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Posted on Nov 14, 2007 | 40 comments

Bentos and the picky eater

Bentos and the picky eater

With all the recent hubbub over Deceptively Delicious , Jessica Seinfeld’s cookbook for smuggling veggies into children’s food, I’ve been thinking about the different ways parents try to get their kids to eat a variety of foods. (Details here about the accusations of plagiarism from the author of similar book The Sneaky Chef .) There are two schools of thought: 1) sneak healthy food into things that kids already like (i.e. put pureed spinach into brownies), vs. 2) get kids used to eating adult food and expose them repeatedly to many different foods. CityMama’s post describes the approach she’s taken with her kids: make food as delicious as possible, give them adult food to develop their palates, and involve them in the cooking process.

This is what we’ve done with our son. Obviously he’s not a picky eater, so we’ve been fortunate in being able to just give Bug whatever we eat within reason (i.e. toning down spiciness where necessary). But I’m wary of being smug and getting up on a soapbox about how to raise your child, because one of our friends has done all of the same things with her daughter that we have, but wound up with an extraordinarily picky eater. You know, nothing can be mixed, meat must be identifiable and on the bone (chicken drumsticks only, not slices of chicken), most vegetables are out, etc. This child keeps me humble — I feel for her food adventurer parents!

Salmon cake lunch for preschooler v1

Evidently picky eating in childhood may be a result of genetics, though, not just the environment. A New York Times article on picky eaters cites a study by University College London, saying that picky eating in childhood is 78% genetic and 22% environmental. This actually makes a lot of sense to me — it would explain our friends’ picky daughter.

If you do have a picky eater, though, bento lunches can help coax your child to take a bite. Keep in mind:

  • Don’t overpack. Too much food in a lunch can overwhelm a child, so try to pack a lunch they can finish in the time available. These bento box size guidelines provide a chart with box size by age and gender; pack the box compactly and fill gaps to keep the lunch arrangement stable during transport.
  • Don’t overdo new foods in a bento. Educating the palate is great, but balance the introduction of new or unfavored foods with items you know your child likes.
  • Make it fun. This is where bento lunches can really shine, with containers and food itself in a wide variety of colors, sizes and shapes.
    • The food: There are so many ways to make food fun! You can make miniature versions of regular food when making dinner (mini muffins, baby vegetables, mini burgers, cocktail sandwiches, mini frittatas, tiny shepherd’s pies), create food art with little cutters and shaped food (molded hard-boiled eggs), put together do-it-yourself dishes that are assembled or dipped just before eating, etc. Even something as simple as slicing fruit differently can make the difference between a couple of bites and a flat-out “No.” Packing a variety of contrasting colors, textures and shapes in a bento adds to the visual appeal when the lid is removed. No need to go overboard here if you’re pressed for time, just try to avoid an all-brown mushy lunch if you can.
    • The gear: Bento boxes come in endless designs, from plain to favorite cartoon characters, or you can use stickers and markers to personalize widely available containers like Lock & Lock boxes. Accessories such as food picks, baking cups (colorful silicone or paper), little sauce containers, and food dividers (edible or plastic) add color and fun — eating lunch almost becomes play instead of grounds for conflict.
  • Reduce meal frustration for younger children. Make sure they can open all of their containers by themselves, cut large food into bite-size pieces, separate food with baking cups or food dividers if your child is sensitive to food touching, or even have a practice run with new gear before using it for the first time. This is how I discovered that one of our oshibori hand towel cases was impossible for Bug to open on his own.
  • Involve your child. Keep the lines of communication open — talk about lunch food, take them shopping with you if you can, and make time to let them help in the kitchen. Okay, getting “help” with every single meal or shopping trip isn’t realistic, but you can help make meals more interesting and participatory. The Spatulatta cooking website for kids currently has five new bento-themed videos that make bento food prep fun and accessible. Enjoy!

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  1. My son is only 2 1/2 and doesn’t go to preschool, but I find that using somewhat of a bento concept at home for lunch helps him eat more healthfully. I notice if I put out food attractively, and possibly in an interesting container it makes lunch more of an “event” which seems to make him more interested in whatever it is. I have to say usually he’s not picky at all, just doesn’t want to stop what he’s doing to eat. The other thing that works well is making lunch and taking it somewhere out of the ordinary to eat, like outside for a picnic, or in a secret fort in his bedroom.

