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Posted on Dec 20, 2008 | 18 comments

Holiday bento lunches

Holiday bento lunches

A little while ago I had a moms’ night out dinner at Aziza in San Francisco and brought back some Moroccan food for Bug’s lunch. The next morning I was off on yet another early-morning kindergarten school tour and in my rush forgot to take a photo or explain to Bug what strange things I’d packed for him. When I picked him up from preschool, Bug was quick to ask me what it was that I’d packed in his bento. I told him that it was couscous with lamb and vegetable stew, and asked if he liked it. Surprise! He loved it and said he wanted couscous for dinner and future bento lunches. So why didn’t he eat any of the couscous in the lunch below? A packing error on my part…

Couscous and ginger cookie bento lunch for preschooler

Contents of preschooler bento lunch: Italian meatballs, broccoli with vinaigrette, roasted garlic couscous, persimmons, cherry tomatoes, Asian pear, and mini cookies (ginger pennies). Bug’s preschool discourages the parents from sending sweets in the children’s lunches, but I couldn’t resist these tiny holiday cookies for a treat (ooh, bad mom!). I made them from a recipe from Rose’s Christmas Cookies, Rose Levy Beranbaum’s definitive cookie book with notes on which will hold up for sending through mail, how long each will last fresh vs. frozen, etc. The crisp little cookies were a hit at a holiday party I brought them to recently, and parents allowed their children to grab a whole handful of the little rounds.

Morning prep time: 10 minutes, using leftover couscous and frozen meatballs. In the morning I microwaved the meatballs and broccoli, and cut up the fruit.

Thomas the Tank Engine lunch gear

Product: The meatballs above are Kirkland Signature Meatballs, sold frozen in a bag at Costco. These are good when warmed in a tomato-based sauce, but a little peppery when eaten straight (not that my four-year-old minds). One of my friends used these at a party for do-it-yourself meatball sandwiches (meatballs and sauce served warm in my rice cooker, hoagie rolls cut in half), and they were the most popular dish there. For packing without sauce in a room-temp or cold lunch, though, I prefer the flavor of the Aidell’s teriyaki pineapple chicken meatballs that I reviewed earlier.

Packing: To keep the loose couscous from spilling all over the rest of the lunch, I chose a container with built-in subdividers that come all the way up to the lid. The 350ml bento box is from a Lock & Lock lunch set, and is one of my most utilitarian boxes because of its watertight lid, secure flaps, and durability in the dishwasher and microwave. I threw in a couple of food picks for the meatballs and fruit, as well as a Thomas the Tank Engine fork and spoon set (click any small photo for a larger view). I dipped the Asian pear chunks in some sweetened lemon juice to keep the fruit from browning. The tiny cookies went into a little 50ml container that was part of a 3-box nesting set I got from Daiso in Daly City (Japanese dollar store with branches internationally) for US$1.50.

Verdict: Bug ate everything except the couscous in this lunch, which I found puzzling as he devoured the same couscous at dinner a couple of nights prior. When I asked him why, he said that it was hard to eat with the flat Thomas the Tank Engine spoon I’d tucked into his lunch bag. Evidently it fell off of the flat spoon and frustrated him; if I’d packed a more curved, bowl-shaped spoon he would have eaten more of it at preschool. Sigh. Usually I’d say he just wasn’t that hungry if he wouldn’t eat his food, but he was ravenous when I picked him up from school. Different kids have different food issues, I guess. Know your own child’s issues and make adjustments as necessary!

* * * * *

Thanksgiving leftover bento lunch for preschooler

Contents of preschooler bento lunch: Turkey drumstick, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and apple wedges.

Morning prep time: 8 minutes, using leftover turkey, dressing and cranberry sauce from Thanksgiving dinner. In the morning I sliced the apple and packed up everything else.

