"For one thing, you get the eye appeal with the box, as opposed to having a sandwich or banana smashed at the bottom of a bag," she says. "Kids really seem to love having their food in separate containers."
From a nutritional perspective, the compartments in a bento box encourage the inclusion of a variety of foods while offering a visual guide to portion control. With a general rule of thumb of three parts carbohydrates, one part protein, and two parts fruits and vegetables, most bento box lunches top out at 600 calories and hew to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's My Plate model for healthy eating.
And there are other benefits to the bento box, too, including thrift. The reusable boxes and the creative use of leftovers to fill them can save money.
"Many families are drawn to the eco-friendly containers - you can use them again and again without the environmental waste of packaging," Fogt says, adding that the compartments encourage parents to portion out snacks themselves, instead of buying the more expensive individual packages.
Catherine McCord, founder of Weelicious.com, a site that provides meal ideas for parents, has been tweeting photographs of her son's bento-box lunches hoping to inspire her readers. (Other ideas can be found on laptoplunches.com, which has an archive of healthy recipes, including Fresh Vegetable Roll-ups and Nutty Cashew Dates.)
Unlike the brown bag, which favors dry foods, the bento's sealed compartments can accommodate all manner of dishes. Leftovers are easily repurposed for a bento-style lunch. Last night's rice or asparagus or sweet potatoes can easily be turned into a salad. Sauteed chicken can be folded into a tortilla for a quesadilla. Quiche and frittatas are easy room-temperature entrees.
Since kids are always going to be drawn to sugary treats, McCord finds that nutritious alternatives, like homemade fruit leather or a tofu-based chocolate pudding, can sate the need for sweet. She might also make carrot chips instead of potato chips or seeded whole wheat crackers in place of store-bought ones.
Still, bentos can be more basic, requiring little to no advance cooking. Carrots, sugar-snap peas, celery, cherry tomatoes, orange slices, grapes, nuts, and dried fruits are just a few foods to keep on hand for filling up its compartments.
With the bento trend on the rise, companies such as Laptop Lunches and PlanetBox are catering to households that have adopted the bento style of eating, offering eye-catching kits for both kids and adults.
At the Japanese store Maido in Narberth, owner Seiko Dailey says she is seeing an uptick in customers asking for bento boxes, for both adults and children, and she's selling ingredients such as frozen dumplings and nori to families who use them.
While there's no limit to what can go into a bento, some parents take their lunch-building one step further by making kyaraben or oekakiben (decorative food) in the Japanese style. Rice balls become caterpillars, bologna is cut into the shape of teddy bears, and corn kernels and peas are arranged in tiny flowers. Some parents of picky children find that little smiley-faced chicks, frogs, and mushrooms are worth the effort to encourage more vegetable consumption.
Tammy Campbell was a stay-at-home mom when she first stumbled on bento boxes, but her family quickly became serious about the craft. "My younger daughter Katerina was very artistic and she loves anything Japanese, so I knew she would love it," says Campbell, a resident of Matewan, N.J. "We started buying kits and tools to make shapes out of cheese and eggs. By then she was already in middle school, so she started to pack her own meals with kimchi fried rice and tea-dyed quail eggs and it became a hobby for her."
A college student now, Katerina continues to pack bento, and Campbell's husband also enjoys taking a decidedly American-style bento (lunch meat, eggs, and vegetables) to work. "I think he enjoys the attention his cute lunches get from the women in the office," Campbell says.
Fogt warns that for some parents, the idea of turning lunch into a craft project could be daunting, and that might be counterproductive to making nutritious meals a habit. "The bar can become so high for parents to produce these beautiful artistic boxes every day that it could drive a person nuts. I think the important thing is for parents to get a healthy, balanced meal in the box, first and foremost," she says. "You don't have to carve out flowers and make faces with sandwiches."
McCord generally uses the box as a set of guidelines. She'll fill up her son's bento with such American staples as pasta or rice and beans or a sandwich, plus vegetables and a dip and fruit, and some sort of healthy sweet treat. "I don't have time to make a sandwich into a ladybug, but anything you can do to create more color and texture is going to make it more appealing to kids."
And though she's not re-creating anime characters with her children's food, McCord does spend time making it look appetizing and cheerful. "I use a melon baller to scoop out watermelon. I take the wrapping off and cut cheese sticks into little cubes and mix them up with pretzels. It makes it more exciting for the kids, and the bento box keeps everything fresh."
