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Bentos (2009-)


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#1 Peter the eater

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Posted 07 February 2009 - 04:58 PM

[Moderator note: The original Bentos topic became too large for our servers to handle efficiently, so we've divided it up; the preceding part of this discussion is here: Bentos (2003-2008)]

 

 

I'm now much more informed and rather well outfitted with a ton of bento accessories, thanks for your help Erin, and the kids are loving it. Here's some photographic evidence of happy children:

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That was an hour ago, the shot looks weird not because of Photoshop editing but because the batteries were failing - another new experience.

Here are my current impressions of bento:

1. Creative potential is immense
2. Logical use of leftovers
3. Total control over portion size and content
4. You get out of it what you put into it, like everything else in life

I'm sure I'll come up with some ill-informed questions soon, thanks in advance Kris, Helen, Hiroyuki, Nakji, et.al.


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I just made a cornish game hen with chestnut stuffing. . .
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#2 helenjp

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Posted 07 February 2009 - 06:43 PM

Nakji, I really like the idea of adding a sour note to soboro! Meat stirfried with finely pickles (takuan, takana-zuke) is quick and good, but I hadn't thought of taking that approach to soboro. Thanks!

Peter, happy bento-ing! I figure one reason why Japanese bento have become popular even though there are many "cooked packed lunch" traditions in the world is the use of shallow containers, dividers etc. that make food easy to eat and add visual variety, and the generally un-sloppy nature of bento food.

Without the theater-going "maku-no-uchi" bento culture of giving lunchboxes a sense of fun and occasion (and also making them weapons of social one-upmanship!) maybe the modern everyday bento would never have become so eclectic. But the groundwork is all there...the extremely uniform nature of kindergartens, schools, and workplaces belying the intense competition underneath...how could a good Japanese wife and mother NOT use the lunchbox to either demonstrate what "regular guys" her husband and kids are, or conversely to cut them out from the herd!

It makes me laugh when I see the uniformity of the choices in my sons' different bento-environments - at one school, the lunchboxes are all the latest...at another school, bringing anything but a flat aluminum box is bragging...

#3 Peter the eater

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Posted 07 February 2009 - 07:53 PM

Helen, I'm beginning to understand the potential of a well-packed bento. A parent could really make a statement.

My kids love the toy factor -- little bits with faces, mini-this, kitty-that. I'm just happy to give them something without a Disney Princess.

Question: I've scanned the 12 pages of this topic but I don't know (or missed) if there's a refrigerated bento tradition - something to be consumed just above freezing. I know I like the room temperature stuff, I just wonder if there's protocol for the chilly dishes.

Edited by Peter the eater, 07 February 2009 - 08:02 PM.

Peter Gamble aka "Peter the eater"

I just made a cornish game hen with chestnut stuffing. . .
Would you believe a pigeon stuffed with spam? . . .
Would you believe a rat filled with cough drops?

Moe Sizlack

#4 helenjp

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Posted 07 February 2009 - 08:42 PM

Refrigerated bento :shock:!

No, because it's supposed to be freshly made...if you use leftovers, they are supposed to be re-seasoned and re-cooked. This is mostly a nod to the climate, and partly another chance for one-upmanship. E.g. getting up at 4 am to make Sports Day bento is more worthy than getting up at 5 am.

It's interesting - the idea of chilling food is quite new, even from the point of view of hygiene - some schools now get kids to put their bento bags out in the corridor, which is a little cooler than a sunny classroom, yet there were bento WARMERS in many kindergartens. Thermos lunchboxes are almost never used to keep things cool in summer, only for winter use.

Much of East Asia regards chilled food as reprehensible anyway, don't you think?

Also, the use of agar jellies and rarity of milk desserts such as custards means that refrigeration is less of an issue. I don't usually send fruit other than grapes or tangerines to school, but cut fruit soaked briefly in salted cold water before packing is quite common. The little subcontainers are very handy to set an agar jelly in (I like a product called Ina-aga A, which contains agar plus konnyaku mannan, but I bet that vegetarian jelly mixes from India and elsewhere would be similar, and would also set without refrigeration).

If you include squares of agar gel with fruit salads, or strips of soaked agar (thread type) or harusame (cellophane noodles) in vegetable dishes, the extra moisture creates a cooling effect when eaten.

