Little Big Kitchen: Isobel’s Bento

As a baby, Isobel ate everything. One of the first foods she showed a marked preference for was barbecued ribs. I photographed her eating things like squid tentacles and fish eggs at the sushi restaurant, a tablet of fresh feta at a Greek festival, spicy bites of burritos at the taco truck, and ultra-garlicky hummus. She loved asparagus and brie rind and beets and prunes. At three she learned to correctly identify the miner’s lettuce that grew wild in our yard and would eat it on the spot, much to the horror and confusion of our neighbors.

Once she started Kindergarten a switch inside her flipped and she became maddeningly picky. She now only eats a very specific selection of food in very specific ways, and the rules that govern her palette are more irregular and confusing than those that govern English grammar.

Now that Isobel stays at school for the full day I get to pack her a lunch–something I had excitedly anticipated doing for my child someday, though in my fantasies she ate elaborately prepared food with exotic spices and never once was picky. I now consider it a personal challenge to make her lunches healthy, varied, and delicious. I’ve really enjoyed thinking up new items to pack in her lunch, even when it hasn’t worked out. For example, I used to add a few M&Ms one day the excessive heat melted the chocolate and when she opened her lunch she was met with the ultimate horror: messy chocolate and a “weird smell.” In her words, “It was so gross I only ate two chips for lunch today!”

I abhor the thought of wasting food (besides, who can afford to?) and I really want Isobel to enjoy her lunch, so we made a deal: she would be absolutely honest with me about how much and what she ate, and I would only pack food that meets her approval and I wouldn’t insist she eat anything she doesn’t like. The deal has worked well for us so far because she knows it’s a partnership and that her opinion is respected.

My goal is for Isobel to be excited and engaged by her lunch so that she doesn’t feel the need to abandon it in favor of a bag of chips and a giant cookie, like I did when I was in school. I’m hoping to tempt her appetite with a wide variety of healthy food and the occasional small treat. I want her to look forward to her lunch and help her to develop solid, healthy eating habits that will carry through the rest of her life.

I have used lots of different types of bento. Some I got online and some I found in Japanese import stores. I loved them all but I didn’t think any of them would be a good fit for my first-grade daughter. Mr Bento was too large and had too many containers. Other containers had to be carried around carefully so as not to spill or mix-up the contents. The bentos I had used were too small, or too big, or too delicate, or too complicated. They were fun to use at home, but had no practical use in a cafeteria with a six year old.

I looked around online and found Yumbox, which answered all of my cafeteria-specific prayers. It’s essentially a bento with a divided tray inside, and most fantastically of all, it’s leakproof. One of Isobel’s hard and fast rules about all food at all times is food must never ever touch ever. She is fanatical about this and even if she loves both types of food they turn into piles of smoldering garbage the moment they touch and she will refuse to eat them outright. She’s probably the only person I know who eats her Chinese food with rice but demands the rice served in a separate bowl as the stir-fry so that none of the juices contaminate her rice.

This is a serious Big Deal for her, and I didn’t think I’d be able to address this situation without wastefully using dozens of plastic bags at lunch time. You could take the Yumbox, turn it upside down and shake the bejeezus out of it, and when you open it at lunch time everything will still be perfectly contained and separated. This scenario in fact happens on a daily basis–it’s called “being in a child’s backpack.”  The system is really compact but holds plenty of food for Isobel, who, despite being picky, has an enormous appetite. It’s easy for her to open and close, which was a concern of mine because she sometimes has issues with opening and closing Tupperware-like containers, and the last thing I want is to have to clean out a backpack full of spilled food at the end of the day. Personally, my favorite part is the tray, because many bento systems are made up of small containers that fit together, puzzle piece-style. The problem with that is the more pieces there are, the more likely they are to get lost. Also, the more I have to wash, and dry and store. Frankly, that’s a pain in the butt. The Yumbox is top-rack dishwasher safe, though I usually hand wash it during the week and save running it through the dishwasher on the weekends.

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about this bento on Instagram, and I’m writing a post that should address most of them, and if you have one feel free to add it below. The Yumbox is about $30 US which, although we are on a tight budget, was well worth it for us. If this sounds like a commercial for Yumbox, I assure you it isn’t. They didn’t ask me to write about them, nor did I receive any compensation. I’m just so glad I’ve found a reusable lunchbox system that works for us that I wanted to spread the word. In fact, I like it so much I reached out to Yumbox and shared my story and they said they would be interested in doing a giveaway for Little Big readers for your own Yumbox! That post should be up later on this week, so watch for it! I also have a post about how I pack her lunches and the accessories we use coming soon.

