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Posted on Jun 30, 2008 in Bento, For Kids, Meat, Onigiri or Sushi, Rice, Tips | 26 comments

Toned-down spicy bento lunches for kids

Toned-down spicy bento lunches for kids


We often eat food that’s too spicy for our three-year-old, but find ways to salvage it for his developing palate that don’t require me to be a short-order cook, making a whole separate meal for him (see my mommy’s lunch manifesto). Some things are more easily tamed with a quick rinse, like mild kimchi. I used to think that dishes like Thai curry just needed the addition of yogurt to tame them, but even this usually doesn’t do the trick fully. So instead I started plucking the meat, seafood and veggies out of the curry, rinsing them off in a little sieve under water, and re-saucing them in milder sauces like vinaigrette, sanbaizu sweet vinegar sauce (see my sanbaizu recipe), barbecue sauce (Western or Korean), teriyaki sauce, or even just salad dressing. Use your creativity with whatever you have on hand! How do you make spicy leftovers palatable for sensitive mouths? Let us know in comments!

Kalbi rice ball bento lunch for preschooler

Contents of preschooler bento lunch: Homemade kalbi (or galbi, Korean grilled marinated beef short ribs), an onigiri rice ball filled with chopped kalbi, chopped kimchi, red lettuce, blueberries and a strawberry.Freezing cooked rice in plastic wrap

Morning prep time: 12 minutes, using leftover kalbi from dinner, rinsed kimchi and frozen rice. In the morning I microwaved the frozen rice, chopped the kalbi and kimchi, and quickly made the onigiri rice ball with my wet, salted hands.

Kalbi rice ball bento lunch for preschooler (with surprise animal cap)Packing: Regular kimchi is too spicy for my preschooler as is, so I generally rinse it off before giving it to Bug (his favorite is the sour ggakdugi daikon kimchi cubes). I chopped up the kimchi because I had originally intended to stuff the onigiri with it, but Bug saw what I was doing and said he didn’t want the kimchi inside of the rice. So I made a mid-course correction and substituted chopped kalbi beef for the onigiri filling. (Read on for full details and an additional spicy-turned-mild bento lunch.)

The drained kimchi and kalbi went into reusable silicone baking cups — I got the small heart-shaped cups from Ichiban Kan on the cheap. Putting the side dishes into baking cups kept any moisture from the kalbi and kimchi away from the onigiri — moisture is the enemy of rice balls as it degrades their structural integrity and leads to crumbling. The lunch is packed in a 350ml Geki Rangers bento box with both sub-containers removed to accommodate the larger onigiri. (Click on any photo for a larger view.)

Reusable plastic food cupsThe final packing touch was to add a fast and easy dash of cuteness to the lunch with a “surprise animal cap”. I wrote about these previously with ravioli lunches and kimchi fried rice lunches : they’re whimsical little caps that I got from eBay that are used to cover up a dish in a bento lunch — it creates a little surprise for your child when they lift up the cap to reveal the food underneath. You can also use them like a hat on a bad hair day to cover up boring-looking food — it’s a fast way to add visual interest to a lunch without spending time creating edible food art. Have you created your own “surprise cap” out of food-safe materials? Tell us about it in comments.

Verdict: Not bad. Bug ate the fruit, the onigiri, the kalbi and some of the kimchi (he still said it was a little too spicy for him, though — cabbage kimchi retains more of the spiciness than the daikon kimchi). He left the lettuce uneaten, though — he’s not big on lettuce. I figure I have a captive audience to expose him to some food he may not be crazy about; don’t they say that kids need to be exposed to a new food 10-15 times before they might decide they like it? Hey, if he gets hungry enough he’ll eat anything; it was a calculated risk.

* * * * *

Rinsed Thai curry bento lunch for preschooler

Contents of preschooler bento lunch:  Plain mini rice balls (some wrapped with packaged, pre-cut seasoned nori seaweed snack strips), plus protein and seafood and veggies that I plucked from leftover Thai curry and rinsed off for Bug: shrimp, yellow and red bell peppers, broccoli and zucchini. I re-sauced them with a mild bottled Korean barbecue sauce that Bug likes.

Mini onigiri rice ball moldMorning prep time: 10 minutes using leftover Thai curry (see my Thai curry master recipe) and frozen rice. In the morning I microwaved the frozen rice and quickly made the rice balls using a handy little onigiri mold and a snack packet of pre-cut seasoned nori strips.

Packing: After tossing the shrimp and vegetables with Korean barbecue sauce, I drained them of excess moisture in a little bowl and colander for packed lunch food safety and to keep the moisture away from the rice balls in transit. Because all of the non-rice foods were flavored with the same sauce, I didn’t bother separating them from each other. I left the 350ml Geki Rangers bento box‘s sub-container in the box to keep moisture away from the onigiri.