  2. I think that cooking “childrens foods” and “children’s menus” at restaurants, especially for kids is an abomination. Things like pizza, mac and cheese, hamburgers, sausage, fries; where convenience match what culture teaches us that kids like. In most other countries like Italy, France etc., there are no children’s menus, kids eat what the adults eat although at smaller portions. All kids will go through a period of pcikiness, as a process of self determination. A friend of mine toned down the arguments with the children over what they did not eat and focused on creating a nice environment around the table. For six months she put a small piece of lamb on the childrens plates and urged them to just try a nanosized piece. Now one child eats lamb, the other being well on the way. Unless eating is turning out to become disorderly then I would just bide my time, not argue over it and just serve food, allow flavours to be mixed and allow children to over time grow used to new flavours and textures. Adults don’t eat everything, it is not strange that children are the same.

  3. I’ve been lucky to have a son who so far (at 17 months) eats just about anything we put on his plate. I’ve been told that could well change in the next few months but I already know other babies who are far fussier than he is. We simply give him what we eat, never did the puree thing and went straight to finger foods, etc.

    I don’t MIND the idea of hiding foods so long as the same foods in “real” form are also being offered regularly. I think where parents can easily go wrong is in not offering the whole-foods versions in addition to the concealed ones. I think my siblings and I are as UNpicky as we are because my parents always had fresh fruit and veggies available and didn’t go out of their way to cook separate meals for us.

    I’ve not yet done a bento but am looking forward to doing so once either my son or I needs a packed lunch on a regular basis!

  4. it’s interesting I absolutely agree that just “hiding” veggies and such in foods does nothing for children, but broadening their pallets and leading by example does so much neither of my girls are picky they eat everything (ok well Diva won’t eat raw mushrooms but she loves them cooked)

  5. I like the idea of “hiding” veggies (in addition to offering the separately) in the hopes of adding extra nutrition and starting to accustom their taste buds to the new tastes in a gradual manner.

  6. Interesting stuff. I’m really against the sneaking it into their brownies (spinach puree? REALLY?) because I would want them to know what they’re eating and like it anyway. Unless we’re talking vitamin deficient children… good stuff.

  7. Err…. I stopped mid thought and then hit submit. I don’t mean vitamin deficient children = good stuff. I meant your post is good stuff. Whoops.

  8. My daughter is an extremely picky eater, so I have experience with this first hand. And I can see it both ways. My picky eater usually gets whatever the rest of us are having for dinner, so she can get used to “adult food” – as you call it. But for lunch, we offer her something more kid friendly. And it usually involves sneaking. If we didn’t do it this way, my kid would never eat.

    Thanks for not being smug about those of us who sneak. I think its really sweet that you would offer tips for parents of picky eaters, especially since your kid is the extreme opposite. While I personally think putting spinach into brownies is disgusting, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with putting spinach into a fruit smoothie. Especially when my daughter is the one putting it into the blender.

    Love your blog.
    :)

  9. You know what makes kids eat vegetables? Hunger. If the only choice is healthy food, they will eat it. Letting your child be hungry until they eat what is available is what people all over the world do all the time. I little discomfort will not kill your child.

    It sickens me to read about how spoiled Americans are. We have too many food choices, now food has to be “entertainment” as well as sustenance to be acceptable? Jesus….

  10. Sometimes they just have to grow out of it. My brother (middle kid of three) was an extraordinary picky eater, but nobody else in the family was. My mother chose to ignore the pickiness, offer foods repeatedly without making a fuss, while making sure to also offer the few things he would eat, and eventually he started being less picky. As an adult he was even what I would call an adventurous eater. I think part of it was the social pressure — when he was eating with friends he decided it wasn’t socially worth it to be so odd and began eating more the way other people did.

    I was fortunate in that my kid would eat at least some of everything I gave him. If he tried it and didn’t like it I didn’t push it but offered it again after a while. A few things he’ll probably never like (he’s 25, it’s up to him now), but then there are a few foods I don’t like, either.

