Long-time lurker, first-time poster . . .
Our son just turned 4 and is about to start Pre-K here in New York City. He will be bringing lunch every day. We have some restrictions I haven't heard about on this topic, namely that the lunches need to be kosher-dairy, which in essence means no meat, shellfish or mollusks. Also there's a nut-free policy at the school.
I'm feeling radically behind-the-curve on the art of packing kids' school lunches with style, but I'm determined to get caught up. To that end, today I dropped in at H-Mart in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to begin the process of acquiring equipment for packing lunches. Here's what I bought today (actually, the water bottle was an earlier purchase):
I also have some egg molds (H-Mart didn't have any) and rice molds on order.
If you had told me a month ago I could have brought various molds for you!!
4 year old boy bentos are about the simplest they get. No meat and shell fish makes it a bit of a challenge, I take it fish is OK?
To start off here are some pictures of bentos I made for my son when he was 4.
For younger kids it is best to make things that can be eaten with either their hands or stabbed with a fork to avoid spills. When my kids were that age I preferred rice balls (onigiri) to rice just put in the bento. Asian markets have a variety of furikake (rice sprinkles) that can add color as well as flavor to the rice, just be sure to read the labels as they may contain meat/shellfish products. Other things I avoided at this age were corn and peas and other things that have a tendency to roll around. Thin slices of corn on the cob (about an inch or so) that have been broiled or gilled are quite good.
Whole cherry tomatoes are good but avoid cutting them at this age because the juice ends up on everything in the hands of a 4 year old. These are also a great space filler and add color to an otherwise bland looking bento.
Another simple but fancy looking bento is one with inarizushi.
You can find them in the refrigerator section of Asian markets, they look like this:
They are pre-seasoned so all you do is heat the pack in some hot water and stuff them. The directions tell you to make a sushi rice (vinegar-sugar-salt) but I never bother. One tip to stuffing them is to form the rice into an oblong piece a little smaller than the pocket and then just slide it in. You can stuff them with plain rice or get a little fancy like this:
frozen edamame are the biggest lifesaver, they take up space, they don't need any prep, they keep the bento cool and they defrost in time for lunch. I suggest always have a bag of the pre-boiled ones on hand at all times.
Most of the vegetables I used in bentos, were either leftovers from the night before or prepped the night before. For example I would just pull out as much as I wanted for the bento after either steaming or boiling and refrigerate it then season it the next morning.
With no meat/shellfish/nuts, sandwiches would be a challenge for me... but I'm assuming tuna and eggs are OK. Using cookie cutters cutting them into shapes is pretty easy.
I make little mini-omelets quite a bit, I need 2 eggs to make it so I refrigerate the leftovers and add them to the next 2 or 3 bentos as well. Omelets can have various things added to them so it seems like a different dish every time. My kids like them with a slice of nori in the middle or made with scallions and sesame oil as well as with veggies like potatoes, spinach, broccoli, peppers, not all at once though.