Bento on a Budget


Clockwise from top left: organic carrot flowers, crackers, Stonyfield organic yogurt topped with home-grown watermelon stars, more watermelon, organic grapes, tuna salad topped with more carrot flowers. Yum!!

In less than a week Emily will be starting first grade, which means we’ll be packing up lunches for her to take to school. Have you jumped on the bento bandwagon yet? If not, you should consider it! Bento lunches promote healthy eating habits, and they can be very budget-friendly. Here are some tips to make up quick & easy bento lunches that won’t break the bank!

  • Be Creative with Leftovers — Wherever possible, incorporate leftovers into your child’s lunch. A little clever arrangement, or help from some cookie cutters can go a long way towards making leftovers more appealing.
  • Think COLOR — We try to include about five different colors in each bento lunch. It is an easy reminder to pack a variety of healthy foods.
  • Aim for a Waste-Free Lunch — Avoid single-serve convenience foods with packaging that ends up in the landfill,  and opt for reusable containers, stainless steel cutlery, and cloth napkins instead. It’s better for the environment, and you will save money in the long-run since you won’t have to buy packages of plastic sandwich baggies, plastic-ware, and paper napkins over and over again.
  • Buy in Bulk — My girls are crazy for Stonyfield organic yogurt, and we found the large 32oz. containers are very reasonable (at around $3) and provide about 8 servings of 1/2 cup of yogurt each. Buying in bulk means less of your money is wasted on the cost of packaging.
  • Make Your Own Accessories — Making your own decorated toothpicks is cheaper and a lot more fun! I love these owl cupcake toppers from Executive Homemaker, and they are FREE for you to print out! Of course, I wouldn’t limit their use to only cupcakes. These would be fun for mini-fruit and cheese kabobs, or sandwiches too!
  • Pack the Night Before — After dinner, I pack a lunch (using the leftovers) for Mark to take to work, and one for Emily to take to school (I’ve already started doing this, even though she hasn’t started school yet!). The next morning, I might add some cut up fruit or some other treat to the box, and that’s it. By packing lunch the night before, Mark is a lot less likely to buy a lunch because of mornings when we are too tired or too busy to pack it then. And yes, I sometimes make him super-cute bento lunches too… just to make his co-workers at the office jealous! Ha!!

Bento lunches can be so much fun to make and eat!!

Have a tip I forgot to mention? Leave a comment and share your ideas with us!!

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Comments

  1. Dear Valerie,

    I don’t have to hide in the corner and eat my, ahem, different lunch or anything.

    Love,
    Mark

  2. How do you keep everything from spilling together and staying in its place?

    • Great question — I’m learning as I go, but so far have found that if I pack the box full, things don’t move around very much. For wet things, like yogurt I use containers with lids that fit inside. Since she hasn’t started school yet, I can’t say for sure, but it seems to work well.

      • I would recomend Goodbyn lunch kits. They are a bit pricy but you can put anything in the sections and everything stays put. Google it to find a source.

  3. I love bentos! I haven’t really created many myself, because we don’t pack lunches for school or anything, but I love looking at bento blogs, and incorporating ideas now and then for picnic lunches or even just fun lunches at home.

    • Me too! They can be so inspiring, and they look so appealing!! I could see Emily and myself really getting into it.

  4. So creative. I like the carrot flowers. We use reusable containers in our lunches too.

    I didn’t realize Emily was going to school; I hope she has a great year!

    • Do your reusable containers make it back home? Mark has a tupperware graveyard at his office… drives me nuts!

      Yes, this is Emily’s first year at a brick and mortar public school, as she was enrolled in cyber school for both pre-K and K. She is VERY excited about it! It is also the first year I’ll be homeschooling Clara, so lots of excitement in this house.

      • My husband comes home for lunch, otherwise he would have a tupperware graveyard too! He likes to bring iced tea to work with him and I can’t tell you how many reusable cups have disappeared.

        I am excited to hear more of your school tips and to hear more about Emily’s experience, assuming you will post about either of those. Best of luck to Emily!

  5. What great ideas! I always pack up Mike’s lunch from dinner leftovers, too. How do you cut out the teeny tiny shapes?

    • I bet you save a lot of $$ just by Mike bringing lunches to work. It’s amazing how much the cost adds up!

      I used cookie cutters for the shapes. I only cut out a couple of shapes on top of the pile — not the entire pile, as that would take a long time! Emily likes to use the cookie cutters too. She’s quite active in putting her lunch together!

  6. my dd is definitely thinking along the lines of mark’s comment–what if the other kids make fun of her??? oh, and she thinks she’s graduated from eating fruit or something b/c all the fruit i send in gets sent right back to me. even the almost all natural fruit roll ups i scored and was so excited about! sniff!

    • LOL I’ve never heard of outgrowing fruit, but it’s a sad day when the fruit roll ups come back uneaten — yikes!