  11. When my son was 10 months old our pediatritian told us that basically he should be eating what we are eating (with the exception of peanuts, honey and a couple of other things). We took that to heart and today we have a nine year old who will eat just about anything and claims as his favorite foods broccoli, sushi (yes…with sashimi), brussels sprouts, pho and pad thai. When he was three years old he proclaimed bleu cheese dressing to be his favorite. He has some texture issues and to this day won’t eat cooked apples or mushrooms though he’ll eat them both raw. I thank my lucky stars and knock wood that we have such an adventurous gourmand for a son. The only drawback? Going to sushi restaurants got A LOT more expensive once he insisted on more than edemame, rice and miso soup! :)

  12. Picky eaters in children (and even adults) is a sore spot for me. I have encountered many picky eaters in both children and adults and I just roll my eyes. IMHO, the pickiness just comes from being selfish, which is understandable to some degree with children, but with adults, it makes me quite mad. As I have heard tell, America is the only place where you will find such extreme pickiness. In many other countries, food is held up to a high esteem and you don’t turn your nose up at something just because it’s touching the other food, or it’s the wrong color, or things like that. Children are not treated differently at the dinner table i.e young children drink wine in France.

    My DD was born a preemie and we had serious issues feeding her.She had serious textural issues as well as muscle issues in her face and jaw. We did the feeding clinic at a children’s hospital and everything. Finally, at about 18 months, I couldn’t take it, the specialist were giving her the wrong ideas about food. They would force her to eat and if she gagged, tough. The final straw was when they held her mouth and nose shut to force her to swallow! She didn’t want ot eat at all and she would turn her nose up at anything and everything. I decided to do it my way.

    I did a bento style thing where each meal, would be 3-4 bite sized somethings all around her plate. They were all the same texture and sometimes even the same color. We would rotate the plate about and she would sometimes just touch the food or maybe even play with it. There were no different types of foods for breakfast, lunch, dinner or snack, anything and everything was fair game for her little meals.

    But mealtimes and snack times were strict, she only ate during the set times. If she was hungry in between the set times, I would give her water to drink, but no food until the set time. Well, it worked wonderfully. Within 1 month, she would eat anything and everything. She is now a 6 year old who disdains the idea of children’s menus. Whenever we go out, we always share a meal (which is good for me for portion control).

    She gets quite upset if I fix something different for her then what we are having (she has a milk allergy). My 11 month old son is starting to show the same signs, he wants what we are having. In fact, he crawled for the first time to get to me because he wanted what was on my plate. For once though, I would like to be able to eat a meal in peace and not have to share with two other little ones.

  13. @2 from Alissa: Ooh, I love taking food out and eating it somewhere unusual! Even if it’s just at the nearby park, it does make it into something more fun to do with your child. I’ll have to try the fort thing; I bet Bug would love that.

  14. @3 from Jessica: The New York Times had an interesting article a number of months ago about “kids’ menus” in restaurants and how it’s dumbing down children’s palates. I do wish restaurants would also offer smaller versions of their regular food on a kids’ menu, but I guess I tend to look at the appetizer menu like that (smaller portion of less expensive regular food that still is interesting). When we first started actually ordering food for Bug in restaurants, though (before I developed an actual child food “philosophy/approach”), I did order from the kids’ menu and was inevitably a little disappointed (in myself for unoriginality? in the restaurant for not offering small versions of their normal food?). I could see how kids’ menus can be helpful to parents of extremely picky eaters; I think the trick is in not automatically defaulting to that menu if your child is not super-picky.

  15. @4 from Heidi: I like your thinking, Heidi (sneaking foods is fine if the regular version is offered as well). Sounds like a good combination approach that’s not overly rigid. Knock on wood that your son continues with his non-picky ways (count your blessings — I know I do!)!

  16. @5 from kastinkerbell: I hear you on parents not making too much of an issue out of food stuff — my parents never did (except for the Two Bite Rule, darn those nasty waxed beans and stewed tomatoes!!!). Every year I re-try the foods I hate to make sure that I still hate them, and through that have come to like beer, sea urchin (uni), tomatoes, mustard and natto. Go figure! They all used to taste really awful to me.

  17. @6 from natesgirl: That’s great about your girls eating everything — congratulations!

  18. @7 from anonymous: Well, I’m definitely not here to judge other parents, just to provide ideas and information for folks seeking it out. A multi-vitamin for super-picky eaters would probably be a good thing, though.

