It’s back-to-school time, and I’ve received a few requests for a “lunch-making essentials” post. Two of the questions I get most often are, “Does making cute lunches take a lot of time?” (another variation on this question is, “There’s no way I have enough time to do that”) and “Do you need a lot of stuff?” The answer to both is “no.” Yes, you can spend hours and invest in a ton of equipment to make really fancy bento lunches like this one or this one, but you don’t have to. I wish I had the skills or time to make out-of-this-world works of art, but I don’t (and let’s face it, if I did spend hours making an edible work of art, then my kids didn’t eat it, I’d be pissed!).
The good news is that making the kinds of boxes I send Jack to school with takes about the same amount of time as it does to throw a sandwich, a banana and a bag of Doritos in a lunch box, with the benefit of the lunch being visually appealing (which sometimes gets the kids to try new foods) and easier for little kids to eat, since things are divided into smaller portions. Here are the basic bento-making supplies I started with:
Depending on what you’ll be packing (snacks? lunch? both?), and how much your child’s likely to eat, you’ll want a variety of food containers. They don’t have to be fancy. Here, I have some boxes that I got from Old Navy, Target, Daiso (a Japanese $1.50 store near me), and, in the lower right hand corner, one of my EasyLunchboxes. The EasyLunchboxes come in a set of four, are durable, easy for kids to open, and dishwasher-safe. I also love the compartments. Plus, the woman who invented them is super nice and is a mom herself (I love supporting fellow moms!). With the exception of the EasyLunchboxes and the little Thermos, these cost me about $2 each. These sizes allow me to pack snacks (small square green box, three-tier blue box, reusable bag with the dogs printed on it) or main meals. The Thermos lets me pack stew, rice, soup, pasta, or anything else that needs to stay warm until lunchtime. Almost any food container can be turned into a divided bento box (as discussed in the “Dividers” section below) — you probably have some sitting in your pantry right now!
PlanetBox, Laptop Lunches, and Pottery Barn Kids all make special bento-type containers if you feel like splurging on something. I also like to browse Japanese bento boxes on J-List and All Things For Sale.
Although the boxes pictured are my favorite, here’s my full collection of food container boxes for the kids:
Not too bad, right? It all fits into one bin, which sits on the lower half of the lazy susan that’s in my corner kitchen cabinet.
The beauty of a bento-type lunch for kids is that things are divided into small portions that are easy to pick up and eat. With most lunch periods being 40 to 45 minutes long, time is of the essence. I do plan on having Jack buy lunch once a week or every two weeks, just so he knows how to use the debit card system our school has, and I have a feeling that cafeteria lunch will be very handy on those mornings when I just don’t have my act together, but it’s hard to imagine that after getting in line at the cafeteria, paying, making his way to a table, opening his milk, and unwrapping his plastic-wrapped spork, Jack would have enough time to finish eating. Take away more time for going to the bathroom or goofing off with friends (and the ever-present temptation of playing instead of eating), and only minutes remain. I like the idea that he can open a box and dig in, then have half or more of the lunch period to play and burn off excess energy before getting back in the classroom. I also like that if he doesn’t like something I put into his lunch, there are a few other things there for him (there are times when the lunch comes home virtually untouched, but so it goes with kids. But for the most part, at least three out of four things are consumed).
Even if you don’t have a divided container, there are many (relatively cheap) items that can be used as impromptu dividers. Here’s part of my divider stash:
I have reusable silicone baking cups (available at any craft store, in the baking aisle, and often at grocery stores, too), side dish and dipping containers from Daiso, and plastic baran sheets (to separate, say, a sandwich from carrot sticks in the big compartment of an EasyLunchbox). I also have a set of little containers with lids that my friend Jenn got me from the dollar store — they’re great for holding servings of yogurt, dressing, or anything that’s leaky.
Then there’s the icing on the cake — the stuff to make your lunches cute. These include cookie cutters, food markers, fancy toothpicks, etc. You don’t need these to make visually appealing lunches — as long as the items are placed neatly in the box (instead of thrown in haphazardly), it’s going to look good. But, sometimes it’s fun to dress things up a bit. Here are the things I use most often from my collection of “cute stuff”:
My standard cookie cutters, dino sandwich cutter, hardboiled egg mold and food writers get a lot of use! I also use a fair number of mini-utensils and cupcake picks:
These are really handy to include in a bento box for picking up fruit, cheese cubes, meatballs and other small items. You can also use the cupcake picks to thread rolled-up lunch meat, cheese, cherry tomatoes or fruit for mini skewers. I like to buy them when they go on sale after holidays at grocery stores or craft stores.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have two drawers full of food decorating items:
All right, dedicating two kitchen drawers to this might look a little crazy, but it’s really not a lot of stuff compared to some people who are really into bento-making. When I like something or get into an activity, I have this bad habit of needing to have lots multiples of stuff. (This does not apply to husbands. Or children ;)) This looks very tame compared to my clothing collection. Anyway, when lunch making supplies go on sale, or when cupcake liners are buy a pack get a second pack free, how can I resist?!
Insulated Lunch Bags
Finally, you’ll need to have at least one insulated lunch bag big enough to fit the food container, a water bottle and two ice packs. I have four in Jack’s rotation (he carried one to camp today, so only three are pictured):
The drawstring one with bears on it cost $1.50 at Daiso, the monster one was $6 at Target, and the red one behind the others was a gift from my mom. She got it at Costco years ago, before Jack was born. My point is, by no means do the bags need to be expensive!
For the Fridge and Pantry
We’ve covered the basic equipment, but what about the food? I hear a lot of “I don’t know what to pack for my kids’ lunches.” I usually think of one “entree,” like a sandwich (or half sandwich), and then two to four little sides. I try to make things colorful. It can be (and often is) as simple as a PB&J on whole wheat bread, cut into four little triangles and arranged on two cupcake picks (for cuteness, and also because Jack’s more likely to eat four triangles than one giant hulking sandwich), apple slices, arranged so that the color of the skin is facing up, rainbow Goldfish crackers, and a little siliocone baking cup filled with raisins. It’s healthy, kid-friendly (with the Goldfish in there as a treat), simple to make and easy to arrange in a box. If I’m really in a hurry, I’ll roll up some lunch meat with cheese slices, arrange them in a box, and include cut-up vegetables and a little container of Snapea Crisps or some other type of cracker. I try to keep these items in my pantry, fridge or freezer at all times to make lunch-packing as easy as possible:
- Whole wheat bread
- Mini bagels or pita pockets
- Tortillas or wraps
- Nitrite- and nitrate-free lunch meat
- Mini chicken sausages
- Mini meatballs
- Canned tuna
- Spam (sometimes the kids like Spam musubi)
- Seaweed (both the kind for making sushi and roasted seaweed for snacking)
- Peanut butter
- A variety of fruit — apples, oranges, grapes, mangoes, peaches, blueberries, strawberries, plums, kiwis, whatever fruits your kids like
- Hardboiled eggs
- Cherry or grape tomatoes
- Baby carrots
- Bell peppers
- Cheese slices
- Cheese sticks (really easy to cut a cheese sticks into several cubes)
- Cream cheese
- Snapea Crisps
- Raisins (regular and golden)
- Unsweetened dried pineapples
- Graham crackers
That’s just a partial list, but with those items, I can throw together many lunches without too much thought. When I hit a lunch-making rut, I go on Pinterest to suss out some good ideas. Happy lunch-making!