Decorative aluminum foil Four Leaves Clover bento box with inserts

Packing: I made a clean handle on the turkey drumstick with some decorative aluminum foil from Daiso in Daly City (Japanese dollar store with branches internationally) for US$1.50 each. Ichiban Kan’s online store sells similar aluminum foil. Bug’s a bit of a neatnik, so little touches like this that let him keep his hands clean are a big hit. The liquidy cranberry sauce went into a disposable condiment cup with a lid to keep it contained. The stuffing went into a little reusable plastic bucket for fun, and I dipped the apple wedges in some sweetened lemon juice to keep the fruit from browning. I plead guilty to unnecessary garnish as I lined part of the bento box with a Bibb lettuce leaf for added color.

The whole lunch is packed in a 490ml “Four Leaves Clover” bento box from Ichiban Kan, which is a too large for a four-year-old according to the bento box size guidelines. I went with a larger box to accommodate the length of the turkey drumstick, but tried to pack it a little less tightly than usual by using the smaller subcontainers (bucket, condiment cup).

Gear: The 490ml “Four Leaves Clover” bento box from Ichiban Kan was cheap at US$1.50 (plus another $1.50 for the set of removable subcontainers), but the silver writing on the watertight flap lid is already starting to come off after only three uses and handwashing. Be aware! Many of the cheap dollar boxes from Ichiban Kan and Daiso have the same problem; this is one area where more expensive, better quality boxes shine. It’s not a deal-breaker for me as I like having boxes that I don’t care if Bug damages or loses, but it is irritating nonetheless. The manufacturer is “Marketing Art”, and it’s marked as being microwave-safe without the lid.

Verdict: Bug ate the turkey and apples at preschool, barely touching the dressing and cranberry sauce. He decided that he didn’t like stuffing and cranberry sauce after all. No harm, no foul!

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  1. Do you ever worry about the lead content of your bentos? Do you test them all? Have you ever found one that contained lead?

  2. oh and also, my hubby wants to eat ‘healthy’ food, so a lot of store bought pre-made things are out of the question.. your bentos always look so healthy! but i cant really think of anything to make other than salads XD

  3. MMM, those cookies look yummy! I may have to try those! I used to pack little desserts for my DD in her bento (pocky, animal cracker, a mini-square of chocolate, a small muffin or cookie) until the preschool sent home a note that we couldn’t pack them any sweets with their lunch. :( Boo! Their reasoning was not that the other kids didn’t get, just that every calorie should count in the preschool diet. A few times a cookie has come with her “hot lunch” provided by the district, though. It makes me laugh!
    @1 Kitti – my husband is there with yours – there are several stackable snap together boxes available. I buy mine at Walmart, they are octogon shape with green lids. Somedays I pack two tiers, some days up to 4, depending on the food being packed and if he has to work longer that day. I have prepacked tiers in the fridge with veggies, fruit, or a salad and just snap that tier on to the lunch I’ve packed. I also have tiers of rice pre-packed.

  4. Remember bento’s are deceiving. They may look too small, but if you buy one designed for a grown man, you will be surprised how much food it actually holds.

    I consider myself a ‘big eater’ as well and I never finish my bento…

  5. Looks great, as always!!

    Have a lovely holiday season!! :-)

  6. @1 Kitti – Have you thought about packing a thermos of stew for your husband? Stew is very filling, and nutritious if you make it with vegetables and not much (or no) salt. It can be packed in watertight containers if there is a microwave, or in a thermos if there isn’t one. Side dishes of a starch (bread, rice, crackers) and vegetables and fruit (steamed, sliced or salad) make up a very filling healthy meal.
    Also, stew can be cooked in a big batch and then frozen in single serves, so you just have to take it out to thaw the night before and prepare any side dishes. I usually cook up four different kinds once a month and then we rotate through them so as not to eat the same thing every day.

  7. This site is great! Very inspiring!

    But I can’t find an answer to a question that’s bothering me about bento boxes. I purchased one at a garage sale of Japanese executives returning back to Japan (they cycle thru our town regularly and their sales are fabulous) Anyway, the boxes aren’t tight fitting, like Tupperware. I saw on some of the bento box sites linked here that they sell belts. But it still seems that the boxes will open easily and spill. Is this just me? How should I solve this problem? Thanks!

