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Posted on Aug 29, 2008 in Bento, Eggs, Pasta or Noodles, Vegetarian | 20 comments

Simple American bento lunches

Simple American bento lunches

First off, welcome to new readers finding their way here from yesterday’s article in The Washington Post on packed lunches and bentos (free registration required to view the article). The article calls me “the Rachael Ray of bentos” because of my focus on speedy lunches, which I found to be pretty amusing. So does this mean I need to come up with a catchphrase like Yum-O now?

If you’re new to bento-style lunches, be sure to read the Bento FAQ for an introduction. I’m on the road at the moment posting only sporadically, so please accept my apologies for not being as responsive to comments as usual.

Pulled pork mac & cheese bento lunchMy husband likes to barbecue on the weekends when we have people over, so earlier this summer he smoked some pork butts on the DIY flowerpot smoker for about 15 hours. We generally have people over when we do this, and it yields so many leftovers that I divide some into smaller portions, double-wrap, and freeze it for later when we’ll really appreciate it. It makes great fodder for Leftover Remakes, where I use leftovers to make a new dish. In the past I’ve used leftover pulled pork in dishes such as pork sopes, a straight sandwich packed in a Mr. Bento-type thermal lunch jar, as a pizza topping, or even plain.

In a play on a pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw, one evening I sautéed some chopped-up cabbage, added a portion of the leftover pulled pork, seasoned it with a little jarred tomato-based pasta sauce, and added the mixture to some Annie’s boxed shells & cheese pasta. To maximize payoff for the times when you take time to cook, make more than usual and freeze the excess planned leftovers to use in other dishes. A list of freezing tips is on the Top Tips page.

Contents of preschooler dinner: Roasted salmon and broccoli, cherry tomato, and shells and cheese pasta doctored with sautéed cabbage and North Carolina-style pulled pork. (Click on any photo for a larger view.)Pork butt BBQ

Morning prep time: 10 minutes, using all leftovers. In the morning I revived the texture of the leftover pasta by microwaving it in a microwave-safe dish with a little splash of water, and tossed the broccoli with some vinaigrette so that it would have some flavor when eaten at room temperature. (Read on for packing details and an additional preschooler bento lunch.)

Packing: I usually like to pack hot macaroni and cheese in a thermal food jar so that it stays warm and soft when it’s time to eat. This was actually a bento I made for dinner at our running club, and was eaten within an hour after packing it. I made three versions of this meal for Bug, my husband and myself, and used our thermal food jar and thermal lunch jar for the other two. There was just a little mac & cheese left, so I just grabbed a little bento box to put the rest in. My three-year-old ate this with me (unlike his usual bento lunches, which he eats on his own at preschool), so I didn’t cut up the salmon into bite-size pieces for him beforehand as I was able to help him with it when he ate.

Small food dividers for bento lunches (I’m guilty of unnecessary garnish again, and used a plastic food divider purely for fun – it serves no actual purpose in this case as the bento box’s subcontainer neatly holds the side dishes separate. The lunch is packed in a 360ml Power Rangers bento box with one subdivider removed, the right size box for a three-year-old according to the bento box size guidelines. One of the flaps on the lid finally gave up the ghost sometime after I made this lunch, so this is one of the last appearances of this particular box. Good thing I miraculously found this on the ground in my neighborhood a couple of years ago! Manna from heaven (and you can tell I live near a school with a Japanese bilingual enrichment program – I can’t imagine just randomly stumbling across an abandoned bento box in a normal neighborhood.).

Verdict: Thumbs up as Bug finished all of this in one sitting, but that’s not surprising as I was there to encourage him and help with the big salmon chunks. If he were to eat this at preschool, I would have cut the salmon smaller for little hands.

* * * * *

Egg muffin sandwich bento lunch for preschooler

As I wrote in an earlier post about this type of sandwich, bento lunches don’t have to include rice, and actually sandwiches are a popular item in children’s bento boxes as they’re easy for little hands to hold. You can use all kinds of breads to make interesting sandwich variations: mini bagels, English muffins, croissants, dinner rolls, sandwich bread cut into shapes, cocktail bread for teeny sandwiches, biscuits, regular bread roll-ups, or even focaccia or regular bread packed in a collapsible sandwich case.

Contents of preschooler lunch: Homemade egg McMuffin-type sandwich with scrambled egg and cheddar cheese (no meat as Bug likes it better without) on some red-leaf lettuce, cherries and orange slices. This is a meal I’ve made before, but Bug likes it and is tickled when I pack it as lunch for him from timeto time..

