I've had quite a few questions about my bento lunches recently, from various friends and followers of the blog, so I've made this page to try to answer some of them. I hope that you find it interesting, do comment if you'd like to ask me anything else, and I'll do my best to answer!
Q. What is bento?
A. Simply put, bento is ‘food in a box’. Bento boxes have been used in Japan for hundreds of years, but in recent times Japanese parents have been making bento lunches for their children using ever more elaborate designs, such as cartoon characters or portraits of famous people. The idea of bento has also been taken up in other parts of the world, particularly in America, as bento offers an interesting and healthy alternative to the ‘traditional’ sandwich style lunch. Japanese bentos tend to be made up of the rice and vegetables that comprise the usual Japanese diet, but when it comes to the kind of foods you can put in your own bentos, the possibilities are endless.
Q, Why do you pack bento style lunches?
A. I love bento style lunches for several reasons; they are pretty ‘green’, because they don’t require extra packaging such as clingfilm or plastic bags to be used, they are incredibly flexible as (with careful planning and arranging) you can fit most types of food into a bento box, they can make food look very appealing, and their flexibility makes it easy to create a healthy and balanced meal. Not to mention the fact they are lots of fun, both for me as the creator and for Small Child who eats them. I also love the fact that Small Child takes a real interest in his food because he wants to see what I’m packing him each day, and is often full of suggestions for both designs/themes and the foods he would like to eat.
Q. How did you get interested in bento?
A. Completely by accident! I was browsing the Internet one day in the summer of 2012 whilst recovering from a hospital trip, and stumbled across a lovely blog 'Meet the Dubiens' by Jill Dubien, who makes gorgeous bento lunches for her two children. I started researching bento and found countless other bento blogs by some amazing bloggers. My son was starting school in the September, and I had already found making packed lunches for pre-school twice a week a bit of a bind, so I decided to use my new-found interest to make the looming school lunch chore a lot more fun, not to mention healthy. Once I started I was well and truly hooked – making bento is addictive!
Q. How do you keep your food choices interesting?
A. One of the things I love about bento is the fact that you can put pretty much anything in a bento box. I try to provide a variety of foods from the more ‘usual’ sandwiches to leftovers such as pasta or couscous. I have written a couple of posts exploring various options; see 10 alternatives to sliced bread for sandwiches, and 10 non-sandwich lunch ideas. I also keep a printed list of food ideas on my fridge for those days when I’m all out of inspiration. You can download and print a copy of the list here.
Q. How do you stop the food from getting jumbled up together?
A. Both of the lunch bags that I use are designed so that the lunchboxes to stand upright in them, but of course they get swung around and dropped etc on the way to school. I’m sure some jumbling up does occur, but I also try to minimise food movement by packing food fairly tightly, using lunchboxes with separate compartments, using dividers such as silicone cups to hold the food and securing food with food picks, which of course double up as decoration too.
Q. How do you find the time?
A. Contrary to popular belief, packing bento style lunches takes very little extra time (if any) compared to ‘traditional’ packed lunches. If anything, throwing stuff into a box is probably quicker than wrapping individual items. I do perhaps spend a bit of extra time on some lunches, particularly if they have a special theme to them, but I consider making bento style lunches to be a bit of a hobby, so that is my choice. I believe that any extra time is well worth it, as I consider my ‘fun lunches’ to be a way that I can express a little of my love for my child, and I know that he absolutely loves having them. I sometimes take a little time to plan lunch the night before, so that when I’m half-asleep in the morning all I have to do is assemble it without thinking too much (I am not a morning person!). I find that actually making a lunch takes no time at all – it’s the thinking about what to put in it that sometimes slows me down.
Q. Do you plan all your lunches ahead?
A. The majority of my lunches are very much thrown together in the morning. As mentioned above I sometimes try to think about what I’ll make the night before so that I can start the preparation early – taking bread rolls from the freezer for example, or freezing yoghurt into fun shapes, but the majority of the time I make it up as I go along. Sometimes I’ll theme a lunch based on a special occasion or day, in which case I’ll try to at least have a vague plan. For example my World Book Day lunches were mostly planned ahead and (hopefully) a little bit more special as a result.
