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Back to School with Bento Boxes

(Julia Ewan for The Washington Post)

As students return to school today in District of Columbia public schools and in other jurisdictions over the next two weeks, there's lots of buzz about school nutrition programs (which I'll be writing about in my "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column on September 8). Efforts underway locally and nationwide seek to improve the quality of school lunches and other food made available to pupils.

Even as those improvements occur, though, many of us (at least when our schedules permit) prefer to send our kids to school with lunches made at home. But while I have always gone that route, I have to confess that this year I'm feeling tapped out. Will this be another year when I slap peanut butter and grape jelly between two slices of (whole wheat) bread and throw it in a brown bag with an apple and a cheese stick, day after day after day? Ugh.

I went Googling for inspiration and came upon an idea I've known about for some time but never incorporated into my own routine: the Japanese bento box.

Bento boxes are, well, boxes that usually contain a variety of other, smaller boxes within which to pack various elements of a meal. They lend themselves to variety and creativity and help with portion control. And kids like them: They're cute and fun.

You can just toss simple, everyday items in the containers: Maybe a few wheat crackers in one, baby carrots in another, hummus or salsa in another. Or you can avail yourself of a bento-box cookbook and explore some more traditional Asian recipes. Here's a good article to get you started. And here's a list of online stores where you can buy bento boxes. I've seen them locally at Whole Foods Markets; the chain includes bento-box-style lunch recommendations in its new School Lunch Revolution campaign. Rachael Ray's a bento fan; here are some of her thoughts on how to fill them.

Have you tried using bento boxes for your kids' school lunches? I'd love to hear about your experience with them, especially any ideas for filling them. And if you know of other local stores where you can buy them, please let us know. Let's fill the comments section with bento-box news!

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  August 24, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health , Nutrition and Fitness  
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