Note: Lists on what you need to make bentos can be found at the end of this story.CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Heather Smith faced a daily dilemma last year as she considered what lunch to send with her young son to preschool. She knew Landon's leisurely and particular-eating habits would leave him hungry, so she got creative.
She searched for suggestions online and discovered kid-friendly versions of bento boxes, a Japanese method for attractively packaging single portions of to-go food in divided boxes.
Every day, Landon, 5, opens his lunch container for the big reveal. He might find a sandwich cut into the shape of a dinosaur or Mickey Mouse accompanied by green broccoli trees, colorful berries and grapes, bright red cherry tomatoes, a yellow banana or yogurt with bright sprinkles on top.
"It's kind of cool. The other kids like it," said Landon of the moment at lunchtime that he unveils his fun, colorful and sneakily healthy lunch. His preschool teachers last year looked forward to seeing his lunches.
Landon attends kindergarten at Elk Valley Christian School, where the school lunch program consists of take-out meals or cold lunch because the school doesn't have an in-house hot lunch program. "I always take my lunch. I like my mom's lunches better," Landon said.
That's music to Heather's ears because Landon's eating habits are erratic. He's not necessarily picky, but food just doesn't interest him. Heather made her own baby food when he was young and makes it now for her other son, Liam, 1, who "will eat anything," she said with relief. With Liam, she probably won't have to resort to adding pureed vegetables to a brownie mix to sneak vegetables into his diet as she did for a 2-year-old Landon.
Before lunch-packing parents reading this get all "who has time for this," Heather said her lunches are relatively simple and require only about 15 minutes to assemble. Heather runs a photography business, Heather Smith Photography, from her home and cares for two young children. She doesn't have a lot of spare time.
Using a dinosaur cookie cutter to cut a sandwich into an interesting shape doesn't take much longer than finding a knife to cut the sandwich in two. Landon eagerly eats them.
"It's a way to put together healthy meals that are inexpensive and cut down on the waste of packaged foods," Heather said in reference to popular products such as Lunchables. "I make sure there is something from each of the five food groups -- and they're bright and appealing."
But does he eat them?
"Yes! My favorite lunch is a dinosaur sandwich," he said.
Heather slivers carrot sticks because whole baby carrots are too big for her son's loose teeth. He'll eat broccoli if it's steamed. She noticed years ago that a dusting of colored sprinkles on oatmeal enticed Landon to eat his breakfast, so now she adds them to yogurt in his lunch.
"Kids will eat anything with sprinkles on it," she said.
There are expensive Bento Box suppliers out there, but Heather makes do with plastic compartmentalized containers she bought in the baby food aisle of grocery stores, cookie cutters, fun food picks, silicone cupcake holders and a few accessories she had on hand from a cake decorating class.
The lids of all the containers must fit tightly against the divider walls to keep the components separated during transport. She places yogurt or other viscous foods in smaller tightly sealed canisters and places cold packs around whole container.
Because he closes all the contents back into the box after finishing his lunch, Heather can see what he's eaten when she unpacks it at home.
Heather often assembles the lunch the night before to avoid a morning time crunch. If she's making a sandwich for the next day, she spreads a thin layer of mayo on the insides to keep the bread from getting soggy and refrigerates it.
She sometimes incorporates new ideas she finds online. Heather admires, but usually ignores, the more elaborate and labor-intensive creations she sees and advises new bento box assemblers to do the same.