Everything in Its Place

If you’re not already using bento boxes to pack your school lunches, here’s where to start.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Pektoral/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Yumbox.

In the spring, our toddler switched from a home day care where her meals were provided to a preschool that requires us to bring in lunch and a snack. I knew that having a child in school would mean lunch-packing, but I still panicked a little when I contemplated getting on this particular conveyor belt, remembering my own mom’s endless brown-paper-bag struggles.

Thankfully, bento boxes have fixed this problem for me. This Japanese tradition allows you to include small portions of different kinds of foods in one box featuring any number of compartments. The recent stateside availability of bento boxes has opened up a world of creative lunch-packing that my poor mother, who was extremely weary of buying snack-size Fritos bags and terrible Red Delicious apples by the time the three of us were through school, could barely have imagined.

There is a ton of advice on the parent internet about bento-box packing, but the usability of that advice varies. Some box-packers are very good at making lunches look cute, but you may not be able to see yourself cutting out heart-shaped pieces of watermelon at 7 a.m. Although it’s definitely fun to pack using adorable little picks and dip cups, a packed bento box can be very visually appealing even without the special touches—especially if you follow the tried-but-true nutritional adage “eat the rainbow” when you put it together.

I tend to use bento advice more as inspiration than recipe because I don’t really love the idea of pre-planning what I’ll put in my daughter’s “lunboxes” on a given day. That’s because the best thing about bento-box packing is its flexibility and the way it naturally integrates with the rest of our food-eating lives. The food that goes into the bento box is an extension of what’s eaten in our house. If we have leftover pasta or coleslaw from a recent dinner, in it goes. If a few crackers didn’t fit when I was transferring them into a Tupperware for storage, they can find a place in tomorrow’s snack box. Using up that little half-cup portion of yogurt left at the bottom of the jar or the partial bowl of peas that J. didn’t eat at dinner in a bento box gives me an outsize sense of satisfaction.

Relaxed approach aside, you do need some equipment. I found Yumbox while stumbling through the thriving bento-box category on Amazon, and although the purchase of my first one was basically random, I’m here now to endorse them wholeheartedly. Yumboxes have a seal in their lid that keeps each individual compartment separate, so you can pack cherries next to tortilla chips without worrying about dreaded juice creep. Their trays can go in the dishwasher (top rack), and their cases wash pretty easily in the sink. The boxes slide neatly into a small foam-padded bag (we use Wildkin’s model) along with an ice pack.

We have one lunch-size box with six compartments (the company’s “original” style) and a second meal-size one with larger compartments, for when we’re packing sandwiches or quesadillas (that’s the “Panino” style). We also have the “snack” size, which has three wells for packing apple slices, cheese, and a pile of these weird nut-free (and thus preschool-accepted!) seed snacks that my daughter adores. Search around on Amazon to find Yumbox colors and styles that you like (they’re not all visible on each page). Our favorite is our light-blue Panino box, which has cute drawings of woodland creatures in each compartment, but there are a lot of different theme options: outer space, boats and airplanes, nautical octopi-and-anchors.

If you have a little more room in your lunch-packing budget, Michele Olivier’s cookbook Little Bento is worth the addition to your cart. There’s a ton of information in the beginning of the book about the theory of bento-packing, and it also has helpful tips on nutritional proportions and serving sizes. The produce-forward recipes are tasty for adults, too, and many of them are freezer-friendly, which really helps when it comes to scaling back the lunch-packing labor that’s required each morning. I can personally endorse the recipes for beet and carrot cream cheese, seed butter cookies, and edamame coconut rice. I loved those little bags of Cheetos, Mom, but this way is definitely better.