(See also: Simple Bento Recipes.)
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.