Forget the Balanced Meal, I’m Making My Kid a Snack Buffet

How I make the bento box work for me, and not the other way around.

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Bento snack box for child's school lunch
Photo: sherwood (Shutterstock)

The internet has no shortage of ideas for how to make our children’s lunches very, very cute, and the basis for most of these adorable meals is the bento box.

Entire books have been written on the topic of kiddie bentos. Martha Stewart’s website offers ideas on how to make darling Halloween-themed lunches. Twitter and Instagram offer enviable iterations of their own. And don’t even get me started on Pinterest.

When I started packing school lunches for my kids, I’ll admit that I was drawn in by the cuteness. I was, fleetingly, optimistic about my ability to churn out these edible art projects on a daily basis. I bought the tiny cookie cutters to make flower-shaped cheese. I added little faces to things. I made sure everything was colorful.

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This lasted a day or two, and then I was tired.

Okay, so maybe I wasn’t going to achieve the so-called greatness of the cute lunches that abound on the internet. I could still pack a wholesome lunch with the aid of a bento box, right?

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My bento box made it easy to pack nutritional lunches

The bento boxes I bought for my kids featured five compartments, each of which was labeled with a food group: grains, protein, dairy, vegetable, and fruit. This made for a foolproof lunch packing experience. Except, of course, when I didn’t have any foods on hand that fit one of these categories.

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On those occasions I’d stand and stare, racking my brain for how to fufill the promise of the label in each compartment. Would the teacher notice if, instead of one fruit and one vegetable, I added two fruits to the box? 

Of course, my kids’ teachers weren’t inspecting their lunches. That’s absurd. But a whole lot about parenting is absurd, and thinking that an adult might be judging my kids’ lunches isn’t that absurd when you consider the jumping-off point for this article was cute lunches and the books that have been written about them. I mean, who are we really trying to impress? Not our kids, surely.

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Anyway, I went on like this for years, obeying the bento box’s labels and putting little bits of things into their proper compartments. It was fine, if tiring. But deep down, I’d started to think of the bento box as a bit of a curse. Something I was tasked with feeding every night after a long day of working, cooking dinner, and reading bedtime stories.

“Find a grain, you fool,” it would taunt me. “The little compartment says ‘grain’!”

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I accidentally found a much easier way to pack lunch

On one occasion, we left the bento box at school overnight by accident, and I was forced to pack leftovers in a boring container for my kid. The next day, she ate every bite. Her teacher said she seemed to like having a single food item to focus on at lunchtime.

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Could lunch really be that simple? I, a human who became a parent in 2016, have always existed within a bubble of Pinterest-cultivated parenting pressure. Cute lunches, cute birthday parties, cute everything. Could I really just throw some leftovers in an unmarked monochromatic container and call it a day?

The bento box finds new life as a snack buffet

One night, I filled an unmarked, boring container with some spaghetti and meatballs and felt satisfied by how easy it had been. Then I steeled myself to embark on another nightly journey: snack time prep. I headed toward the drawer that contains all the dreaded tiny snack containers, where I battle to find appropriate sized containers and their mismatched, always missing lids.

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Then I eyed the bento box. With glee, I threw random snacks in each of the little compartments, disregarding their labels entirely. Grains? How about some Teddy Grahams. Protein? Goldfish. Fruits, vegetables? Sure, here are some blueberries and a small bit of dry cereal. Dairy, I’ll honor you, but only because this cheese was pre-sliced into squares and it’s easy to throw in there.

I sent the bento box full of snacks with my younger daughter, who is under two but has a healthy appetite. That day, her teacher reported, cheerfully, that my child had eaten every last bite of the snack box.

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“She seemed to really like the variety and getting to pick and choose!” the teacher said.

She didn’t have to tell me twice. I now delight in throwing whatever I can find, in small amounts, into the bento box. It is a snack buffet. A smorgasbord with no requirement for well-roundedness or cuteness. Its only job is to provide snacks—and those snacks can be pretty standard, as long as there’s a bit of everything to choose from.

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In other words, the bento box now makes my weeknights easier instead of harder. Nothing has to be cute anymore, or the least bit photogenic; it’s all just snacks in a box for my kid to pick through like toddler charcuterie. Which might just be the most adorable thing I’ve ever heard.