  19. @8/9 from Yvo: Bwah hah ha, thanks for the laugh on vitamin deficient children = good. I definitely got a chuckle from that! :-) :-)

  20. @11 from Ola: Thanks for the perspective on picky eating, Ola! It’s good to step back from it all sometimes and prioritize — entertaining food definitely isn’t for everyone.

  21. @12 from Debbie: Sounds like you and your mom have a good approach to kids & food, Debbie. Very reasonable.

  22. @13 from Bansheesmama: I like that your daughter is excited about the Laptop Lunchbox and that it gets her to eat! Excellent news that she’s growing out of her picky eating phase, too — light at the end of the tunnel for other parents!

  23. @14 from beanbean: We took Bug to a cheap kaiten sushi restaurant (revolving sushi, happened to be in little boats) the other week, which was fun for him and not so expensive for us. He got to grab whatever appealed to him from the sushi boats, but was still mostly happy with the less expensive options (he hasn’t tried stuff like uni yet, mostly because I’m bogarting it!). Brussels sprouts and pad thai, eh? I’ll have to try him out with those! (no brussels sprouts for my husband, though — he’s not fond of them)

  24. @15 from Kim: OMG, your daughter’s experience with feeding specialists sounds like torture! I wonder how they can justify their approach scientifically…

    When I was little I didn’t get special kid’s food, just whatever my parents were eating. It was actually more fun for me that way — sometimes at dinner they’d even give me a wine glass filled with water and a splash of red wine to give it color. It made me feel special and grown up. When we went to restaurants, my parents let me order whatever I wanted from the menu as long as I ate it all; which gave me a feeling of freedom and adventure regarding food. I want to give Bug similarly good food memories.

  25. In a way, I wish I had known about the genetic component of food-pickiness when my children were young. On the other hand, it wouldn’t have mattered; except for a very few phobias, my children ate almost anything. My son absolutely refused to eat any kind of Asian food after running into a can of bad bamboo shoots when he was about nine. Not only Chinese, but Indian food was also off-limits. The prohibition lasted for about another 10 years, until one of his girlfriends brought him out of it. But I digress.

    When they were little, I required my children to take one bite of every dish I served, and if they found most of the meal unpalatable, they were allowed to eat any other nourishing thing they desired — but they had to get it themselves! My rule was: “Mommy only cooks one dinner a night.”

    One of my favorite memories of my daughter’s childhood was the night I told her we were having catfish for dinner. “Kitty cat fish??!” She was all anticipation, and when dinner was served she ate every scrap on her plate. Her review: “The kitty cat fish was splendid, mommy! What does splendid mean?”

    @11 (Ola): If you think presenting children’s food as entertainment is some kind of moral failing, don’t blame the Americans. Don’t even blame the French or the Japanese. Blame evolution itself, which is ultimately responsible for the human tendency to seek out sweetness, strong flavors, salt, and fat. Some people love liver, which is a nutritional powerhouse; other people are nauseated by it, because their tongues have a receptor for a bitter enzyme that others cannot taste. I’m one of those people. No matter how carefully you cook it, the flavor of liver ties my stomach in a knot.

    I remember being ordered to eat the fat on my pork chop when I was child. My father and I got into fierce arguments about. He was convinced it was good for me; I thought was indistinguishable from snail slime. Who was right?

    Obiwan Bento

  26. @30 from Obiwan Bento: Kitty cat fish?! I love it!!! :-) :-) We do the Two Bite rule so far here; it seems to work okay as Bug is a flexible eater and doesn’t dig his heels in. I draw the line at pork chop fat, though — yuck! Canned bamboo shoots are on my list of don’t; my mom gave us that nasty canned La Choy stuff a few times, souring me on canned bamboo shoots. Blech.