#5 Hiroyuki

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Posted 07 February 2009 - 10:44 PM

When you talk about conbini bento (bento sold at conveniece stores in Japan), all bento are refrigerated.
The main problem with refrigerated bento is that the main component, rice, tastes bad when refrigerated.

#6 Hiroyuki

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Posted 07 February 2009 - 11:11 PM

As I wrote here in my blog, for me, bento making is to 1) make as many preparations the day before as possible (make supper the day before by considering what to put in the bento box the next morning) and 2) get up 30 minutes earlier than usual to make additional dishes, if required, assemble the food items into the bento box, and make onigiri (my children prefer onirigi to rice in a bento box). I must say I really don't enjoy making bento. :sad:

#7 helenjp

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Posted 08 February 2009 - 06:27 AM

Come to think of it, considering that most convenience store bento are eaten chilled, it's surprising how little affect that seems to have on the choice of side-dishes. Maybe there are more soft and creamy dishes like Japanese-style potato salad, or mayonnaise-dressed burdock root etc., but rock-hard deep fries are common!

Hiroyuki, do you think your children find onigiri faster to eat than plain rice?

I pack plain rice for my family, because my pickle-loving husband has been warned to reduce his salt intake, and I'm afraid to use really salty (and tasty!) fillings for onigiri, or too much furikake (salty sprinkles).

As for the hassle...about twice a year, I calculate how many years of bento-making lie ahead, to the month! :laugh:

#8 Hiroyuki

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Posted 08 February 2009 - 06:43 AM

Come to think of it, considering that most convenience store bento are eaten chilled, it's surprising how little affect that seems to have on the choice of side-dishes. Maybe there are more soft and creamy dishes like Japanese-style potato salad, or mayonnaise-dressed burdock root etc., but rock-hard deep fries are common!

Hiroyuki, do you think your children find onigiri faster to eat than plain rice?

I pack plain rice for my family, because my pickle-loving husband has been warned to reduce his salt intake, and I'm afraid to use really salty (and tasty!) fillings for onigiri, or too much furikake (salty sprinkles).

As for the hassle...about twice a year, I calculate how many years of bento-making lie ahead, to the month! :laugh:

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You don't ask the clerk to reheat your conbini bento?

Yes! My children, especially my son, are rather slow eaters, but when they have onigiri, they can have them much faster!

#9 nakji

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Posted 11 February 2009 - 03:30 AM

Hiroyuki, is speed of eating an important factor in your children's lunches? How long do they get for their lunch period?


Peter, I'm glad to see the bentos are off to a roaring start. What did you put into the boxes?

Nakji, I really like the idea of adding a sour note to soboro! Meat stirfried with finely pickles (takuan, takana-zuke) is quick and good, but I hadn't thought of taking that approach to soboro. Thanks!


I'm happy to pay you back in some small fashion, after all the valuable knowledge you've sent my way. :smile:

#10 Hiroyuki

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Posted 11 February 2009 - 03:47 AM

Hiroyuki, is speed of eating an important factor in your children's lunches? How long do they get for their lunch period?


Peter, I'm glad to see the bentos are off to a roaring start. What did you put into the boxes?

Nakji, I really like the idea of adding a sour note to soboro! Meat stirfried with finely pickles (takuan, takana-zuke) is quick and good, but I hadn't thought of taking that approach to soboro. Thanks!


I'm happy to pay you back in some small fashion, after all the valuable knowledge you've sent my way. :smile:

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I have never asked my children about the period, and even if I ask, I don't think they can give me the correct answer. I would say that the lunch time is 20 to 30 minutes or maybe less. That depends.

#11 prasantrin

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Posted 11 February 2009 - 03:54 AM

At the junior high/high school I work at, lunch is from 12:35 to 1:20, though officially the bell rings at 1:10, and then they have 10 minutes to get their stuff put away and be ready for the next class (never happens, though, and they're sometimes still munching away when the next class starts). They also have a 15 minute break from 10:40 to 10:55 when they can eat. A lot of students eat at least part of their lunch then, because many commute long distances (2+ hours), and also many of them have lunchtime meetings for various committees, and they can't eat during those. If they miss recess and lunch, they can't eat until after their short homeroom ends (sometime after 3:00 pm). It can be a very long and hungry day for some of my students.

