The Art of Lunch: Bento Lunch Box

Jul 4, 2024

How and when we eat our meals and food has changed dramatically over the history of humankind.  During the Middle Ages, dinner, or the main meal of the day, was late in the morning or mid-afternoon, when there was daylight and no need for candles.  In the 18  century, this meal gradually started to be consumed later in the evening, leaving a substantial time lag, and hungry bellies, between breakfast and dinner.  A meal called lunch came to fill that gap.

Rural customs changed because of industrialization, and men left the home to work all day in the mills.  Children walked to the local school.  At first, workers and students that lived within walking distance were sent home for their noontime meal.  In the late 1960’s when my family lived in town, my sister and I walked home every day for lunch, often inviting a friend to join us.

As it became unfeasible for workers to leave for a meal, the lunchbox, aka dinner pail or lunch tin, became a part of our eating habits.  A woven basket with handles was the first container used to transport a meal, which was wrapped in a handkerchief.  In the early 1800’s, tinplate boxes and recycled biscuit tins were commonly used.   Pails and boxes fitted with compartments arrived on the scene in the 1850’s.   These later became whole kits complete with vacuum bottles.  My great grandfather’s lunchbox included a thermos of hot tea that was packed under the foil packets of food to keep them warm.

For schoolchildren, plastic lunchboxes became popular over metal, most often decorated with cartoon characters and stickers.  These brightly colored boxes were the perfect fit for the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich, carrot sticks, and an apple.

In Japan, the bento box, a centuries old part of the culture, became a worldwide model in how to pack a school lunch. Japanese mothers took great pride in creating beautiful curated lunch boxes, often with artistically carved fruit and vegetables.  This concept gradually migrated to the United States, literarily becoming a cult, with millions of social media tags and numerous accounts.

Regardless of how you pack your lunch, it’s the presentation or eye-appeal and nutritional content that matter the most.  A balanced snack or lunch provides fuel for both the brain and the body.  A beautifully presented, colorful meal encourages the appetite while providing delicious nutrients.

I encourage folks to involve all family members in mealtime prep.  Not only are the extra sets of hands handy in the kitchen, any food preparation is an opportunity to develop life-long cooking and eating habits. The results are very rewarding, and it can be lots of fun.

So what makes a healthy lunch or a snack?  A good, nutritious repast includes a fruit, a vegetable, a protein and a carbohydrate. Fruits can include both fresh, dried and cooked.  Think strawberries, wild blueberries and raspberries, apple, orange and melons slices, apple or pear sauce, dried apricots, cranberries and raisins, grapes, peaches and plums.

Veggies stick of carrots, turnip and rutabaga are easy to eat. Try cucumber slices, cherry tomatoes, sugar snap pears, broccoli or sweet peppers.  Nuts and seeds provide protein, as do boiled eggs, ham or tuna salad, cooked chicken or beef, cheese, and tofu.

Carbohydrates rich in fiber are the most filling, whole grain bread or crackers, rice, pasta, flatbread and corn chips.   Leftover rice or pasta from supper make into a filling lunch when combined with chopped veggies, beans or meat.

When two visitors from Charleston, South Carolina; Lou Lou Ryan (age 10) and Willa Brouwer (age 9), recently joined me for lunch, they demonstrated how creative and fun packing a bento box could be.

LouLou’s lunch included wild blueberries and a strawberry, carrot sticks and cucumbers garnished with a pansy, asparagus spears, whole grain bread and crackers, cashews, and slices of BBQ chicken.

Willa opted for a mound of fresh, ripe strawberries garnished with a bright orange nasturtium, carrots, cucumbers, celery and zucchini, oatmeal bread, cheese, sliced chicken and cheese.  LouLou loved making a Bento lunchbox and “thought is was something really fun and cool.”  Willa loved the wide selection and thought the food was “super good!”  Both guests relished the hands-on opportunity to produce and eat their artistic creations.

Two touchstones of the blue zones, regions of the world in which people have exceptionally long and healthy lives, are rich social activities and a local, whole foods diet.   Taking a breaking from chores, work or school, sitting down to a table surrounded with family or coworkers and enjoying good food, is nourishing to both the body and the human spirit. Skip the fast food lines, and treat the family and yourself to the art of lunch.


Cheryl Wixson
Servings 1


  • 1 Serving Fruit Orange, banana, apple, berries (the best!),dried apricots, cranberries, raisins, cherries, kiwi, mango, peaches, and plums 
  • 1 Serving Vegetables All makings of salad, leafy greens, sugar snap peas, root veggie sticks, cucumber, zucchini or summer squash slices, cooked squash or pumpkin,
  • 1 Serving Carbohydrates Whole grain bread (add a filling to make a sandwich). crackers, rice or pasta (add veggies to make a salad), lentils or beans (bonus for also a protein), flatbread, corn chips.
  • 1 Serving Protein Boiled egg, cashews, peanuts, almonds, pumpkin and sunflowers seeds, deli meat slices, ham or tuna salad, cooked slices of beef, chicken, turkey, cheese, both soft and sliced, cooked seafood.
  • Garnishes Edible flowers, pickles, herbs, small sweettreatsPack your foods in jars with lids, or thecompartment of your lunchbox.  Be sure toinclude a napkin and tableware if needed. Enjoy your food!  

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