Bento: The Magical Bond for Parents and Children

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Two hungry kids tackle their bento lunch (Note: They’re not Linda’s kids, they are related to Maki :)) (Photo: Michiko Ebina)

This is a guest post by Linda Rolle, a Japanese-American mom to twins and co-owner of the online stores True Renu and True Renu International.

When our twins were born, we made all sorts of promises to ourselves about how we’d like to raise them. One of those wishes was to share with them our love and appreciation for good food, as my husband and I both come from a family of chefs and restaurateurs. For example, their first solid foods included miso soup, tofu, edamame and Weißwurst (a mild German veal sausage). To this day, they will choose edamame over chips, and tofu over just about everything.

When they entered preschool, we needed a way to continue feeding them in ways they would enjoy, while still (subtly!) hammering home the concepts of choice - and balance. Bento was the obvious solution. Having to prepare two lunches each weekday while running a business has forced me to be more resourceful, and plan meals more efficiently. But in so doing, I’ve also learned an even greater lesson; that the Bento is far more than a packed lunch. It has become a treasured link between me and my children as well as one of my most rewarding responsibilities as a parent.

How can a little plastic box do so much? By its very design, it invites diversity, proportion, and experimentation. Most of the boxes we own are anti-sandwich by design, instead providing Rubik-esque interior sections that seem impossibly small and unworthy. But when I have to think of at least 3 items to fill a bento, the end result is more fun and healthy. The added benefit for me is daily chances to help each of them discover a new food experience - and they get to do it on their own, without pressure from my husband or me, and without any guilt.

Here are a few ways I’ve tried to make Bento both comforting and new for my twins:

  1. Experiment! I try to put something they’ve never had before into each Bento. I don’t ask them about it, but I do check and see how much of it comes home intact, making a mental note of winners and duds.
  2. I try a food ingredient several ways before giving up. They’ve told me they don’t like mushrooms. But when I minced them and sautÈed them into a meatloaf they disappeared, and when I layered them into a veggie and goat cheese terrine they even gave me props for the recipe!
  3. I try to balance savory, sweet, sour, salty and the luscious umami.
  4. I try not to project my own taste prejudices on to my children. Too often I’ve had to stop myself saying, “Oh, you won’t like that” and let them go for it. If I had censored their tasting options for them, they wouldn’t be enjoying shichimi pepper in their udon, or anchovies on their pizza!
  5. I’ve made a big effort to lay off the salt and sugar. Instead, we spent a small fortune on a high quality sea salt. We add it to cold edamame or cucumber, and flavor skyrockets with much less sodium.
  6. I view Bento as my friend. By observing what comes home inside, Bento is teaching me about my children - without arguments or judgment. I like to think Bento helps my kids communicate with me, and vice versa.

Some of the food discoveries Kimi and Sebi have made through Bento include crab sticks and cucumber salads, kamaboko, shumai, and water chestnuts.

And there’s one more thing. Since they entered a Japanese preschool this year, I noticed Bento coming home empty more and more. I finally figured out why. Each day before lunch, the children sing a song, a celebration of “O Bento” and all of the happiness it brings. In this way, they are learning that food - and Bento - is a special gift. After an introduction like that every day, it’s no wonder they enjoy more of what’s inside it!

About the author

Linda Rolle is a Japanese American mother of twins, who co-owns True Renu and Tru Renu International, online purveyors of Japanese bath and beauty products. She grew up with bento, prepares Japanese inspired meals as often as possible. Now that her children are in a Japanese preschool, she enjoys the challenge of putting together two bento lunches each weekday by combining food from both cultures. Kimiko and Sebastian offer her honest feedback, as only children can.

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And visit our sister site, Just Hungry for great Japanese home recipes and more.

8 comments

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Re: Bento: The Magical Bond for Parents and Children

Linda said, "I don’t ask them about it, but I do check and see how much of it comes home intact, making a mental note of winners and duds."

Yes! This is also one of the fabulous things about bento. There's no containers to throw away so it comes home and you get to see what your kids actually eat!

It does create a bond - I tell my son that I make him a lunch because I love him and that I know he'll get a lunch that's good for him. Forgive me for the anime reference - but I remember several times seeing how someone made a bento lunch and it was considered an act of love. I see bentos that way.

Re: Bento: The Magical Bond for Parents and Children

I wish I'd known about bentos when my son was small. He never ate his lunches, he didn't even look at them, they came home still wrapped up. No lunch bond for us! I ended up just letting him buy lunches.

But I have to ask - what sort of high quality sea salt has much less sodium than ordinary table salt? Sea salt has a little bit of magnesium and calcium salts, but it's still about 90% sodium chloride.

Re: Bento: The Magical Bond for Parents and Children

I'm not Linda, but I find I use a lot less when I use a good quality sea salt to flavor things, because the flavors are much more complex. Maybe that's what she means....

Re: Bento: The Magical Bond for Parents and Children

What a beautiful article! A perfect balance of personality and usefulness. The bento packing tips are REALLY helpful! These would work for packing a picky adult's bento as well!

My favorite bit: "I view Bento as my friend. By observing what comes home inside, Bento is teaching me about my children - without arguments or judgment. I like to think Bento helps my kids communicate with me, and vice versa."

I also like the reaffirmation that we are conditioned to what we like at an early age - we can be "taught" to love and prefer wholesome food or junk food, depending on what is introduced to us, how it's introduced, etc. Nifty stuff!

Thanks Linda (& Maki)!

Re: Bento: The Magical Bond for Parents and Children

You have so cute siblings, Maki!! :3

Re: Bento: The Magical Bond for Parents and Children

Oh I really like this article! The tips are really helpful. I recently got married and we are planning to start a family in the near future. Just this month I started making bento lunches for myself and my husband, and I just love it! I hope to use bento the same as your family memebers by offering my little ones a healthy homemade lunch! Even though it may not be for a few years, at least it gives me time to practice my bento skills =)

Re: Bento: The Magical Bond for Parents and Children

Wow Its so great! Seeing them how they were eating gives me the desire to taste it too. I can see how yummy it was. And having picnics and bonding is totally awesome. I would love to do that also. =D By the way, have you tried using a stainless steel tiffin carrier for your packed lunches? If not, I'll tell you, its soooo great to have it. Because unlike other containers, it sustains the food's freshness, you can bring it anywhere, no worries because even if you filled the steel container with water or any liquid will not leak out because it has a secure tight lock in both sides of the container. The one I most admire is the Happy Tiffin's food stacking container. http://www.happytiffin.com because because its very easy to use, beautiful functional, reusable, can able heat food in it, has many uses, comes with various designs, styles and sizes and portable. Especially its newest product the insulated tiffin bag that can sustain the food even hot or cold.

Re: Bento: The Magical Bond for Parents and Children

Wonderful article!

I don't have children yet, but when I do someday I definitely plan to make bentos for them. Such a wonderful way of showing love, and taking care of their nutrition at the same time!

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