  27. My oldest son is a very picky eater, so I have been thinking about trying Bento, to see if it will help him eat his fruits and veggies. Great tips, and meal ideas too :)

  28. @32 from Nicole: Let us know how it works out, using bento to get your son to eat a greater variety! I know it’s weird, but I’m fascinated by other children’s eating habits…

  29. Thanks again for the great tips. I don’t have a proper Bento kit so I used baking cups and glad-ware to serve in. My son was curious why dinner looked different. He loved the meal served Bento style :) I’m going to have to invest in a kit ;)

  30. Coming back to this, though I have no recollection of this whatsoever, my mom and sister tell me there was a time when I categorically refused to eat anything but McDonald’s (ew…). And eventually, since I was a very thin child, my mom would go get me happy meals. I seriously do not remember this at all (but my sister also swears we always had soda around the house while I swear that I wasn’t allowed to drink it except special occasions- then again, there’s 7 years between us and I was a very hyper child). I know that I did not like rice (a lot of people are like, but you’re Chinese… [mini digression: actually, I'm Chinese-American], but it’s quite common to turn your nose up at food that’s always in front of you) and always requested spaghetti or western-style meals (as they’re called in a Chinese household, haha). But as I got older, I still find I eat most things… or at least try them. I think my boyfriend is karma for my pickiness (that I still don’t think of as being picky!) as a kid. When I met him, he swore he didn’t eat seafood at all (being a girl who now eats a lot of stuff, and loves Asian food, and loves sushi… this hurt), and most nights he’d eat boxed mac and cheese [if he wasn't feeling lazy], or McDonald’s… well I’m extremely proud of how far he’s come in trying things, he loves crabcakes, he eats eel, and everything I cook has the one bite rule: Try one bite, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it, but you have to try one bite before you can say you don’t like it. Otherwise how do you know? I admit, I tend to cater new dishes to his tastebuds so that he’ll be more inclined to like it, but that’s just smart cooking. I’m praying our kids don’t pay attention to his non-eating of vegetables… I may have to relegate him to eat dinner in a separate room so they don’t pick up on his terrible eating habits.

  31. I have the most problems with my youngest. As a four year old with autism he has many sight, taste, and color issues so we find it necessary to “sneak” veggies and fruits in sometimes. I am very thankful for things like Juicy Juice Harvest Surprise that has veggie and fruit in it. He’s branching out and he doesn’t even know it! One trick we like is putting shredded carrot and zucchini on his vegan cheese pizza.

    Our ten year old daughter is a much better eater than I was at her age. Now she is big into bento and it’s “kawaii-ness” so she’s learning about healthy choices and loving how cute things seem taste better. I guess it’s all in the presentation?

  32. My oldest (5 1/2) is a picky eater. She has gotten better in the last year or so. I used to do the you have to try it, if you don’t like it fine, that didn’t work for me at all. She’d try it, spit it out and say she didn’t like it, even though she really didn’t give ti a chance. Now the rule is, you will eat what we’re having or you will be hungry. There’s very few times she actually goes hungry. My youngest (19 months) eats anything and everything, it’s fantastic. She’s another reason her older sister eats new things, if she sees her little sister eating it she doesn’t want to be shown up, lol :)

  33. biggie, pickiness is very big in my family. my parents wont even touch sushi with a nine foot pole I however worship the very last sesame seed that falls off of it. also I find that if the children are taken out to eat places more and travel more they tend to be less picky.

  34. Our boys are fairly picky some days but they do eat a good variety. We order off the kids menu because its what they want not because it’s simple. I don’t see food as having to be entertaining and I adore that they often like to eat what we do.

    I say they are picky but they do have some interesting picks! At three and two they’d much rather stop at a sushi restaurant when were out than a fast food joint. They adore fruit and when someone asks them if they want ice cream they immediately think of my yogurt/fruit mix bars instead of one of the ones from the ice cream truck. (though I still have to be on the look out for him! lol)

    I’ve been looking into bento because my oldest will start school next year and I want him to have some cool lunches!

  35. could you show me some pics for anime character bentos?

  36. I have a 7 year son that a wery picky eater. Here in Norway potatos folows nearly every dinner plates we eat, but he hasnt tasted potatos since he was about 2.5 year. He does only eat meat and fish that are made into meatbals, fishcakes, sausage and so on. He do not eat bread whith “thing in it” (grains,seeds or nuts). He do not eat sauce or mayonnaise. I only cook 1 meal for dinner, nothing just for him, the “to bites” rule dos not work, he vomits of mash potatos in sauce, and he picks bread, muffins and any hard bread in small bits and pices befor eating it.
    He likes fruit and cucumber.
    When we have Tacos, his meal is tortillas and cucumber.
    He’s been examined at the hospital and has removed the fake tonsils. The doctor an other healtpeople says it will go over and that it is ok and some kids just are like that.
    My other 3 kids do eat anything they are served, exept my DD,14 year, whom has never liked mashed potatoes.
    My son was born about 6 weeks premature and was wery often ill in his first 5 years.
    When I was litle nothing on the dinner plate could touch each other but I did eat ewery thing. Actually me and my
    siblings did eat every thing our parents did eat,
    our parents are both educated in the chef profession.

