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Posted on May 6, 2008 in Bento, Equipment, For Kids, Meat, Sandwich or Wrap, Tips, Tutorial or How-to | 41 comments

Children’s Day bento lunch

Children’s Day bento lunch

Don’t be alarmed! I’m not changing the focus of this site to time-consuming food art! But May 5 was Cinco de Mayo as well as Children’s Day (Kodomo no Hi, historically a boy’s day holiday celebrated in Japan), one of the few occasions I’ll actually go all out to make a themed lunch for my three-year-old son. Do you get the theme? The sandwich is decorated to look like a carp streamer, which is traditionally flown on Children’s Day. A big fish streamer on top represents the father, and smaller ones underneath stand for the mother and either the boys or all children in the household, depending on who you talk to. I’ve translated the classic Japanese Children’s Day song at the end of the post and linked to a song video if you’re interested in learning more.

Children's Day bento lunch for preschooler

Contents of preschooler bento lunch: Ham and cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread (scales: sliced ham, eye: sliced cheese and nori seaweed, fins: cucumber peel, all affixed to the bread with cream cheese to keep the design intact in transit). The side dish container holds a cherry tomato, steamed broccoli and yellow bell pepper strips flavored with Korean barbecue sauce, and a cheese cube.

Decorative food picks for packed lunches

Morning prep time: 30+ minutes, WAY too long for a speed bento, but fine for the occasional decorative lunch (see my page on Decorative Food). Food art lunches benefit from advanced planning, so I looked through some of my Japanese children’s bento cookbooks to find ideas the day before. I settled on a simple sandwich (instead of an elaborate fish-shaped sushi roll), and went to the store to pick up what I was missing (ham and cucumber). (Read on for equipment notes, decoration technique, and the Koinobori Song…)

Gear: To add some quick visual appeal, I used a new food pick designed to make cherry tomatoes look like little balloons. Other little picks in the same set include flower stems for cut-out vegetables like carrots, umbrella handles for asparagus tips, rings for cut-out vegetables like cucumbers, and little bones for pretty much anything at all. I’m thinking of trying out two little bones as tiny handles for corn on the cob in bento lunches. I found these for about US$1 at Ichiban Kan’s Japantown store. I thought their online store carried them as well, but it’s possible they’re currently out of stock as I can’t seem to find them there anymore. (EDIT: The picks are back in stock at their online store.) (See my review of Ichiban Kan’s online store or their retail stores in my San Francisco Bay Area shopping guide for bento gear.)

Cutters for decorative packed lunches

Technique:

  • I used two kinds of round cutters to make the sandwich “fish.” Bakers may recognize the cone-shaped pastry bag tips, which come in all sizes and are great for cutting out small circles (the inner circle of the eye, in this case — I didn’t have a regular hole punch on hand). Pastry tips aren’t just for cake decorating anymore — hooray for multi-taskers!
  • To make the ham “scales” and the cheese “eye”, I used a small round Ateco cutter from an 11-piece graduated set I had on hand from an earlier foray into pastry making. (Ateco puts out a lot of high quality cutters, including tiny aspic cutters and these graduated sets in different shapes — I’m a fan.) I put the ham circles in stacks and used a sharp knife to cut off one end of the circle, producing little “scales” that could be layered on the bread with a schmear of cream cheese to help them stick. I could have used thin egg sheets from the microwave for the eye instead of cheese, but it was easier to just grab some cheese from the fridge.
  • To create little green “fins”, I used a regular vegetable peeler to first cut off a long strip of cucumber peel. A chef’s knife came in handy for shaping the cucumber peel into narrow, even strips that I affixed to the bread with cream cheese. (I use an OXO swivel peeler and a Wusthof chef’s knife that I really like, but anything will do, really.) You can use any number of other sticky substances to affix edible decorations to food: think honey, Nutella, peanut butter, Marmite or Vegemite, etc. Think about the texture, flavor and color of the foods you’re working with to make sure your creations both look and taste good.

Thomas the Tank Engine lunch gearPacking: I pulled out an old 270ml Thomas the Tank Engine bento box that I used a lot when Bug was two, removed both subcontainers, and packed just the sandwich in that for better visual impact. Side dishes went into a tiny 100ml side dish container from Daiso that came in a nesting set of three with blue lids that match this three-tier box.

Verdict: Huge success. Bug polished off everything in preschool, and told me he really liked the fish sandwich. Evidently he first picked off all of the individual decorations, ate those, then ate the naked sandwich.

* * * * *

KOINOBORI SONG

I found a YouTube clip of a little kid singing this — very cute. Bug and his preschool class didn’t wind up singing this particular song when they performed at the Children’s Day Festival in Japantown over the weekend, but other children did as it’s a must-have for the holiday.

