While working at Muso Kindergarten in Kyoto, Japan, the cook, Mrs. Takehara, cooked brown rice lunches every day for 350 students, but when we went on field trips, the children took their lunches from home. At those times, I loved to walk around and take a look at the imaginative lunches that the students’ mothers had prepared for them that morning. I wondered how early they had gotten up to make the bunny-shaped rice balls and flower-shaped sandwiches. Japanese packed lunches are called “bento,” which is short for obento, the honorific form. Mothers make them for their children to take to school or outings, and they prepare them for their husbands to take to work. In Japan, you can buy premade bentos in bamboo or plastic boxes at restaurants, supermarkets, convenience stores, or stalls in the train stations. Bentos can be complicated with garnishes and decorations, or simple with the previous meal’s leftovers arranged in an artistic way. Bentos are a way to make healthy food more appealing and to provide portion control for your baby or toddler.
Some child care centers and preschools provide meals and snacks, and others rely on the parents to provide their child’s food, so you may need to research to find out the options available. Especially when my children were younger, I preferred to prepare their food myself so that I could know what they were eating. For babies and toddlers at child care centers, you can pack bottles, freezer cubes of puree, finger foods, or teething biscuits in an insulated bag or backpack with the diapers, clothes, bibs, and other essentials. Toddlers at preschool like to have a fun backpack to carry their lunch, raincoat, books, and toys.
Below are some tips on making healthy and easy bentos:
- Use foods like salted pickled plums and plum vinegar for preserving rice and other foods.
- Use a variety of colors for visual appeal as well as for health and balance—something yellow or orange, green, black, and white.
- Do not mix cold and hot foods together because mixing the two can make them spoil. Also, eating cold and hot foods at the same time is disruptive to your baby’s digestive system and can cause gas. Animal foods do not keep as long as vegetables do and need to be chilled with an ice pack and insulated bag.
- Make a balanced meal with a grain, vegetable, protein, and fruit or cookie for dessert.
- Use a variety of tastes with seasonings that include salty, sweet, sour, spicy, and herb flavorings. Cold food requires more seasoning than hot food does.
- Keep it simple for every day lunches; basic tasty food with three to five items is enough. Occasionally, you can add decorations for variety and fun. For special occasions, it is festive to make more intricate designs.
- Use organic, local, and seasonal food, if possible, and avoid processed foods.
- Plan ahead when cooking meals by making extra so that you have leftovers.
- Shop for bento-friendly foods such as grains, noodles, bread for sandwiches, vegetables, beans, tempeh, fruit, healthy crackers, and snacks.
- Organize bento supplies. Cookie cutters or molds are fun to make different shapes of rice balls or sandwiches. Garnishes and decorations add color and taste for visual appeal. Containers, cutlery, chopsticks, sippy cups, and water bottles are made of many different materials, including stainless steel, bioplastic, bamboo, and polypropylene plastic. Non-spill lids are helpful for drinks or foods with liquids; small containers or dividers help keep dishes separate. Snack and sandwich bags are lightweight and convenient for carrying crackers, cookies, and sandwiches. Thermoses keep food warm; ice packs keep food cold in insulated lunch bags.