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Posted on Aug 11, 2008 in Bento, Dumplings or Buns, For Kids, Onigiri or Sushi, Phyllo or Pancake or Other, Rice, Vegetarian | 22 comments

Spanakopita & elephant rice ball bento lunches

Spanakopita & elephant rice ball bento lunches

A little food presentation game that I play sometimes is to buy a fruit or vegetable in an unusual color, and pack it next to a contrasting item in a bento lunch. I’ve done this with orange cauliflower and broccoli, gold kiwi and blueberries, purple potatoes and peas, and today with golden and red raspberries. My three-year-old son and I spotted the golden raspberries in the market the other week, and couldn’t resist picking some up to taste side-by-side with regular red raspberries. Bug and I tried out both kinds together, and found the golden raspberries to be slightly more tart than the red, but not unpleasantly so. It was a nice, subtle flavor contrast with the same texture as the red version. Explore your markets with an eye open for unusual colors; they can add natural fun to a lunch!

Colorful spanakopita bento lunch for preschooler

I find that Bug enjoys these little food experiments that we do together — it’s okay if he doesn’t like something, but I want him to think about why he doesn’t like it and try to explain it to me. He’s now able to explain if it’s the taste, texture or smell of something that bothers him, which in turn helps me formulate new approaches to incorporating a variety of foods into his diet. He’s not a picky eater, though, so the battle is half won already. (Knock on wood!)

Krups FBC512 convection toaster ovenContents of preschooler bento lunch: Steamed broccoli with Goddess dressing, spinach and cheese spanakopita triangles (frozen from Costco, reviewed earlier), dried apricots, red and golden raspberries (Driscoll’s brand, but the exact variety wasn’t indicated), cheese triangle, dried blueberries and Rainier cherries.

Morning prep time: 17 minutes, mostly inactive prep time waiting for the frozen spanakopita to cook in the convection toaster oven and cool down on a little cooling rack afterwards so it didn’t turn soggy in the box. I turned on the toaster oven’s convection function to further speed up the bake time as convection is more even and slightly faster than conventional baking, and the toaster oven is more energy-efficient than our wall ovens. (Read on for packing details and an elephant rice ball lunch.)

Cars bento box for childPacking: Because raspberries are so delicate, they need to be packed in a hard plastic sub-container of some sort to ensure that they don’t turn to mush in transit. I used reusable food cups from Daiso to both protect the raspberries and contain the dressing on the broccoli. I like the little mini buckets that hold the broccoli; they’re a little larger and heavier duty than my old “food buckets”. The lunch is packed in a 360ml Disney Cars bento box with both subcontainers removed to accommodate the long spanakopita, and the dried fruit acts as gap fillers to stabilize the lunch during transport. (Click on any photo for a larger view.)

Verdict: Big thumbs up; Bug ate everything at preschool without leftovers.

* * * * *

Elephant onigiri bento lunch for preschooler

Here’s a lunch from a sleep-deprived cook without much in the refrigerator to choose from. Use an onigiri mold or a cookie cutter lined with plastic wrap to quickly turn out shaped rice balls cute enough to draw the eye away from the plainness of the lunch (fingers crossed!). I’m usually not one for making Decorative Food, but somehow a plain rice elephant without ears or eyes seemed awfully lonely…

Contents of preschooler bento lunch: Edamame shumai dumplings with dipping sauce, diced mango, wrapped cheese, and elephant-shaped rice ball filled with nori tsukudani seaweed paste (Gohan Desu Yo!). The eye is a black sesame seed, and the ear is a bit of sliced ham.

Egg & rice moldsMorning prep time: 10 minutes, using frozen rice and shumai dumplings. In the morning I first warmed a small portion of frozen rice in the microwave, and then steamed the shumai in my microwave mini steamer while I made the elephant rice ball with a mold. I had a slice of mango in the refrigerator already, so cubing it went quickly.

Pre-filled sauce containers for speedy lunch packingPacking: I already had some pre-filled sauce containers on hand with dipping sauce for the shumai, so that sped up the packing process. Like the raspberries, the mango cubes were delicate and benefited from being packed in a hard subcontainer from Daiso. Packed in a 350ml Geki Rangers bento box with one sub-container removed to accommodate the elephant onigiri.

Verdict: A qualified thumbs up for this simple lunch. Bug ate it all at preschool, but was really hungry after school. Upon reflection, I didn’t pack this lunch as tightly as usual, so it was probably on the small side for his growing appetite. I’ve been seeing fewer and fewer lunch leftovers lately; it may be time to bump up the size of his lunches when preschool restarts in September. Yup, he’s on summer break right now! Looks like the bento box size guidelines recommend a 400ml box for a four-year-old…

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  1. i always love getting your updates! I particularly like the lunch descriptions (even if they’re simple) They inspire me to do more with my own lunches. (Half a cucumber and a hot pocket today…not too inspirational myself!)

