When my son Isaac started junior kindergarten, one of the brochures in his "Welcome to School" information package was on how to pack healthy lunches. His school adhered to a "balanced day" schedule, meaning that two 40-minute nutrition and fitness sessions were offered daily—20 minutes of eating and 20 minutes of active play per session.
I panicked. How on earth was I supposed to pack the right amount of food for my then three-year-old-son (who was most definitely a picky eater)? What was I supposed to pack all that food in? Gone were the bucket-style lunch pails I took to school as a kid, and in their place were high-priced containers that cost almost as much as my entire grocery bill.
So, instead of buying the official "balanced day" lunch bags (yes, those are a thing), I crammed Isaac's lunch into a couple matching plastic containers that I then put into a plastic shopping bag. The results were disastrous because the school's brochure failed to mention they also had a "boomerang lunch policy," meaning all pre-packaged waste or uneaten portions from lunches are returned home in the kids' backpacks—including the garbage. Isaac's bag was chaos.
It was then that I became a bento-box mom (though at the time, I didn't intend for it to happen).
It started small and innocently enough with reusable snack bags—BPA-free velcro and vinyl pouches in an adorable monster-patterned fabric—to replace the warped leftover sour-cream tubs that used to hold Isaac's crackers. Then I found silicone muffin liners on sale which I tucked inside no-name plastic food storage containers to keep his cucumbers from touching his grapes (I mean, what parent lets veggies mix with fruits?!). I bought colour-coordinated toothpicks, spoons with smiley faces and even made a secret board on Pinterest of themed lunch ideas. Slowly our kitchen cupboards started to look less like a cluttered recycling depot and more like an inventory closet at a Lego factory, with brightly-coloured containers stacked precariously on top of each other. My kids got annoyed when their dad packed leftover curried chickpeas into their triangular-shaped snack boxes, because now their raisins chronically smell like cumin.
I knew my transformation into a full-fledged bento-box lunch mom was complete when my husband recently caught me using a flower-shaped cookie cutter to cut out salami-and-cheese stackers for my daughter. I even posted the photo on Instagram (see above).
I used to make fun of parents like me, who took painstaking efforts to craft beautiful lunches for their kids. I mean, who has time to cut out salami? Most importantly, do kids even care? But I've learned a few things along my way to being a bento-box mom. First, my kids eat more food when it's packaged and presented in a fun way. That flower-shaped cheese was strongly flavoured cold cheddar my kids usually gag at when offered at home. But really, it's fun and it feels good to know my kids are opening up lunches that make them smile (even if my cookie-cutter antics have my husband shaking his head).