School hasn't been in session long, but odds are your children's lunches already have become predictable. If you're feeling a bit of lunchbox boredom, take a cue from traditional Japanese bento boxes and send your kid off with a neatly-packed, healthy meal that hits all the right nutrition and visual notes.
In it's most basic form, a bento box is a meal packed in a compact container. It's the Japanese version of the brown bag, and reflects the culture's culinary tastes and design philosophy.
Bento boxes traditionally include a fish or meat, rice, and pickled vegetables. The containers may be simple covered boxes or elaborately designed interlocking mini-containers. It's also common for food to be presented in animal shapes for a truly artistic experience.
Beyond the appealing presentation, bento boxes offer health benefits, as well. The sections of the bento box provide automatic portion control and the variety means you'll get a well-balanced meal. Reusable containers also cut down on waste from sandwich and snack wrappers.
Any way you pack it, this fun alternative to tuna on white is perfect for picky eaters who prefer the food groups to remain separate, and adventurous eaters who thrive on unique dining experiences.
Packing a bento box is an art form. Here are seven tips on how to get it right:
Think like a bento box. Let the container inspire your lunch menu. Opt for a traditional bento box or use containers already in your cabinet. Hardy lettuces make great dividers in a flat container. Small travel containers can be stacked into a lunchbox to mimic the bento box experience.
Know your bento box food groups. To achieve maximum bento box benefits, balance your meal with vegetables, protein and starch. You also can add dairy and fruit to the mix.
Make it artful. Bento boxes are an outlet for the cook's creativity. But even if your food art skills begin and end with ants on a log, have no fear. Cookie cutters turn ordinary bread and fruit into stars, shapes and more. Use olives or raisin for eyes and slivers of red pepper for a smiley face.
Swap out the sandwich (sort of). Sushi sandwiches are a fun nod to Japanese culture without scaring away less adventurous palates. Smear a quesadilla wrap with whipped cream cheese, layer thinly cut strawberries and fresh spinach leaves on top, then add a slice of fresh turkey. Roll into a log shape and cut about an inch thick. Present like sushi with the colors creating a pinwheel effect.
Use leftovers. If last night's meatloaf was a hit, send it to school in a fun shape like a mountain range—just cut a slice in half diagonally to make a triangle-shaped mountain. Leftover green beans double for a grassy field and mashed potato dollops stand in for clouds. Or, turn roasted chicken into tarragon chicken salad and serve it in a cupcake wrapper. Use more wrappers for a side of grapes, cheese cubes, grape tomatoes and a mini roll. Small containers with lids make leftover soup and pasta easy to transport. Save time and pack your kid's bento box lunch while you clean up dinner.
Serve mini everything. Bento boxes are made for tiny-sized food, including desserts. Tip: You'll never second guess portion sizes if you use a bento box with dividers.
Remember ROYGBIV. When in doubt about what to pack, use a simple tip from pediatricians: Kids should eat every color of the rainbow throughout a day to ensure their nutritional needs are met. This article is part of Mix It Up, an editorial series created in collaboration with AOL's Kitchen Daily and Huffington Post. It is dedicated to making the lives of mothers easier through articles, videos and slideshows focused on simple and creative solutions to everyday challenges. From healthy recipes to exciting ideas for a more balanced lifestyle, this section aims to become a resource for moms everywhere.