Q. How long do you take to make each lunch?
A. I have never timed making a lunch from start to finish (I must try it though!), but I would estimate anything between 5-15 minutes for each lunch. Usually it takes very little time, occasionally I give a lunch a little extra time if it’s a special theme or occasion.
Q. When do you pack your lunches?
A. I usually pack lunch each morning before school, at the same time as eating breakfast and whilst giving Small Child his breakfast too. I sometimes plan it the night before, but usually just make it up as I go along, using my food ideas list to inspire me if I need it.
Q. I want to start making bento lunches, what foods should I pack?
A. Absolutely anything that can be eaten cold! The great thing about bento is that it fits in with any lifestyle and you can make it as simple or complicated as you like. For my list of food ideas that you can download and print, see here.
Q. Where do you get all your lunch making supplies?
A. When I first started making bento lunches, I was frustrated because bento hadn't yet taken off in the UK like it had in places like Japan and America, so there was very little in the way of specialist bento supplies available to buy here. I therefore decided to take matters into my own hands and set up the Eats Amazing Shop in order to provide bento supplies such as egg moulds, food picks and specialist mini bento cutters to UK based fans of bento! Of course I have to test all my products, so I have a lovely collection of bento supplies for my own personal use now!
Q. What is your favourite lunchbox?
A. Without a doubt my favourite and most used lunchboxes at the moment are the Yumbox (which I now sell in the Eats Amazing Shop). I also love the EasyLunchbox, but it isn't currently available in the UK unfortunately. I often use my mini two-compartment clip boxes for after school snacks or smaller lunches. They are identical to these ones made by Sistema. I also have a soft spot for our cute IKEA doggie lunchbox!
Q. How do you cut food into such tiny shapes?
A. I use specialist bento cutters that I originally had to order from abroad, but now have available to buy in the Eats Amazing Shop.
Q. What do you use to draw on food?
A. I have a couple of edible marker pens that I use occasionally for drawing smiley faces etc, and I’ve also used a fine paintbrush with a little food colouring for some designs. You can buy edible markers from specialist cake shops or online.
Q. Do your frozen yoghurt shapes melt by lunchtime?
A. I pack the lunchbox in an insulated bag with a small ice pack above and below it. Small Child tells me that the yoghurt usually holds its shape but is soft enough to eat with a spoon by lunchtime.
Q. How do you transport the lunches?
A. I have a couple of insulated lunch bags that I use depending on the lunchboxes I've used that day. Most of the time I use the bag that came with my Laptop Lunches bento box, or the cooler bag that came with my set of EasyLunchboxes, but I also have this cute eco-friendly lunch bag made from recycled plastic:
Q. Does your son eat everything you give him?
A. Most of the time he eats all of his lunch. Occasionally he leaves some, if he’s not particularly hungry that day or in a rush to go and play. He is a very slow eater (and a non-stop talker!), so I’m trying to pack smaller portions for him to give him a better chance to eat it fairly quickly. Usually if there is anything left he likes to finish it off as a snack after school. I do occasionally send items that I know he’s not particularly keen on, such as cherry tomatoes, in the hope that he’ll give it a try and maybe like it one day!
Q. What do you do with the leftover scraps from making each lunch?
A. I do my very best to be ‘green’ in my everyday life, and that includes trying to avoid wasting food whenever possible. I therefore try to find a use for bento scraps whenever I can. Quite often I have a Small Child at my right hand waiting to eat up leftover bits and pieces, but I also have various uses for bento scraps, such as whizzing crusts and scraps of bread up to make breadcrumbs (they freeze beautifully), grating leftover carrot scraps to go in a salad and grating leftover cheese scraps for cooking or eating later on.