The Western Bento:
Eastern Tradition Informing School Lunch.
Javaughn Renee and Lorelei Cress
One hundred and seventy: the number of lunches prepared and photographed by college friend Lorelei Cress for her beautiful daughter. For many moms this may not be a fantastic feat, but Cress’s lunches are special to the “nth” degree. Cress uses a Japanese tradition called bento as inspiration to design and prepare her daughter’s lunches. I call them “practical” bentos, since there usually is no rice or leftovers involved. Still, Lorelei makes sure they are balanced with a protein, fresh fruit and/or vegetables and a tasty entree. For her fans (74 comments to date from the friends and family who have access to them on Facebook), her presentation is delightful and inspiring. I finally caught up with this busy mom and got a few tips.
Why and how did you decide to use Bentos as a style for creating lunches?
My daughter has been underweight her whole life, and doesn’t eat much even when she’s not completely distracted by a new environment, new kids, etc. – so when she started school last year I wanted to make her lunches something special she’d look forward to opening and relish eating. I was familiar with the concept of bento lunches from having visited Japan several times as a touring musician, and had come across photos in the last few years of cute (the Japanese term is “kawaii”) bentos that Japanese mothers were making for their children, as well as the efforts of some inspired American mothers on sites like Anna the Red’s Bento Factory (http://www.annathered.com/) and Happy Little Bento (http://happylittlebento.blogspot.com/). When I saw the simple yet still very cute bentos on Pigs Do Fly (http://www.pcgirl.net/blog/?cat=4), I first thought I might be able to pull them off. I was also inspired by the fact that they are “green” – since everything is packed in reusable containers (no baggies, plastic wrap or paper bags needed), we create a lot less trash. Lately it seems American versions of bento lunches are becoming much more popular (I’d even go so far as to call them “trending”), and there are many more online sources of inspiration available than there were when I first began.
How much time do you usually spend on a lunch, and when do you think about it?
I spend between 10-30 minutes on each lunch, depending on how complex the design is and how much prep needs to be done. Most of mine are very simple. Sometimes I plan them out in advance, but most mornings, it’s just whatever I have on hand and however inspiration strikes me at the moment I’m putting it together that dictate what I make. Sometimes I try to do a theme based on an upcoming event – a field trip, family outing, or holiday. Other days, what she’s studying in school (currently the rain forest) or the weather or season serves as inspiration.
About how much do you spend on a lunch or on lunch supplies monthly?
I haven’t actually bothered to calculate what the lunch supplies cost on their own – I’d guess that I’m spending around $120 – $150 per month just on the groceries, but that’s supplying lunches for myself as well as for my daughter, on weekends as well as weekdays. I’ve probably spent around $150-200 on tools and supplies since I began over a year ago – but I’ve discovered that you don’t really need much in the way of tools to make fun and tasty lunches – just some imagination, a sharp knife, and a good variety of fruits, vegetables, breads and cheeses.
What are your favorite tools and supplies, and where can they be found?
Bento boxes can be found online and in Japanese markets – they come in a large variety of sizes and styles. For small children, I think the single layer boxes with locking lids are the best. You can also find lots of reusable plastic lunch boxes at Target, Walmart, etc. with locking lids that work great. Cookie/vegetable cutters are probably the most inexpensive and versatile tools, and they come in nearly every shape and size you can imagine. Sandwich cutters that simultaneously cut off crusts and cut sandwiches into fun shapes, and pocket sandwich molds/presses that cut off the crust while sealing in the filling (which is nice when you have messy fillings like egg salad or peanut butter and honey) are also nice to have on hand. Reusable silicon cups are great for containing things like blueberries, edamame, Goldfish crackers or Teddy Grahams, but paper or foil cupcake liners can work well, too (if you don’t mind creating a little recyclable trash). Decorative, reusable plastic food picks can be found online and in stores that sell baking supplies, and can be used to hold sandwiches together, spear small fruits or vegetables, or just add a touch of whimsy. Japanese egg molds can be purchased online or at Japanese markets, and turn a plain hard-boiled egg into an adorable bunny, fish, car, heart, star, bear, and other cute shape.
What is your daughter’s and her friends’ response?
She looks forward to seeing what’s in her lunch each day, and usually eats most of it; the exception is when I put in something unfamiliar, so I try to introduce new things at home before including them in her lunches. She tells me her friends think they’re cool, but most of the feedback I’ve received is from family and friends who’ve seen the photos posted on Facebook, and a few teachers and aides from my daughter’s school.
Your choice to post your pics is a telltale sign that this is a creative endeavor as well as a nutritional one. Am I right about that?
Absolutely! I don’t have time for much in the way of hobbies, so this is definitely a fun creative outlet for me. I also post pics as a visual reference for myself (to remind me what I’ve done before and could do again) and to provide ideas/inspiration for my fellow parents who are struggling with what to give their kids for lunch every day.
How often do you make these for yourself?
At first it took me so long to assemble them that I didn’t have time to make more than one, but now I make a simple version for myself every day. As a result, I’m eating a lot healthier and saving a ton of money.
Why don’t you use leftovers?
I don’t usually have much in the way of leftovers available – and what I do have wouldn’t be very tasty eaten cold. Unfortunately, microwaving is not an option at my daughter’s school, and I don’t currently have a container appropriate for keeping food warm, so everything is served cold.