Fogt suggests setting aside a drawer or shelf in the refrigerator just for lunch materials to make it easier to put together a meal. "Keep it simple and introduce new foods slowly, remembering that it sometimes takes kids 13 or 15 times to like a new flavor," she says. "The bigger deal a parent makes about food, the more emotional eating becomes, when the main thing should be to just have lunch and make it fun."
Peach Fruit Leather
Makes 6 servings
4 ripe peaches (skin on)
1 tablespoon honey
1. Preheat oven to 225 degrees F. Rinse and remove seeds from peaches.
2. Place the peaches and honey in a blender and puree until smooth.
3. Pour the mixture onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and spread with the back of a spoon or spatula in a large rectangle, about 11 by 15 inches, making sure the thickness is completely even.
4. Bake for 3 to 4 hours or until dry and not sticky to the touch. Cooking times will vary depending on how thick you spread your mixture and how much water (juice) is naturally in the fruit. Every oven is different, so the cooking time may be less than 2 hours if your oven tends to run hot.
5. Set aside and cool at room temperature. Note that when you first take the fruit leather out of the oven the edges will be a bit dry and crispy, but if you allow it to sit out for several hours it softens up nicely.
6. Cut with a knife, pizza cutter, or scissors into strips, keeping the paper on if desired, then roll the leather into "rollups." Serve.
- From weelicious.com
Per serving: 36 calories, trace protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, no sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Makes 4 servings
4 carrots, peeled
Salt to taste
1. Preheat oven to 250 degrees F. Using a mandoline or a knife, thinly slice the carrots into rounds or strips.
2. Place the carrot chips on a Silpat- or parchment-lined cookie sheet, sprinkle lightly with salt, and bake for 45 minutes or until lightly brown and crisp. Serve.
- From weelicious.com
Per serving: 25 calories, 1 gram protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, 131 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Healthier Corn Dogs
Makes 6 servings
11/2 cups yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon sugar
1 egg, slightly beaten
11/4 cups milk (or soy milk)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
6 veggie or turkey dogs
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Lightly oil a 9-by-7-inch baking pan.
2. In mixing bowl, combine cornmeal, flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and sugar and stir to blend.
3. In another bowl, whisk together the egg, milk, and oil; add to dry ingredients, stirring until just moistened.
4. Pour batter into baking pan. Place hot dogs side by side in the cornbread batter. Allow enough space in between for cutting. Gently push hot dogs down into the batter. Batter will rise and cover hot dogs completely.
5. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Let cool 5 minutes, and then cut into rectangular blocks. Serve with ketchup and mustard.
- From Laptoplunches.com
Per serving (with turkey dogs): 384 calories, 12 grams protein, 38 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 21 grams fat, 72 milligrams cholesterol, 1,043 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 1 serving
2 lettuce leaves
2 slices bread
2 slices ham
2 slices cheese or other filling
Mayo or other condiments
1. Line bento box with lettuce leaves.
2. Use mini sandwich bento punches or animal-shape cookie cutters to make cute shapes out of the bread and fillings.
3. Spread condiments on the bread. Assemble mini sandwiches and arrange them in the bento box alongside fruits and veggies.
- From Yum-Yum Bento Box by Crystal Watanabe and Maki Ogawa
Per serving (without condiments): 258 calories, 16 grams protein, 14 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 15 grams fat, 58 milligrams cholesterol, 1,215 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Makes 10-12 waffle sandwiches
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup milk
1 large egg
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ripe bananas, mashed,
plus 1 banana, sliced
1. Preheat waffle iron and lightly grease with oil.
2. Place the next 5 ingredients in a bowl and whisk to combine.
3. Place the remaining ingredients, including mashed bananas, in a separate bowl and combine.
4. Slowly add the dry ingredients into the wet until combined. Do not overmix (it's fine if there are a few lumps).
5. Pour 1/2 cup of batter onto a greased waffle iron and cook about 3 to 4 minutes or according to manufacturer's directions.
6. Spread cream cheese over one waffle and arrange banana slices on top. Cover with another waffle. Repeat, using remaining waffles, bananas, and cream cheese. Cut into quarters for mini sandwiches.
Per waffle sandwich (based on 12): 182 calories, 4 grams protein, 22 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 9 grams fat, 32 milligrams cholesterol, 149 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.