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Posted on Sep 9, 2008 | 30 comments

Vacation bento lunches & food sculpture centerpieces

Vacation bento lunches & food sculpture centerpieces

Fresh back from my family vacation in Alaska, I’d like to thank Amorette (Sakurako Kitsa) for her great series of how-to posts for making artistic bentos that she wrote for Lunch in a Box while I was away. The techniques are more time-intensive than I’m up for on a weekday morning, but they’re good tricks to have up my sleeve for the rare decorative lunch I might get motivated to make for a special occasion. A full list of her guest posts is below, under “Further Reading.”

Also, Lunch in a Box was recently featured in an article about packed lunches in The Boston Globe, so welcome to new Boston readers! If you’re new to bento lunches, you might be interested in the Bento FAQ and the Bento Store Locator with Google Maps for local store listings with reader-generated feedback. Back-to-school season has been a big news time for me; I’m scheduled to go on live TV this Friday 9/12/08 to do a brief segment on the Sacramento morning news (Fox40 at 8:23 & 8:48am — time updated). This’ll be my first TV appearance for bento-related stuff, so wish me luck!

Would you eat it on a train?

Bento lunch gear for a family vacation (packed)

When we were on the road, I brought along a selection of compact bento gear to box up leftovers from restaurant meals so we’d be more independent and not totally at the mercy of airlines and trains for our meals. (See my post on How to pack a bento lunch for the airplane.) I used a combination of collapsible sandwich cases that fold flat when empty, Bug’s stacking and nesting Thomas the Tank Engine bento boxes, reusable utensils in travel cases, elastic bento bands to keep things closed, and a carrying bag. Here you can see breakfast leftovers and Bug’s new tricked-out Sigg water bottle on a domed sightseeing train from Fairbanks to Denali National Park. I brought along little travel packets of powdered drink add-ins to add to the water, especially in the airports after we cleared security with empty bottles. Fill up at a water fountain and we were all set! I wrote little snippets about the travel portion of our trip on my Twitter. (Read on for more travel bento info and photos of edible table centerpieces made from carved fruit and vegetables.

I like the collapsible sandwich cases when we’re on the road as they neatly contain bulky sandwiches that are commonly available when we travel, and the four lidded/nesting bento boxes are watertight enough to contain moist foods. This allowed us to raid the breakfast buffet and pack afternoon snacks of dry granola, fruit, rolls, etc. — most convenient when traveling with an ever-hungry preschooler!

Bento lunch gear for a family vacation (unpacked) Would you eat it on a plane?

Having some compact boxes tucked in my purse also meant that I didn’t mind ordering Bug a full-size entree from restaurants without kids’ menus. Bug’s plane bento, shown above, actually holds half of his restaurant breakfast of a fluffy buttermilk pancake and fresh fruit salad. I cut the huge pancake up into bite-size pieces before packing it up so that it would be easy to eat (cutting things inside the boxes themselves is unwieldy). Hey, it’s better than wasting breakfast leftovers and relying on the unappetizing snack packs sold on airplanes (less wasted packaging as well).

It also helped me control my own portions — without the ability to pack up the restaurant leftovers I probably would have eaten some of the pancakes as I have that little voice in my head that says it’s bad to waste food. (It’s not always a productive voice to have from a diet perspective!)

Fruit Carving Demonstration

While we were away, I sat in on a demonstration of fruit and vegetable carving put on by Princess Cruises. The edible centerpieces below are a little too ornate for my table, but I found the techniques interesting nonetheless. The scale is larger than the kind of bento food art that Amorette showed us last week; I looked at it as more of a curiosity than anything else. In the demonstration they said the key element to holding everything together was common wooden skewers and wire cutters; on a smaller scale you could use toothpicks, uncooked spaghetti or linguine noodles. (Click on any photo for a larger view.)

Carved vegetable centerpiece (flowers)

Here’s an edible centerpiece made out of a hollowed-out honeydew melon stuffed with an entire celery plant, studded with “flowers” made out of shaved daikon radish, carrots, and red cabbage leaves with blueberry centers. The two “dragonflies” on top are made out of shrimp, the end part of a lobster tail, and a grape.

