Pack a School Lunch with Punch the Obento Way

by Jenny Harrington

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When my 6-year-old informed me everyone teased him because he didn't get hot lunch, I realized that I would either have to cave in and shell out money for hot lunch or find a way to spice up the cool factor of his home packed lunches. I instantly got online and began looking for thrifty ways to make a lunch the other kids would be jealous of. I discovered the Obento, or Japanese packed lunch. Many of these are culinary works of art, with food molded into cartoon characters, celebrities and more. I had found my inspiration.

On my first attempt, I used a large gingerbread man cookie cutter to make a boy shaped turkey sandwich. Then, with a sharp knife, I made a shirt out of a cheese slice and shorts from a red pepper for the "boy-wich." I cut octagons out of nori (seaweed sheets), wet them slightly, and stuck them on a hardboiled egg to make a soccer ball. I placed some peas on toothpicks for caterpillars and used a mini cookie cutter to make kiwi fruit butterflies. He came home the next day smiling, and I knew then that the extra 10 minutes I spent preparing it had paid off.

You can buy expensive supplies online or at Asian groceries. A better way is to keep your eye out when you visit discount stores, sales, and thrift shops. You may already own many of these things! Things that I find helpful:

Cupcake liners (paper or silicone)
Wooden or plastic toothpicks (You can reuse plastic!)
Mini cookie cutters
Hole punches that make different shapes (Check out scrapbook sales at craft stores)
A pair of scissors for kitchen use
A lunch box
Reusable containers that fit inside the lunchbox

What you can put in the Obento:

  • Cut sandwiches into fun shapes.

  • Make boiled egg chicks. Using a sharp knife, cut only the white part of the egg in half making a jagged line. Do not cut into the yolk. Carefully remove the top part of the white from the egg, leaving the yolk still in the bottom half. Now attach a sliver of carrot to the yolk to form a beak, and two black sesame seeds for eyes. Now you have a baby chick breaking out of its shell!

  • Use mini cookie cutters to cut vegetables and fruit into fun shapes. You can also do this with cheese and lunchmeat.

  • Make a hot dog octopus. Using a sharp knife, cut a hot dog in half. Lengthwise, slice two-thirds of the way up the middle of the hot dog from the cut end. Turn the hot dog to the uncut side and make another lengthwise slice up the middle. These are the legs. Boil the hot dogs and the legs curl, giving you your octopus!

  • Place peas or edamame (soybeans) on toothpicks to make caterpillars.

  • Crack the shell on a hardboiled egg all over but do not remove the shell. Soak in a bowl of water colored with food coloring for an hour. Remove the shell and you have a dinosaur egg.

  • Use the cupcake dividers to separate wet items from dry items in the lunchbox.

  • Purchase some nori sheets (seaweed) from the Asian section of your grocery store or an Asian market. Most kids like the salty taste of this seaweed. Using scissors or your craft punches, you can decorate the most boring lunch into something interesting!

You are only limited by your imagination. If you make noodles for dinner, set some aside to be a nest for your dinosaur egg. Boil a bunch of eggs at once to add to the lunches over the next week. Also, try and make your lunches reflect your child's interests. A few extra minutes does not only save you money, but also it adds a bright spot to your kid's day when they open their lunch box and amaze their friends.

Jenny is a wife and mother of two young boys who loves to find ways to give her family the good life for less.

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