Yane yori takai koinobori
Ookii magoi wa otousan
Chiisai higoi wa kodomotachi
Omoshirosou ni oyoideru

Carp streamers higher than the roof
The big one is the father
The small ones are the children
Having fun swimming

FURTHER READING ON LUNCH IN A BOX:

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  1. Hello! New fan of yours here. I just wanted to tell you that your posts are wonderfully informative and very inspiring for beginner Bento Boxers such as myself. I have yet to take pictures of my attempts but I will do so soon. Thanks again.

  2. Just checking, you made a ham and cheese sandwich and then decorated it, right? It wasn’t an “open” sandwich, ie plain bread with the ham/cheese decoration on top?

    Not that I have the time to spend packing a lunch that fancy anyway ;)

  3. @2 from Sile: Thanks for confirming my suspicions, Sile — I was starting to feel a little senile not being able to find the picks in their online store anymore.

  4. @3 from Giffy: You’ve got it exactly right, Giffy. I made a regular sandwich with two slices of bread (crusts cut off for the preschooler), plopped it into the bento box, then decorated it.

  5. Awesome, I also thought, for a quick eye, you could use a slice of boiled egg, with the yellow being the pupil/iris and the white being the… white.

  6. Ichiban Kan is sold out of the little picks- I bought a set just after they opened to go with the little onigiri bento box i got from them. I have to admit to the guilty pleasure of using them to spear steamed veggies at dinner instead of using a fork. (I have seven nephews and another niece or nephew on the way, so I’m not allowed to grow up until they do :)

    On another note, I adore your blog. It’s been ten years since I lived in Japan, but I still miss the culture and (especially) the cuisine. Starting to pack bento again is a thrill of nostalgia for me. (Now if I only didn’t have to drive 150 miles to actually buy things other than Pocky, I’d be happy.)

  7. I have a technical question here:

    What kind of camera do you use for your pictures?

    I’m having the hardest time making my pictures come out good. It’s very frustrating to work at making a lunch all cute n stuff, and have the pictures turn out blurry. Snif…

    Help me somebody! Bloggers what do you use as a camera?

  8. that child is so adorable!

  9. @8 from Willow: I use a simple point-and-shoot Canon PowerShot 520 on a tripod, nothing fancy.

  10. Oh thanks!

    I emailed you before I saw this.. DUH!

    Tripod.. that’s my next step! I’m moving forward! ;op

    Love the bento today!!

  11. So kawaii! ^_^ It’s not so bad if you pre-planned the cutting of the stuff too but that does sound more complex. I’m also glad you gave info on the cutters you have – “ring molds” I thought they were called and have been hunting for the perfect one, will have to look for these, as I’ve been thinking I might just cave in and just use a cleaned out tuna can with both ends cut… (I plate my food when I eat or cook for people; force of habit from when I was growing up, my father insisted people eat with their eyes first and need to have visually appealing food, which I am inclined to agree with!)

  12. Hey Biggie!
    (Again, I’m using the comments section to talk to you, not to comment on the specific post…sorry!)
    For some reason, I’ve been obsessed with food and making food lately…I ‘invented’ this recipe that I think Bug will like…it’s quick and easy. I’ve had several different types of cold noodles with peanut sauce (I believe it’s either Thai or Vietnamese…not sure) and we had some leftover noodles (the traditional spaghetti kind–round and somewhat skinny) that no one wanted to eat, so I tried to force my sister to eat them by making something she’d like (I use my sis as a ‘dump’–she’ll eat leftovers if they’re cooked creatively)
    You can eat these cold or hot, perfect for bento!
    (The amounts are approx…since this was my experiment, I just played it by eye)
    ~Peanut butter (chunky if you like real peanut chunks, smooth if you don’t)
    ~Almond butter (same chunky/smooth rule as above)–a note about this one, I’m a health nut and almond butter is healthier than peanut butter, although I was afraid that it wouldn’t have the same peanut-y taste and my sis wouldn’t eat it, so I used a mix of almond and peanut butter. Feel free to do whatever you like.
    ~Water (to thin out the sauce a bit, add as much or little as you like)
    ~Sesame oil (I remember my mom made peanut sauce once, and used this, so I added just a LITTLE)
    ~Olive oil (again, health nut here, olive oil is better than sesame, but I didn’t want to change the taste too much–what with the olive oil and almond butter)
    ~One clove of crushed garlic (I used those little pre-crushed frozen cubes, I used one cube and the box said 1 cube=1 clove…not sure if it’s REALLY the same though)
    ~Microwave the peanut butter, almond butter and garlic (if they’ve been in the fridge, they’ll be sort of sticky-melt the frozen garlic and soften up the nut butters–it’s easier to mix) mix together very well, add some water (adding water actually made the sauce more crumbly–no idea why) mix some more, add a little sesame and/or olive oil, again, not too much until you get a soft paste. spoon over noodles and mix very well–you want every noodle to have the sauce on it (although, since I did something wrong–don’t know what, the sauce is hard to mix, might want to “toss” instead of “stir”) My sis loved it, although it came out waaaay differently than my mom’s–mummy’s was thin and watery (but I think mine is better)

  13. It’a very cute and I will try to use that design in my official japanese bento ordered from J list
    I used to use tupperware for my bentos and now I have enough to pay for a j list bento. I love childrens day too it’s awesome.