    Maybe Bentos is the solution on Samuel’s eating problems:-) I think I will give it a try.

    I have never seen a bentos box here in Norway, may have to first try whith the lunchboxes we have and slowly itroduse him to diferent kinds of food.

    Sorry about the misspelling, my english is a bit rusty.

  37. I am not a picky eater. I love lots of different kinds of food. I usually need to be introduced to new cuisines in my own house first though. If I just walk into a restaurant that is serving food I am not familiar with I will usually feel sick or the smell is too strong and I can not stay in the restaurant. (This is attributed to my anxiety though. I just don’t go out to eat very often because of this.)

    My niece (4) is very picky, and it bugs me to no end that my sister and my mother will let her be picky and they don’t make her try what we are eating. I hate that she is offered a completely different meal every time we sit down to dinner. and during the day they feed her junk and fast food. She is going to grow up eating junk food and is going to be obese one day because my sister does not want to deal with a bit of fussiness. I am surprised my mother puts up with it though because we were not treated in such a way when we were children.
    We had to try everything, and then we had a list of 5 things that we did not have to eat. My list had seafood, liver, brussel sprouts, curry, and something else I can’t remember. If we wanted to put something on our ‘yucky list’ we had to take something else off of it.

    My entire extended family has food issues (my grandmother was a bad cook and she also only ever served the same 10 dishes on the same days.) The food issues in my extended family run from anorexia to obesity.
    I am glad my mother decided to be smart when it came to introducing us to food and variety so the same thing that happened to her siblings would not happen to us.

    @41 from mary:
    I also can not eat seafood of any kind. If I smell it I will vomit, and if it somehow get’s into my food and I don’t even know it I will still get sick. (one time I was eating an egg roll and I got very sick. Later I found out it had shrimp in it).
    I am not allergic to seafood/shellfish or anything like that.
    Tuna is the worst because the smell is so strong and the look of it is nasty. (just writing about it is making my stomach turn).
    I do not know why this is. I am told by my mother that I used to eat fish when I was younger until I all of a sudden flat out refused to eat it any more, and later I couldn’t even be in the same room if it was being cooked/served.

  38. I wrote about my picky eater over a year ago. 3 weeks ago he got diagnosed A-typical autism and Selective food refusal. I’m not happy because he got a diagnosis, but I’m glad he/I now can get help.

  39. My son is a picky eater – does not like and will not try most veggies or fruits. He was not always this way – it started when he was about three (he used to eat EVERYTHING!) For him, it is possibly genetic (my brother and I were both very fussy at different points, and my mom was and is fussy about texture) and a color issue. I noticed he also will not drink brightly colored juices, but will slurp down a smoothy of any color if I put it into a solid non-transparent cup with a non-transparent dark colored straw. Weird right? He is also peanut allergic, so I guess I few bad reactions have scared him a bit on trying new foods. He is four and the doctor says not to fight it – I grew out of it, and I love almost every veggie on earth, including lima beans, brussels sprouts, turnips and kohlrabi. I love these bento ideas – it is such a fun way to dress up a meal and to offer variety, even if it is snubbed … It is also refreshing to find kid’s meal ideas that don’t include scads of cheese and prepackaged junk. It is so good for the average American to realize that lunch can be as simple as a bread roll, some fruit and veggies and maybe a bit of milk or cheese for protein. It doesn’t need to be complex and is usually better for us when it isn’t.

  40. My son, who is now 3, is a picky eater. Has never liked many vegetables, and only recently in the past few months has eaten raw carrots. I am proud of the fact that I made his baby food myself–he wouldn’t go near the store bought stuff. He used to eat tons of fruits, even requested them-strawberries, bananas, apples, grapes…
    We recently moved back from living in the Arctic for a year. The “fresh” fruits and veggies available were sparse, half rotted, and extremely pitiful. Suffice to say, we did not have many of them.
    The bento box looks like a great idea to get him to start eating more fruits and veggies again. Love them.

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