  8. @1 from kitti: Hmm, if you’re packing two to three meals for your husband at once, a few thoughts. I assume you’ve already got the container issue covered (a thermal lunch jar like the Mr. Bento would be ideal for capacity and variety, and maybe a couple of 1000+ml large men’s boxes). As for the food prep itself, definitely cook in bulk and build up your freezer stash of food you’ve packaged up in individual serving sizes. Maybe make double for dinner so that you have planned leftovers. My ideal bento is one where I don’t actually cook more than one item fresh for the bento — the rest is a combination of leftovers, freezer stash, fresh fruits, and standby gap fillers.

    Hope this helps. If I’ve missed the crux of your question please let me know and I’ll take another stab at it.

  9. @2 from Susan: I’m a bit wary of boxes that are made in China — I’ve used those surface lead test kits on some and haven’t found anything yet. I do trust the ones made in Japan, though, as they’ve got good standards & quality control.

  10. @8 from JadeBlue: I’m assuming that you have a real portable bento box with lids that aren’t watertight, as opposed to the really big square,lacquered bento boxes that are meant for tabletop service only. If you do have a portable bento box with flimsy lids, the best thing to do is to make sure that the foods you pack inside are well drained to rid them of excess moisture. Use lidded condiment cups inside to pack anything juicy, and try to keep the packed bento upright in transit.

  11. I have a cutlery set similar to your son’s. The spoon bowl is rather flat though I’ve yet to try eating with it as I’m not packing bentos at the moment. Now, I’m worried.
    I think I shall invest in camping cutlery when I have the cash. It would probably be more durable.

  12. Thanks guys, ya’ll have given me a lot of ideas! Especially packing only one ‘fresh’ thing and using other stuff like fruit or freezer.. thats a good idea. And the stew rotations! Excellent! Now I’ve got some ideas, I’m going to do some bulk cooking ;)

  13. I LOVE those cookies! My mom makes the same recipe every year for Christmas. They are so tasty.

  14. @12 from Singapore Peasant: For cheap spoons with a deep bowl, I’ve had good luck with the “Kalas” line of cheap kids’ plastic utensils from Ikea. Very colorful, and would get around the metal-on-metal scraping issue. They cost only US$1.99 for an 18-piece set. Dishwasher-safe and pretty indestructible. http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/30096906

  15. Hi, kitti. I have a 6’4″ big eater who is away from home 12 hours plus during the week. And needs a heart-healthy lunch as well. I found that how you pack makes a difference. Crackers, 1 oz cheese, a few almonds, and grapes or tangerine slices packed in silicon cups in a ziploc sandwich box are “enough”. Same amount in a baggie: “kind of skimpy”. Also found that different textures help (like some crunchy veggies) and a small roll or slice of bread too.

  16. @kitti
    I use a MR. Bento (I am kind of tiny myself 5’4″) but I don’t just pack a lunch. Depending on what he does for work, you can in corporate snacks.
    This is a breakdown of my lunches:
    The first bowl is my morning snack, usually fruit and yogurt.
    The second bowl is my afternoon snack, usually some cheese and mini cornbread or hummus and pita. Something a little more hearty than the morning.
    the last two containers are actually used for my lunch.
    I hope that helps…use your imagination! Have fun with it :)

  17. To follow up on the bento box deceiving sizes; I recently bought some “men” bento boxes from Ichiban Kan, and I expected them to be a nice size for me, when I got them they were actually a bit bigger than expected (550ml) (which I love)
    I had been looking around for a bigger bento box, and also the lid is tighter than expected.. and at a very good price.
    I wished they had an Ichiban Kan store in Texas.

    PS.
    The cookies look Yumie Biggie!

  18. @ Sile:
    You are not the only one addicted to bento boxes.. It has become quite an addiction to me too.
    and that clover box does seem usefull especially with the containers.