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Posted on Nov 26, 2007 in Tips | 5 comments

Children’s bento cookbooks in my kitchen


In a follow up to my review of Japanese-language speed bento and freezing books on my bookshelf, here are some children’s bento cookbooks that I have with thoughts. Some are focused on simple lunches, others more on decorative food art with garnishing tips. All are trade paperback “Mooks” (magazine books), usually with multiple color photos on every page. I’ve indicated which books might be informative even without understanding Japanese, and will follow up with a review of my general bento books. Have you got a favorite Japanese-language bento cookbook? Leave a comment and tell us know what it is!

I got most of these at Kinokuniya, a big Japanese bookstore chain with branches worldwide. I go to the branch in San Francisco’s Japantown, the chain’s first overseas store, but have mixed feelings about them. When I lived in Japan throughout the nineties they were pretty much the only place to find a selection of English books, and boy did they ever charge you for it! The foreign ‘gaijin’ community finally got more choice (and a much-needed drop in prices) when Tower Records opened up stores in Japan and came on the scene. So now I’m experiencing the opposite flow: buying Japanese books in the U.S. — prices are still high (US$14 for a 1000-yen book a year ago).

If there’s no Japanese bookstore or library near you, Amazon Japan ships books, CDs, DVDs and videos internationally (shipping info in English here), and you can turn most of the site into English by clicking on the “In English” button on the right of the red bar at the top of the page. Each Amazon entry shows the book’s ISBN number, which might be helpful if you’re trying to look them up or special order them. (Disclosure: Amazon links are affiliate links; purchases made by accessing Amazon Japan through these links supports Lunch in a Box.) (Read the full cookbook reviews here…)

Children’s bento books:

  • Youchien no Obento Zensho: Enji ga Yorokobu Idea ga Ippai! “Kindergarten Bento Compendium: Lots of ideas to make kids happy!” This is the Bento Bible of my kid’s bento cookbooks and my top child’s pick overall. It has a wide variety of foods and arrangements, from simple pasta or sandwich bentos to ornate food art, and an extensive set of how-to pages for everything from cocktail sausage animals and tamagoyaki egg shaping, to onigiri fillings and decorations. Extensive appendices with decorative garnish how-to’s, a pattern for making your own kinchaku lunch bag, bento seasoning and packing basics, tips specific to children’s bentos, home freezing, and frozen convenience food usage tips. One unique section is for hot lunches packed in aluminum boxes without sealing lids, and the packing techniques needed to compensate. Side dishes are grouped by main ingredient (potato, kabocha, egg, spinach, shrimp, cucumber, carrot, renkon, etc.) as well as color to facilitate packing by color. “One point advice” and prep time for each meal, with step-by-step prep photos make this visually informative and glanceable, even for non-readers of Japanese.

  • Ichinenju Yakudatsu Tsuen Obento: Daisukina Kondate ga Ippai: “Children’s Bentos that are Helpful Year-round: Lots of Favorite Menus” Cutesy preschooler bentos with lots of food art and characters. About half of the meals have detailed step-by-step prep photos, and there’s a section of dishes organized by color (green, red, yellow, brown, white, etc.). Good 5-page section on cute garnishes, with how-to photos of how to make eggs, cocktail sausages, kamaboko, vegetables and apples into little animals or decorations like chicks, tanuki, rabbits, flowers, ladybugs, sheep, clocks, etc. Book’s intro has helpfully illustrated nutritional guidelines, food safety tips, how to pack a bento, and special considerations for children’s lunches. Prep time is provided for each bento, with most hovering around the 20-minute mark.

  • Mini Frypan Hitotsu de Mainichi Tsukaeru Enji no Obento “Everyday Child’s Bentos from a Mini Frypan” Focuses on simple bento lunches for children (not overly decorative) that can mostly be prepared in one mini frying pan, but also has a speed bento section with freezing suggestions and microwave recipes such as mixed rice. Bento lunches in the main section are matched with step-by-step prep photos, and an illustrated tip such as freezing, ingredient choice, etc. Interesting onigiri section with variations such as makizushi with bread replacing the rice, meatball-stuffed onigiri ‘bombs’, yakisoba sushi, alternate fillings such as ham/cheese, etc. The latter portion has multi-person picnic bentos and an illustrated guide to child bento basics (how to make easy-to-eat, hard-to-spoil bento lunches). The first half is visual enough to convey prep information to a non-reader of Japanese. No prep times or nutritional info.

  • Aijou Ippai Youchien no Obento: “Kindergarten Bentos Full of Love” Unusually messy layout without food prep photos makes this a less compelling read. With real-life tips from 26 different mothers, there’s some good information in there, but it’s not as glanceable as my other books. No separate sections with variations on onigiri, sandwiches, eggs, etc., but there are clever presentation ideas and menu items within. No prep time or nutritional information.

  • Tsukaeru! Obento no Hon: Kore Issatsu Areba Anshin “A Bento Book You Can Use: The Only Book You Need” A general bento book with 16 pages of regular children’s bento lunches, and 20 pages of “character” food art bentos (themed by holiday). Adult lunches are pretty simple, with packing tips and usually one prep photo. A section on leftover remakes has clever ideas such as turning potato salad into faux tuna latkes and faux Scotch eggs. I especially like the logical arrangement which uses the 3:1:2 packing guideline (3 parts starch, 1 part protein, 2 parts vegetables) to present main dishes by ingredient, side dishes by color, and “joubisai” emergency stash dishes. Includes prep time and calorie count for each dish. Sections include how to best pack a bento lunch, speed and freezing tips, and decorative onigiri variations.
  • Okosama Lunch to Obento “Children’s Lunches and Bentos” Mostly a cookbook for children’s lunches, but including 11 pages of bento material, and an excellent 10-page section of decorative onigiri variations and cute garnishes using cocktail sausages, chicken eggs, quail eggs, cocktail sausages, and fruit (most with a how-to photo). Sections include: birthday meals and desserts, one-plate lunches, holiday-themed meals, individual and multi-person bentos, and snacks and baking. With the exception of the garnish section, mostly lacking in prep photos that would make it helpful to non-readers of Japanese.

  • Obento Daijiten: 748 Recipe Oishii Obentou Tsukuri o Oen Shimasu! “Bento Encyclopedia” If I had to throw away all of my bento cookbooks but one, this would be the one I would keep. Large, comprehensive bento book with separate sections for speed, children (33 pages, mostly simple lunches plus 3 pages of food art bentos), low-calorie, frugal, student (big/healthy), and multi-person picnic meals. Also has sections for meat/fish/eggs, recipes by color, bread/noodles, and easy-morning prep bentos (with ideas for freezing and leftover remakes). Lists prep time and calories for each meal. Mostly lacking food prep photos, it’s still visually compelling with a lot of ideas.