  14. @13 from Yvo: Ring molds are actually taller than these cutters, and the ones I’ve seen have been expensive. I saw Alton Brown jury-rig ring molds with stuff he got from the hardware store — maybe a Google search on “Alton Brown” and “ring molds” would turn up the specifics?

  15. I was just wondering, which do you think is better? The Mr./Ms. Bento or the Nissan Lunch Tote (you compare this to the knockoff on your flickr page)? I looked at amazon at the Nissan lunch jar and someone said that it retains heat better than Mr. Bento. I was just wondering if you had any thoughts about that, or if you could confirm this. Thanks!

  16. @14 from Kou: Those peanut noodles sound good, like Chinese sesame noodles that I’ve made before (not for bentos yet, though). Can’t do it for preschool because of the peanut ban, but something to keep in mind for other lunches. Thanks!

  17. @17 from Sharon: Score!!! The picks are back on the online store! Thanks so much for the link; I’ll update the post.

  18. @18 from torankusu: To be fair, I haven’t done a side-by-side test of the Nissan Stainless vs. the Mr. Bento to judge heat retention. I can say that the heat retention of the Nissan is quite good (although not as good as a plain food jar without internal containers). The inner containers are designed the same and are of the same size, and both are very good quality. Beyond that, it’s probably personal preference as to color, style, etc.

  19. @16 from Biggie: I think I remember the Alton Brown show you’re talking about, and he used small tuna cans with tops and bottoms removed for metal rings. (He was making English muffins on a griddle.)

  20. Oh now I am confused. This from the Amazon page for the Ateco cutters:
    Cutters range from 3/4 inch high to 3-5/8 inches high

    it says this a few times in the various product descriptions. But they really mean ranges from 3/4 inch DIAMETER to 3 and 5/8″ DIAMETER right? Otherwise, I am still very confused.

  21. biggie, that balloon pick for the tomato is one of the cutest things i’ve ever seen!!

  22. @24 from Yvo: Yes, the Ateco cutter set is talking about diameter, not height.

  23. Anthony Bourdain says he’s used sliced rings of PVC pipe in place of metal rings, but I’m not sure I’d do that… then again, there’s a lot of things he does that I wouldn’t do. ;)

  24. @19 from Biggie: is there an almond ban as well? I guess you could sub in almond butter for the peanut butter, and instead of 50/50 it would be 100% almond butter. Might taste a little different, but I prefer almond butter anyways…
    @23 from Yvo: hmmm…maybe that’s what I was missing. I think my mum might have added soy sauce, but I’m POSITIVE she didn’t add honey (not sure if she added sugar, but I don’t think so)Smoked almonds? Never tried them…what do they taste like?

  25. Those graduated circle cutters are awesome, I don’t know how I live without them! (For Good Eats fans, Alton Brown highly recommends them as multitaskers, too, in his donut episode.) I use them in my cake decorating, as cookie cutters, to make donuts, biscuits, as pancake and egg molds for egg muffin sandwiches…the possibilites are endless!

  26. hi! i stumbled upon your site while googling bento boxes. i am planning to have pack lunches every day, and i am learning a lot from your website! thanks a bunch! =)

  27. See I bet his face was so excited opening that lunchbox – brilliant!

  28. @32 from Laquet: Every time he glimpses a photo of this lunch afterwards he gets excited again and tells me how much he liked it. I showed him the photo in the bento cookbook before I made it, and it got a big thumbs up too.

  29. Hi there,
    I don’t have my own bento yet and I’ve been looking around for the perfect one. I don’t think this is it, but there’s a very plain one at MOMA for sale that looks nice and simple.

  30. Hey, Megan- do you know what that bento box says on the top? I can’t see it because the main picture of it is too small, and the bigger picture only shows it open. That’s the exact type of box I’ve been looking for to get my fiancee!!

  31. I don’t see any writing on it… both images are the same for me (both open) with chopsticks on top.

  32. Ahhh, I see what you’re talking about. I can’t see what it says. It could say Moma or it could be the brand. There’s no manufacturer information on there so I think if it’s really important to email Moma and ask.

  33. Don’t know if anyone is still watching this one- but MOMA got back to me and said that their bento box says “Silver Mode” on the lid.

  34. I never comment, but i’m an avid reader of your blog. Just wanted to drop by and thank you for all the inspiration!
    dot

  35. @35 from Megan: I have a Dear Label box that’s very similar to that Moma one — black with the built-in chopstick holder. Very roomy for bigger appetites, and not so cutesy that my husband would get embarrassed to pull it out in front of his colleagues.

  36. @41 from dot: Thanks for the kind words and for reading, dot!

  37. Hello…
    I love looking @ your bento ideas and would like to get your permission to take them for my inspiration in bento making. Thanks in advance

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