#12 nakji

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Posted 12 February 2009 - 08:50 AM

If they miss recess and lunch, they can't eat until after their short homeroom ends (sometime after 3:00 pm). It can be a very long and hungry day for some of my students.


Wow, that doesn't really seem like a lot of time set aside for eating. I hope they're getting sturdy breakfasts at home. :unsure:

Posted Image

The remains of the karaage went into today's bento, along with some odds and sods from the fridge. I got a whopping great bunch of spinach from the local allotment, so that was steamed with a bit of sesame, and folded into the egg as well. The pickles were really grand - can anyone tell me the name of these? And how are they made purple?

#13 Hiroyuki

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Posted 12 February 2009 - 02:38 PM

The pickles were really grand - can anyone tell me the name of these? And how are they made purple?

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Shiba zuke (しば漬け, 紫葉漬け), I suppose. The color? Aka jiso (red perilla)

#14 melonpan

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Posted 27 February 2009 - 11:32 AM

i just read about kids getting "bento days"; the parents get a break and the kids learn to be a bit more appreciative about the hard work! sounds like a win win. a quote from the article i read today "A significant decrease was subsequently noted in the amount of food left over from regular school lunches."

:-)
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#15 helenjp

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Posted 03 March 2009 - 09:32 PM

Hmmm son1's high school lunch break is from 12:30 to 13:15. A warning bell rings at 13:10, and classes start from 13:15. Morning classes start at 08:40 and run without a break until lunch...you have to be a fast operator to get a bite in between classes.

The short lunch breaks in Japanese schools have a lot to do with the high percentage of lunches brought from home.

The school store sells stationery supplies, and only very basic foods - instant cup noodles, and very basic onigiri and packs of 2 sandwiches...not really a lunch service.

There is no cafeteria, and apparently most kids think that lunch break is not long enough to run to the nearest convenience store to buy a bento. But it is long enough to skip lunch and catch a train to Akihabara and back! :raz:

#16 MomOfLittleFoodies

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Posted 03 March 2009 - 09:45 PM

Hmmm son1's high school lunch break is from 12:30 to 13:15. A warning bell rings at 13:10, and classes start from 13:15. Morning classes start at 08:40 and run without a break until lunch...you have to be a fast operator to get a bite in between classes.

The short lunch breaks in Japanese schools have a lot to do with the high percentage of lunches brought from home.


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That's not too different from here in California. My 6 and 9 year olds are in elementary school, get a 45 minute lunch break, but only 20 minutes in which to eat their lunch... the other 25 minutes are for playground time, although slow eaters are allowed to stay in the cafeteria and finish their lunches.

My 11 year old son is in middle school, and only gets a half hour lunch break. The local high school only has a 35 minute lunch break.

40 minutes isn't bad, especially for kids who have brought their lunches from home.
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#17 Domestic Goddess

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Posted 04 March 2009 - 03:35 AM

I will be joining the bento making moms since I just bought a Sesame Stree bento lunch box set for my son. He brings his own lunch since he cannot handle the korean lunch provided by the school. Lunches are offered free in my son's school but since it is korean (which translates as always spicy), he cannot eat it. My son has a delicate digestive system (congenital) and have always packed a sandwich to eat for lunch.

I bought him the bento set so he can bring a more varied lunch with rice and meat. This also means I have to wake up 30 minutes earlier to fix his bento lunch for him. Now I need to stock up on lunchable items for his bento.
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#18 nakji

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Posted 03 April 2009 - 06:35 AM

Is it o-hanami time again? The years just fly by.

This year, we planned for an early party, and barely saw any blossoms at all! We did eat well, though.

Posted Image

I made this vegetarian, European-inspired box for some foreign friends - fresh vegetables, bean spread, cheese, olives, and Marcella's pickled eggplants. I had crusty bread on the side for making open-faced sandwiches.

Then two slightly more Japanese style boxes:

Posted Image

With karaage, potato salad, aspara-pork rolls, more fresh veg, and rakkyo/cucumber pickle skewers, which bemused my Japanese friends. They brought along onigiri to supplement, since I was too chicken to make onigiri for Japanese people. :sad:

My husband's Japanese teacher gave him a really super excellent bottle of nama-sake from Kyoto for his birthday, which we brought along as liquid refreshment. It was exceptionally smooth and delicious -dangerously like water.

#19 Fat Guy

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Posted 29 August 2009 - 07:02 PM

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):

Posted Image

I also have some egg molds (H-Mart didn't have any) and rice molds on order.