      Does she eat mandarin oranges? I haven’t met a kid who is able to resist those… yet. ;-)

  7. No tips, just a general comment of I’m going to work on doing this. That’s the plan for this year.

  8. How lovely! I’m curious… that looks like a Pyrex container. Since it’s glass, do you find that too heavy for her to carry to school? What about keeping it upright so that liquids don’t slosh? I assume the little containers have separate lids?

    • This photo is a pyrex dish, and just an example of a lunch we’ve packed for at home. I won’t send her to school with glass, but we have a stainless steel lunchbox that we’ve started experimenting with at home. So much fun!! And yes, it has containers with lids that fit inside. Emily adores it!! :-)

  9. I saw someone do this on their blog and I thought it was awesome. Lots of variety. Looks like it would be fun to eat!

  10. I love the use of the cupcake “papers” (I am guessing they are silicone)! One of my son’s favorites is peanut-butter honey dip with carrot sticks (or baby carrots) and pretzels. My daughter also likes celery sticks with her dip. Like an earlier commenter, I am curious how you cut the flower shaped carrots? Thanks for all your creative work on this blog. I find a lot of great ideas here!

    • Yes, we have silicone ones, and I never use them for baking (since I hate to bake), but they are perfect for packing bento lunches. :-)

      Love the idea of peanut butter honey dip — we’ll have to give it a go! I bet it would be a BIG hit here!!

      I made a few slices of carrots and then used a flower-shaped cookie cutter on them. I put the flowers at the top of the carrot pile. It always makes Em smile!

  11. Hey Val! Great ideas. :) Is Em going to school this year? I feel like I missed something. I will need to catch up…

    Blessings,

    Val

    • Yes, and she is VERY excited!!!! It’s going to be a big day!! I’ll be homeschooling Clara starting this fall too…. fun!!

  12. I was going to tell you all about the fabulous silicone cupcake papers I picked up and use for bento lunches but… they were already mentioned so never mind ;-)

  13. yum!! Love these ideas :-)

  14. I think Bento boxes are the cutest things. Where did you get yours? I always worry that they are too small to hold very much.

    Oh, and very exciting to hear about Emily. I hope she has a great time at school! I know you’ll have fun getting to spend some extra time with Clara.

    • They do look deceptively small, but they are designed to be jam-packed with food to keep things from moving around all over the place. Once school starts, we’ll be using a combination of various containers for Em’s lunches. We really love the PlanetBox. It’s stainless steel (and pricey), but I’m hoping it will last her for a few years. Looks like it is very well made/designed!

  15. I love bento. I just started to learn about it a few weeks ago. I will be sending my girl to school with it for snacks. a little nervous about the packing or what to send.

    Where do you get your “non-bento containers”? I do not have japanese stores near and I do not like to buy online. any suggestions?

    • It is really challenging to find things to pack that your child will eat, are healthy, and inexpensive — no wonder why you’re a little nervous! Bento is so much fun, and we will be learning more about it together… yay!

      If you have a Target near you, check their reusable lunch containers. Many of them are inexpensive and are labeled BPA free. We’ll be experimenting with different containers this fall, so stay tuned…. :-)

  16. http://www.laptoplunches.com/lunchmenus.html

    Check out their site. They have Bento Boxes, of course, but even better is a photo gallery of meals for the boxes.

  17. Thank you, thank you! We are packing lunches for Anna, but I admit that we are “in a lunch rut”. I will have to think more and experiment with different ideas. How exciting that Emily starts school soon.

  18. When my daughter started K, we gave her cloth napkins and regular spoons & forks. After a couple of days of wondering why things were not coming home, I asked her about it. At the end of lunch, the adult said to throw everything out. So she did. Since then, she’s brought everything home, even from summer camp.

    We got some cute sporks at a camping store, in a set of 3, so there’s one for Dad to take to work, too. They’re actually double-ended, so both sides actually work.

  19. I’ve followed your blog for about a year or more now. But I don’t know that I’ve ever commented. Thanks for all of the great ideas you share!

    I actually saw these bento boxes in a magazine a couple of years ago and tore the pages out for lunch ideas for my kids. My kids are going to public school for the first time this year and this is the type of lunch I send every day. But I had no idea that there was a name for it (bento) and that there were certain places to buy the containers. I can’t tell you how many tiny containers I have purchased to try and fit into my kids’ lunch boxes, only to find that they don’t fit. I finally found some that work okay, but I’m going to google some bento sites. Yay!! I’m so glad I read your post. :)

    By the way, my kids are the hit of the lunch table every day because their friends can’t wait to see what they might have in their lunch box. :)

  20. Hello…I’m wonering now that school has started how you are liking the bento box? Do things move around? And where do you get the silicon mufffin liners.

Trackbacks

  1. […] you missed it,  you can read more about how I make these packed lunches affordable by reading our Bento on a Budget post. Coming up next week, we’ll share some tips for saving money on organic food so be sure […]

  2. […] you missed it,  you can read more about how I make these packed lunches affordable by reading our Bento on a Budget post. Coming up next week, we’ll share some tips for saving money on organic food so be sure […]