Bento no. 74: 5-minute, no stash, beginner bento

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Bento contents:

  • 1 large slice boiled ham, 100 calories
  • 1 slice proscuitto, 80 calories
  • 1 small piece cheese (gouda), 80 calories
  • 2 small whole grain rolls, 160 calories
  • About 8 grapes, 30 calories
  • 1 Tbs. mustard
  • Mixed salad greens, 10 calories

Total calories (approx): 460 (how calories are calculated)

Time needed: 5 minutes in the morning

Type: Not Japanese, sandwich, nothing made in advance

With the school year approaching, or even already starting for some people, I see a lot of people linking to this site from kid- or mom-oriented sites, as well as the usual round of newspaper articles who have newly discovered this "bento trend" thing. The reactions from readers are pretty interesting to me. Some think it's a great idea, but some hardcore naysayers see it as too much work, or even something that is bad for children. "How dare kids expect their busy parents to put in time making their food look cute or attractive!" they huff. "In my day, we got a bowl of gruel and we were happy to have it!" Well not quite those words, but you get the idea.

Of course, you can spend hours preparing elaborate bentos if you want, making them beautiful, or cute, or edible homages to your favorite rock star. As for the food itself, for the sake of variety and to save time in the morning, I recommend building up a 'stash' of ready-to-go bento friendly foods in your freezer, refrigerator or pantry.

But what if you are just starting out and don't have a bento-food stash yet? What if you are too busy or too sleepy to be creative in the morning? That doesn't mean you can't bring a bit of the bento spirit to your lunch.

At the moment I'm still living without a proper kitchen, and only a tiny under-cabinet type refrigerator. So there's no room to have a bento stash really, and little room to do much cooking. So this is the type of bento lunch I've been packing a lot recently, for our excursions out to look at kitchen cabinets at the local home improvement stores and such things. It's really just a deconstructed sandwich; the rolls are sliced in the middle, but even that step could be omitted. It really just takes 5 minutes or so to assemble.

However, I do like to add little touches here and there to make the recipient of the bento - myself included - smile. Like using a pretty cloth to wrap my plain plastic box (the one I use when I want to pack a lot of salad) - the cloth doubles as a tablecloth. Like cutting a little heart shape out of the ham slice (the cheese is tucked in behind the ham, so that the color shows off the heart), using my favorite heart-shaped silicon baking cup for the grapes, and adding a cute little pick.

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I think that anyone can do something like that, without much effort or time spent at all, and it makes lunch just a bit more fun. Or how about just adding a little smile to a plain old sandwich?

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The idea is to not be intimidated. Don't assume that bentos are too much work, or take too much time, or that they have to be based on Japanese food (as I've said time and again here they are not). It's just about adding a bit of fun, color and whimsy to a meal that too often gets overlooked.