My family’s experience with bento, until recently, was a brief but energetic experiment I had been all-consumed by when the kids were smaller and more likely to be impressed with “cute” food. Inspired by the concept of showing my kids that I loved them by putting a little time and creativity into their lunches, I sent my family to school with “bento boxes”, the components of which were easily found in my local Target store. I recall having enough enthusiasm for everyone at the start, but quickly running short on ideas and time. Lunches quietly returned to a less thought-out production and the change prompted no complaints. My motivation was pushed aside; “Too simple for my sophisticated brood…” I thought.
Fast forward 4 years. My kids are in Jr. High and I have spent the summer in the early stages of recovery following a serious car accident. Spine, neck and head fractures and post-concussive disorder have left me unable to work and struggling to run the household. For this reason my initial reaction to the lunch situation for the new school year was to enforce mandatory hot lunches. This plan met with heavy resistance so I sat down to make a Costco list for my husband, items to be chosen based on ease with which they could be thrown into a lunch bag. My absence at year end the previous school cycle had prompted my husband to teach the kids independence and responsibility by having them pack their own lunches. I had witnessed the final days of this and saw my kids’ pride in accomplishment and an attitude of “family first”, but a startling lack of variety in their food choices. I called out to the kids, asking for lunch favorites, hoping to put off the massive waste that was inevitable as the kids grew bored with their menu options but offered no practical alternatives. Lunches would find their way back home, uneaten.
My expectations were tempered by experience so I was prepared for the “nothing” or “I don’t know” that would surely be my twin 11 year olds’ response to anything that didn’t involve electronics. That Connor was the first to speak was surprising in itself as remaining mute was usually his first defense against an adult inquiry. I was so unprepared for constructive comments that Connor’s words didn’t register immediately. To hear him ask, “Could we have those bento boxes again Mom?” was a happy surprise. I slowly came to attention. Finn chimed in “Yeah Mom, lets have those boxes again.” My 13 year old daughter signaled her approval. Where had these smiles and this laughter come from? No one returned to their computer screens. The kids talked over each other, recalling those first bento creations. This is how the plan was hatched.
As I write, I am realizing just how important this was for my family. Sharing this is going to involve more than just posting pictures of my kids’ lunch fare. This moment may have changed the trajectory of my recovery and how I relate to my kids. My husband had juggled everything while I was in the hospital and then moved to a skilled nursing facility and the kids had to mature overnight. I had missed soccer games, teaching Anime, helping with homework, end of year parties…the list goes on. I had always scheduled around my kids so even work hadn’t yanked me away as the accident had. I thought they had gotten comfortable with my limitations and used to doing for me instead of me doing for them. I thought our relationship had been permanently altered.
This was the start of our return to normalcy. This was how they let me know they still needed me. The philosophy behind the bento boxes hadn’t been trite to them. They weren’t tiptoeing around my injuries; they were asking me to be well enough to do something for them. The kids were asking me to show my love and provide them with the security that comes from being parented. They wanted me to give them my time and either needed to believe or needed me to believe that I still had the capacity to be creative. This time, my family’s enthusiasm was enough for me. I ignored the little voice of doubt in my head that reminded me of all I couldn’t do. I was going to make this happen. Suddenly, I believed in myself and was blown away by what the kids had offered me. They had come up with an attainable goal in my recovery, one that I might find more manageable than paying bills, using the computer or getting back to work in this moment.
Fast forward two months. I have been making bento boxes for my kids lunches since August 10th and have honed my skills. My early efforts were traditional Japanese fair, but even Anya grew tired of this menu, so I suppose we are using the term “bento” rather loosely. My recipes and ingredients come from many cultural influences and are more kid-friendly than sophisticated. I am doing away with most processed menu items and seeking out creative vegetable recipes as I balance health and taste preference. No more Naked Juice, we are making our own juices and smoothies to round out lunch. I am planning a week of lunches in advance so that costs can be kept down and recipes carried over during the week. I recognize that time will become more challenging so am organizing my week so that most cooking/preparation occurs on Sunday and ensures that school mornings are not rushed.
We are on a very tight budget. We have met our maximum out-of-pocket in medical expenses and I am not bringing in any income. That being said, it costs more to eat healthy and if my kids don’t have weekly changes in variety, food comes back uneaten and they go hungry. We will eat well and stretch elsewhere. My original goal was to keep lunches under $3 which is the cost of hot lunch here, but the kids’ days are so long, they need snacks and I’ve found that a power drink (fresh fruit, vegetable extractions, sometimes with homemade yogurt) adds spice and nutrition to lunch and pushes Finn towards “full” which is almost impossible. I add more to lunch sometimes than just what fits in the bento box, especially with soccer three days a week. Middle schoolers need a lot of healthy food. So my challenge is fiscal, nutritional and inspirational; I need to keep lunches between $3 and $5, hopefully with no waste, and produce sated, healthy kids.
