Earlier today I posted a photo spread of just a few of the adorable lunches created by three women, each of whom I interview below.
Makiko “Maki” Ogawa, was born and raised in Japan. She’s the mother of two boys and author of the blog Cute Obento. She originally started making bento to help her son adjust to kindergarten. These days she continues to create bento for companies and bento classes. Her work has been seen in Japanese food commercials and in Christopher Salyer’s bento books, Face Food:The Visual Creativity of Japanese Bento Boxes and Face Food Recipes. Together with Crystal Watanabe, she’s the co-author of Yum Yum Bento Box.
Crystal Watanabe is the mother of two toddlers, the author of the bento blog Adventures in Bentomaking, founder of the online bento newspaper, Bento Central and, with Maki Ogawa, the co-author of Yum Yum Bento Box. Born and raised in the small town of Hilo, Hawaii, Crystal now lives in Honolulu with her family.
Shannon Carino is the author of BentoLunch.net. She describes herself on her blog as a “Canadian chick married to an island boy and currently raising our two little Texans (ages 7 and 4) in suburban Dallas.”
TLT: How long does it take you to prepare one of these lunches? Do you make them on the morning your child goes to school? The night before?
Shannon: I try to spend no more than an extra 5 minutes (over and above normal lunch preparation time) to make them. This doesn’t include, of course, baking or cooking in advance, just the actual lunch preparation. Most things are made in advance, then things like pretzels/crackers are added in in the morning. Some of the simpler meals are made in the morning, too. I’m a big proponent of a freezer stash of food.
Crystal: It takes me anywhere from 10-30 minutes depending on if I use leftovers or if I’m cooking. I make them in the morning. I should also note, I make the lunches for myself.
Maki: Any time I make bento, I do it in the morning. It takes 20 minutes or so to make it .
TLT: Do you make bento lunches for your children every day, or just on special occasions? If only sometimes, what might be a typical lunch on another day?
Shannon: I make bento most days, although the amount of work put into them varies. Really cute ones like the pirate I made for Ben a few weeks ago are not as frequent, but basic ones with just the healthy foods are. Because I also really like the “green” aspect of bentos, lunches on the go are nearly always served in them–I try to avoid baggies, plastic wrap and prepackaged items as much as I can. A typical lunch at home probably includes a lot of the same elements as a bento, but minus the cute and on a dishwasher safe plate–sandwiches, fruits & veggies, a little treat.
Crystal: My daughter is embarrassed by overly pretty lunches, so she usually requests non-charaben [Ed. Note: charaben means “cute” or “character-based”]. When we’re fully moved in, I will probably be making her a pretty one only once a week, maybe on Fridays.
Maki: I have two sons. If my sons want to eat cute/funny bento everyday, I’ll make it. When my older son went to kindergarten, he wanted to eat “charaben (cute bento which include shaped animation characters such as Pikachu, Mickey Mouse or Power Rangers), but when my son didn’t feel like eating that, I made typical bento for him.
TLT: What’s your motivation for putting so much time and thought into these lunches? Is it an outlet for your creativity? An expression of love? To encourage your child to eat? A combination of these things?
Shannon: It started, mostly to get my daughter to eat quickly, so the earlier ones have lots of bite sized pieces. I’d cut the sandwiches into one-bite shapes, fruit into one-bite pieces, etc. Now, it’s a combination of actually enjoying it, making something creative and still getting them to eat. They both try more if it’s part of a bento. My son decided he didn’t like cucumber, yet he eats cucumber when I use bits of it to decorate a bento.
Crystal: It is an outlet, yes, but it’s also a great way to make myself eat slower and enjoy my meal more. For my kids, it’s to show them how much I care about them and to get them to eat healthier things.
Maki: Simply, it is because my sons love my cute bento, and I love to make cute bento.
TLT: Were you served bento lunches as a child, or is this something you got into as an adult?
Crystal: I’ve had bentos all my life, but usually when I was growing up, we would buy them at a drive-in or convenience store for a field trip. I didn’t ever have charaben for a lunch as a kid.
Maki: In my childhood, my mother used to make bentos. Making bento for their family is a ordinary house work for a Japanese mother.
