be cut and added to rice balls to make faces. Make cats, or bears or other cute characters. Make a ghost out of a boiled quail egg with a couple of black sesame seeds for eyes. For making faces, nori, sliced cheese, and black sesame seeds are your best friends. There are a wide variety of nori punches available to make face parts that makes the process much easier and opens up new possibilities. Let your imagination go wild.
5. Planning and Implementation
Some mothers may be afraid of making bentos because it sounds like a lot of work., but with a little fore thought and preparation, it doesn't take much longer than making a usual American kids lunch. It might also take some getting used to for the kids. I would recommend in the beginning, just make the bento lunch once a week, say on Friday. Introduce the kids to the idea and let them get excited about it. Don't forget to rotate foods as mentioned above. Try to get them to use chopsticks. If possible, keep it a secret so they don't know what's in it until they open the box. Judge their reaction and get their feedback. Soon, you'll be getting requests for more bentos during the week. Their friends may also be curious. Try to find other like-minded mothers and share ideas. You'll find that it's more fun and motivating for you, too. You'll become a better cook, make more nutritious meals, and introduce them to another culture. Ganbate! (Good luck!)
Visit the Bento Store on this site for all your bento needs.