Genius Bento Box Lunch Ideas for Kids From the Authors of LUNCHBOX
How do you build a better lunchbox? From tools of the trade to styling tips, the authors of LUNCHBOX share the best bento box lunch ideas that feel like a love note in the middle of the school day – without keeping you in the kitchen all night.
- Written By
- Marnie Hanel and Jen Stevenson
- How did the idea for the LUNCHBOX come about? Do you have any picky or particular eaters in your houses?
As the coauthors of The Picnic and The Campout Cookbook, Jen and I are expe rts in sending meals out the door... but when I started packing daily lunchboxes for my three boys under age 7, I realized anyone's creativity has limits. One night, around 9:30 p.m., longing to get to my Netflix, I found myself staring bleary-eyed at three empty 6-compartment lunchboxes and an open pantry, muttering, "What do people even eat?" So, I did what I always do when I’m thinking about food, and I texted Jen to riff. After going back and forth a bit, we realized there was a book there. Jen happens to be a former kindergarten teacher, so we were looking at packing lunchboxes from both sides — the parent packing it and the teacher on the receiving end of its energizing (or not) results. Together, we started to brainstorm ideas for the lunches that would be fun to make and eat. Lots and lots of ideas. We ended up with 100 photographed lunchboxes and thousands of foods in the book. (We like to say that we went bananas so that parents never will.)
We both have some particular eaters in the house! Jen’s is a full-grown adult, but he’s suspicious of adventurous food combinations, so he’s a worthy recipe tester for kid-approved foods. My three sons have all gone through restrictive eating phases. My eldest is an adventurous eater now, at age 7, but there was a moment when I thought he’d be a fruitarian. My 5-year-old has toyed with picky eating, but is easily swayed by visual appeal, especially sprinkles, so it hasn’t exactly lasted. My 3-year-old is autistic, and picky eating can be a prominent feature of autism, which is just one of the reasons I’m such an ardent fan of lunchboxes — when we’re on the go, packing his favorite foods easily solves this challenge.
- What should grownups expect to find in the book?
You will find a happy, fun book filled with 100 nutritious yummy lunchboxes. Plus, a lunchbox shopping list to review with your child, so you’ll never again be stumped at the grocery store about what they like to eat. There’s weeklong plans for five different lunchboxes with overlapping ingredients, and there are showstopper lunchboxes to celebrate special occasions, like that first wiggly tooth or the 100th day of school — because TikTok is real and whoever is packing your kid’s friend’s lunchbox is on it. Mostly, you’ll find a ton of joyful ways to connect with your kids over food, rather than struggle about it.
We see lunchboxes as the love notes you pass to your kids in the middle of the day, so these meals offers millions of ways to delight them, but since we’re also busy grownups who know real kids, there’s a nice mix of plop-and-go snack boxes, styling tips to jazz up food with very little effort, and alternatives for the kid who doesn’t like sandwiches, can’t eat nuts, or will only eat one color. There are recipes to replace over-priced store-bought items, as well as store-bought alternatives to recipes in case you never want to cook a thing. Whether you’re an over- or underachiever, we’re here for you. You’ll also find a very small round of Babybel cheese wearing underpants, among other treasures. Because we love to laugh as much as we love to cook.
They gave us a sneak peek below.
BUILD A BETTER LUNCHBOX
If you’re of a minimalist mindset, these simple styling principles require no specialty equipment.
VARIETY IS THESPICE OF LUNCH
There’s a reason there are multiple compartments in the lunchbox, and it’s not to put the same thing in all of them. Showcase an array of options while observing the cardinal kid rule that unlike foods should not touch.To each—apples, celery sticks, cheese cubes, crackers, turkey roll-ups, graham cracker bears—their own.
Pops of bright magenta raspberries, verdant sugarsnap peas, golden egg yolks, or shockingly blue fruit snacks (because everyone gets to put one thing in the grocery cart) break up a ho-hum Thursday’s monotone lunchbox. Pack with an eye for a full spectrum of colors for the most jaw-dropping, nutrient-rich (well, except for those blue things) lunch.
