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Posted on Sep 9, 2009 in Bento, Decorative, Fish or Seafood, For Kids, Onigiri or Sushi, Rice | 43 comments

Fried Shrimp Bentos: Simple vs. Fancy

Fried Shrimp Bentos: Simple vs. Fancy


Children's Day sushi bento lunch for preschooler

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.

Fried shrimp bento lunch for preschooler

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..)

450ml Disney Cars bento boxPacking: 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.

* * * * *

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!

Children's Day sushi bento lunch for preschooler

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.

Silicone dividers for bento lunches

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.


Leaflet bento box (500ml)


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  1. Well, that is the question isn’t it? Who cares? I wouldn’t spend alot of time in preparing a bento although I’ve had plenty of them over time. I like baking and can spend alot of times with decorations and making them ornate and decorative. Then they’re eaten in 20 minutes.
    I still do them though because I enjoy it. So that is probably all there’s to it, if you’d enjoy making fancy bentos all week then you would. Otherwise you can save them for times when you feel like it and then they’ll be a treat.

    Miss your postings.

  2. Hi Biggie,
    I was excited to see the bento article in the New York Times online edition.

    Shrimp Tempura rolls look delish! With the exception of octo-dogs, my son does not care for decorative bento (lucky me) so i stick with the simple.

    Today I referenced your chicken drumstick bento as I had a roast chicken and had always wanted to put the drumstick in my son’s bento (my husband and I are vegetarian so we don’t usually have chicken lying around), I used the foil wrap, I hope he likes it.

    Also I did a Waste-free-lunch demo at my son’s school. I packed 3 different bento and showed how you could pack healthy lunches using only reuseable containers. The families seemed to really appreciate seeing another way of packing lunch. Also I handed out some tips of yours, credited to of course.

    Thanks again for all your support and inspiration.

  3. You’re back! you’ve been sorely missed. I love the carp. They still seem MUCH easier than some of the elaborate bentos I see online these days.

  4. So nice to see you back writing on your site. That first bento of the fish is beautiful. One can only dream. I like to see the special bento once in a while despite the fact that my own personal bentos are quite simple. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Biggie-I’m a newcomer to your site and I just love it! I am getting into obento for my toddler’s lunches, thanks to your site and an article in this month’s mothering magazine. Have you seen it? I love the above idea of a waste-free lunch demo for the school, I’ll definitely be doing the same! Looking forward to meeting you at FoodBlogHer later this month!

  6. The ‘carp’ really are lovely-and it’s fabulous that they are not only cute, but correspond to they day’s symbols. I especially love the two different shades for the two fish-it really adds dimension to the composition.

    But your simple box is so appetizing too! I’d be happy with that lunch any day.

    Nice to see you back!


  7. So glad you are back; we’ve missed you!

  8. congrats on both articles! this is real nice.
    Today i was stuck at home sick, so I translated the one in the NYTimes (into French I mean). It’ll be on my blog tomorrow.
    Not that anybody cares here, really, but I’m just mentioning it so that if you ever need it, it’s out there.

    big up to you!

  9. I’m so glad to see you back posting! It’s always a treat to see Lunch in a Box show up in my RSS reader. I’ve also been enjoying all your media appearances. I know your fancy bentos are a rarity, but it’s fun to see them when you make one.

  10. @1 from Jessika: Hey Jessika! Long time no chat! Great to hear from you.

    I hear you about doing something because you enjoy it. I go in waves about more involved bentos and cooking. Sometimes I’m really into it and pore through cookbooks finding great inspiration. Other times I can’t bear to think about YET ANOTHER bento or meal — the trick for me is finding balance between the two. Haven’t yet found that perfect balance, though; lemme know if you’ve discovered the secret!

  11. @2 from Yvette Yasui: I really like using foil to wrap the end of a chicken drumstick for bentos. Bug is enough of a neatster to ask for a “handle” when he’s eating chicken at home, even! (I’m still waiting for him to unleash his inner grubster. I’m sure it’s coming any day now…)

    The waste-free lunch demo at your school sounds like a great idea — good on you!

  12. @3 from Mimi: The inside-out sushi rolls actually were pretty straightforward, and would be even faster if I forewent the decorative garnish. With that lunch, though, the taking of the photos for the step-by-step tutorial is what took a lot of time.

  13. @5 from Rebecca: I actually haven’t seen the Mothering magazine bento article yet. Any good? Looking forward to meeting you in a couple weeks!

  14. @8 from mook: Mook!!! Great to hear from you. Sorry to hear that you’re sick today, but it sounds like you were able to put your time to good use nonetheless. I’m sure all of the French-speaking bento lovers out there will appreciate your hard work. :-)

  15. Hi Biggie-glad you are back! I just bought the Leaflet Tight box from Amazon ($12.95, I think.) Mine looks a little bit different from yours (3 sections for example,) and it holds 650 ml, not 500. The carrying sack is pretty roomy and can hold an apple and a juice box or an ice pack as well. Anyway, I’m quite happy with it, FWIW.

    Looking forward to your new posts!

  16. You’ve been missed! Congrats on the article!!!

  17. Maybe I have a bd taste, but the simple bento looks much prettier to me. The food that’s looking at me is not very appealling to my stomach :)

  18. On behalf of the folks at ChefCommons, we loved your article and plan to feature your blog. Would you be available for an e-interview? We are big fans of bento. In fact will likely start a sub-community for fans of bento. Best regards,
    Co-Founder and Chief Executive Chef

  19. Hi Biggie,

    Yay, you’re back! Congratulations on a a couple of great mentions in those articles. Don’t worry about being tagged as a fussy stereotype, think of it as being enthusiastic.

    Love reading (and learning) from your blog.

