For fans of bento, lunch is an art form that can coax finicky eaters or soothe dieters into becoming the envy of the office.
Bento is the original Lunchable, a single-portion takeout meal from Japanese restaurants or crafty homemakers who pack rice, protein and vegetables into a handy on-the-go container. In Japan, it's a high art, with food decorated to look like people, animals or flowers to make it more appealing.
Type the word "bento" into Flickr and you'll get more than 66,000 eye-popping results. That's right — every day, thousands of people craft a beautiful lunch, take a picture of it and post it on the Internet for all to see.
Some are sights to behold. There's the Spa Lady Lunch with cucumbers for eyes, thin strips of cheese making a turban and green-tinted mayo on her face. There's the Grumpy Sandwich, cut at an angle to make a frown, with olives for eyes and red pepper strips for angry eyebrows. Three balls of rice look like the three little pigs, with snouts cut out of bologna.
For a mom like Dunedin's Sabrina Berger, 34, a teacher with two daughters, ages 7 and 3, stumbling across bento creations on the Internet was a revelation.
"My older daughter had gotten down to about three lunch choices she liked, and I was struggling with how to get her to eat a wider variety of fruits and vegetables," Berger said. "Bento is a lot more in line with little kids' eating habits — it's small, fun to dip things, that kind of thing."
Why go bento?
The ideas behind the bento movement are timely: health, cost and the environment. Making healthy lunches look more attractive than fast food makes it easier for those with food allergies or dieters to forego the drive-through window.
And getting rid of all the waste that comes with a boxed lunch makes Earth lovers feel like they are doing their part.
"I don't even buy the little plastic baggies anymore because I don't have any need for them,'' said Andrea Harms of Indian Rocks Beach.
Harms, 38, the owner of the health food store Crunchy Mama at 12788 Indian Rocks Road, has been sending her daughter to school with a Laptop Lunch system since she was 2. And Morgan, now 5, is an old pro at putting all the containers back in their place when lunch is over, "like putting a puzzle together."
The Bento-like Laptop Lunch box system was invented by two California moms who were appalled to learn that a typical American school kid generates 67 pounds of discarded school-lunch-packaging waste per school year. Harms sells the kits at her store, and you can also buy them at laptoplunches.com for $34.99. They include a bento kit of containers, utensils, a water bottle, insulated carrying case and a book of lunch ideas.
It's also a big cost savings to use your own containers.
One large jug of juice dispensed into a reusable cup is a lot cheaper than those wax juice boxes. Leftovers become lunch, and prepackaged goods like little tubs of applesauce or bags of Wheat Thins are off the grocery list.
Worth the effort
Deborah Hamilton, creator of the largest U.S. bento Web site, Lunch In a Box (lunchinabox.net), has seen her site traffic triple over the past year, to more 450,000 page views per month.
People who are intimidated by the food art on Flickr can find comfort on Hamilton's site, where she is reassuring and quick with "speed bento" tips.
"You can make it as simple and streamlined as you like," Hamilton said. "Some of my speediest (take) five minutes. I use leftovers as I'm cleaning up from dinner or even a sandwich. Bento doesn't have to be rice in a bento box. If you pack the sandwich in a hard case the bread doesn't get squished, so it's got an advantage over the Ziploc. You shouldn't have to change what you eat to make bento. You can pack anything you want. The emphasis is on serving the food in its peak state.
"And I don't want a squished sandwich."
The other extreme are the food artists like Amorette Dye of Ohio, who goes by the Flickr username Sakurako Kitsa. She drops food coloring into pudding or yogurt to paint some color on a green apple decorated to look like a tree frog with carved carrots for webbed feet, or she carves tomatoes into claws to make a "mock lobster" salad. You can see her work and other bento creations in the upcoming book 500 Bento Lunches: 500 Unique Recipes for Brilliant Bento, coming out later this fall from Korero Books.
Dye, 31, said she looks at her creations, which take less than an hour, as a creative outlet or way to mess with her boyfriend's head. "He can't eat anything with a face on it, so I like freaking him out."
The whole trend of bento, she says, can be put "in that warm, fuzzy category, like baking someone a plate of cookies.
"It's just another way to show someone you love them."