Carved vegetable fruit painting

A flat platter holds a 3D woodpecker painting made out of fruit and vegetables dipped in clear gelatin to adhere to the creamy pudding-like base. Head: red bell pepper, carrot and blueberry; wing: eggplant (aubergine) and lemon rind; body: lemon slices and eggplant; tail: cucumber. Branch: eggplant, maraschino cherries and zucchini (courgette) skin. The “frame” around the edge is made out of chopped red cabbage leaves.

Carved fruit teddy bear

Bug likes this teddy bear photo the best. Body: honeydew melon; head: grapefruit, orange and lemon; eyes: radish and grape; nose and tie decoration: grapes; arms: zucchini (courgettes); base: pineapple.

Carved vegetable bird

And a vegetable bird. Body: Napa cabbage, neck: yellow summer squash, face: carrot, red bell pepper and blueberry, base: honeydew melon, red bell pepper and grape.

Carved vegetable squirrel

Here’s a squirrel. Body/tail: eggplant (aubergine), face: lemon, carrot and blueberries, arms/legs: yellow summer squash, base: pineapple, red bell pepper and a grape.

Carved fruit and vegetable child

The food carver’s piece de resistance: a child with a bottle. An edible child creeps me out a little, but the artistry is undeniable. Arms/legs: eggplant (aubergine), body: watermelon, face/hands: cantaloupe melon, bottle: daikon radish and carrot, decoration on hat/chest: red bell pepper.

Carved watermelon Carved watermelon

And a couple of carved watermelons, which seemed to be everywhere.

FURTHER READING: 

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  1. Welcome back!

    I’ve always loved the idea of those collapsible lunchboxes. Of course, when I send any permanent item away with my bentos I stand little to no chance of getting it back, however convenient it is :(

    They need to invent magic ice packs with homing devices, really they do.

  2. welcome back alrighty :)!!!
    You might wan tto have a lock at Nalgene’s drinking bottles!

    In terms of food carving. Look at Play with your food and their calendar for 2009. Very cool!!!

  3. Great food art! And what a fun trip. I’ve gone to great lengths to save restaurant leftovers on trips, partly to save money, and partly because the food was so much nicer than most airplane fare. Packing a small container or two is a great idea.

  4. Welcome back, Biggie! I enjoyed the blogs from Amorette, but she scares me with her artistry! (Wayyyyy out of my league!) I am just learning how to pack the bento so things don’t move around! She did however start my new obsession with furoshiki…. (Thanks Amorette!). I can’t believe I have lived without knowing about it. I can have a scarf in my purse, and in no time flat, have a bag to take groceries home in. And, that’s just one of the ways…very cool. Thanks!

  5. Welcome back~! Congrats on the TV appearance, I hope someone puts it on YouTube!!!

  6. Sounds like a great vacation, I’ll have to check out your trip on my twitter. Thanks for the travel bento tips. I do bring bento for each of us when we travel and then use while we are on vacation to pack lunch and snacks for my son. I have not carried little boxes for restaurant left overs, although I always think about when we are sitting there and the restaurant hands you another styrofoam box or plastic container to bring your food home in.

  7. I’m in the Sac area, so I will try to record the TV appearance.

    I’m a bento neophyte, so all of the pictures really help me. I’m ready to move beyond Gladware and go for some REAL bento for the 3 lunches I pack (mine, my husband who comes home to eat, and toddler). While I’ll try the little Asian store nearby, I can see a daytrip to SF is in order. (My son, 2 now, will love the ocean.) The Thomas set is just the thing for him.

  8. I’ve been looking everywhere for the nesting bento like bug’s thomas ones! At this point I wouldn’t even care if they were Thomas :)

  9. I’ll have to try to catch the channel 40 news this friday morning (I usually watch 31). Hopefully it doesn’t end up late, since that’s right before the lastest I can leave for work.

  10. Biggie,
    Your pictures are always so clear and colorful what brand digital camera do you use?
    Best Wishes,
    Mrs. Howell the III

  11. wow,those carvings are awesome. Thanks for sharing these to feast our eyes on.

    I take an empty bento box out wherever I go too. It’s so useful for taking leftovers home because sometimes the kids are not hungry enough to eat in the restaurant but claim they are hungry half an hour later after we have left.

