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  • A typical lunch for the boys: Fried mac & cheese, chicken nuggets, grapes and a vanilla wafer

    I pack the boys lunch when they go to daycare, partly because I don’t want to pay $3.50 per meal, and partly because I fear they wouldn’t eat the food and I’d be wasting my money.

    The bento pictured here is a good example of what I pack most days. The lower, shallower tier contains two halves of a fried macaroni and cheese ball, and two frozen chicken nugget balls. The macaroni and cheese was left over from the previous night’s Cheesecake Factory takeout, and the chicken nuggets are Ian’s brand. It turns out neither of my kids cared for the Ian’s chicken nuggets so I’ll have to find another brand that uses organic chicken. (Any suggestions would be appreciated.) I packed the chicken nuggets in a doubled paper cupcake liner to keep them separated from the mac and cheese.

    The upper, larger tier contains two silicone cupcake liners with organic grapes, and a Trader Joe’s vanilla wafer. There are probably a couple of Trader Joe’s animal crackers tucked under the wafer, but it’s hard to tell from the picture. I would prefer to pack a fruit and a vegetable, or even two different types of fruit, but my oldest in particular has rejected just about everything I offer lately. I would have used a silicone liner in the bottom tier for the nuggets, but the container is too shallow and it’s easier to crush the paper ones down.

    I get a lot of great tips on packing lunches from Biggie at Lunch in a Box, which is where I learned to use the silicone cupcake holders as separators. I use them almost every day no matter what I’m packing. Biggie also turned me onto Ichibankan, a discount Japanese store that sells lots of bento gear at very reasonable prices. They have a varied selection of two-tier bento boxes, as well as other supplies like sauce containers and picks. If you’re looking for bento gear, you may also want to check out Biggie’s Bento Store Locator to see if there’s some place local where you can pick some things up.

    Bento Example #1: Chicken patty with grapes, cheese and animal crackers

    A while back, I mentioned that I was going to stop buying school lunches for my oldest and start packing his lunches myself. It’s been going well, but I’m usually too rushed in the morning to grab the camera. I did manage to get a shot of this one and wanted to share how I put it together.

    The contents are:
    1 Ian’s frozen chicken patty
    1 container sweet & sour sauce (from fast food chicken nuggets)
    2 packets ketchup
    1 string cheese
    halved red grapes
    4-5 animal crackers

    My son likes these chicken patties, so I try to keep some on hand in the freezer for when I don’t have leftovers to pack. I packed this one in a large paper baking cup (for jumbo size muffins), tucked the sweet and sour sauce container and ketchup packets next to it, and laid the string cheese right on top. Off to the side, I filled a silicone baking cup with halved red grapes, and put a few animal crackers into another silicone baking cup.

    The night before school, I cut the grapes and wrapped the silicone baking cup in some plastic wrap to keep the grapes contained during transit. I packed the lunch in the morning in a basic reusable plastic container. It went into the refrigerator when we got to school, and his teachers microwaved the patty before giving it to my son.

    My son would devour the grapes and animal crackers in a heartbeat, so I have a deal with his teachers that they give him the “main course” first. After he’s eaten a decent amount of that, he gets his fruit and then “dessert” (the animal crackers). If he doesn’t eat most of his lunch, he doesn’t get the animal crackers.

    I use silicone baking cups in just about every lunch that I pack for the boys. They make great dividers and really keep the food separate. I got a pack of one dozen at Target for $5.99 a few months ago.

    Much of my bento inspiration comes from Lunch in a Box, so if you want more lunch ideas, I highly recommend heading there.

    School lunch: Buy at school or bring from home?

    The boys’ daycare offers prepared hot lunches every day at $3.50 per day for all of the children except infants. (I’m sure that seems astonishingly high to many of you, but apparently it’s average for the Los Angeles area.) At first, I always brought my oldest’s lunch from home. But when my younger son was born at the end of 2006, I started buying lunches for my older son simply to reduce stress.

    Toward the end of last year, when my youngest was off purees and feeding himself, I began thinking about bringing my older son’s lunches again. But I was afraid that he would balk, wanting to be like the majority of his classmates. I started slow, studying the meal plan for a meal I knew he didn’t like and bringing lunch from home on that day. We have to order a month’s worth of meals at one time, so I did this once in January and once in February to see how he reacted.

    He didn’t mind at all. Whew! So in March, I packed one lunch a week for him, and this month, I’ve been packing two lunches per week. To my complete surprise and delight, my son has asked if he can bring lunch every day. I guess I won’t be buying lunch next month.

    Weaning my son off school lunches instead of doing it in one fell swoop is as much for my benefit as it is for his. My preference is to pack leftovers, as I often do for my husband and me, but there aren’t always leftovers to be had. (And more often than not, it seems, our son rejects dinner or eats only a very small amount.) So by giving myself a prolonged transition period, I am giving myself time to figure out how to pack lunches that my son will eat that also don’t require much prep time in the morning, and how to shop for these lunches when I only go grocery shopping once a week.

    Sometime in the next week or so, I’ll share some fast lunches that work for us. In the meantime, check out Lunch in a Box and Just Bento for some great ideas.

    Bento lunches – Resources and practice

    Bento: According to Wikipedia, it’s an “aesthetically pleasing” and “appealing boxed lunch.”

    Making things look beautiful is not my forte. As you might have guessed from my writing style, I tend to be rather straightforward, practical, and utilitarian. It’s not that I don’t appreciate beautiful things, but that my mind rarely focuses on how to create them. But I can do it if someone tells me how.

    And that’s why two of my favorite blogs are Lunch in a Box and Just Bento. I’ve gotten wonderful ideas for packing our family’s lunches on the rare occasion that I do make bentos. I usually just pack our lunches in single-serving plastic containers, but every once in a while, I’ll have both the time and inclination to dress them up. Most of the time, though, I feel like I’m absorbing information to be able to pack appealing lunches for my boys when they’re older and the way their lunch is packed is the difference in whether it gets eaten or tossed.

    Then last week, I came across this article at The Dollar Stretcher that’s full of good ideas on making food fun for the kids like “dinosaur eggs,” “caterpillars,” and “kiwi butterflies.” I think it’s time to start putting some of that stored-away knowledge into practice now – I want those things in my lunch!

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