Mini strainer: cooling cooked veggiesVerdict: Thumbs up. Bug ate everything at preschool except for the broccoli, which retained too much of the spicy yellow Thai curry for his liking. If I were to repack this lunch I might try swishing the broccoli around in a bowl of water to rinse off more of the curry. If that failed I could omit the broccoli or microwave-steam some fresh in the morning.


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  1. Wow, I hadn’t thought of rinsing them off. I usually just cook to the milder tastes and then let the others add sauce to their own taste.
    Now I have two tricks!
    Thank you,
    PS Love the blog!

  2. I usually cook whatever the dish is with a mild sauce, then remove portions for the kids before adding the final spices for the adults.
    Or I’ll just make it mild, then have some cut up scallions, hot pepper, etc for the grown-ups to add how much they like at the end.
    But for dishes that require the spices added at the beginning, I’ll occasionally rinse chunkier items or not scoop up very much sauce with them, or just cut them up small and serve them with a bigger ratio of rice/noodles to calm the taste for the kids.

  3. I use both techniques listed in the comments above, if it’s a store-bought or restaurant-made spicy food, I might rinse it off to see if he’ll eat it. If I make it myself, I remove his portion before I add the spicy stuff.

    How do you get your child to try these dishes in the first place? I have a 3-year-old and we eat a lot of different kinds of food (vietnamese/thai/japanese) but still all he wants is macaroni and cheese. We usually make him try at least a bite of our food first but that’s as far as we can get usually.

  4. Meredith - For us it’s a matter of expectations. I have never made an alternative meal for the kids. They would never know to ask for something else instead of what is offered because I just won’t do that. But by age 3 he might turn his nose up at new things if he is used to just getting the meal he wants instead; it might take a few weeks to change his mealtime expectations so that he knows that mac & cheese, etc. is not an option anymore.
    We’ve never even done a “one bite” rule. We just offer what I’ve made; if they eat it great, if not, they can come back and try it later if they’re still hungry or wait for the next meal.

  5. I’m not big on spicy myself, and don’t cook for little kids yet, so… I should ask my sister what they do. I think they just don’t give him that stuff. There’s always tons of food around anyway…
    I think my nephew might be into spicy/tingly mouth feeling though, he likes raw lemons and onions though those are a bit different from spicy foods.

  6. I do the same with too spicy pre-cooked stuff, especially this chicken brand I like but that is too spice. I leave it to soak in yoghurt and salt (and this is with me, an adult that usually gobbles down chicken tandoori with no problem but with this one, hand me the yoghurt please).

    As for that strawberry and blueberries: are they on steroids or is it the photoangle + box the creates an illusion?

  7. My kids are 17 and 19 now - my 19 year old still won’t eat anything at all spicy while the rest of us love spicy. I must say, I wish I had taken Veganf’s approach as to this day the 19 year old won’t eat many of the meals I cook and wants to make her own meal…

    I know this is off-topic, but we had our bento presentation the weekend before last - since we packed bentos and made rice and eggs on site, we ran into some problems (the eggs had frozen in the hotel fridge and the egg oozed from the shells in the egg cooker I bought - they had come out perfectly when tested at home, so it had to be that the eggs had frozen… Then the second batch of rice just wasn’t cooking fast enough) but everyone seemed to love it and seemed thrilled to get a bento box and a couple accessories they got to keep :)

    One thing I gave each of them was a silicone food cup (cupcake cup) - I thought these were a really good deal and thought I’d pass it along - 18 for $4.95 from Lakeside Collection

  8. I grew up in Arizona eating Mexican food. If you wait until your kid is three it is already too late!

    I was eating salsa out of a spoon at one year - as soon as I could eat tomatoes!

    Start’em early before they know any better.

  9. I do most of these things too- pulling a portion out before I add spice, rinsing the spice off, and feeding her the spicy stuff if it’s not too hot. A tolerance for the hot stuff can be cultivated, you just have to do it a little at a time. Your body gets used to the capsaicin and you can handle more. Of course, if you don’t eat hot stuff for a long time you lose your tolerance.
    If my kiddo won’t eat the completed dish for some reason, sometimes I just save out the raw ingredients (as appropriate) and feed them to her that way. So, if I know she won’t eat the soup, I’ll just give her the veggies she likes raw.

  10. Hey Biggie, I love your blog. I’ve been reading for over a year now and bento-ing for about as long.
    I’m 15, and my family and I are going on a trip to California. We’re headed to San Francisco for some shopping, and I was wondering if you have any tips for must-visit stores for bento gear in the area. So far, I’m thinking Ichiban Kan and Daiso. (I’ve checked the online locator, but I was hoping for advice from you.)
    Thanks so much!

    Has anyone ever recognized you on the street, or in a store, or anything?

  11. @13 LaVidaMD
    One of my nieces almost refused all meat until she was 6. It was all veggies. Then she started school and school lunch not being the veggiest perhaps, forget the veggies and bring the sausage out ;)

  12. @6 from Jessika: The strawberry and blueberries were big, alright, but I think they look even larger because of the small box. The lettuce leaves are very small too — maybe that adds to the illusion?