    I’m going to have to pass along the knowledge of the golden raspberries to my best friend. Regular raspberries are her fav fruit, and I’m sure she’d love to know these are out there!

  2. I love golden raspberries!!
    Even though you can have almost anything imported these days, the price and flavour of particularly berries is totally unworth the effort off season. Here, because of the obvious changes in season (well, obvious and obvious, last year we didn’t get any snow so you wonder about the weather), you can’t farm anything but in greenhouses.
    Does San Fransisco and California in general remain rich on its state-grown produce? We’re having a huge debate on environmental impact of imports. Regardless, we are relying on imports of foods, more or less however.

  3. Wow, 400 ml! That’s incredible… close to what I eat… a growing boy, eh? :) How time flies…

  4. I am noticing now that more and more you say “frozen from x-store” so next shopping trip I will not skip past the frozen food section like normal. I am still learning all these tricks slowly!!

    I think my first step has been organising my kitchen better and trying to work out what fits in my box and how much I actually eat comfortably. I got out of the habit of packing lunches as I made the excuse of being time poor. Time to get back into it and stop being lazy!! hah

    I am also seeing more and more accessories that could be used in bentos around here. I will have to write down some addresses and update that Store Locator for South Australia as there is much more than it currently shows.

    Thanks for being such a food inspiration Biggie. Keep it up. I love seeing that you have added an update – especially when it is an edible update!

  5. I love the samosa bento,yummy!

    just wondering, on the elephant onigiri you added a japanese filling. I’m a tad fussy with my food and I don’t think I’d like any Japanese fillings but what sort of “western” foods could you fill them with? any ideas?

  6. I started reading Lunch In A Box back in January when I first got into bento-ing. I’m in a bit of a packing slump right now, but I just wanted to say that I absolutely love this blog. Seriously, the updates make me so happy! :]

  7. You have me curious about bento boxes now! I like your site – it’s my first visit. I have a question though…how does steamed broccoli fare a few hours later when it’s eaten? It sounds like it wouldn’t be good…is there a secret? Does your little guy eat it cold?

  8. @2 from Jessika: Yes, there’s a lot of locally grown produce in California, thanks to the year-round growing season. I really can’t complain! It is important for countries to be self-sufficient in terms of food production — good point.

  9. @5 from Metanoia: Thanks for keeping the Bento Store Locator in mind, Metanoia! The more people input local store info into it, the better tool it’ll be. Now to get to work on another food update for you… ;-)

  10. @6 from Shivi: There are lots of options for Western-style onigiri fillings. Use anything that’s dry (not too moist), strongly flavored, and chopped up small. I tried mango chutney and fresh mint once — that was fantastic. Diced barbecue, side dishes, etc. — all work well. Let me look around for a better list for you.

  11. @7 from KatyBelle: Thanks for the kind words, KatyBelle! I’m sure you’ll get back into bento packing when the time is right; we all go through slumps.

  12. @8 from Beth: The secret to making cold steamed broccoli taste good is using a strong-flavored dressing or sauce on it while it’s still hot. That way you’re not just eating a mouthful of bland green.

  13. Thanks Biggie! I’ll have to try that with broccoli sometime.

  14. I too would be interested in a post about having more western style fillings for onigiri. or rice flavoring. I tried several of the rice flavoring mixes from our local asian store and didn’t care for them. So have resorted to sprinkling garlic salt or lemon pepper on it instead with some fresh parsley.

  15. You can fill an onigiri with whatever you prefer really. I am turning to using alot of veggies as filling, another day it might be a muscle from a meal that was of moule mariniere, a meatball. As to seasoning, you can try out various things to find your own preference.

  16. Is that a tiny little bucket for the broccoli? It’s so cute. And the whole thing looks both beautiful and delicious!

  17. I pack lunch for my kiddos daily, and I wanted to incorporate musubi/onigiri. How do you pack it keeping everything cold but making sure the onigiri rice doesn’t get hard? Does your son’s school heat the bento, but take out the fruit? How does it all work?

  18. @3 from Teapriestess: I had no idea about that about.com article — thanks for letting me know! (Sorry that my spam filter accidentally caught your comment; I just found it in there and released it.)

  19. wow, it sounds so obvious, but letting the spanikopita sit out to ‘dry’ before packing it (to avoid it getting soggy) is freaking brilliant. I would’ve just ‘dealt’ with it over, and over…

  20. @20 from jehan: The “drying” step help with any warm, crispy food — baked or fried. :-)

  21. I teach High School, and though it’s a bit off topic, I wanted to tell you that I wish more parents would ask their kids to describe why they like or don’t like something the way you do with Bug. It makes them more articulate, and more analytical. It allows them to look at things more deeply too. It all shows up later in their academic writing and speech skills, ability to compare and contrast and to be persuasive in their arguments. Bravo!