Bento: Build a Better Lunch

Debra Samuels, bestselling author, food writer and cooking instructor, wants to give the American lunchbox a makeover. In the chapter on “bento,” the traditional Japanese lunch box, in her book, My Japanese Table, Debra encourages the use of color, texture and taste to create healthier and more visually appealing meals.

Debra moved to Japan as a young wife and mother, and quickly learned that bento is more than just lunch. It is a carefully constructed meal incorporating small portions of a variety of foods tucked neatly into a compartmentalized container. The result is a nutritious, interesting and balanced lunch that delights children and encourages them to try new foods.

“Children eat with their eyes first,” says Debra. Kids are more likely to gobble up what’s in front of them if vibrant colors and shapes pop out from their lunch boxes. Bento does not have to be complicated or time-consuming. Here are tips on how to create a great bento to delight your son or daughter:

“Debra’s Bento High Five”

  • Prepare the elements the night before; all you’ll have in the morning is the assembly.

    Cut veggies, fruit and cheese and place in see-through containers in the fridge. Prepare and cook mini meatloaf ‘cupcakes’ and bake in silicon cups- – they go right into the box. Make colorful ruffled pasta and mix with mayo, capers and diced vegetables for a salad one day or with tomato sauce and ground beef for a hot dish the next. Have kids cut fruit into easy-to-eat orbs with a melon-baller. They will have a ball!

  • Use 5 different kinds of food with 5 colors.

    This concept of 5 colors originated in China and reflects balance: yin and yang. It is thought that if you have these 5 colors on your plate you will have a balanced meal. They also correspond to the 5 elements:earth, wood, fire, water and metal and 5 vital areas of the body:stomach, heart, liver, lungs, kidneys. Shoji Morishige, a graphic designer from Fukuoka, Japan, designed this furoshiki , used for both wrapping a bento box and as a placemat, as a reminder to his son who would be living on his own for the first time. Morishige told his son that if he has all these colors on his plate (or in his bento box!) he would have a balanced meal!

  • Reduce volume and increase variety.

    Think of bento as a sampler. A variety of foods increases the feeling of satiety after a meal. Use mini bagels or pita breads and make two kinds of sandwiches instead of one.

  • Create an attractive display.

    Don’t underestimate the value of visual appeal – even for a 5 year old.

    Take the extra time to create a meal; it sends a strong message.  It could be as simple as an edible garnish, cutting a sandwich into triangles or placing fruit onto a skewer.

  • Include something special.

    For kids, how about an animal toothpick that holds mini franks, or a special container dipping sauce for the veggies.  You could also add  single bite-size sweets for a kids. And for adults an elegant bamboo pick for a mini meatball and  a square of dark chocolate; not enough to spoil an appetite – just enough to be a treat. Of course the boxes themselves are very special, like the red 3-layered  jyuubako below. Perfect for an elegant family picnic.

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Video: Apple bunny for Obento

Recipe: Teriyaki Meat Loaf

Makes 3 loaves

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cooking Time: 25-30 minutes

1 slice white bread or ½ cup (30 g) panko

¼ cup (65 ml) water or milk

¾ lb (375 g) ground beef (or use 1

lb / 500 g ground turkey entirely

and do not add the pork)

¼ lb (125 g) ground pork

½ small onion, grated

1 large egg, beaten

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

½ cup (125 ml) Teriyaki Sauce (p. 32)

1 tablespoon ketchup

1 Combine the bread (or bread crumbs) with the milk or water in a mixing bowl, and let sit for 2 minutes until the liquid is absorbed.
2 Add the ground meat, onion, egg, salt, and pepper to the ground meat. Mix thoroughly.
3 Whisk together the Teriyaki Sauce and ketchup in a small bowl. Add 2 tablespoons to the meat blend and mix well. Set oven to 350°F (175°C).
4 Form 3 loaves (about 6 oz/175 g each) and set in a baking dish or on a foiled-line baking pan. Brush each loaf with the Teriyaki Sauce and baste with the Teriyaki Sauce every 10 minutes for a total of 30 minutes. Insert a knife into the center of one loaf, if the meat is no longer pink, the loaf is done; if not, continue cooking for another 5 minutes or until the meat is done.
5 Pour the remaining sauce in a small saucepan and heat over medium until it begins to bubble.
6 To freeze: pre-cut the meat loaf into slices and set it on a piece of aluminum foil. Drizzle the sauce onto the meat loaf and close the foil packet. Place the loaves in plastic zip top bag and label with contents and date.
7 To defrost: Remove one loaf from the freezer and place it in the refrigerator overnight. Place in the lunch box, semifrozen. Be sure to separate the slices a bit so they will defrost by the time you are ready to eat. Eat cold or heat just before eating.