'Bento style' lunch key to healthy kids?

Is this the key to getting kids to polishing off their lunch?
Is this the key to getting kids to polishing off their lunch? Photo: Getty Images

Packing school lunches remains a big challenge for time poor parents. Add a fussy child to the equation and it becomes almost impossible to try and interest children to finish the contents of their lunchboxes, and encourage healthy eating habits at the same time. Enter the bento style lunch trend – a meal consisting of a variety of different foods arranged in an aesthetically pleasing manner to entice young tastebuds. Could this be the answer to combating fussy eater syndrome?

“Bento” traditionally originating from Japan contains rice, protein and vegetables arranged in a box shaped container. This trend has spread throughout Japan and other countries in the last six years, leading to “bento bloggers” who are creating food art daily in kitchens across the world and documenting it on social media for mums looking for healthy lunchbox inspiration but also do it quickly and efficiently.

Frustrated with packing lunches in multiple containers and constantly searching for the right lids led to American mother Kelly Lester starting up EasyLunchboxes; a bento-style food container that allows mums to pack school lunches quickly and efficiently. In Japan and US, mothers are taking bento style school lunches to a whole new level by constructing images from food based around anime and popular cultures to ensure their children stay interested and eat healthier options compared to what may be available outside the home.

A healthy example of how to create a 'bento style' lunch for your child.
A healthy example of how to create a 'bento style' lunch for your child. Photo: Bentolicious

Could a bento style lunch help mothers struggling with inspiration on what to pack for lunch daily? Miriam Raleigh, a paediatric dietitian explains that the one of the biggest challenges parents face when packing a school lunch is the pressure from their children regarding what their friends bring for lunch. This issue is made worse by food companies constantly marketing snack sized packets of foods (which really are treats and not lunchbox staples) to parents. Raleigh says a bento lunchbox would encourage a variety in the types of foods eaten and portion control however this benefit would be nil if each compartment was filled only with high calorie snacks and treats instead of healthy foods.

The recent death of an obese 10 year old boy highlights the obesity epidemic currently facing Australian children. Experts at Monash University predict that by 2025, one third of our children will be overweight or obese. One of the factors contributing to this scary statistic is the decline of home cooking skills and basic food knowledge, and an increase in the consumption of fast food according to Nutrition Australia. In order to reduce household dependency on takeaway food, Nutrition Australia is running Project DinnerTime during National Nutrition Week 13-19 October 2013. The program empowers Australians to improve their cooking skills and food knowledge by preparing budget meals from scratch at home using seasonal produce – an initiative that might extend to packing healthy school lunches using leftovers from last night’s dinner.

Bento lunches focus on including leftover meals and sandwiches and advocate for balance in a box – by including different food groups to provide textures, shapes and colours. If food looks good, children are more likely to eat it. A study published in Acta Paediatrica journal last year found meals with seven different items and six different colours visually appealed to children including food with figurative designs. Before you start panicking trying to think of what foods you need to start including in your child’s lunchbox, Raleigh says, “it’s important to ensure that the main component of the lunchbox - whether it be a sandwich, a wrap, a roll, a pasta salad or any variation - contains protein, which is crucial for the child’s growth and satiety”.

The key to a healthy school lunch says Raleigh is ensuring children are eating nutrient-rich foods so that they are able to keep up with their classes in the afternoon, activities after school, family and play time. She suggests filling the main compartment of a bento lunchbox with a sandwich with some type of protein filling and salad. If filling pasta or rice then no more than 1 cup should be added to the box. The smaller compartments could include yoghurts, cheese cubes or sticks, chopped up vegetables or fruit, popcorn, low salt crackers with or without a dip. If however bento style lunches sound like too much hard work Raleigh says using a regular lunchbox works just as well as long as parents are well informed and include the right foods.