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#20 mizducky

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Posted 30 August 2009 - 11:00 AM

I've often checked out this thread because I find everything about bentos fascinating, but have never tried making one myself -- only experienced storebought ones. However, now I'm returning to school (continuing education, partly for immediate resume-buffing in this current economic downturn, partly to explore new career options more in line with where my heart is) and will be spending Tuesday and Thursday on campus from about 8:30am to 6:45pm. The campus has a cafeteria and snackbars and all that, but I will burn a hole in my wallet--and probably also my gut--if I depend on them.

So--guess it's going to be bento-making time for me! Which may endear me to the instructor of one of my classes: Japanese 101. :biggrin: Though she might be way dismayed at a lot of the Western foods I might put in there -- I'm thinking my Cali-mex style black beans/brown rice would be good. :laugh:

My immediate concern is coming up with foods and techniques to keep my bento from spoiling--even if I choose foods that normally require no refrigeration, the temperatures are currently getting up to 97 F/36 C here in Southern California, and there's no place for me to stow my food during the day except for the trunk of my (sweltering) car. I'm thinking taking it with me rather than leaving it in the car, and slipping a simple cold pack in next to the plastic container, as I saw nakji was doing way back in this thread, will do the trick.

#21 heidih

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Posted 30 August 2009 - 02:46 PM

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.


Those are some cute items you posted a picture of. I am sure they will survive "kid approval". My son asked for bento style lunch when he was eating lunch with Japanese children. Since I was not sure if it was a passing fad, I went a low budget route and got various compartmentalized containers at the Marukai 98 cent store. With young children there is also the issue of the containers never arriving back home..... A favorite one which I just sold at a garage sale 10 years later was a round outer clear plastic & lid with 4 primary colored pie shaped inserts. I usually did fruit in one, cubed cheese or dry sausage (which I know you can not do) in another, crackers or rice or noodles in another, and baby carrots or other veg in the 4th. I also bought those adorable mini plastic bottles shaped like fish and pigs with tiny screw tops for soy sauce. The liners that look like cupcake tin liners are also really nice in non-divided containers to separate things. I started giving him cute plastic re-usable utensils, but those tended not to return home, so we went to chopsticks. In his school they were not considered "zero tolerance weapons", thank goodness. Quizzing him about the contents of his friends boxes I heard tales of egg cakes cut in cubes, and many rice balls.

#22 Katie Meadow

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Posted 30 August 2009 - 03:13 PM

When my daughter was little she used to be pretty happy with a low-tech bento type lunch. Edamame was a staple, since it was one of the few vegetables she liked, along with baby carrots. She liked sticky white rice (sometimes with a bit of rice vinegar in it like sushi rice), room temp, and I would spritz it with soy sauce. I could add a bit of flaked leftover salmon and that was usually good. She would even eat a little canned tuna mixed in with it. She also liked cold noodles, either udon or soba, with a simple soy sauce/vinegar dressing and later, when she could tolerate a bit of punch, I would add a just a little Jade Szechuan peanut sauce. Those were the days before peanut products were outlawed on school grounds. At some point in elementary school she had conquered chopsticks and that was always fun to take to school. Not considered a weapon then.

#23 torakris

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Posted 30 August 2009 - 06:04 PM

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):

Posted Image

I also have some egg molds (H-Mart didn't have any) and rice molds on order.

View Post


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.

Posted Image

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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:
Posted Image
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:

Posted Image

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. :biggrin:

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.

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#24 Fat Guy

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Posted 30 August 2009 - 06:12 PM

Fish is within guidelines, but bear in mind this is America. If a kid busts out something that smells fishy, it's not considered normal and the other kids give you grief. So I've pretty much ruled out most fish items at least at the beginning.

Another thing that may differ from standard procedure in Asia is storage. At my son's school, and I'm led to believe this is not unusual here, the lunch bags are taken from the kids in the morning and put in a refrigerator, then brought out at lunchtime. So frozen items may not defrost as well as in an unrefrigerated situation. This may require some different calculations when it comes to using frozen items. It also means anything in the lunch has to be palatable at near-refrigerator temperature.

