When I was growing up, my mother would make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and put it in a brown paper sack along with some carrot sticks, an apple or orange, and some home-made cookies. When we moved to the suburbs the school had a lunch program. For twenty-five cents children could get a hot meal served in a war surplus Army metal divided tray. For a quarter you got a main dish like spaghetti, a salad, hot bread, fruit, dessert, and a little glass bottle of milk. All the kids loved lunch and lunchtime because the food was good, and it was a break from the classroom. Nobody threw anything away. The reason it was so cheap was that the meal was mostly made from “commodities” which the government had purchased from the farm subsidy program. Cheese, meat, chickens, eggs, butter, and produce were all part of the program, so it was possible to make a tasty meal from high quality ingredients. The other reason the lunches were so popular was that they were made by the “lunch ladies” who usually were mothers of some of the school children. Their kids were often your friends, and the cooks knew everyone’s name. In those days, nobody would dream of wasting food, especially in front of a mother who might tell your mother. Besides, the ladies would often make special treats like home-made potato chips to go with juicy hamburgers and all the trimmings.

My mom became one of those lunch ladies, and for many years she cooked meals which the children loved. Her fresh, hot rolls were famous as were her pumpkin pie and chocolate sheet cake. She loved “her children” and they loved her.

Then something happened. The commodity program shrunk dramatically. School boards across the country decided that they needed to cut payrolls and that they could provide lunches cheaper by contracting with big restaurant firms. The home-made lunches disappeared, and in their place came frozen TV-dinner-like meals that got heated up in the microwave. It was about the same time that a garbage barrel got placed at the end of cafeteria line where kids could dump their uneaten tray and head for the vending machines filled with soft drinks, corn snacks, and candy bars. It was about that time, too, when the decision was made to count ketchup as a vegetable to make sure of the “nutritional value” of the meal, and when childhood obesity began to inch up.

Now some schools have contracted with caterers who have the child choose from a menu of items that are popular with kids. The food is apparently better, but it is still not the solution to having the kids eat a healthy lunch.

In frustration, my daughter Carol decided to do something about it. Peanut butter sandwiches are often no longer allowed. Although she is not really concerned about some of the other food restrictions which have multiplied seemingly geometrically in the last few years –  mercury content of tunafish, dairy products in drinks, estrogens in soy products, gluten in bread – and on and on – she wanted to make a lunch her kids would eat, and so she turned to bento boxes.

Sarah's authentic bento box from the Kyoto train station

She picked up a copy of “The Just Bento Cookbook” by Makiko Itoh (one of this year’s top ten cookbooks on the Amazon list) and bought some bento boxes. Then she prepared this menu from the book: chicken kijiyaki, pan-steamed sweet potato, cucumber and turnip salad with lime, rice, and apple bunnies.

Carol's bento box in the morning

Being the good cook that she is, Carol made a point of seasoning the food to kid tastes and arranging it beautifully in the boxes.

Cameron's bento box in the afternoon

Ciara's bento box in the afternoon

Alas, with all that effort, she felt let down when her kids returned from school with their bento boxes in tow. Now, it’s on to another ploy to get her kids to eat a healthy lunch at school.

RECIPES (adapted from “The Just Bento Cookbook” by Makiko Itoh, published by Kodansha International, 2010)

Chicken Kijiyaki

1 chicken thigh, boned with skin on

1 Tablespoon rice wine vinegar

1 Tablespoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon sugar

  1. Pierce the skin of the chicken with a sharp fork and place it skin-side down on a hot non-stick skillet. Saute until the skin is crisp, turn over and saute the other side until done.
  2. Remove the chicken from the pan, clean the skillet with a paper towel and return the skillet to the heat. Add the mirin, soy sauce, and sugar, stirring until the sugar is melted and the sauce is hot. Return the chicken, turning it to coat it with the sauce. Remove the chicken from the pan, let it cool, slice it, and arrange it in the bento box.

Pan-steamed Sweet Potato

1 small sweet potato, peeled and sliced into 1/2 inch rounds

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon honey

  1. Arrange the sweet potato slices in a single layer in a sauce pan. Add enough water to half cover the slices. Sprinkle with salt.
  2. Bring to the boil. Then cover and reduce the heat to low. Cook for about 10 minutes or until the sweet potato slices are tender. Turn once about half way through the cooking.
  3. Drain the water from the sauce pan, drizzle honey over the slices. Then let them cool completely before packing them in the bento box.

Cucumber and Turnip Salad with Lime

1 small cucumber

1/2 turnip, peeled

1 teaspoon salt

zest of 1 lime

1/2 Tablespoon fresh lime juice

  1. Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise and slice very thin half-moons.
  2. Slice the turnip into small, thin slices and combine with the cucumber slices
  3. Rub the vegetables all over with the salt. Let stand for 10 minutes until they are limp. Then squeeze out any excess water
  4. Add the lime zest and lime juice. Place in a covered container, and refrigerate overnight

Apple Bunnies

1 ripe, red apple

juice of 1 lime

1 Cup water

  1. Cut the apple into wedges and remove the core
  2. With a sharp paring knife, score the skin of an apple with the shape of a triangle, its base at the top of the wedge
  3. Again with the sharp knife cut through the apple just below the skin on either side of the triangle
  4. Gently remove the skin from the triangle
  5. Place the carved apple in the lime juice added to the water to prevent discoloration of the cut apple and so that the “ears” curl and

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