I have in my possession a collection of recipes for bento lunches that aren’t really recipes. They don’t require any precise measurements, and they aren’t complicated. Hardly qualifying as recipes, they are more ideas for lunches, guidelines of what tastes great together and holds up well during travel, inspiration for your tastebuds. Although these ideas presented themselves to me as I was making these lunches, I doubt I’m the first person to come up with them, and I won’t be the last. But I do want to share what I know, what I came up with that my daughter finds tolerable or even delicious, and what works in an elementary lunch setting. I personally find her lunches limiting and somewhat repetitive, but they are healthy and she loves them and eats them willingly–what more can I ask for? Here’s a list of our reliable lunch standbys.
PEANUT BUTTER AND BANANA ‘SANDWICHES’
No bread needed; a banana is sliced into coins, and peanut butter is spread between two slices. I usually put about four ‘sandwiches’ in a lunch., two stacked on top of each other, as in the photo below. Sushi grass helps keep them in place and prevents them from getting peanut butter on other food. I don’t put anything on the banana, and Isobel has never complained about them turning brown or being discolored. They are messy to eat, but I always pack a tooth pick or other bento food pick with them so she can eat them neatly. One time I ran out of bananas and Isobel said, “No! Those are the goodest thing in my lunch!” and it made me so happy. This works best with barely ripe bananas, the kind with maybe a little green on them, because they are so firm. I’ve done it with pretty ripe bananas, too, it’s just messier. I wouldn’t attempt it with bananas that collapse to mush if you handle them. I can get about three or four days’ worth of sandwiches out of each banana, more or less, depending on size and how thick I cut the coins.
Am I giving you a recipe for lovingly handmade chicken nuggets? Reader, I am not. I use premade, precooked chicken nuggets from the freezer aisle. No recipe needed. But here’s what works for us: I heat them up fully, as if I were serving them, and let them cool to room temperature before putting them in her bento. If they are not left to cool they will create condensation in the bento which will cause the outside of the nuggets to become awful and cottony, and the moisture level will affect the texture of the other food in her lunch. It will also create a strong (perhaps not unpleasant) smell. My daughter is super sensitive to smell. Although it’s not a freshly made nugget (it is what it is) the texture remains nice and Isobel devours them.
SALAMI SOLDIERS (OR SCARECROWS)
You’ll need a toothpick, a mozzarella cheese stick, slices of salami, and black olives. Slice a few bits off the mozzarella stick. Roll up the salami. Skewer an olive with the toothpick, then the salami, then the mozzarella. It slightly resembles a person if you hold it with the olive at the top. I’m not sure that Isobel’s noticed.
Baby celery is just what I call regular celery that’s sliced into very narrow and relatively short lengths. I started calling it that for Isobel, who adores a baby vegetable, so that it would be more appealing. She loves baby carrots, for example, and I wanted to apply that love to celery. The idea is that it’s cut so that it’s small and tender. Like a baby. That you eat.
You can buy black olives in a resealable container now, which is perfect. It wasn’t any harder to drain the can into a plastic container that I left in the fridge, to be honest, but I appreciate the convenience and not having to wash and extra container. Black olives supply energy, nutrients, and plenty of good fats. My only tip with them is to be sure you drain them on a cloth or paper towel before adding them to the lunch. Liquid can hide in the hole of the olive and leak into other food in the bento–the kiss of death, as far as Isobel is concerned.
I like to buy a variety of different apples, but Isobel’s current favorite is Golden Delicious. To keep them from browning I used to dunk them in orange juice. My favorite juice, and the one I have on hand usually, is actually this one–a blend of orange, mango, and peach. To save time I started slicing up a whole apple into chunks and then keeping them in a container with about a half cup of the juice blend, so they’d marinate in the juice and add flavor and stave off browning. Isobel loves it.
SALAMI BOW TIES
Roll or fold the salami in half, and then fold in half again. Thread onto a toothpick, add a slice of mozzarella, and add another similarly folded slice of salami. Ta-da! A bow tie. Bow ties are cool.
FANCY FOOD SHAPES
You can buy special vegetable cutters, such as the ones pictured above, but in a pinch cookie cutters work just fine for some foods. I like to use the vegetable cutters to add an accent or garnish, or on foods like cucumber, which I think my daughter will be more likely to eat if it’s in a pretty shape. In addition to using them on vegetables, I like to use them on fruit leather to add a beautiful and healthy extra. I can get four flower shapes out of one fruit strip from Target. I eat the leftovers on the spot. I’ve used them on cheese, tortillas, and breads before, too.
Isobel’s favorite food is strawberries, but they are expensive and perishable. I bought dried strawberries which she felt okay about at best. But then I found freeze-dried strawberries, which, in addition to looking beautiful and much more recognizably like a fresh strawberry, tasted delicious. They sort of rehydrate on the tongue, in the way that a Lucky Charms marshmallow might, but are bright and delicious and clearly much healthier. A little goes a long way.
To a certain extent, I like to pair certain foods together when I make Isobel’s lunch. I think celery tastes delicious with salami, apples taste great with cheddar or bacon, and raisins pair with broccoli. I’m not strict about this, but keeping these pairings in mind give me ideas, inspiration, and a plan to follow if I need one.
As time goes by I’ll post more of my bento lunch recipes, and I’m currently working on a post for adult bentos that I hope you’ll enjoy. Happy eating!