TLT: How do your children respond to your bento lunches?
Shannon: They both really like it. My daughter will come up with all sorts of ideas going through books of things I can make for her, and both kids like to look through the What’s for Lunch Wednesday link up on my blog. That’s where we found the pirate idea, through an online friend who linked up a pirate she made. F also likes the idea of being earth friendly, how she doesn’t have to throw out a lot of trash and we’re not hurting the planet by adding more trash. As they get older, especially my son, I can see moving away from the cuter lunches, but I don’t see moving away from bentos because of the environmental aspect. If we need to get a plain box with no adornment, we’ll get one, but I’m not going to switch to baggies, tinfoil and paper lunch sacks.
Crystal: My son is a big fan, but his preschool tuition includes lunch, so I don’t make them for him. He’ll be very happy to have me make him lunch when he reaches kindergarten. My daughter likes having home lunch when she doesn’t like what they’re serving at school.
Maki: In Japan, most elementary school students eat school lunch at their school, but when my sons went to kindergarten, they had their bento which I made. My sons loved my bento and their classmates did too. Probably my bento stood out at their kindergarten. Sometimes their classmates gave me requests to make my son’s next bento, such as “Cool super-heroes bento” or something like that.
TLT: What are the most bento-friendly foods? E.g., I know many Japanese moms use fish cakes to make shapes. What do you typically use?
Shannon: We use a lot of cheese for decoration, cucumbers (esp. the peel) for eyes or dark marks since my kids don’t like nori. I’ve used bits of lunch meat if I need something in that color, but I don’t buy much of it. I dehydrated my own strawberries awhile ago and they work great for faces. We do use a few sugar eyes at times too, they give the right look quickly & easily.
Crystal: Hmm, do we use a lot of fish cakes? Of course you can always substitute fish sausage with sliced ham or kamaboko with white cheese. It all depends on what your child likes to eat and your own creativity.
Maki: When my sons don’t like fish cake, I don’t use it for their bento. I don’t use any foods that my sons dislike in their bento (because I hope my bento makes them happy).
TLT: Do you have to use food colorings to achieve some of the effects?
Shannon: Very rarely. I do use a bit of blue to make blue pasta, and a very occasional food marker to add a smile or a dot, but I try to use food cutouts instead.
Crystal: No, mothers out there in the USA have come up with some very inventive ways to achieve colors, but it tends to be a lot of work, which is why I stick with food coloring.
Maki: No, I don’t want to use any food colorings or chemical things. I want to use only ordinary foods.
TLT: Do the lunches ever come back uneaten? If they do, do you ever feel resentful or frustrated, given how much time and creativity you put into making them?
Shannon: Lunches are eaten about 90%+ of the time. If they have leftovers, they were either not hungry or maybe there was a birthday cupcake, etc. I have them both bring home anything they don’t eat, not to get in trouble, but so I can see what we might need to adjust and I’ll ask them if they needed more food, less food, different food, etc. I think I’m pretty in tune with how much they eat in a sitting, maybe because we’ve done this so long.
Crystal: I do get frustrated, but I’m more frustrated at her eating habits than the work I put into it because I preserve my work with pictures. I’m trying to get her to eat and when she doesn’t, it upsets me. Plus, I don’t like her wasting food.
Maki: My younger son is a light eater. He used to leave a bite of rice or a piece of vegetable. But I’ve never scolded him. And I never feel resentful or frustrated.
Shannon: As much as I personally like the cute stuff, the best parts of bento are the healthiness & the green aspects. You can create a great meal without ever having to cut out a pirate or teapot. ;o) Look for a great reusable container and lots of smaller bits of a variety of healthy foods–proteins, carbs, fruit & veggies.
Crystal: Preparation is key, which is what Yum-Yum Bento Box is for. We try to take the preparations out of it for you! Also, feel free to swap things around and cook our recipes for dinner. It’s very easy to pack bento with leftovers.
Many thanks to Crystal, Maki and Shannon for taking the time to be interviewed by The Lunch Tray!
Coming up later today . . . a TLT Reader Poll: your thoughts on making kids’ food cute.