Yochien Obento Lunch Box “Kindergarden Bento”

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Yochien Obento Lunch Box “Kindergarden Bento”

In Japan, there is a specific term for Yochien obento (お弁当, o-ben·to), and depending on who you ask you will always get a different answer on what Yochien obento means.

Japanese obento lunch boxes have many variations. In this article, we discuss Yochien Obento Lunch Box “Kindergarden Bento” with a cultural order and meaning; it is a particular type of lunch box that has been meticulously prepared by the mother for her nursery school-aged child. The meal includes an array of small food portions including carbs, veggies, fruit, treats and protein. Prepared so that it is healthy, delicious, visually appealing and can be eaten in its entirety “no leftovers” in a timely manner.

Obento (Obento-Bako)
Yochien Obento Lunch Box (Obento-Bako)

Today preparing Japanese lunch boxes involves creating a meal with cute food arranged in a manner, so that presentation, textures and aroma encourage healthy eating. However, there is a history behind Yochien Obento. After World War 2, food programs were introduced to help improve nutrition amongst younger children in the growing nation in Japan. Guidelines for making successful obento lunch boxes for children at nursery schools were promoted to parents and programs were managed by teachers and overseen by school authorities linked to and regulated by the state. Yochien Obento preparation quickly became a routine task, and cultural art forms were endowed with ideological meanings that were pleasurable and creative for both mother and child.

Preparation & Ritual

Obento lunch box preparation became a ritual of the mother making lunch boxes for the child, which was to eat the meal in its entirety in front of other students. The meal had to be appealing, include a range of colours, be tasty and enjoyable and eaten promptly. It became custom that lunch boxes were an array of small portions of elegantly arranged food items in a compartmentalised container that was strong and adorable.

Mothers would take pride in their bento creations devoting time and energy, paying attention to detail and always doing their best to ensure a variety of foods that evolved with seasonal foods. Each meal had four to five parts, was made to please their child and at the same time, affirm that they were good mothers. In turn, at a young age, children were taught to eat their whole meal according to school regulations.

Yochien Obento Guidelines

Magazines and bento cookbooks were devoted to obento preparation laced with information and colourful bento images, ideas, bento recipes and utensil suggestions. Schools would regularly issue flyers that included discussions of other mothers and teachers reaffirming strict guidelines. Examples of the small bento box included;

1. The bento meal must be easy for the child to eat: food portions cut into small pieces to be manipulable by child-sized fingers or chopsticks.
2. Meal portions should be small so that that the child devoured the meal with no left-overs.
3. Ingredients that the child does not “yet” like should be gradually introduced to eliminate fussy food habits (sukikirai).
4. The bento should be appealing, cute, and visually presenting non-food based objects such as foil, tooth-pick flags, cute napkins and various shaped containers for condiments.
5. Design bento related items as much as possible by the mother’s own hands, including the obento bag (obentofukuro) in which the obento transported.

Nutrition & Food Groups

Obento bento lunch box guidelines didn’t necessarily restrict the types of foods used though they suggested that the meal should include greens and be nutritious. Obento meals typically consisted of three to four parts, for example, one-part (rice), two-parts (main dish of meat/chicken/fish), three-part (vegetable side dishes). The rice was almost always separate from the rest of the meal so that it didn’t combine other flavours. The main meal was anything from dumplings, beef, stir-fried chicken, steamed fish while the side dishes included a salad or fruit. Read more about bento box food groups.

Other guidelines included making the meal so that the child could become proficient in using chopsticks, fill and decorate the bento lunch box with cute dreams (kawairashi yume). For children who disliked a food type, mothers were encouraged to balance the meal with most ingredients they liked but gradually include small portions of disliked foods to get them used to the taste. Examples of such extraordinary bento creations from a selection of obento magazines included:

Doughnut obento this required two doughnuts and two wieners cut into a shape of a worm, then cut two pieces of apple with two minature cheese rolls and one boiled egg made to look resemble a bunny rabbit with two leafs as ears and two pickles for eyes which was set in a aluminium tin with paper napkin added.

Wiener doll obento consisted of flat bed of rice and a doll shaped out of eight pieces of cut wiener that were used to make up the hat, head, hair, arms, legs and body with a thin strip of pink ginger, green parsley and a paper flag added.

Vegetable flower & tulip obento: this also had a flat bed of rice that included a chopped boiled egg with three tulip flowers that were made out of thinly sliced weiner pieces with several pieces of spinach that were arranged as branch and leaves, fruit salad with raisins, cooked peach and apple slices.

Sweetheart doll obento abekku ningyo no obento: prepared in a obento box with two sections added were four rice balls on one side, on the other side were two dolls made of quail’s eggs for heads, eyes and mouth added, bodies made of cucumber arranged as if lying down with two raw carrots for the pillow, covers made of one flower-cut cooked carrot, two pieces of ham, pieces of cooked spinach, and with different coloured plastic skewers holding the dolls together.

Yochien obento ingredients would differ depending on the individual; however, another bento magazine suggested that the secret to making a successful bento was to use a colour combination of red, green, and yellow. Making your bento meal with the three colours in mind would make the meal look tasty and help the lunch box healthy and nutritious. Red is said to increase appetites and is packed with vitamins including antioxidants and high in fibre, yellow foods are nutritious and include phytonutrients, lutein and green foods packed with antioxidants, minerals and vitamins.

Obento Evolves Kyaraben (Character Bento)

During the 70s bento lunch boxes were decorated bento boxes intended to promote healthy eating bento amongst children. In recent years bento lunch boxes have evolved into a cultural phenomenon. Kyaraben or character bento popularity soared in 2010 due to TV programs, and magazines were fueling the idea.  Today there is a rapidly growing market dedicated to character bento equipment for moulding rice, trimming nori (seaweed), and other preparation tools.

Late in 2013, the Japanese government launched kyaraben contests to promote Japanese food worldwide. Character bento has since gone beyond a fad and now a genre. Kyaraben is a cultural symbol of elaborately arranged bento boxes with food decorated to look like famous people, characters from popular media, animals, plants, video games, and anime characters. No longer is it only promoted amongst children, times have changed with young and old enjoying the trend. Read more here.

Children Enjoying Yochien Obento
Children Enjoying Yochien Obento
Child Eating Obento Meal
Child Eating Obento Meal
Obento Lunch Box Example
Obento Lunch Box Example
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