Put your knife skills to work, cutting kiwis into triangles, cucumbers into spears, mangoes into cubes, carrots into ridged chips, celery into boats, strawberries intohearts, or potatoes into a tiny replica of the Statue of Liberty (pretty sure we saw that last one on TikTok) for an impressively attractive array of fruits and veggies.Whole foods that are also visually interesting? Talk about squaring the circle.
Soon enough, you’ll be a whiz lunchbox architect who intuitively cuts carrot sticks to the exact length of the compartment and knows the satisfaction of finding a store-bought granola bar just the right size for thattricky long spot at the top of the box. But while you’re getting started, break out the ruler and make a markon your cutting board (or cut a just-right-length celery stick guide) to easily cut everything to the perfect fit.
MADE TO ORDER
You may not get them to sort their 27,547-piece Lego brick collection into the (clearly labeled, so whatgives?!) intricate organizational system, but you can still introduce the life-changing art of decluttering atlunchtime. Neatly stack crackers, celery sticks, and sideways sandwiches in each compartment just so, andbask in the beauty of your artful arrangement. See, you can have nice things.
At home, your lunch buddy has your (more or less) undivided attention; at school, the grown-up in the room has a lot on their plate—sometimes literally, because they’re too busy opening kids’ food containers to eat. Make everyone’s luncha little lovelier by remembering the following.
Before sending yogurt tubes, applesauce packs, energybars, or snack bags to school, see if your kid can open them independently. If not, open the packaging at home and transfer the goods to the lunchbox.
SAVED BY THE BELL
Lunchtime might be much earlier than you’d expect, particularly at a big school where the cafeteria is inconstant rotation, so someone’s gotta eat at 10:45 a.m. Consider how much time there is between the arrival bell and mealtime when packing foods, like frozen sandwiches you hope will thaw before lunch but may not. And, if allowed, pack snacks for later in the day.
PB + J is now A-OK at many schools, but if yours is a nut-(or other allergen-) free zone, remind yourself to follow the rules by stashing forbidden foods, like peanut butter, on high shelves and devoting one pantry shelf to lunch supplies.
Lunchtime goes by fast. (The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends kids get at least twenty minutesto eat. That’s quick, especially given how long it takesto find a seat/peer into other kids’lunchboxes/drop the fork your grown-up thoughtfully provided and get another one, etc.) If you’re noticing the lion’s share of lunch coming back in the box, ask your kid if that’s because they ran out of time. If the answer is yes, select foods that can be eaten quicker (i.e., sandwich,not soup; almonds, not pistachios in the shell) and troubleshoot some of the likely culprits of lunch timewasting: chatting, going to the bathroom, meandering to/from the water fountain, forgetting their lunchbox. For kids who are just slow eaters, consider packing a protein-rich smoothie; they might be faster sippers.
Certain foods—spaghetti and meatballs, pho, ramen—are tough to keep tidy. (We happen to know three boys who eat these foods with their shirts off and go directly into the bathtub after.) Unless you have a fastidious foodie, save foods that are likely to spill or splatter for home.
Tummy rumbles can distract anyone from concentrating. Set up learning success by making sure your kid eats breakfast or another snack close to schooltime, brings a protein-packed lunch, and (if allowed) has a snack stashed for the afternoon.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Make lunchbox magic faster than a fairy godmother with these ingenious and affordable accessories:
Tools of the Trade: Bento Picks
All hail the lunchbox’s most fundamental flair, which transforms it from ho-hum to hooray in less than five seconds all while offering an enticing (germ-free) alternative for wee fingers apt to pick up cheese cubes, fruit cutouts, tofu, chicken, meatballs.
Use these to add a little personality to hard-boiled eggs, sandwiches, bagels, rice cakes, sliced cheese, cookies, and all manner of fruits and vegetables. All we can say is, never has a baby carrot been met with such enthusiasm. (P.S. Need “glue”? Try honey or nut butter.)