I hope to post lunches everyday the kids are in school, but my post-concussive symptoms vary, so I am prepared for bad days. One symptom I have is loss of vocabulary. The words I am searching for stay just out of reach, so I describe what I am trying to say. I’ve had a little more time with this first blog as the kids are on fall break, so I google my descriptions to try to get back my normal vocabulary and express myself concisely. This method may not work on a daily basis, I don’t know. I also have a lot of memory problems, mainly new information. I combat this by making a lot of lists, but currently I have so many things written down that I can’t keep them straight. An appointment with the neurosurgeon may have been missed due to this disorder. Concentration and focus are big struggles as well. I don’t remember much of what I read. I go over and over my kids’ Algebra 1 concepts and still get them backwards. Pain and fatigue are par for the course with my injuries. All that being said, making the kids’ bento boxes is what I do best right now, really the only thing I do well. Of course, I’m not comparing myself with traditional bento creators. I use taste, composition, nutrition, color and fun in my boxes. I come up with two lunch menus a week, then determine the remaining bentos from the ingredients I will be using. My kids love Anime, which I used to teach at their school, but they don’t always want Japanese food. This is very American bento geared towards a middle schooler’s pallet. We do love Totoro and Spirited Away, however, so characters will pop up occasionally.
If anyone is wondering at how I can feed three kids the same menu, don’t. I have to make adjustments to at least one bento daily so that it doesn’t come back. And every week my husband tells me to add more to Finn’s lunch, and I fill it to where absolutely nothing else will fit in his lunch box, let alone his bento box (we put this inside an insulated case). Still, I consider this experiment to be a success. I want to share at a minimum, my bento creations, the ways this activity is promoting my recovery and how this hyper-focus on lunch is helping me bond with my pre-teens and teenager. I’m sure I will digress into gardening (I’m a former Colorado Master Gardener), non-bento recipes, kid stuff and more, but I am starting with a focus on healing via bentos. This may seem like a silly purpose, but it is huge for me. An interesting side effect of being slower and less smart is that I listen better and truly hear what people and (maybe) the universe are trying to tell me. I might have the information on a little delay, but I hear it and truly absorb it. Before the accident I was full steam ahead with my own agenda. Now I have time for people even when I have no time. And I think my heart is bigger. I care more about everyone; I smile at strangers. I’m not dismissive of anyone or anything. So my goal with this blog is to continue to help myself and my family, but maybe help someone else as well. I hope I can be of service.
The kids go back to school the 17th so I hadn’t planned a lunch menu for this week but I’m feeling like bentos for brunch. FYI, my kids’ bento boxes are from Costco and not true bento boxes. When my husband told me Costco had sets of three, I told him to pick up a selection and didn’t want to complain when he came home with Rubbermaid Lunch Blox. They are colorful, easy to clean and stack around an ice pack if needed. Where else could you get three bento boxes for $11? I found the perfect soft-sided cooler to hold their boxes in place at Target and our adorable no-leak kitty cat thermoses fit beside them with room for snacks or noodle bowls. I feel a little silly packing their brunch in their lunch boxes when they aren’t going to school but I hate to deviate from the theme day one. So, on to brunch ideas!
We have green tomatoes from the garden and I can’t remember if I have made fried green tomatoes in the past or not, so today will be the day. I am adapting a recipe from a neighbor to fit what we have on hand so the results will be a surprise. I will also make hash browns and bacon wrapped egg “skulls” as Halloween is my kids’ favorite holiday. (FYI, don’t order the Egg-A-Matic skull egg shaper from Amazon as it doesn’t work and damages your egg. My own designs are much more fun, though I will try a fried egg skull mold for Halloween breakfast; the yolks are the eyes.) We harvested tons of red jalapenos from our garden before the freeze so I will be using them in every recipe today. Anya loves them and I’m sure the boys palettes won’t be far behind.
Fried Green Tomatoes
4 medium green tomatoes
½ cup milk
1 cup flour
½ cup blue cornmeal
½ cup jalapeno kettle chips (from Sprouts)
½ tsp Himalayan Pink Salt
¼ tsp coarse ground black pepper
16 oz (at least) Safflower oil
Slice tomatoes making thick wedges. Grind the kettle chips in a food processor until fine and set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk eggs and milk together. Fill a small bowl with the flour and another with the cornmeal and kettle chips. Mix the salt and pepper into the cornmeal mixture. Heat oil in deep fryer or heat skillet on medium high. (I use a small Fry Daddy) Dip tomato slices in flour, then egg, then cornmeal mix. Deep fry in small batches until brown on both sides and remove from oil. My oil is always hot enough that blotting isn’t necessary but have a paper towel handy just in case. Garnish with sliced red jalapenos and fresh oregano.
Jalapeno Hash Browns
3 servings frozen Ore Ida Hash Browns (These were in my freezer and needed to be used)
¼ yellow onion chopped fine
1 fresh jalapeno sliced (We have lots from the garden and some have turned red)
4 Tbsp Canola oil.
Heat oil in skillet on medium high. Add onion and jalapeno and cook until onion becomes transparent. Add hash browns and cover cooking for 5 minutes before flipping with a spatula to cook covered for 5 minutes on the other side. Remove cover and stir blending onion and jalapeno with potatoes. (The onion and pepper give the hash browns flavor but I make the onions small enough that my boys can’t see them and the jalapenos big enough that they can)
Bacon Wrapped Skulls
6 slices of bacon
1 red jalapeno
1 purple bell pepper
Place eggs in medium sauce pan and add enough cold water to cover. Heat on medium bringing water to a gentle boil. Allow to simmer one minute. Remove from heat and let eggs stand for 12 minutes. Drain water and dip eggs in an ice bath for a few seconds. Carefully crack and peel egg. Set aside. Cook bacon in long strips until brown but malleable. Wrap bacon around eggs and set aside. Slice one red jalapeno to produce thin round “eyes” and cut small thin strips of purple pepper to make “teeth”