Miniature quail egg is hard-boiled and pickled in young ginger, then crafted into a piggy with black sesame seed eyes. (Courtesy of the author)

In the quest to pack lunches kids will thank parents for, families outside of Japan have adopted a love for Japanese bento-style lunches. Pinterest is filled with the craze. Yet, in calling a lunch “bento,” without a full understanding of exactly what qualifies, parents and the bento lunchbox market may be misappropriating a cultural practice.

Why not learn about the real practice instead?

A bento refers to a meal on the go: any work, school or picnic lunch. It is a natural offshoot and complement to Japanese culture. It’s already common practice for a wife and mother to rise early and pack a bento for each family member. The idea of the bento is not meant to be something crazy, should not be too much of an endeavor; the idea of a bento fits the culture, with foods found on store shelves and in every home.

Every Japanese child knows it takes 100 days to grow a single grain of rice. The goal is to make one’s plate pika-pika, sparkling clean. This culture does not waste. A bento often employs leftovers from last night’s dinner.

My own children, ages 7 and 4 and 1, have gone through the hoikuen preschool system since they started eating. They share bento with friends under the cherry blossoms and peer into each other’s lunches on field trips to unearth sweet potatoes.

Every ingredient is relevant. I add red shiso flakes (perilla) to the same rice I might have served plain the night before, to make pink-tinged rice.  Foods make up the color palette, as opposed to Red 40. Bento is about working creatively with ingredients we already have and use, bringing aspects of art and nutrition into a working, edible expression.

Truly, it is more difficult and expensive for me to make lasagna here in Tokyo.

A bento employs the colors and foods of each season as if trying to box the feeling. It is poetic, too, pulling in the sky, sea and soil, and saying, “Look, it’s spring. I’ve even brought the cherry blossoms or the fall leaves into my bento box.”

There are distinct windows of time when each vegetable and fruit, even each fish, is seasonally available. There is thought to be power that goes into eating fresh eel on at the height of summer, for instance.

And yes, there is also crafting a carrot to resemble a maple leaf to reflect what is happening outside. Adding little details, that together with the food, make a simple, but gorgeous, lunch that is of value. These details make it a meal that engages the senses, much like nature does. It’s bringing the outside in, with harmony and very little processed foods, save the occasional mini sausage shaped to look like an octopus. This kind of eating sparks joy in one’s environment and yields high-energy foods, qualities perfect for kids.

The bento is about whole foods before there was Whole Foods Market.

Over breakfast, one Japanese friend of mine shared another aspect of Japanese cuisine: 30 foods or ingredients are the ideal daily goal. We counted the healthy components of our Japanese-style brunch: 10. Every meal must pull its weight if 30 foods are to be eaten per day. These are 30 ways, essentially, to be your best, healthiest, most joyful, (or in the Japanese word, “genki”) self.

What a bento is not

Not merely a spider napkin for October, Japanese food conveys the essence of a season by presenting the best of what is available. Doritos do not constitute a bento item, and while we’re at it, not all lunches should be called “bento.” Some lunches are merely processed, moderately or are not-at-all healthy, snack foods a parent knows a child will eat.

Use the buzz

“Bento” may be a motivating word. Lunchbox companies helped brand the word “bento” outside of Japan, and lunch-makers across the world jumped on the train. “Bento” implies fun, healthy, and certainly “trendy,” but in the culture from which it comes, the word means a great deal more than a jacked-up Lunchable. Ride the trend, but make it rich and applicable to honor your specific and diverse culture. Borrow from various regions, use a range of flavor and spice but aim to hit the bento markers of color, texture, and design, using whole, seasonal food.

Prioritize and collaborate

Don’t go crazy. Introduce new, healthful foods in amounts comfortable to both you and your child. Invite your child to use silly toothpicks. Or make lunch, but let your child slice through apple peels to transform that apple into a rabbit. Our children may greatly surprise us as they bring suggestions for ways to incorporate that Tahini you bought. Or maybe it becomes a shared project on Asian food culture and you plan how to procure produce like daikon.

Make the bento work for your own family’s needs and resources. In the movie “East Side Sushi”, Juana is a Mexican woman in Oakland, Calif., who happens upon sushi and becomes a quick study. When asked if she wants to improve sushi, she answers, “No. Sushi, in its own, traditional form is beautiful, delicious, and magical. I don’t think I’m improving, just adding more options. I think sushi can be adapted to local conditions and local people.”

Perhaps this is the way with bentos, too. Maybe a little exploring is in order to see how we may reflect who we are and add those vivid facets to each small section. Enjoy the process and enjoy lunch. It may just be your love, together, packaged up.

Melissa Uchiyama writes about mothering in another culture as an American raising bicultural children in Japan. She is an educator, literacy coach, and freelance writer. Connect with her at www.melibelleintokyo.com and on Twitter @melibelletokyo. See more of her Bento food on Instagram @Melibelleintokyo.

Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates. You can sign up here for our weekly newsletter. We tweet @OnParenting.

More reading:

How gardening can help build happier, healthier kids

Why I still pack my 18-year-old’s lunches

6 things every child should know how to cook before leaving home