Tools of the Trade: Onigiri Molds
Few things have a better ratio of ease-of-use to charm than rice molds. Pop in a ball of cooked rice, then pop out a fetching cat face, heart, star, fish, penguin, panda, or even fully formed Pikachu. Use nori (dried seaweed) to embellish.
Tools of the Trade: Mini Alphabet + Number Cutters
Here’s a fun way to reinforce vocabulary words, ages, and names, or to just remotely remind your little motormouth to stop talking and E-A-T
Tools of the Trade: Cookie Cutters
Custom-cut cookie dough and sandwich bread, or shape pancakes and fried eggs to match seasonal and holiday themes as well as your child’s current passions (ocean life, dinosaurs, Bigfoot, you name it).
From simple shape cutouts to elaborately detailed rocket ship blueprints, these clever cutters take that ubiquitous lunchbox linchpin from meh to magnificent with one swift smash.
Tools of the Trade: Food Cutters
Small, sharp, assorted- shape punches are particularly well-suited for cleanly cutting cheese, fruits, vegetables, and your new countertop (hence, don’t forgo the cutting board).
Whether you’re practicing color recognition, appeasing a picky eater of the “orange foods only” persuasion, or trying to distract a fussy shopper with a green food scavenger hunt—or you just enjoy a challenge (such as finding seven edible purple items at Trader Joe’s)—these captivating color-coordinated boxes cast a rosy (or red, or yellow) glow over lunchtime.
Green Lunchbox Ideas
Green Goldfish crackers + pistachios + green jelly beans
Green apple slices
Steamed broccoli + the last of a bottle of Green Goddess dressing
Cucumber avocado sushi rolls + cucumber slices + pickled ginger
Orange Lunchbox Ideas
Anna’s Swedish Thins + gummy carrot
Grape tomatoes + mini sweet peppers + steamed butternut squash crinkles + tomato basil hummus
Red lentil pasta + prepared roasted red pepper sauce
Purple Lunchbox Ideas
Red and purple grapes + grape gummy stars + cupcake with a liberal dusting of purple sprinkles
Blue corn chips
Purple carrot sticks and cutouts
Red Lunchbox Ideas
Mini sweet peppers
Cherries + raspberry yogurt with pomegranate seeds
Beet crackers + Babybel cheese + grass-fed beef sticks
Finally, Marnie and Jen share their favorite Maisonette picks for making lunchtime more magical.
Once you buy one lunchbox, don’t be surprised if you suddenly have five. Or ten. Or 15… if you’re writing a book about them. We have quite the lunchbox collection, and every one of them fits in this versatile organic cotton lunch bag, with room to spare for a water bottle or ice pack. If you’re packing a detailed bentoscape, you’ll want to carry it in a bag that allows it to sit flat. Otherwise, this bag is fantastic at ferrying foods to kindergarten and beyond, no matter what lunchbox you happen to pack.
Marnie’s Pick: Cheree Berry Lunchbox Notes
Cheree Berry has been there for me through all of life’s major milestones, from my wedding stationery to my children’s birth announcements, not to mention thank you notes, teacher notes, and first day of school flair. Cheree is also a mother of three, and her kids are just a touch older than mine, so she seems to know exactly what I will need even before I do. Her mini love notes for Maisonette are the perfect lunchbox notes. There are 40 notes in this box, and one is sweeter than the next! My pun-loving kids’ favorite is “You’re Souper.” Mine? “Bee you!” The notes are sized to fit perfectly in the compartments of a bento-style lunchbox, but my 7-year-old repurposes them as bookmarks. I’ve bought sets for my family, and to gift with our book, Lunchbox. These make adding a thoughtful touch to your kid’s lunch completely effortless.
Excerpted from Lunchbox.” (Artisan Books) by Marnie Hanel and Jen Stevenson. Copyright © 2022.