Preparing a Preschool Bento

When looking at the photos I take of Wyatt’s bento lunches, several people have commented that they must take a lot of time to prepare and others have asked where I find the extra time in the morning to put his lunches together. The truth is, making a bento box usually doesn’t take much longer than putting a “regular” lunch together. Because Wyatt takes a cold lunch to school, I don’t need to do any cooking, so for me, 90% of what I do to put together a bento revolves around the equipment. Other parents put food into baggies. I put food into boxes and cups. I try to make them attractive as well by varying colors and textures (which I would be doing anyway), adding cute accessories here and there (equipment again), and occasionally cutting food into shapes (the other 10% of the work).

Take this lunch for example:

Bento Lunch Prep: Start with a sandwich

I start off with the typical ingredients for a PB&J. (The picture shows almond butter which I grabbed by mistake, but I actually used peanut butter.)

Bento Lunch Prep: sandwich prep

I make the sandwich. I bet this looks pretty much like what every other parent is doing to prepare their kid’s lunch on a Thursday morning.

Bento Lunch Prep: My helper cuts the sandwich

This is where we get fancy. After the sandwich is prepped, Wyatt picks out a cookie cutter and cuts the sandwich into a shape. Or sometimes I do it. Or sometimes he does one shape and I do the other. But the gist of things is that I cut the sandwich and put it in the bento box. This process probably takes about twice as long as putting a sandwich in a baggie. But really, how long does that take?

Bento Lunch Prep: Scraps

You’ll notice that there are a bunch of scraps leftover after cutting. So what do I do with those? With very few exceptions, someone eats them right then and there. If it’s a sandwich leftover, it’s usually me or Wyatt eating the scraps. If it’s cheese, it’s usually my husband.

Bento Lunch Prep: Fruit cup

Next, I put together some kind of fruit or, more rarely, a veggie for the lunch. I forgot to take a picture of the prep for this little cup, but basically, I cut half a banana into slices, put the slices into the baking cup and sprinkled a few dried blueberries on top. Most of the time, Wyatt won’t eat a whole piece of fruit, so that’s why I always cut his fruit up. He also can’t figure out how to open a banana or an orange by himself yet so that’s another reason I cut stuff up. When I cut his fruit, I either put it in a cup or put it right in his bento box.

Bento Lunch Prep: yogurt

He wasn’t in the mood for cheese on this day, so instead I sent him with yogurt. His yogurt cups won’t fit into his lunch box, plus he can’t open them on his own, so I decant the yogurt into a baking cup as well. This involves opening the yogurt and spooning it into the cup.

Bento Lunch Prep: yogurt cup

Here are the results of my labor.

Bento Lunch Prep: put it in the box

Now I put everything in the bento box. I was doing some of this work as I went along. I do try to arrange the box a bit so it will be pretty. Some of the things I do include:

  • Varying the color of the baking cups I use. I try not to use two of the same color in one box, for example. I also don’t put a yellow cup in a yellow bento box, or a blue one in a blue box.
  • I don’t put two things of the same color together. For example, instead of putting red cherry tomatoes next to a cup of red strawberries, I would try to put them next to cubes of yellow cheddar cheese.
  • I also look for little details I can add to make the lunch prettier. This was actually a pretty pale lunch — white bananas, white bread, very light pink yogurt — so I tried to jazz it up a bit by adding blueberries to the banana for contrast and putting the strawberry food divider on the yogurt. The food divider also helps keep the yogurt from spilling onto the other foods.

Bento Lunch Prep: Finished

Finally, I look for empty places in the lunch box and fill them in. Empty spots can cause the contents of the lunch to move around while it’s being transported and stuff can spill or get mixed together which isn’t particularly appetizing when you open the box up to eat. Here there were a few empty spots around the sandwiches, so I stuffed a couple of grapes in there. Other “packing materials” I use include crackers, dried fruits, grape tomatoes and cubes of cheese. These items tend to be colorful as well, so they bump up the pretty factor in addition to stabilizing things.

Preschooler Bento #13: May 21, 2008

And here’s the beauty shot!

Obviously, this is a completely unnecessary and time-consuming step, but taking photos and sharing them on Flickr is something I enjoy. Other people spend a spare five minutes in the morning reading the funnies, checking email or savoring a cup of coffee. I spend them taking photos of food. And Twittering. But that’s another story all together…

  • Trina

    “Decant the yogurt.” Love it love it love it!

