Sunday, February 27, 2011

Character Box Lunches

My daughter is taking a culinary class at school, and one of her homework assignments was to make up a mini-cookbook with recipes and photos of some food she's prepared. She decided to write up one for bento boxes, which lead to a shopping expedition and cooking mini-marathon. Because she's never made a bento box (and neither have I) I was a bit worried at first, but soon discovered it's easy and a lot of fun.

Basically a bento box (or more properly, an obento) is a healthy, homemade lunch that Japanese moms make for their kids. It's also an art form, because the moms shape, decorate and garnish the food to resemble little critters, fairytale creatures and other adorable things. If it's almost too cute to eat, it belongs in a bento box.

Here are some shots of my girl's first finished bento box (click any image to see larger version):


I think she did pretty well for her first attempt. And I didn't help her at all in the kitchen; now that she's a culinary student she's got to wing it solo (and did fine, all the way through to cleaning up after herself.)

Earlier this month I bought a copy of Yum-Yum Bento Box by Crystal Watanabe and Maki Ogawa, which is a fantastic how-to cookbook filled with recipes, tips, ideas, techniques and lots of information about the different types of Japanese foods used for bento boxes. In the intro, the authors mentioned that kids and grownups like to make character-driven bento boxes, which are called charaben or kyaraben. For example, if you want to do a Goldilocks and the Three bears bento, you shape the faces of a little girl and three bears out of the food (there's a cute recipe for this one in the book, too.)

The writer in me immediately jumped on this idea and began thinking of how I'd make a character-driven meal for one of my stories. I wouldn't try to shape the food into any sort of physical representation (too much temptation to do something other than a face) but I know I could put together an assortment of foods and treats that I've used in my stories or that remind me of certain characters. I'd love to do a bento with what I imagine a Jorenian box lunch would be like, too -- some breakfast bread, candied flowers, herbal tea, lots of berries laced with cream . . . God, I hate dieting.

If you're looking for new ways to get to know your characters and/or your stories, you might try putting together a character-driven bento box (or any kind of meal, for that matter.) This would also be something fun to do if you take your lunch to work or plan to do something writing outdoors.


  1. The little plastic swords are a great touch. Fun food artistry!

  2. How clever! She did a great job!

  3. Those boxes look so delicious, maybe that´s an idea to get more creative about lunch, huh? :-)

  4. Heh, i love the little hot-dog-octos!!
    She did a fantastic job!

  5. stephenia10:24 AM

    Great job - I lived in Okinawa Japan for 5-6 years and loved browsing through their supermarkets, they usually had a section of premade lunch food like the bentos. And everything is packaged so beautifully over there.

  6. Stephanie St. Clair10:54 AM

    She did a great job! I've seen pictures of bento boxes, but have never tried one of my own. :-)

  7. This is the best description of a bento box I've seen. And she did a fabulous job of it. Too cute. Thank you. I want to know how she put eyes on the octodogs? Because if you're missing Sharpie...


  8. Food Boxes, great.
    That really makes me think about characters. What would they choose? How do you decide what they eat? Do you feel it? Do you make it up?

    Nahno ∗ McLein

  9. Your daughter's bento box is so cute. Don't you envy the child that gets one daily?

    When my children packed lunches I used to draw pictures and write stories on the bags. They complained that everyone wanted to read the bags before they'd finished their lunch.

  10. Those are fantastic - your daughter seems to have a flair for that. I'm also impressed by the variety of foods she included as well as the clever presentation.

    These bento boxes are very cool, but dang, another example of how I've earned another big fat fail as a mom because I struggle to pack lunches for my kids. Finding healthy foods that they will actually eat and not dump in the trash, that are "1000% nut free", and that will survive both unrefrigerated and bounced around in a backpack gives me a headache every morning. I'd love to do these bento boxes but I fear that challenge would drive me that last mile to the loony bin.

  11. My two youngest boys have been using bento boxes for their school lunches for two years now. It keeps them excited about eating a healthy packed lunch from home!


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