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Have you ever tried packing a bento lunch for your child? Bentos — a Japanese tradition of food packed attractively in a box — are a great way to send a healthy, balanced, fun lunch to school with your child.

But if you spend a little time looking at photos of these lunches online, they are often a little intimidating. Some people use a bento lunch as an opportunity to make elaborate scenes with food or to showcase complicated decorative techniques. While these lunches are beautiful and can be fun to make (if you’re into that kind of thing), I’m here to tell you that assembling a bento box doesn’t have to be hard or complicated.

In the last five years, I’ve packed more than 1300 bento boxes for my kids. I like to experiment with their food and add little touches to make their meals cute, but most mornings I don’t really have time to execute a bunch of decorative techniques for my boys’ lunches. I’ve found that if I jazz up one item in the lunch, then surround that with colorful fruits and vegetables it goes a long way toward making their lunches cute and attractive to the eye. And by keeping things on the simple side, I still manage to pull their lunches together quickly.

Here are a few of my favorite, easy techniques:

Cut something with a cookie cutter.

One of the easiest ways to make a lunch cute is to cut something with a cookie cutter. Here, I used a gingerbread man cutter on a sandwich, then filled in the rest of the space in the box with grape tomatoes, sugar snap peas and cheese crackers. Some other items that can be cut with small cookie cutters are pieces of fruit, thin slices of veggies, cheese and sliced deli meat.

Fold (or roll) up some lunch meat.
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Fold slices of salami in half or cut a slice of ham into strips and roll it up (see the photo at the top of the post) and put that in the lunch box. For the box above I made a healthier and more substantial version of a prepackaged grocery store lunch for my older son. I started by folding some salami, then added a cupcake liner filled with raspberries, apple chunks, squares of cheddar, whole wheat crackers and a few tomatoes.

Write something with a food marker.
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Here, I wrote a message on a banana (“U R COOL”) with a food-safe marker then added it to a bento box with half a sandwich and some fruit and veggies. New readers especially love getting these messages, but older kids appreciate them too. Food markers are a little bit of a splurge, but they can be used on smooth breads (like dinner roll or tortillas), crackers, and cheese.

Arrange fruits or veggies.
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Arranging fruit or vegetables in a neat and tidy way (rather than just dumping them in the box) can make a lunch look prettier. For this lunch I put some clementine wedges in a silicon baking cup and then arranged the top layer in a circle to make it look like a flower. Everything else — turkey, veggies, muffin, grapes — was just dropped in the box. (In case you’re wondering, the frozen veggies in this lunch will thaw by lunch time and help keep the lunch cool and safe to eat throughout the morning.)

Poke it with a pick.
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Finally, one of my favorite ways to add a little “cute” to a lunch is to poke a decorative food pick into something. You can put almost anything on a pick, but I tend to go with cubes of meat or cheese or firmer fruits and veggies like grapes or edamame. Paper and plastic cupcake picks are easy to find at party supply stores or in the baking section of big box or craft stores.

Wendy Copley writes about cooking, crafts, parenting and her obsession with lunch boxes Wendolonia. Her site features a Bento Box Gallery with over 1300 photos to provide inspiration to lunch-packing parents.

Recipe: 5 Simple Techniques to Get Started with Bento Lunches

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7 Responses to “5 Simple Techniques to Get Started with Bento Lunches”

  1. Kat

    Love all these ideas! I think I’m finally going to go buy a bento box. I’ve heard Laptop Lunches is a good one but do you recommend any others?

    • Ian

      Anything from Skater. Their boxes are high quality.

    • wcopley

      Laptop Lunches is a great choice. I also love the Lunchbots and Planetbox brands.

  2. Michael

    Great, now we have to make food cute-sy and entertaining. How about getting the child engaged the growing/ gardening process, get their hands dirty and they’ll love and appreciate food in a much more enriched, fundamental and life-changing way.

    • wcopley

      I think getting kids involved in the gardening process is a great idea! Anything we can do to make kids feel more connected and engaged in the process of eating healthfully is time well spent. I know my kids love to help with our vegetable garden, but they also respond well — as most adults also do — when their food is presented in an attractive and appealing way.

      • Michael

        Right! I found beauty can’t help being in the “presentation” of a lunch or any meal, when we have invested knowledge and sweat, have picked and prepared real food. What is extremely beautiful (at our childs Waldorf School) is that most of the food is fresh or saved via last harvest, grown on-site, organic and prepped by parents, served with love, and can be ordered gluten free, GAPS or any other dietary issue.
        That alone was appealing enough to inspire us pay a “attractive” tuition. ha.
        Even though she brings most of her lunches from home.