    You really show how complicated it *isn’t* to make a wonderful lunch. I’m a copy-catter and have made lunches for myself that are near-exact replicas of lunches for your boys. 🙂

  • Cristy

    Hi there!  Does the yogurt spill into the rest of the food?  How do you make sure it doesn’t?  Or are you serving this to your kids at home so there’s no cover/transportation involved?

  • Hi Cristy — It’s a little hard to tell from the photo, but the edge of the silicone cup that the yogurt is in goes right up to the top edge of the box. When I put the lid on the box, it presses right down on the yogurt and acts as a lid for it.

  • KATE

    Where do you get them? I’ve been looking for something similar for days!!

  • Hi Kate — I did a big post about all about my bento collection and where I got them just the other day.

    This particular box was purchased at Ichiban Kan, a Japanese dollar store neat my house.

  • Kate

    I’m sorry! I meant the little sheet that went on the yogurt. Thanks!

  • Oh — I got that at Daiso. I just did a post about accessories, too! 🙂

  • Do you have issues with your accessories getting thrown away? Thinking of doing this for my son’s MDO program, but am concerned the stuff would spill or get thrown away. 

  • For the most part everything makes it home, but things do occasionally get lost or thrown away. I’ve been lucky that my boys’ schools have always had a policy that the kids are supposed to pack their leftovers up and take them home. I think that helps keep things from getting accidentally thrown away. Also, with the exception of the silicone baking cups, most of the accessories I use in my sons’ lunches are pretty inexpensive so if a few get lost I don’t mind.

  • Nancy

    You make it look so easy to come up with a creative lunch for a preschooler. I love it.

  • Love it!  Works for a snack for adults, too.

  • Pingback: Bento – lunches for art nerds « Nifty Nicoletta()

  • Licia

    I just stumbled upon your blog and I LOVE IT! I’m a working mom who is not thrilled with the day care lunches served for my 2 year old son. Your blog is so inspiring! There is so much fabulous information on here and the picture gallery is AWESOME! Thank you.

  • Thanks so much for your nice comment, Licia! I’m so glad you’re finding inspiration here and I hope you’ll stick around.

  • Licia

    Hi Wendy,

    Perhaps I overlooked it, but I didn’t see the brand noted for the rectangular boxes used for many of the preschool bentos you photographed. Would you please share? Many boxes I’ve found are either too small or to big.


  • Michaela C Cornelius

    Sandwich scraps are dibsed the moment a kiddo sees me going for a cutter, before they ever become “scraps” of anything. Cheese shapes are kept in a wee tupperware as a staple that goes into every lunch–or else sneaked and eaten randomly as a snack. And their scraps go to quesadilla filling, no shredding required, but you can course chop if you so feel compelled.

  • Leah

    My son is 3 years old and eats double that amount of food for lunch. I’m thinking the Easy Lunch Box will hold enough. Hard to tell…I hope it’ll work! Thanks for the step-by-step…good info!

  • apnyc78

    Hi there – I love your blog, and have progressively fallen in love with making Bentos. I’m now not sure if it is more for my son, or me ;-). One problem I have is when I try to use cheese, fruit leather or ‘other’ to write words, put eyes/faces on top of sandwiches, etc they seem to either 1) get jostled around and become sort of a non-factor or b) get stuck to the lid of the bento and become a non-factor. Any recommendations on how to address this? I have a laptop lunches, a yumbox and a lunchbots if that helps. Thanks!!

  • Becky

    So cute – thanks for the great ideas! If you ever have time to do an allergy friendly preschool bento post, would love it. Our school does not allow nuts or even products processed with nuts, no sunflower seeds, and no fin fish. My poor kid gets apples and baby carrots every day.

  • Hi Becky! While I haven’t written a specific post about it, I’ve packed many, many allergy friendly bentos over the years. My kids both go to a nut-free school and my younger son had a dairy allergy when he was younger (he’s since outgrown it) so I’ve been abiding by allergy rules for a while. You can see a lot of these lunches in my bento box gallery:
    Nut-free: (sorry — not seed free)
    Hope this helps and gives you some good ideas!

  • Keely Backes

    Just found the site and love it. My daughter is only 13 months, but because of milk and soy allergies I pack her meals for the sitter’s house. I’ve been doing simple bentos mostly made of leftovers and love the ideas from this site. One problem I have is I’m never quite sure if I’m packing too much food or not enough. I know it seems to vary daft to day/ meal to meal, but any suggestions on getting portion size right?