My Unruly Garden 2015: Drought Garden

This year we decided to cut back on our usual garden pursuits. I had spent the last year very ill with Crohn’s disease and trying my best to take care of a baby and a blossoming Kindergartner. That took everything out of me, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that even watering a garden once a day was too much to ask. Elias also spent a long month trapped in a cast after breaking his elbow, and during that time the garden was off-limits. We played outside in the front yard with a gaggle of neighborhood kids, or had outdoor playdates, instead. If he went in the backyard he would sit in his unfilled pool and cry. The playing in the backyard meant playing in the water, and that was forbidden with a cast. I watered my potted plants sparingly and only when Elias napped. The garden basically didn’t exist during that long, hot month.

The drought made the prospect of growing a garden a wager I wasn’t willing to gamble. Even with a fancy water-wise drip irrigation system we had lackluster success with bell peppers and full-sized tomatoes. Our cherry tomatoes came in like gangbusters but they require dedicated watering, as does the pumpkin crop we’ve always had great success with. I didn’t want to sacrifice what little water we had on crops that may or may not turn out, and I felt that it was time to give the forever-thirsty pumpkin crop a break. I didn’t have the watering ability in me, and I didn’t want to dedicate resources to plants that might never fruit. This year, it wasn’t worth it.

But that didn’t mean we didn’t want a garden! We very much did. Instead we focused on native plants, drought-tolerant stuff, and our modest, low-maintenance container garden. I missed the cherry tomatoes all summer long, they most likely would have died from inattention due to my illness or Elias’. In May we planted a gargantuan amount of poppy, marigold, and sunflower seeds. Anthony and the kids cleared the weeds from the beds and prepared the soil while the kids and I planted the seeds and watered. We lavished them with attention for three and a half weeks. Nothing happened. Not one sprout appeared.

I’ve gone over and over it and the only conclusion I can come up with is that we were too late. By the time we got them in the ground it was already too hot and too dry, in the middle of May, for the seeds to germinate. The signs were there. We should have planted in late March, or early April in the latest, when our hummingbird friend arrived. I’ve never, never started a garden that early before, but this is the shift of the climate in action. It is real. And it is scary.

The poppies surprised us. Although we couldn’t coax any of the seeds to sprout, we had, and continue to have, a riot of poppy blooms all summer long. Our poppy crop from the year before did not disappoint and it managed to reseed itself for this summer. I’m confident that’s what happened because they are all last year’s variety (Cup o’ Gold) in places I didn’t cover with this year’s seed. This year I planted California poppies and Copperpot poppies–no Cup o’ Gold. I’m hoping all those seeds we spread will bloom next year or maybe this fall, so we won’t have to miss out on the orange and reddish poppies.

After an initial burst of blooming like wildfire in our flowerbed, the rest of the poppies seem to enjoy popping up in the barren wasteland that is our lawn. The patch of scrubby earth resembles the head of balding man: bare in the middle, still stubbornly clinging to life on both sides.  We have watered our backyard exactly zero times this summer. After years of repeated failed attempts at growing a lawn (and finally discovering a sprinkler failure was to blame this whole time) we no longer had the will or the funds to pump into the project anymore. And since learning of the severity of the drought, it seemed immoral to try. Since our poppies seem to live the barren lawn so much, maybe next year I’ll sow the whole thing over with poppies.

The kids still had a great time playing in our failed garden, before and after the month Elias spent in a cast, that is. It wasn’t beautiful to look at but it was ours, and Isobel was used to the cycle of living and dying plants from helping me with the container garden. There is always next year and always more plants to look forward to. Isobel really understood the power of the drought and how it affects her on a daily basis.

Elias was just thrilled he was allowed to use a shovel.

Though we did lose some plants the container garden did well overall, and we nursed it through these past hot months with greywater from the kiddie pool or the dishes or the remnants of water from cups and glasses and reusable water bottles. Isobel loves the experience of going out on the patio and plucking a basil or oregano leaf off the plant and popping it into her mouth. Our garden is limited by the drought, but we have still found a way to savor it.

We’ve still had plenty of backyard fun:

  • endless bubbles
  • mud (or even just sand) cooking
  • drawing in our nature field journals
  • reading books about plants to plants
  • making endless fairy houses
  • learning about new types of insects and plants
  • drawing with chalk
  • playing in the kiddie pool and sprinkler
  • laying out a blanket and looking at clouds
  • listening for birds
  • stargazing with a telescope
  • playing with the cats
  • archery
  • kicking a ball around in a sportlike fashion
  • sword fighting


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