Itadakemasu!—literally, “Humbly I receive”—my children, Katie (11) and Andy (9), and I were taught to say this before enjoying a meal in Japan. Each summer, my family spends a month in Japan with my in-laws, trying to connect our children to their Japanese roots. I’m the American half of our Japanese-American family, and one way I like to learn about my husband’s language and culture is through food. Though I plead guilty to bringing along a small suitcase full of American comfort foods—instant oatmeal, macaroni and cheese, etc.—I do spend a lot of quality time in the kitchen with my mother-in-law and several of my Japanese mommy friends. It was while in the kitchen with my friend Minako that I learned the art of making obento (boxed meal).
Before Minako came over to give me my obento lesson, I was feeling pretty smug. Although most Japanese consider Americans to be unhealthy eaters, thanks in part to our large bodies and penchant for fast food, Minako had already witnessed that, yes, my children do eat vegetables, and that not everything has to be deep-fried. Still, by the end of that first lesson, it wasn’t the content of my children’s lunches that embarrassed me but their packaging.
Pre-obento, I was the Queen of Plastic Baggies. In one baggie went the tuna-salad sandwich with cucumber slices on whole-wheat bread, and into another went perfectly cubed pieces of Cheddar cheese. Into yet another baggie went slices of apple. Even the 100 percent fruit juice came in a baggie-like pouch. The lunches were healthy for my kids, but not for Mother Earth.
THE RIGHT TOOLS AND SUPPLIES
In Japan, obento sets come in a wide array of colors, shapes, and designs. Until recently, though, Americans could buy obento sets only in Asian specialty stores, or online. Now that the US is becoming greener, manufacturers are finally answering the call. Today, you can find many plastic, and a few metal, obento sets online, and in many mass-merchandise stores; some moms prefer to send their kids to school with lunch containers of tempered glass. Once you’ve found your boxes, add a melon baller, some canapé cutters, a cute rice press, and a healthy dose of imagination, and you’re ready to start playing with your food!
Next, gather your lunch-making supplies. Traditional obento boxes follow the 4:3:2:1 Rule: 4 parts rice, 3 parts protein, 2 parts vegetable, and 1 part treat.
While most American moms would be happy just to be able to balance the 4:3:2:1 ratio, Japanese moms go one step further: presentation. A Japanese obento lunch not only tastes good, it’s visually appealing. Japanese moms strive to include in every lunch something green, something yellow, and something red. Try throwing a handful of cherry tomatoes or a few slices of kiwi into your child’s lunch to both liven it up and give it a nutritional punch. Along with color, Japanese moms are also conscious of texture and taste—fruits and vegetables are a great way to wake up the taste buds after a ho-hum peanut-butter sandwich.
As if that weren’t enough, some Japanese moms make their obento into culinary masterpieces. They shape rice and cut nori (seaweed paper) into popular cartoon characters, carve fruit into animals, and use canapé cutters to make carrots that look like mini flowers. But while the results are beautiful, I just don’t have that kind of time.
Instead, I cheat. I cut crustless sandwiches into triangles worthy of a tea party. I use a melon baller on fresh cantaloupe, then impale the perfect spheres with cartoon-themed fruit picks. I use the serrated V-end of my melon baller to make “dinosaur eggs” out of kiwis. I press rice into cat-shaped molds and add a fringe of nori whiskers.
If I have time. If not, at least the food is healthy, and the obento boxes have cute designs on them—far more appealing than any plastic baggie, that’s for sure.
DON’T REINVENT THE WHEEL
Of course! You can create great lunches without reinventing the wheel. I frequently work on lunch while I’m making dinner. Cutting up carrots for a dinner salad? Place a few to the side, and add a tiny container of ranch dressing for tomorrow’s lunch. Cook an extra chicken breast with dinner and whip up some chicken salad. Making (or buying) sushi for dinner? Make a few extra with a different topping. Before you add sauce to the dinner pasta, scoop out a few spoonfuls, then add a little Italian dressing and some veggies for a quick pasta salad.
And feel free to cheat. For weeks that are crazier than usual, I buy healthy convenience foods: baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, cheese cubes, yogurt-covered raisins, cans of mandarin oranges and pineapple tidbits, etc. Even on superbusy nights, I can still make my “Handful Lunch”—handfuls of pretzels, cheese cubes, and slices of turkey pepperoni thrown into one box, a handful of blueberries into another—faster than I can go through a checkout line at the supermarket with a prepackaged “convenience” lunch.
8 OBENTO LUNCHES EVEN YOU CAN MAKE
- PB&J sandwich, crust off and cut in triangles
- carrot sticks with low-fat ranch dressing
- green grapes and strawberries
- Andy’s South-of-the-Border Special
- refried beans sprinkled with Cheddar cheese (in a microwavable container)
- pico de gallo or extra-chunky salsa
- blue-corn tortilla chips
- orange slices
The Oops-We-Overslept Lunch
- sliced ham roll-ups
- handful of pretzels
- Colby Jack cheese wedges
- 1 whole Granny Smith apple
- mini-bagel with strawberry cream cheese
- walnuts (aka “Brain Nuts”)
- kiwi halves to scoop out with a spoon
- chunks of ham and pineapple made into a kebab
- taro or sweet-potato chips
- tapioca pudding
Traditional Japanese Obento
- “octopus” sausages
- edamame (boiled green soybeans)
- pressed-rice shapes
- yellow apple bunnies
- mugicha (barley tea) or green tea
Gluten-Free, Casein-Free Obento
- turkey roll-ups
- corn chips with chunky salsa
- mango chunks with green grapes
- 100 percent fruit juice
- pita bread and hummus
- broccoli and grape tomatoes
- fresh pineapple chunks
- soy milk
Sara Fujimura, her husband, Toshi, and their kids, Katie and Andy, live in Arizona. Sara’s work has appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul: A Tribute to Moms (Health Communications, 2008) and in many other regional and national publications.