Bent on Bentos

By Ramona Sever
Photography by Jenna Noel
 

My name is Ramona Sever, and I just wrapped up a great first-grade year at Zilker Elementary. I like school for a lot of reasons: I loved my teacher, I have great friends and I really love sinking my teeth into new subjects. I guess I haven’t given much thought to the other things I’ve sunk my teeth into throughout the school year, though. Like my lunch. More specifically, the things in my lunchbox. Even more specifically, the things in my bento box.

My mom has been packing my lunch ever since I started eating away from home, and although I knew that she spent time making sure the food was healthy, I never really thought about the way my lunch looked (or that it was sort of unique) until recently. My mom explained to me that the funny plastic and metal boxes I carried with me to school each day are actually called bento boxes, and there is a long and interesting history about where they came from and why people use them.

 
Bento boxes are from Japan, and were first thought to have been used in the 16th century. If you’ve never seen one, they’re usually shaped like a small box, with dividers inside to separate different foods from each other. Apparently this was a good way to control portions when food was scarce, as it gave guidelines as to how much of each course was allowed. It was also a convenient and attractive way to serve and present full meals to large groups of people at one time. Some people in Japan have turned bento-box meals into works of art, using special cutting tools and molds to turn food into fun characters, or even to create a whole scene. And it’s all edible!
 
Bento boxes make great school lunchboxes for a lot of the same exact reasons they were  created. They’re convenient, and, thanks to the dividers,you can pack several different foods together in one box. They’re cute, too! But more importantly, they serve as a great way to reduce the amount of trash that goes into the trash can at the end of lunchtime.
 
Kids can really make a difference helping out our schools by taking responsibility for low-waste (or no-waste) lunchbox lunches. Watch The Story of Stuff (storyofstuff.com ) with your family. I learned these two facts that really stuck with me: 1) Each person in the United States makes 4.5 POUNDS of trash a day. That is twice what we made 30 years ago; 2) For every can of garbage you put out to the curb, 70 garbage cans of waste were made upstream to make the junk in that one can.
 
Another benefit to bringing your lunch in a bento box is that you can pack up the food you don’t eat during lunch and bring it back home to the compost bin (if you have one). If you dump your food at school, it will just get wrapped up in a big plastic bag and head to a landfill somewhere. It won’t be given the ability to break down, reenter the soil or feed a garden (or some backyard chickens)!
 
You can see that there are a lot of good reasons to use bento boxes. They have an interesting history, they can hold your lunch or be an art project, and they’re a great way to save food and help the environment!

Deli Bento suggestions (from owner Kayo Asazu)

In Japan, known as where Bento came from, Mother put so much energy to prepare Bento for kids to make them healthy and happy. We often say it is a part of very important communication between mother and children. So of course, you would like to take this seriously and prepare Bento that kids will love so much.

I believe, in order to have enough nutrition, Bento should have 1 carb item, such as bread, rice or pasta. And one entree (should be either meat or seafood) and then two side dish items (usually vegetables). So it means just one peanut butter sandwich is not enough nutrition for kids lunch!   Also Bento has to be visually fun. Be creative! I used to like the very moment when I open the bento box for lunch, and goes... WAO! So my mother carefully chose the items have different colors (such as using carrot as red, broccoli as green, egg as yellow,,,,) And sometimes she cut sheet of seaweed as bunny shape and placed it on steam rice. When the bento is fun, it will encourage kids to eat everything, even something they do not like. And last thing, always keep good sanitary conditions. Make sure wash your hands very well before preparing Bento, and cook everything well-done. These suggestions are very simple, but should apply anytime people make Bento.


Where to find Bento boxes

 

• Deli Bento also suggests that if you can't find your own bento box, to use a regular tupperware container and cut lettuce or cabbage leaves to make your dividers.

 

• Ramona's favorite bento can be found here plasticashop.com

• Wheatsville Food Co-op carries Laptop Lunches bento boxes/cases

• buy4asianlife.com has a slection of bento boxes for all price ranges

• laptoplunches.com Laptop Lunches are American-style bento boxes designed to help families pack nutritious, environment-friendly lunches for school, work, and travel. Our sustainable lunch containers--which come with a book of healthy lunch ideas and lunchmaking recipes--are reusable, recyclable, and dishwasher safe. Our lunchboxes do not contain phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), or lead.

• fit-fresh.com Fit Fresh has a variety of containers, though not quite bento boxes, these reusable boxes come with built-in ice packs to keep your food cold until it's lunch time.

• zojirushi.com Lunch jars provide an excellent way to safely and conveniently pack lunch (or a snack) where a microwave or a refrigerator may not be available. Simply fill the plastic inner bowls with rice and soup, or cottage cheese and fruit (always pack all hot or all cold items), and place them in the stainless steel outer container. The vacuum insulation keeps the contents hot or cold for up to 6 hours.

• jlist.com Bento boxes found here are covered in fun prints for children. Lots of shapes and sized, many include reusable chopsticks.

• The Container Store on 183/360 has several food containers that work well and they even have sliding dividers

• Asahi imports on Burnet Rd. also has a limited selection of traditional bento boxes.

• Many more bento boxes can be found on Amazon and Ebay

Ramona’s  Picks for Bento Box items

• green salad, dressing on the side
• yogurt with fruit
• tofu pouches stuffed with rice and beans
• chopped veggies with peanut butter
• pasta salad, with crispy nuts
• pb&j of  course!

Also try...
• fried polenta (in fun shapes: see Lunchinabox)
• onigiri (rice balls, can be colored and/or made into fun shapes, see Justbento )
• eggs
• fruit or fruit salad

Wheatsville suggestions (from Nicki Nash)
• salad, noodle salad
• fresh fruit or vegetables
• (in lidded container) dressing, peanut butter, sauce, yoghurt
• sandwiches
• kid sushi (rice & veg in paper)
• nuts
• leftovers
hint: go for variety!

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