May 10, 2024

The Best School Lunch Idea: the Bento Box

Endlessly adaptable, a bento-box lunch comes to the rescue as school begins, Kenji López-Alt writes.

Joel Goldberg for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Hadas Smirnoff.Credit...

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By J. Kenji López-Alt

Getting two small children out the door and ready for school can feel like trying to shop from both sides of a supermarket aisle while sprinting down a balance beam. Taking the time to pack a good lunch with a variety of nutritious foods is a lot to ask. For my family, taking cues from Japanese bento culture is what’s made it possible.

Bento boxes date back to Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868), when travelers would pack rice balls into bamboo pouches carried around the waist, according to Emiko Davies, writing in “Gohan,” her upcoming book of Japanese home cooking. It’s a practice my grandmother continued, when she would pack musubi (rice balls) stuffed with umeboshi (pickled plums) into Tupperware containers to bring on road trips and picnics.

These days, modern bento boxes are leakproof with kid-friendly latches and colors and, importantly, a compartmentalized interior that provides a blueprint for packing lunch and removes some of the stress of planning — especially if you keep a few key points and formulas in mind.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Committing to packing a bento every morning means forgetting the notion that these lunches will feature rice balls shaped into kawaii pandas or apples sliced into bunnies. If I have a few extra moments, I may lovingly slit a cocktail wiener into an octopus — that’s the extent of my decorating.

What I do focus on are the colors going into the box.

Namiko Chen, of the blog Just One Cookbook, reminds us to think of a rainbow in her excellent guide to packing bento. White rice. Green vegetables. Brown meats. Red fruits. Yellow eggs. Presenting and eating a variety of colors is a philosophy of Japanese cuisine designed to make meals appealing and balanced; it applies to multicourse kaiseki meals as well as easy packed lunches.

Take my daughter Alicia’s favorite bento box meal: sanshoku-don (“three-color rice bowl,” a variation of soboro-don, “ground meat rice bowl”). It’s one of the most popular bento meals in Japan, combining a very simple stir-fry of ground meat with finely scrambled eggs and a green vegetable. The brown meat, yellow eggs and green vegetables are arranged on a bed of rice like stripes on a flag or sections of a pie chart, depending on the shape of the bento.

It’s a fast dish that fits neatly into the largest compartment and, when paired with a raw fruit, a raw vegetable and some Japanese pickles in the smaller compartments, is a balanced meal that travels well and can be prepared in advance.

Rice with toppings (such as sanshoku-don) • A raw vegetable • A raw fruit • A treat, like a cookie

I make a large batch of the meat mixture, portion it in ice cube trays and freeze it. Then, when packing lunch, I defrost two frozen cubes of the meat mixture for a couple minutes in the microwave next to a portion of rice. I freeze cooked rice in single-serving, microwave-safe deli containers, and I keep a stock of ready-to-heat, shelf-stable precooked rice bowls in the pantry for emergencies. As the rice and meat defrost, I scramble some extra eggs at breakfast, pull some peas out of the freezer, and lunch is ready to pack.

The same basic formula — a starchy main compartment with a colorful selection of mainly leftovers and raw ingredients filling out the sides — works in non-Japanese incarnations as well. Put some leftover pasta with pesto in the big compartment (garnished with some split cherry tomatoes and basil leaves), fresh fruit like diced melons or berries in one side container, whatever cheese I have in the fridge in a second and a side of leftover vegetables. (If we have no leftovers, frozen peas, placed in the bento box straight from the freezer, appear.)

Cold pasta salad • Fruit and cheese or ham • A raw vegetable • A treat

Adding a do-it-yourself element to lunch not only engages kids in the activity of feeding themselves, but it also gives them a taste of independence that gets them excited to eat.

Think homemade Lunchables. D.I.Y. taco kits and roll-your-own vegetable sushi (featuring cucumber, avocado, carrots and the like) are obvious places to start — microwave sushi rice in the morning, wrap it in foil or plastic immediately, and pack it straight into the bento box to keep it tender and fresh until lunchtime.

This works with virtually everything: Chicken Caesar salad with sliced grilled chicken, romaine leaves, grated Parmesan, anchovies, croutons and a dipping cup of dressing. A bagel brunch with smoked salmon, tomato, cucumber and cream cheese. Even a tuna salad sandwich is more fun when you pack the tuna salad, bread and potato chips separately to be smushed together at school.

A protein-rich sandwich (tuna or egg salad are common) • A raw vegetable or two • Fruit • Pickles or a treat

My planning starts each night after putting the kids to bed and doing the dishes from dinner. I take a quick tour through the fridge to identify bento-friendly foods. If necessary, I’ll do minimal prep work in the form of boiling or heating in the toaster oven — blanched green vegetables from the fridge or freezer, boiled frozen dumplings or eggs, frozen meatballs or some store-bought kibbe I have stashed in the freezer — nothing that can’t be done with a few button presses and a single pot or pan.

Cold udon or soba noodles, with dressing or dipping sauce • Green vegetable • Boiled and chilled frozen dumplings • Boiled egg • raw fruit

But I don’t pack the bento box until the morning, because the food looks and tastes better that way. If I want to be extra kind to my future self, I’ll pack any food that will be served hot so that in the morning I can just pop the bento insert into the microwave while I’m making breakfast.

The morning time commitment can be difficult (and if your kid is like mine, the day you give in and pack a P.B.&J. and a bag of Pirate’s Booty will be a major hit), but even more difficult can be finding the fortitude to be OK when your favorite part of the bento box comes home from school entirely uneaten.

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What I do focus on are the colors going into the box.The same basic formula — a starchy main compartment with a colorful selection of mainly leftovers and raw ingredients filling out the sides — works in non-Japanese incarnations as well.But I don’t pack the bento box until the morning, because the food looks and tastes better that way.