School lunch with style!

Brooke McLay

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It's likely you've seen bento box lunches popping up around the internet. These cute and colorful Japanese lunches are all the rage, and it's no wonder. They are fun to look at, kid friendly and offer an endless canvas on which to custom design packed lunches.

Bento box

The word, "bento," comes from the Japanese term for a prepacked meal, "o-bento." In Japan, bento lunches are typically packed in small, colorful containers. The base of most bento lunches is steamed rice, a staple food in the Japanese diet. The rice is often tinted, then wrapped, rolled, and molded to create clever shapes and characters, which are often finished off with carefully cut seaweed decorations.

The bento box

The biggest draw of the bento box wave is the ability that some people have to design absolutely breathtaking boxes. Some of the most talented bento artists can turn a handful of rice into any kid's dream. White rice, when pressed together in just the right way (with just the right sized pieces of dried seaweed) become perky little pandas that seem to welcome an eater to their lunchtime. Tinted yellow, the steamed rice becomes a perfect looking Pokemon, Homer Simpson head or autumnal oak tree. Some of the most eye-catching bento boxes also are beautifully decorated with sculpted vegetables, fresh fruits and sliced meats and cheeses.

For parents and kids who like the idea of a bento box — an artistic presentation of the lunchtime meal — but who don't regularly consume rice and seaweed, here are a few ideas for creating a simple box lunch that will have lunchroom friends oohing and ahhing over your kid's lunch, while still appealing to your kid's palate preferences.

1Think inside the box

Several companies offer bright containers specifically made to be bento boxes. However, you don't need an "official" bento box to make a bento lunch. Most reusable containers with tight fitting plastic lids (Rubbermaid, Ziploc, Tupperware) will work perfectly. Look for containers that aren't too deep or too shallow (2- to 3-inches deep is about right), and be sure the size of your container isn't too large to comfortably carry in a backpack.

2Swap out the rice

Since most Western families don't keep a ready supply of steamed rice in their refrigerator, traditional bento box preparation may be time consuming. Save on the prep time with orzo pasta. This rice-shaped pasta cooks up in just minutes and will keep in your refrigerator for up to four days. For an extra kick of color, flavor and nutrition, add a bag of frozen peas and some shredded carrots to the boiling pasta water just before draining. Toss with a drizzle of olive oil, some salt and pepper, and you're ready to build your bento.

3Lettuce eat lunch

If you're finding it tricky to find an actual bento box container, try using large pieces of green lettuce to create divided areas in your bento container. To make lettuce dividers, simply place a piece of lettuce in the bottom of your container and fill it carefully with your orzo pasta or steamed rice. Wrap the sides of the lettuce slightly up around the edges of the pasta and slide it into the spot in your box where you'd like it to be. Fill the center of a second slice of lettuce, or wrap small pieces of lettuce around the other food items you'll be adding to your box in a similar manner until all of the food fits in your box and is separated by lettuce dividers.

4Think hard

Japanese bento boxes rely on fish and other meats that are often unfamiliar to many American diets. Add palate friendly proteins to your bento by tucking a couple of hard boiled eggs into the box. Try slicing them in half and decorating the edges of the yolk with shredded carrot sticks to look like a sun. Or, cut a small piece out of the lower part of the egg white revealing a yellow "mouth." Press two small peppercorn "eyes" just above this sliced portion to create an egg-headed friend for your bento.

5Say cheese

Use small cookie cutters to slice cheese into fun shapes that can decorate your bento box.

6Be healthy

Tuck colorful, bite-sized fruits and veggies into your bento to add flair and flavor. Cherry tomatoes, olives, tiny pickles, baby carrots, grapes and berries are all excellent additions to any bento.

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