Japanese Bento Boxes – The Mother of All Cute Food

Bento Box Cute Food


gamene's panda nugget bento - from Flickr

Darn! I completely missed my calling. I just sent my daughter off to college and only now do I discover the Japanese tradition of packing children’s lunch boxes with adorable little creatures crafted from decorated morsels of rice, cheese, meat and veggies: carrot flowers with asparagus stems, pudgy smiling rice pandas or a tiger with seaweed stripes. I guess Lila wouldn’t have put up with me making her precious lunch boxes in high school but maybe a decade before that.

I’ve always had a penchant for cute food. When I was an actress in Los Angeles, I handed casting directors my 8 by 10 glossies, accompanied by cookie versions of my face, hoping  to make a sweet and lasting impression.

One morning, about 20 years ago, when I served my husband perhaps one too many bowls of oatmeal sporting a smiling face of raisins, he gently suggested that it might be time for us to have a child who could really enjoy my cute food creations. Several years later, before Lila could even appreciate them, I was thrilled to cook up teddy bear cakes, marzipan ladybugs, fall colored chocolate leaves and back-to-school cookies (shaped like apples, rulers and pencils).

Wendy's bento box from Wendolonia

I recently met Wendy, a local mother of two,who blogs about the bento box lunches she makes for her young sons. She turned me onto Ichiban-kan, a Japanese shop in El Cerrito that sells supplies from tiny fish bottles for sauce to molds for making bunny shaped hard-boiled eggs. And further down San Pablo Avenue, I found Berkeley’s venerable Tokyo Fish Market also carries a myriad of minuscule containers, teensy vegetable cutters and bento books in their gift shop.

bento tools from Ichiban Kan and Tokyo Fish market

For inspiration, I checked out some of the many websites devoted to this art. One of my favorites is Bento Zen by “gamene,” a Manhattan lawyer who takes the time to create a daily moment of harmony in her stressful life.


gamene's rain cloud bento box from flickr

The author of Lunch in a box provides step by step directions to fabricate your own bentos, and points out that bento lunches don’t need to be exclusively for children. In fact, making attractive, portion-controlled meals in reusable containers is environmentally sound and may aid in weight control. Many Japanese adults bring or buy simple boxed lunches that don’t feature cartoon characters. Kawaii is the term for the cute versions made for kids.

In Japan, this tradition of sweet and silly food fabrication is taken quite seriously:

A typical mother spends almost an hour crafting every lunch into a healthful, beguiling blend of cartoon characters, flora and fauna — anything that will make the food appeal to her child. The teacher judges whether the lunch box is prepared according to obento rules (e.g., the food must be as handmade as possible, and it must be appetizing and aesthetically appealing to the child). — From PBS’s THE MEANING OF FOOD

I wonder if  these cute but nutritious balanced lunches have a lasting effect on Japanese children? They must. Early experiences with food are deeply embedded in our psyches. A recent SF Chronicle article reported the encouraging news that our local Berkeley Unified School Lunch Initiative does indeed help our children make healthier choices.

It’s too bad that my daughter is off at college and too old to appreciate this art. Hmmm… I wonder if my husband would like a little broccoli garden with a sleeping rice bunny with pink ham ears…

my first attempt - a Halloween bento

my second attempt - love the ham in the egg bunny's ears

About Anna Mindess

A sign language interpreter by day; a food writer by night. Endlessly fascinated by looking at the world through the eyes of different cultures -- and tasting its variety. Anna lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and daughter. Author of READING BETWEEN THE SIGNS and now a freelance writer for KQED's Bay Area Bites, Oakland Magazine and other publications.
This entry was posted in Japan and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Japanese Bento Boxes – The Mother of All Cute Food

  1. Srivalli says:

    Anna, those lunch boxes look so great. I pack my kids their lunch boxes, though I confess they aren’t so colourful..It was great meeting you..will drop in again!

    • Anna Mindess says:

      Srivalli, it was lovely meeting you too and I am impressed that you traveled all the way from India to attend the BlogHer Food conference. Now that’s dedication! I may contact you in the future if I have a question that maybe you can answer.

  2. Wow…Anna you are awesome! I am SO happy that you found these shops in the Bay Area! I will be hitting Ichiban-kan this weekend! Thanks!!!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s