Morning prep time: 13 minutes, making the muffin sandwich from scratch when I made breakfast.

Panda bento belt & 3-tier bento boxThree-tier bento boxPacking: For a splash of color in the lunch, I packed the sandwich halves on top a bit of red leaf lettuce. I used a cheap three-tier bento box from Daiso in Daly City (Japanese discount store with branches worldwide where most products are US$1.50), which is cute but the lids are not watertight. I closed it all up with a cheap elastic bento band shaped like a panda (also from Daiso). I chose not to use a collapsible sandwich case to pack this meal, but that or a standard flat bento box would also be suitable containers.

Verdict: This was too big for Bug; he ate just the sandwich at preschool, and had the fruit at the playground after school as an afternoon snack. The pretty green lettuce went uneaten — I keep hoping he’ll eat it, but no go so far, even with dressing for dipping… He doesn’t eat green salad either, though, so at least he’s consistent!

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  1. Congrats on the Post article!

  2. Cool article in the post! But Biggie we love you just the way you are. Spare us yumm-o or delish or sammich.

  3. You’ll get him there… lettuce can be so yummy and crunchy ;)
    Congrats on the label – RR is the highest paid “chef” in the country (world?) according to Forbes, and I’d be happy for you if you were that for bento’ers. :)

  4. Congrats I guess :). At least you are not into Julia Child-style lunch cooking or you’d feel pressure now ;)! I yielded finally and got a Totoro box.
    Just keep being you — we love that :)

  5. Hey biggie, I have never liked lettuce either, as a kid I choked on it. Don’t let that deter you thought, I am still a great eater I just don’t like anything leafy!

    Your bug sounds like a wonderful eater, I would say you could try giving it to him more often, but kudos to you for not forcing him to eat it. Sometimes kids just don’t like something! :)

  6. Great Post article. Congrats ! – and I must share a new lunch food. My kids hit school 2 weeks ago, aka the “no-nut zone” due to allergies, and several kids in the class (and moms, and me) are freaking over the lack of peanut butter or other nut butters in sandwiches.

    Discovered there’s a look-alike and taste-alike alternative – sunflower seed spread. No nuts ! and the nutrition profile is pretty similar to peanut butter. I found it at a natural grocer here in Denver.

  7. Awesome job Biggie! The article is great! (Even though I hate Rachel Ray o.O! I love you and lunchinabox!)

  8. Who needs Yum-O? You’ve got Bent-O!

  9. Funny, I’m actually a fan of Rachael Ray’s show 30-Minute Meals, even though I’m vegan. She’s got some great ideas, and many times they’re very veg-friendly.

    It’s easy to take most ideas, including yours, and replace the protein element with something veg.

  10. congratulations, biggie! you’ve earned it

  11. I love your Ideas!! I can’t wait until my son goes to school and I can pack these little care packages. The other day I made him those octopus hot dogs. He LOVED them! Thanks again, come visit my blog some time!

  12. Biggie, you are practical and inspiring! I am almost 50 years old and a full-time office worker with no children. Your articles give me great information for my own bento lunches. Composing a bento lunch is fun and challenging-an exercise in planning, patience, organization, and creativity. I respect you parents who make the time for bento – I hope you are appreciated as you should be.

  13. Ok…I am new here and now completely hooked. I found you via Post article. I was up until 2am reading your blog. My husband may leave me if a say, “Wow, look at this bento!!” one more time.

  14. You might try putting cottage cheese, or peanut butter, or sesame butter (for school) on a piece of lettuce and rolling it up like a burrito.

  15. This makes me think about smoking some stuff on my kamado pot this weekend to pack in lunches. I can’t eat pork because of allergies, but some beef or lamb would probably be good to use in lunches.

  16. Since Biggie’s out of town and might not get my email, I’ll take the liberty of pointing everybody to http://shirt.woot.com/ where they have an adorable bento t-shirt today.

  17. @15 from Alison: Ooh, I like this idea of using lettuce as a wrap to coax Bug into eating some. I’ve tried it with Vietnamese Imperial rolls and he hasn’t been impressed (preferring the straight roll), but I could get creative with it…

  18. may I ask how you fitted the top of the bento box on with the divider sticking out like that? :) love your blog btw

  19. Biggie- I recently bought the lunch on the go set from http://www.fit-fresh.com/. I LOVE the bento possibilities and the built in ice pack.

  20. What I wouldn’t give for my daughter to eat salmon! I’m going to keep trying! Your blog rocks!