This is the time of year when we get ready for a new school year and all that it entails. “Graduating” from kindergarten or elementary school, or from eighth grade into high school, each year seems to be significant in the child’s life.
Whether returning to the same school and friends or going to a new school, this is a time to appreciate the changes in life and may be a perfect opportunity to develop new habits or rituals, like study and bedtime schedule, TV or video time allowed, or particularly around healthy eating.
Up Your Lunchbox Game
As we think about eating and the new school year, it means we have to up our game in the take-it-to-school department.
Are you familiar with bento boxes or even heard of them before?
If not, they just might become your new best friend when you find out how they can make some of your back-to-school problems disappear and make your life, and your children’s, much happier and healthier.
The best part about this is that you don’t actually have to go out and buy a bento box. Think of this more as a template, a theoretical structure to use in preparing your kids’ healthy school lunches.
The Bento Box Theory
A bento box is a shining example of Japanese culture and their traditional diet that supports the idea of a wholesome meal. In more practical terms it is actually a Japanese lunch box, with each box a single portion meal that you pack at home or buy as take-out. Of course, in Japan, this is not just for kids many adults also prepare or buy bento boxes regularly.
Some of these boxes look like a TV dinner tray with each portion of food in a recessed compartment away from the other foods. While this might sound familiar to many of us, rest assured the food in a compartmentalized bento box is arranged with a lot of thought, effort, and aesthetics in mind, and most likely contains food that is much more wholesome than a TV dinner.
The Lowly Lunchbox Aesthetic
If you think about all the restaurant meals you may have eaten, think about how you responded when the presentation of your dinner or dessert made you feel special. Have you ever taken a photo of your dinner and posted it on social media? C’mon, we all know it is common practice these days and one reason is because of the presentation of the food alone; the look of the food gave us joy.
Why not let your kids have that same sort of joy every day at school?
Instead of opening up a lunch pail and seeing a boring sandwich in a zip lock bag, how do you think your child would react when they open up their bento box and see that their food looks like a cartoon character they like? Even if it doesn’t really look like Superman or Sponge Bob, you know they will get a chuckle out of seeing a face made out of their food, right? Do you think that maybe that good feeling will also get them to eat some food they would otherwise reject if they were in a bad mood? I think so.
Bento Box Breakdown
So what normally goes into a bento box meal?
Wholesome and well-balanced foods in controlled portions for keeping calories in check while providing the essential nutrients the body needs.
Typically in Japan, you would find rice or noodles, a portion of fish or meat, and an assortment of vegetables, either cooked or raw. Since that is fairly normal for most Japanese meals it is no surprise to hear that they do not have the same level of childhood obesity that we have in the U.S.
So…based on the bento theory, how can we make our children a wholesome lunch that they will eat?
First, make sure that whatever you feed them for a healthy lunch is well balanced with protein, fat, carbs, and lots of nutrition. A basic rule of thumb is that the more food is processed, the less nutritional value it retains.
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? OK, that serves a purpose and is acceptable to anyone who isn’t a really picky eater. However, minimize the jelly part of it, use a low sugar variety, and organic is certainly preferred. Try to get away from standard white bread that has no nutritional value. How about making the butter fresh in the store, maybe with your kids helping out so they can learn and enjoy what is going into their lunches?
How about almond or cashew butter instead of peanut butter? Similar in taste, easier to digest, and all the nutrients.
Instead of stuffing it in a sandwich bag, how about cutting it into triangles or a large circle cutout without the crust? Anything that changes up the mundane will get a more positive response, and the more variety you can put in the box, the more likely that even picky eaters will sample and eat more. Isn’t that the purpose of the lunch box in the middle of a long day of classes, to get refueled?
Try to get your kids to like raw veggies if they don’t already. Carrot sticks, cucumber slices or sticks, or broccoli florets with dressing/dip are an “adult” sort of food for those who want to be more “grown-up” like mom and dad. Celery sticks with peanut butter or cream cheese are other options, as well as bell pepper strips, green beans, cherry tomatoes, or a green salad.
Do you have leftover chicken? Chop it into a salad or put chunks on a skewer with cheese or veggies. Corn or flour tortillas for wraps will mix things up too, or even just a roll-up of meat and cheese, like a party appetizer. The different methods of eating will also expand their world, so you don’t even need bread on some days.
How about some apple slices with cinnamon on them? A tasty snack, nutritious, and cinnamon can help hide any browning from the slices being cut hours ago. Dipping those apple slices in peanut (cashew, almond, etc.) butter is also a change from the mundane and provides energy throughout the day.
Healthy Lunch, Healthy Child
The main thing is to provide a healthy meal and to avoid the types of food that will slow down the brain and the body. Fried food is not a healthy option, and overdosing on sugar is a sure bet for creating problems with focus and behavior. Forget the bag of chips or sugary roll-ups.
Stick to the basics of protein, fat, veggies, and fruit for fiber and nutrition, and you cannot go wrong.
Making lunch components with love and thought will translate into kids that know they are loved and they will certainly be healthier for it too. If you want to go the extra step and create funny images out of the food, there are probably a lot of sites on the web to give you ideas.
If you want to make sure the lunch arrives in good shape, maybe consider an actual bento box, which will not only protect the lunch from getting crushed but can also be quite decorative and a head-turner at the new school.
Don’t forget to give them a hug and a kiss as they set off on this new journey, no matter how old they are. 🙂
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