Bento: The Magical Bond for Parents and Children
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:
- 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.
- 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!
- I try to balance savory, sweet, sour, salty and the luscious umami.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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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