  20. awesome new bentos! they look super tasty. looking forward to your shrimp recipe.

  21. To me it’s like wearing makeup. Sometimes I feel like taking the time to put some on (it’s more for me than to please the outside world) but…most of the time I don’t bother.

    Some days I want to make my food look really artistic and gourmet and incredible, and other days, I just need something to eat.

    It’s all about me me me me me me, LOL!

  22. Hooray! Welcome Back!
    Love fancy & simple ones both.

    My girlie started kindergarten this week & still loves her lunches- this year she wants in on the planning so the easier the better. I have been writing a chart (protein/grain/veg/fruit) on my whiteboard and she circles what she wants included in the next day’s lunch. That way I can still use the leftovers that I want…

  23. Great post, these look incredibly delicious! Do you have any recipes for adult appetites that maybe can be made in 10-15 mins?? If i were making my lunch look this good, I wouldn’t be tempted so often by Burger King! :P Naimah

  24. @18 from ChefCommons: Sure, I can do an e-interview. E-mail the details to me at lunchinabox (AT) gmail (DOT} com and we can talk further. Thanks!

  25. Hi Biggie~

    Today is ‘Tasty Thursday’ on my Daily Blog Review and your blog is the feature!

    Stop by and check it out at or direct link:

    Great blog you have here!

  26. love the fishie inside-out sushi!

    I always buy frozen shrimp tempura when it is on sale 2 for 1 at my local grocery store. it cooks pretty quickly in the oven…and it is much appreciated!

    i love how it looks with the rice pressed on, and am definitely going to try this soon!

    Also… you used a korean bbq sauce for steaming the carrot and zucchini… can you show us that recipe also?

    Thanks… and your postings have been missed!!

  27. Wow, I randomly stopped by and you actually have a new post up. Incredible, 2 posts in May, 1 in July and now this one. When can we expect the next one? December? January?

    I was a pretty regular visitor but I’ve been incredibly disappointed at your complete lack of communication to your blog readers.

    Whatever your problems were you or someone else who writes for your blog could have posted some sort of message saying you would be away for an extended period.

    As a courtesy you have not extended to your readers I’ll let you know that I won’t be back.

  28. @CoGurl: I’ve missed Biggie too but I think that’s a bit rough, and I think the sarcasm is uncalled for. I also don’t think she’s obliged to publicise her private life online; I was concerned for her well-being and glad to see that she’s ok.

    Biggie volunteers her time for her eager readers and has spent an incredible amount of time taking photos and documenting information about obentos. I certainly do not have the time or motivation to write a blog but I appreciate the people who do.

    Many thanks for your time, Biggie. It’s good to have you back.

  29. I’ve often thought of packing a Bento Box for my little boy but am concerned about the plastic(s) used in them. Are they BPA free? Especially microwaving the plastic which they are saying leeches more BPA (if used).

    what are your thoughts on this whole issue?

  30. CoGurl - I think that was pretty harsh. Biggie doesn’t owe us anything and I for one and just glad to see her when she can be here.
    I am a long time reader but a first time poster. Welcome back Biggie - love the blog!

  31. @29 from alioc: I dunno, I probably deserve that. I suck! ;-) Fifty lashes with a fully packed bento box for me. About all I can do at this point is offer an apology and try to do better now.

  32. Michelle (28) I feel that way about plastics, too… all my girl gets are cold lunches at school. And, I ditched all the stuff I couldn’t verify was BPA-free and went all out for the laptop lunch box, which they swear is BPA free…so I don’t do the fun picks or little sauce bottles, but can make all the yummy food :-)

  33. Biggie - so glad to see you posting again!!!!! And those negative comments were over the top… I’m just glad to see you here and hope all is well with you.

  34. CoGurl-Who the hell are you that anyone owes you anything? Blogs are free and provided by their owners/writers. Did you pay some sort of fee the rest of us have been exempt from? If you were so frustrated at the lack of posts, why did you even check today? Despite your misuse of the word “random,” you can’t “randomly check” a blog . . . you made a decision to check it. That being the case, why were you bothering? To give you some reason for your uncalled for sarcastic comment, in the case that you did find a new post? If you don’t want to read the blog anymore, fine; the rest of us will somehow get by without you. But to be as rude as you were, that’s contemptible. Biggie might not say this, but I think I speak for some who say “good riddance.”

  35. i’m glad you’re back! i wondered if bug’s japanese immersion preschool time ended, and i guess it did if he’s now in kindergarten… i’m happy you & he are doing well.

  36. @36 from marci: Yup, Bug is done with Japanese immersion preschool, and has now started kindergarten. The weird thing is that because San Francisco uses a lottery system for public school selection, even though we applied for Spanish immersion kindergartens we were assigned to a Japanese bilingual one. We look at it as the Lottery Gods telling us we need to do six more years of Japanese…

  37. So, so glad to see you back! This is, as always, a great and informative article. Yay, Biggie~!

  38. I love both bentos!

  39. That’s cute! I like your blog. Thanks for sharing those small ideas but if you really think about it, its really helpful. My kids will love to eat their lunch if I prepared this way.

  40. love your blog! I bought a bento box and it is so cute but unfortunately i didn’t realise how small it was :-(
    check out my food blog and tell me what you think:


  41. So delicious, another mouth watering bento lunch pack. I do love to see a pack bento in a stainless steel container such as in square tiffins by Happy tiffin. The container is super cool and with the separate level of plates I think its good for picnics and other trips. And now I can imagine how exciting it would be. ;p

  42. both look great, however… i will point out that just from the photos? the second, much less time consuming one looks just as nice, but more elegant.

    thats an adults taste/opinion however, not a childs…

    and both look yummy

  43. I’m so happy to see all these beautiful posts again! And the fried shrimp is just what I’m craving now.