I’ve always loved the spooky aspects of Halloween — its spiders and skeletons — and reveled in the creative challenge of sewing costumes and decorating the house. But I’ve never been crazy about the forced candy overdose. When my daughter Lila was little, I tried various ideas to part her from her ton of sugar. (Did you know there’s a Candy Monster who will buy back your trick-or-treat loot if you leave it on your doorstep overnight?)
Lila has always appreciated my cute culinary creations. Now she’s away at college, but I still enjoy playing with food and I finally discovered the perfect antidote to candy mania: Halloween bento boxes — whimsical, packed lunches with healthy, attractive food that tempts your kids to taste new things and eat their veggies.
In Japan, the tradition of charmingly aesthetic food fabrication is taken quite seriously (with more women in the work force, it will be interesting to see if this cultural trend continues). You can read more about this Japanese tradition and view slides at PBS’s The Meaning of Food. A brief excerpt:
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).
Bentos often highlight the season or a coming holiday. Although Halloween trick or treating is not practiced in Japan, the nation that is wild for cosplay loves to dress up and Halloween is sneaking into advertisements and decorations, thanks in part to Disneyland and Universal Studio theme parks in Japan.
Not just for kids
The practice of bento lunchbox making has now been adopted around the world. Bentos’ popularity is due, in part, to the fact that they encourage healthy, mindful eating and are environmentally friendly — since there is no extra packaging to throw away. Adults often appreciate the portion control in pre-made lunches for weight loss. And taking the time to prepare an attractive meal definitely is a sign of love, (even for yourself).
Surfing the Internet, I discovered a lunchbox artist, who goes by the name of Gamene. Although she has moved on to a different job now, the former Manhattan attorney explained her motivation for making these edible works of art:
“…while at the law firm, Gamene found the work environment to be chaotic and often stressful… by taking the time to prepare healthy, colorful, and artistic lunch boxes, she guaranteed herself at least one moment of harmony during her busy work day.”
Really, you don’t need any special tools or equipment, just a sharp knife and a little patience. That said, there is a ton of stuff out there either made specifically for bentos or available at your local art, hardware or dollar store. Optional helpers: cookie cutters, hard-boiled egg molds, rice molds, divided boxes, silicone containers, fancy toothpicks.
Locally, a cheap place to buy bento-paraphernalia is the $1.50 store, Daiso. There’s one in Berkeley, one in SF Japantown and others in the larger Bay Area.
A little more classy assortment can be found at Berkeley’s Tokyo Fish Market Gift Shop.
If the Internet doesn’t provide enough inspiration, Amazon lists hundreds of books on the subject. Number one on their list is The Just Bento Cookbook by Makiko Itoh, whose twin websites, Just Bento and Just Hungry, I visit often. They have deservingly won wide acclaim. Here is a post on Halloween bentos by Makiko.
You don’t have to make special food items for bentos; left-overs often serve well, with a little decoration. The unwritten rule seems to be that each bento should contain a well-rounded meal with protein, carbs, fruit and veggies.
In making my Halloween bentos, I found the following useful tips:
- Persimmons sliced through the middle make great pumpkins
- Pre-sliced jicama is perfect for bones and picket fences
- Nori (dried seaweed) can be used for the bats, black cats, eyes and other accents (most easily cut with a very sharp pair of sewing scissors)
- Olives, pickles, grapes, pimentos can make assorted facial features
- Hummus works well as “glue”
- Even though I don’t usually buy them, sliced cheese in pre-wrapped squares comes in handy
- A slice of red pepper studded with teeth (of cheese or slivered almonds) looks just like “wax lips”
Happy Halloween Lunch making! (Hmm…I wonder if Lila would appreciate a bunny hard-boiled egg when she comes home for Winter break?)
A version of this post first appeared on KQED Bay Area Bites