Sun.Star Davao, Nov. 16, 2013
One time, my college friend’s grade school child Nino lost his lunchbox in school.
However, it didn’t take long before the missing lunchbox was returned to its rightful owner. Just by checking its contents, his classmates automatically knew it was Nino’s. Why?
It’s because Nino’s themed bento “baons” have become his signature trademark. You see, the 9-year old boy is the fortunate son of a passionate and creative bento-making mom!
According to Wikipedia, bento is a “single-portion takeout or home-packed meal common in Japanese cuisine”. It can be elaborately arranged in a style called “kyaraben” (character bento) or “oekakiben” (picture bento). Japanese homemakers often spend time deliberately preparing the lunchbox of their spouse, child or for themselves.
In the Philippines, this artistic practice has caught several moms’ fancy as well.
One such mom is my Manila-based friend Moneigh who is the co-founder of Bento Mommas (BM), a bento hobby group which is comprised of five moms based in the Philippines and abroad.
The other BMs are April from the National Capital Region (NCR), whose kids are Austin, 15 and David, 6; Kaye (from NCR, with kids Alexa, 11 and Riley, 4); Mia (from Cagayan de Oro City with kids Nadine, 12; Raya, 10; Alyssa, 6; and Cerise, 3); and Olive (from the USA with kids Patricia, 23 and Iñigo, 8)
“We’ve been long-time friends — progressing from hobbies such as baking, blogging and scrapbooking memories of family milestones, and now, to doing themed lunchboxes for our kids”, shares Moneigh.
The rationale behind their group was initially just to exchange bento tips and encouragement. Now, their Facebook page has expanded to offer weekly design challenges, bento resources, and just recently, online shopping.
Via e-mail, I recently had an interview with this inspiring group of moms as they shared their bento-making experiences and tips:
Why did you decide to make bento lunches for your kids?
One of our primary reasons for getting into bento-making is to expand the food choices of our children because some of them are picky eaters, while the others have food allergies. Bento-making has helped us introduce a wider and healthier range of food choices to our kids. This, together with our fascination with the Japanese art of bento-making, got us into the hobby.
Is bento-making your creative outlet?
Definitely! The members of the group love arts and crafts. Most of us are into scrapbooking and baking, while one of us is the pioneer of customized diaper cakes in the country, so bento-making was a natural progression of our interest in all things D-I-Y.
How long does it take you to make a bento box?
Depending on the complexity of the bento design, it usually takes about 15-30 minutes to finish a bento box. What has worked for most of us is advanced food and theme planning for the week, and doing the food décor, cutting and molding the night before.
How do you choose your design/theme for the day?
Our themes are usually influenced by our kids’ favorite cartoon characters, superheroes or video games. We have also drawn up a list of weekly themes which we use as basis for our bentos. You may view photos of our weekly themed bentos via the hashtag #bentomommas and #inbentors on Instagram.
So far, what are the themes that you’ve tried in making your bentos?
Our bento “staples” are popular figures from Disney, Marvel, Nickelodeon and Sanrio. Some of our bentos are also inspired by special occasions like Halloween or Christmas, as well as current events such as the Pork Barrel issue, the FIBA and UAAP championships, and just recently, Typhoon Yolanda.
How do you balance your time in preparing bentos and going to work?
Bento-making can be a challenge especially for working moms who have to wake up really early in the morning after a long work day. But rather than be stressed about it, we actually find this hobby an exciting opportunity to exercise our creativity. Bento-making has also proven to be a wonderful venue to meet new people who share the same passion (or addiction) as ours.
We usually wake up really early—around 4 or 5 am—to prepare the bento of the day. Each bento is based on a menu we plan and shop for, at the beginning of the week. We also do some of the designing, cutting and carving the night before. While the task seems a bit overwhelming and time-consuming, to us, it is actually an excellent way to de-stress.
Where do you buy your tools/props in making your bento?
Bento-making need not be an expensive hobby. A “decent” bento can be achieved with really basic tools—i.e. just one spill-proof food container, a handful of colorful food organizers, some basic cutters, and a few decorative picks.
All these are washable and reusable. These can be sourced from Bento Mommas (http://www.facebook.com/bentomommas) which offers special bento tools and kits in small, meaningful quantities—sourced locally and abroad. Bento items can also be bought from some Japanese and baking stores found in the country.
The most important tools come dirt cheap -- free in fact. They’re called imagination, creativity and a sense of humor.
Are most food groups represented in your bento lunch?
We, Bento Mommas, usually pack bentos following the “Go, Grow and Glow” principle. This means that our kids’ lunchboxes contain a combination of any of the following:
· 1 portion of Go foods (rice, bread, pasta, corn, etc.)
· 1 portion of Grow foods (chicken, pork, beef, fish, egg, cheese etc.)
· 2 portions of Glow foods (fruits and vegetables)
We also put in a bit of cereal, chips, chocolates and gummies that serve as treats as well as accents of the bento box.
