Speed bento tips from a busy American mom

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This is a guest post by Amy Vander Vorste of Avlor’s Imprints.

Are you sure you don’t have time to plan or pack a lunch? Speed tips are here to the rescue!

Bentos are “the in thing” in lunches right now and for good reason! They provide a great way to pack a nutritious meal while providing reasonable portions.

As an American mom, I was frustrated at what our school was providing as a “healthy” lunch. I love our elementary school, but I don’t have an ounce of affection for the lunch program. I’ll spare you the details - but lunches are 9 times out of 10 full of highly processed food. Milk is also pushed - but not just plain milk. There’s strawberry, chocolate, and cookies-and-cream sweetened versions. Yipes! I hope you find it as humorously ironic as I did that the school district sent home reminders that a pop, chips and a cookie don’t constitute a good lunch.

I want better for my children who need to learn and pay attention in school. Last year my son’s teacher mentioned to me that my son was having troubles paying attention in class. After I started packing nutritious lunches, my son’s attention problems virtually disappeared. Quality food may not be the answer for all attention problems, but it’s helped us tremendously! Squeezing time in to make a lunch is essential for my family.

I wondered how my son would handle taking lunches that are different from the ones his friends have. But he’s enjoying it and even asks to take chopsticks. His quote, “It’s awesome!” There’s positive attention over his lunches (and the chopsticks) from his classmates, and not much of the negative “Eww is that broccoli?” He’s becoming very conscious of what is good for him and what is not. Could a mom be more proud?

A Reusable List: A Month’s Worth of Lunches

Now that school is in session, life is speeding up for many parents. I’m now having to transport my two kids to preschool and elementary. This takes an extra two hours out of my day. Parents like me must be extremely efficient in order to get anything done!

One of the smartest things I did this fall was to make a reusable list of a month’s worth of lunch plans for my son. I always have the option to change the list. But there’s also a plan for good lunches ready to go everyday!

Each week I print one week from my premade list and compare it to my week’s evening meal plan. If there are leftovers suitable for bento lunches or I know I’ll have time to cook something special, I’ll add those to the lunch plan.

I use the Excel spreadsheet version of Maki’s Weekly Bento Planner. The main sheet is copied 4 times with different plans on each page. For inspiration I used recipes here on Just Bento and a version of Quick-Reference Lunch Ideas at Laptop Lunches that I modified for my family’s tastes.

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My bentos are pretty Americanized, simply because I buy what I can find here in a small town in the Midwest. Over the last few years the variety has been improving and I can find things like sticky rice in the local grocery stores. I stock up on cool stuff like miso paste when we visit relatives in Seattle or I buy it online.

We like to try new things though and have been slowly easing into trying more Japanese foods. Both of my children like sushi and my parents are convinced we’re crazy for liking anything with raw fish!

My favorite Just Bento recipe for tucking into lunches is Potato Oyaki.

Now lunch planning and making the grocery list for lunches takes me 5 minutes a week. It’s that simple and the original plan took me about 45 minutes.

More Tips for Busy and Budget Minded Parents

Need to keep a 2 tier bento cold and your box isn’t one of those fancy ones that can be frozen? Put your must stay cold items in the top compartment (if there is more than one layer to your box). If there is more than one lid, leave the very top lid off the box and use a bento band to strap a reusable icepack to the top. (True confessions: I just broke down and bought one of the Gel-Cool boxes with the spiffy freezable lid the other day. Because it’s deeper, I found it easier to pack than my other boxes.)

Ice packs making your lunch bags or backpacks wet? I put the frozen icepacks in unfrozen plastic bags. It helps keep the moisture that condenses on the icepack off other things. It’s not perfect, but it does pretty well.

Buy in “Bulk” or save leftovers and freeze portions so they are ready to defrost when you need them. Very small Rubbermaid and Lock-N-Lock containers are perfect for this.

About the author

Amy Vander Vorste is a stay at home mom and Japan-o-phile, who enjoys writing her blog Avlor’s Imprints. The blog is focused on tutorials for Etsy shop owners. She’s also the owner of the Etsy stores Ojami, which features Japanese inspired designs including bento bags and bands, and Avlor’s Imprints where she sells gift tags, sew-in labels, and stationery.

For more bento recipes, ideas and tips, subscribe to Just Bento via your newsreader or by email (more about subscriptions).

And visit our sister site, Just Hungry for great Japanese home recipes and more.

4 comments

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Re: Speed bento tips from a busy American mom

Great post! You make me want to have kids to make them bentos!! Maybe I should stock on cute bento boxes while I'm in Japan!!

Re: Speed bento tips from a busy American mom

I don't have kids, but I remember my lunches from school. I have to say that it irks me how some schools think as long as the food groups are represented in some form, it's a healthy lunch--but, then, the portions are way offer and the food has waaay too many preservatives or sugar is added to make everything better.

I second the notion that I want kids just so I could pack them a proper bento. ;)

Re: Speed bento tips from a busy American mom

Haha, great article :)
Having just graduated from High School and escaped the "healthy, well-balanced meals" like pizza, chicken patties, and hot-dogs that can bounce span of a football field (with no veggies, but occasionally canned fruit), I completely understand your incentive to pack healthy lunches for your kids! I made bentos every day and I felt way healthier than I used to. I can't make bentos here in college, but at least I can choose between a highly processed chicken casserole and the salad bar!

Excellent idea.

The month's lunch menu is an awesome idea. And it looks similar to what the cafeteria does at school.

BTW those flavored milks? They may be low-fat. But they all contain high fructose corn syrup.

I tried drinking one at school last week and I just about gagged. I haven't had HFCS since May and after 5 months off the stuff I couldn't stand the taste of it.

I've been brownbagging/bentoing my lunch since the week before labor day. While I haven't noticed an improvement in my attention span or energy level, the savings in my wallet is allowing me to purchase better quality ingredients, I.E. organic, cage free, grass fed, free range, etc.

Hmm. I may have to look into a gel cool box as I find depth a problem also.

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