  12. @1 from Amorette: I got one of the plain collapsible sandwich boxes from Ichiban Kan over a year ago for US$1, so at that price I wouldn’t mind so much if it didn’t come back to me. (Of course I haven’t seen them lately for that price — I’ll have to take another look at Daiso and Ichiban Kan near me.)

  13. Cool site! Have fun on TV. Let us know if it gets posted on the web.

  14. @4 from Barbara: Furoshiki are the original “reusable bag”, aren’t they? Very convenient to have one stuffed into your purse, to wrap odd-shaped things (just need to remember how to tie them!).

  15. @5 from Yvo: Thanks! I’m not sure if the TV thing’ll be online or not, but an independent producer wanted some video of me doing bento stuff, so this news spot should do double duty (otherwise I probably wouldn’t be so keen on driving two hours to Sacramento).

  16. Hi Biggie,

    Since I am now furoshiki as well as bento crazy, I was wondering if you have any contacts to get the Mottainai Furoshiki cloths that are made from recycled pet bottles, created by Minister Koike (Japan’s Minister of the Environment)? Seems like that would be a good way to use up all that old plastic. Can’t seem to find those, just the articles about them.

  17. @6 from yvette: I don’t usually carry bento gear around with me, but from a “green” perspective it’s probably not a bad idea when we go out to a restaurant (to save on the styrofoam containers). They’re great to have when we travel, though, as I don’t have a supply of good preschooler snacks and meal options in a hotel room.

  18. @11 from Mrs. Thurston Howell the III: My camera’s nothing special: a plain point-and-shoot from Canon (a Powershot A520 4MP). I borrowed the next better version (the Canon PowerShot A590IS 8MP) from a friend while mine was in the shop and it was terrific, but I had to give it back. I currently have camera lust for a Canon Rebel digital SLR; trying to rationalize the purchase to myself…

  19. @12 from Gudrun of Kitchen Gadget Girl: Absolutely! I’ll shoot you an e-mail and we can get together one of these days for lunch. It was fun hanging out with you at BlogHer.

  20. @13 from allthingspurple: You hit the nail on the head!!! Bug can take such a long time to eat, then an hour later he’s hungry again. Fine if I’ve got a bag stashed with something for him, but it’s definitely something that takes a little planning.

  21. Welcome back! Totally random question: I was surprised that you were allowed to bring outside food onto the plane. Was it no hassle, or did you get a free pass because the food was for a child?

    Thank you for the inspiration that is Lunch in a Box! Break a leg with the TV spot!

  22. Glad you’re back from holiday safely and hope you had a grand time! Best of luck on your TV debut! Love the planning packing info :)x0

  23. @25 from litvamp: I’ve never had a problem with bringing regular food into the airport, although once I was asked to open up the box and show the contents to the TSA security guy. I don’t think it was a special exception for a child; many others bring food without issue. Just make sure it’s not liquidy or gel-like or you’ll run into their restrictions. Check out today’s LifeHacker article on current TSA food rules.

  24. I missed the TV show because I had set the DVR to record from 7 to 8, and didn’t see the change until after I was already at work. I knew I should have set the machine to go for 2 hours. Hope it was swell.

  25. I just linked to your fantastic site in my recent post about bento boxes and Japanese lunches. I’ve got to spend a lot more time here…as it looks like my daughter (now 11)is set to follow in your footsteps and run away to Japan as soon as she’s able. As long as she learns how to cook, I won’t mind at all.

  26. I have been unable to locate online (I live nowhere near anywhere to purchase Asian Bento supplies) a nesting, 4-tier box like your son’s Thomas Box. I would love to have Thomas, but would like any that nest like this. Thanks for any imformation you can help with!!

  27. To the people looking for nesting Thomas (or other bento boxes): the only place I have ever seen them is at Moritaya in San Francisco’s Japantown. I got my son’s Thomas one there (for about 28.00) and recently saw a nesting Spongebob Squarepants one there for about 20.00 (I think).

    I have seen the nesting Thomas bento box on Ebay for around 15.00 just today. I would think that Ebay would definitely be your best bet.

  28. Oh how funny! I’ve been following your wonderful blog for quite a while now and just checked in today to see a picture of what I knew must be the inside of a Princess train car. I just returned from Alaska as well, having worked all summer as a bartender inside just such a train car! I hope you had a fantastic time in Alaska, and thanks for all the great bento ideas!