Today I’ve got two lunches that represent both ends of the bento spectrum: one is fast and simple, the other is time-consuming decorative food art. My usual preference is for the fast and easy bento made through speedy prep techniques and leftovers, but once or twice a year I go the extra mile for a holiday lunch. Think of it like a birthday cake: even if you make cake regularly, you probably don’t put as much effort into decorating each unless it’s for a special occasion.
I realize that by posting one of my rare ornate lunches right after recent bento articles in the New York Times and the Globe and Mail I’m at risk of falling into a fussy stereotype. Maybe I should reread Need for Speed: A Mommy’s Lunch Manifesto? Anyway, I cut myself a break when I remember the wide variety of real-life special occasion bentos I saw at my son’s old Japanese immersion preschool and read about other parents’ lunchtime adventures on the Lunch in a Box online community forum.
I have to admit that although I get a feeling of accomplishment once I finish an elaborate creation like the one above, I do feel time pressure while I’m making it and wonder, “Why bother?” Am I a bad attitude mom? Guilty as charged! The simpler lunch below was made quickly with the leftovers from the fancier one above, and is much more my pace for an average school day.
Contents of preschooler bento lunch: Fried shrimp (recipe forthcoming), steamed broccoli with vinaigrette dressing, round onigiri rice balls (stuffed with Gohan Desu Yo! seaweed paste and decorated with strips of nori seaweed), wrapped triangle cheese, grapes, and kiwifruit.
Morning prep time: 15 minutes, using frozen rice and fried shrimp left over from the shrimp rolls the day before. In the morning I assembled the rice balls, nuked a couple florets of broccoli in my microwave mini steamer, and peeled/sliced the kiwifruit. (Read on for the full post. with details on the fish-shaped sushi lunch..)
Packing: I went crazy with silicone food cups in this lunch; they held the fruit, shrimp and broccoli nicely, keeping the flavors/textures separate and intact. The triangle cheese acted as a gap filler to keep the food from shifting around in transit (see my post on how to pack a bento and fill gaps). A little Anpanman-themed food pick helped little hands with the kiwi. The lunch is packed in a 450ml Cars bento box with a removable subdivider that I purchased directly from the manufacturer. Now that Bug has started kindergarten, his appetite has finally grown into the 450ml boxes, in keeping with the bento box size guidelines.
Verdict: Surprisingly, my four-year-old ate everything but the fried shrimp, which I know he likes. I realize that I’d forgotten to include sauce for the shrimp, but no biggie. He ate the shrimp after school as a snack.
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This is one of my rare food art bento lunches for the Japanese Children’s Day holiday (“Kodomo no Hi” on May 5). It’s one of those few occasions when I’ll actually spend more than 10-15 minutes on a lunch, as a special treat to thrill my son. In the weeks around Children’s Day, people hang carp-shaped streamers (koi-nobori) on poles outside their homes, representing each member of the family. Thus the fish-shaped sushi rolls!
Contents of preschooler bento lunch: Carp-shaped inside-out sushi roll filled with fried shrimp (eyes: sliced quail eggs, carrot or zucchini, and nori roasted seaweed. Scales: carrots or zucchini. Gills: nori roasted seaweed. Rice flavored with pink sakura denbu fish powder and green aonori seaweed flakes.). Steamed zucchini and carrots with Korean barbecue sauce, grapes, and a bed of lettuce round out the lunch. Stay tuned for a full tutorial on the shrimp sushi rolls, which I found in the Japanese-language cookbook Okosama Lunch to Obento “Children’s Lunches and Bentos”.
Morning prep time: 70 minutes — ARGH!!! This took so long as I didn’t have any frozen fried shrimp on hand, so I made my own from scratch. I could have sped this up slightly by using frozen shrimp tempura and frozen rice. Once I finished decorating the shrimp sushi rolls I ran out of steam for the rest of the lunch, so I just used zucchini and carrots that were left over from the sushi garnish.
Packing: Reusable silicone “baran” food dividers kept the grapes from pressing into the lower “fish”, and a reusable silicone food cup held the sauced vegetables separate from the grapes. The lunch is packed in a 500ml Leaflet Tight bento box that I picked up locally; I see these in different sizes at Asian housewares markets in San Francisco. Not that pricey at around US$6-$10, with a pretty reliable watertight lid with latching wing-type fasteners. See my guide to SF Bay Area bento stores, or the Bento Store Locator for local stores with bento gear near you.
Verdict: Big thumbs up from Bug, who demolished both rolls and half of the grapes/veggies.
- Children’s Day sandwich bento lunch
- Valentine’s Day bento lunch and round-up
- Decorative Food page with links to posts about food art technique
- Talk with the bento community on the Lunch in a Box forum
- Food safety for bento lunches
- Bento FAQ and Biggie’s top speed bento tips