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#25 Katie Meadow

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Posted 30 August 2009 - 06:25 PM

I never made anything that pretty! Those paper cupcake things are so sweet. I was a terrible mother! Oh well, when my kid became a surly teenager I didn't regret spending so little energy making beautiful bento boxes. Oh, but wait, maybe she would have been been less surly if I had.....nah!

I eat a lot edamame, so I usually had some in the fridge that had already been cooked. They were fine by lunch (not refrigerated at my kid's school I'm sure) and would be perfect at your kid's school, FG. And I suspect a small amount of flaked fish wouldn't have much smell if it was not only refrigerated but mixed with cold rice with a little soy sauce. And as for fishy, well, don't lots of kids still eat tuna sandwiches? Without pb & j and tuna sandwiches I would have torn my hair out.

#26 Fat Guy

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Posted 30 August 2009 - 06:40 PM

I don't know for sure what the other kids eat, because school doesn't start for a couple of weeks. But it does seem that, in general, tuna is a socially acceptable fish here. However, the aromas of lunch stay with the kids. I remember in my grade school there was a kid who ate a lot of egg salad, and he smelled like egg salad for the rest of the day after lunch. This made him an object of ridicule.

There are about a million things I can pack for lunch. Once everything that needs to be ruled out gets ruled out, there are probably still a hundred thousand choices. So I'm not all that concerned about losing fish.

These are some of the ideas I've accumulated for components of bento-type lunches, thanks to eG Forums topics and discussions with friends and family:

Hard-cooked egg - as mentioned above, I've got some egg molds on order
Yogurt - the selection of individual servings of yogurt at the average American supermarket is staggering
Pasta salads - there are a lot of variants here; today I experimented with making pesto without pine nuts (I substituted toasted pumpkin seeds) and it was well received
Hummus - this is an ingredient with a lot of potential uses, both as a sandwich filling and as a dip with chips or vegetables
Little balls of mozzarella with cherry tomatoes
Sandwiches - even without meat and fish, there are a lot of sandwich options; sunflower-seed butter is a good substitute for peanut butter, and there are a lot of sandwiches that can be built around cheese -- also as you can see from some posts on this topic, the art of cutting and decorating sandwiches is a whole area unto itself
Rice - I'm going to have to learn to make rice balls and other sushi-like things; I'm looking forward to that
Fritatta
Omelet over rice
Cold sesame noodles - working on a recipe with no peanuts
Tofu - there is surely a lot of potential here
Tortellini - this works well cold
Vietnamese-style summer rolls - had these for dinner tonight and they got a good review; have to generate a peanut-free dipping sauce, though

I'm sure that's just the beginning of a list. Of course that list doesn't include all the side stuff that can round out the meal: fruit, cheese and crackers, etc.

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#27 nakji

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Posted 31 August 2009 - 05:17 AM

Rice - I'm going to have to learn to make rice balls and other sushi-like things; I'm looking forward to that


A note on the rice balls - refrigerated rice balls can get pretty hard and unpalatable. They might survive refrigeration better if you use sushi or seasoned rice. Or, as you can see above, Torakris has packed hers, probably while the rice was still a little warm, by wrapping them in plastic wrap. The moisture seems to help keep the rice from getting too hard.

I made my first bento in four months today - the first day of school! Mine was red curry, rice, and pickles packed into a thermal set.

#28 Fat Guy

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Posted 31 August 2009 - 05:49 AM

As a demonstration of how little I know about rice balls, I'll note that I assumed until now that they were always made out of sushi rice.

Refrigeration also, needless to say, defeats thermal sets and such.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)


#29 Lori D

Lori D
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Posted 31 August 2009 - 09:12 AM

Vietnamese-style summer rolls - had these for dinner tonight and they got a good review; have to generate a peanut-free dipping sauce, though

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The wrappers used for those dry out pretty quickly. Unless you make them in the morning, not a good option.

#30 Fat Guy

Fat Guy
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Posted 31 August 2009 - 11:49 AM

I'm blessed with a propensity for early rising, so my plan is to do most of this stuff in the morning prior to departure. That being said, I have two summer rolls from yesterday that I refrigerated overnight and they seem to be in pretty good shape at the moment.

Today we did a trial run where I served PJ his lunch in the same containers he'll be taking to school. Pasta salad on one side, cheese and crackers on the other, fruit in a separate container. I took a photo but can't post it until later due to transient technical issues. He seemed to handle it well, even intuitively closing all the containers back up at the conclusion of the meal.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)