  13. @7 from Tammy: It’s so interesting to hear how your bento presentation went! Your unexpected problems sound like a twist in Top Chef; glad you didn’t let them stop you! How much time did you have to present? Was it all hands-on bento prep, or did you give a lecture with Q&A as well?

  14. @3 & 16 from Meredith: How do I get Bug to eat a variety of food in the first place? Probably by not offering anything else for him to eat until the next meal, although I understand that some kids are genetically predisposed to picky eating in childhood (see my post on Bentos and the Picky Eater: ). We don’t generally eat dessert, and I serve fruit as a between-meal snack rather than an after-dinner course. So at dinner it’s main course or nothing, kid! I don’t mean to sound smug; I think Bug’s just a laid-back eater (part nature, part nurture).

  15. @2 & 4 from veganf: Sounds like we have similar approaches. I’d forgotten about the extra rice/noodle trick; I used to do that a lot when yogurt wasn’t enough to tame the Thai curry. Still got complaints, though, until I resorted to rinsing. Maybe as Bug gets used to the heat I can go back to extra rice and yogurt!

  16. @5 from Yvo: Bug really likes raw limes and lemons as well — what is it with that? So funny that kids like sour…

  17. Wow! now that’s a LUNCH!
    Where were you when I was getting cheese sandwiches and a banana!

  18. I have a friend with 5 kids, all ranging from 2 yrs to 14 yrs. She told me that all her kids went through a fussy stage if eating. Suddenly all was about won’t and will not. What they ate one day was yucky the next.
    There will not be waffles to make one child happy 7 days a week and other foods for the others. What is on the table is on the table but there is no arguing at the dinner table. A child that refuses to eat will be given a snack rather to be left rummaging through the fridge at 2 in the morning but those dinners will not be a warring ground. If it sounds audaciously simple and not doable, it is. It WAS a warring ground before both mother and father decided that enough. One child might inspire another to eat as well. A 6 y o started eating indonesian fricadelli after his 4 y o brother had done so. Can’t be worse that the yougner bro now can you?
    Kids eat. I can remember many things I wouldn’t eat and now I am a foodie. How did this happen ;)? Expect changes in tastes over time, expect fussiness, they will grow out of it. Most of us did after all.

  19. given (…) a small (sandwich and milk) snack before bedtime (…) rather than (…)

  20. Biggie - we had 90 minutes. Kat gave about a 15-20 minute presentation and the rest was hands on building the bento and answering questions as we were doing it. It was hectic (we had a 30 person limit, but no signup sheet was posted as I expected, so I let in 40 since I had packed extra bento boxes just in case…), hopefully next year, if we do it, will go more smoothly. I had made hand-outs for everyone with a couple of your tutorials (credit given to you of course with the url at the end of each excerpt from your pages). We did the octodogs and crab dogs ahead of time since we couldn’t really cook those in the room - big hit :) By the time we packed up and drove back to our hotel (not even 1/4 mile away) the second batch of rice was done - lol. We had a snack variety for a little treat in each bento, but next year I don’t think there’ll be choices because we got too many “do have any more ______” - mostly for the little flan like Japanese pudding cups - lol

  21. spice lunch alaways preffable for foodlover just like me..When eating hot soup and bread, for a change, try seasoning the bread instead of the soup.

  22. i love how you make your lunches so much! ^^ they’re so cute and you have inspired an interest in me to make bento boxes for my lunch in school now, so when school starts i want to bring a bento lunch to school every day!

    i have a few questions if you wouldn’t mind answering? ^^

    one- how do you find things for your bento box that aren’t expensive?

    two- how do you make an onigiri?

    three- i bought some yudetama gokko egg molds and i can’t seem to make the eggs look perfect in them, but on yours they always look really good. Also, the eggs are so hot to peel and put in the molds, is there a trick? Or do you just have to be buff and do it while they’re hot?

    thank you so much!!~


  23. @27 from pinkie: Okay, let’s go in order of your questions.

    1. I find inexpensive bento gear at the stores listed in my SF Bay Area shopping guide for bento gear, the worldwide Bento Store Locator with reader feedback on stores, and the online bento store list.

    2. I usually hand-make larger onigiri using cool saltwater on my hands, but use rice ball molds if I want small, uniformly-shaped onigiri. The trick is to use warm, freshly cooked rice. You can also put warm rice in a plastic freezer bag or some plastic wrap to shape for an easy shortcut. See my tutorial for making yaki-onigiri (grilled rice balls).

    3. For peeling the super-hot boiled eggs to make molded eggs, I use a slotted spoon to dunk the hot egg quickly into ice water, then peel. If it gets too darned hot to touch, I dunk it again quickly. See my tutorial for making shaped, molded eggs with common ice cream sandwich molds.

    Hope this helps!

  24. An article about picky eaters in case anyone’s interested:

  25. @29 from Rrr: What an interesting article that was! Thanks for the link.