Did your bento lunches improve the way your kids eat?
Yes, it has improved our kids’ appetite and has helped them become more adventurous in their food choices. The greatest incentive of this hobby is seeing our kids’ empty lunchboxes at the end of each school day.
What do your kid’s classmates say about his/her bento lunch?
Our kids’ classmates would always crowd around to check out their “baon”. Some teachers have even taken pictures of our kids’ lunchboxes.
Interest in our themed lunches has since grown beyond the confines of our kids' classrooms. In fact, BM Kaye has already been invited to conduct workshops in a preschool and a private group of moms. We also have another workshop by BM Moneigh scheduled on November 16. Also, we've been invited to be one of the booth exhibitors at Miriam College's upcoming Family Day.
Membership of our Facebook page has also grown. From just the five of us, we now have close to 800 community members from different parts of the world who share the same love for bento making.
Some might say that nutrition should always be the priority and that themed meals are unnecessary and frivolous. However, the Bento Mommas firmly believe that achieving both nutrition and aesthetics is fun, easy and doable!
Here is a list of tools you'd need to jumpstart your bento hobby: (Source: http://nappykaye.blogspot.com)
BENTO BOX -- one that is sturdy and spill-proof. Depending on your needs, you may choose among a wide array of one or multi-tiered boxes; plain, patterned or character bento boxes. The options are limitless.
SILICON CUPS -- keep food separated (if you are using a bento box sans dividers). It is also a great way to regulate food portions.
BARANS OR FOOD DIVIDERS -- come in a variety of colors, designs, shapes and sizes. Usually in food-grade plastic or silicone, these keep food and flavors separated while adding a bit of color and flair to every bento box.
FOOD PICKS -- serve as skewers for meat, veggie and fruit morsels. They are a brilliant way to add a touch of sunshine and fun to every bento box.
SAUCE BOTTLES/CONTAINERS -- made of food-grade plastic, these serve as spill-proof containers for ketchup, mayo and other seasonings. Since they come in various shapes and designs, they also help spice up your bento-box.
RICE/ONIGIRI MOLDS -- very useful in molding rice or noodles into specific shapes like stars, hearts, bears, etc.
DECO CUTTERS – come in various shapes and sizes, these serve as cutting patterns for ham, carrots, cheese, fruits and vegetables. There are small plastic of stainless cutters specifically designed for bento-making but you may also use cookie cutters. There are also a variety of cutters that help mold bread into different shapes and sizes.
NORI PUNCHERS -- help make clean faces and details from nori sheets which may be used as décor for your rice balls and food shapes. Punchers come in different shapes as well. You can even use paper punchers or scrapbooking ones, as long as you make sure they're used exclusively for food. When using punchers for nori, you have to make sure you clean them well after each use, or else they will get dull.
HAND-HELD TOOLS SUCH AS BLADES AND TWEEZERS -- make cutting and nori-handling easier, especially when carving fruits and vegetables. Tweezers are very helpful in applying eyes and small pieces on your character bentos (“charaben” or “kyaraben”). If you have to choose just 3 hand-held tools, we suggest getting the blade; a nice, sharp pair of micro-tip scissors for cutting nori; and a handy pair of food tweezers.
CONDIMENT PENS/SQUEEZE BOTTLES -- are used for writing or drawing with sauces like mayonnaise and ketchup. The best way to control what goes into your drawing or writing is by using a condiment pen or a squeeze bottle with a fine tip
Aside from these tools, you can also stock up on egg molds, sausage shapers, hand-held hole punchers (in different sizes), small bento boxes (that can go into the bigger boxes - to hold soup), plastic wrappers, toothpicks, small spoon and fork sets, chopsticks, straws—all designed to add more flair to your bento box.
Once you have the basic tools on hand, you may start with your bento. Here are the steps:
1) Pack a bento with your desired combination of carbohydrates (rice, bread, pasta, corn, etc.), protein (chicken, pork, beef, fish, egg, etc.) and vitamins and minerals (fruits and vegetables). You may use leftovers and whatever you have in your pantry. Plan your bentos in tandem with the daily menu of the household. That way, you can be sure that you have enough food for your kids’ lunchboxes for the next school day.
2) Keep your lunchbox tightly-packed to keep food from shuffling around. You can use bilimbi or “kamias” to fill in the spaces in your bento.
3) Use photos of other bentos as inspiration. However, don't let them limit your creativity!
4) It won't hurt to collect bento tools. Hoard if you must—from the Bento Mommas online store! (“Pardon the shameless plugging!” – BM Moneigh)
For more information, you may reach Bento Mommas through their Facebook page (/bentomommas). You may also follow them on Instagram (@thebentomommas) or e-mail them at email@example.com.
All bento photos featured in the article are creations of the Bento Mommas.
E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit www.momabouttowndavao.blogspot.com.