Portable lunches can be practical, delicious, and visually appealing, according to a new book by Crystal Watanabe and Maki Ogawa: Yum-Yum Bento Box: Fresh Recipes for Adorable Lunches. Over the course of centuries, the Japanese have been developing the single-portion takeout dish known as the bento, but in America, its popularity with kids (not to mention their mothers) is a relatively recent phenomenon. Whether in lunch boxes, paper bags, or fancy insulated lunch sacks, it seems schoolchildren have always toted food around between breakfast and lunchtime.

Yum-Yum Bento Box breaks down the seemingly intricate process of bento-box assembly with more than fifty recipes and dozens of photos that show how to “style” a successful bento box. The book outlines which tools are necessary to create bento boxes, including condiment pencils (to draw with thick sauces); straws (to cut out rosy cheeks from salami); and toothpicks (to make tiny homemade flags). Yum-Yum Bento Box also has a short section entitled “Ingredients for Happy Faces,” where heads of characters are made from rice balls, hamburger buns, and hard-boiled eggs, and noses are made from peas, black olives, cheese, and deli meats. (In fact, deli meat seems to be the key ingredient here; with it, bento-makers can fashion everything from bunny ears to scarves.)

Following the introductory pages, the book is divided into three sections: “Cuties and Critters,” “Fairy-Tale Friends,” and “Special Day Treats,” all which help make the daunting task of bento-box assembly much less intimidating. Yum-Yum Bento Box isn't so much a standard cookbook as it is a book of recipes with cute, colorful pictures, taken by the book's co-author and photographer, Maki Ogawa. It's full of other tips and tricks that help make lunch healthy, fun to eat, and perhaps most importantly, fun to make.

"Eek! A Mouse!" from Yum-Yum Bento Box; Credit: Photo by Maki Ogawa

“Eek! A Mouse!” from Yum-Yum Bento Box; Credit: Photo by Maki Ogawa

Eek! A Mouse!

From: Yum-Yum Bento Box: Fresh Recipes for Adorable Lunches by Crystal Watanabe and Maki Ogawa

Pink mouse:

1 slice ham or bologna

1 sheet nori

1. Trace circles or use circle food cutters to make the mouse's head and ears out of sliced meat.

2. Use a hole punch to cut 3 dots out of nori for the eyes and nose. Cut out whiskers with scissors and apply. Put pink mouse into the bento box once everything else has been arranged.

Sautéed Basil Tomatoes:

about 1 tsp extra-virgin olive oil

1 tsp minced onions

a pinch garlic salt, to taste

3 to 5 cherry tomatoes

1 chopped basil leaf

1. Heat oil in a skillet on medium-high heat. Add minced onions and sauté 1 or 2 minutes. Season with garlic salt.

2. Stir in tomatoes, tossing and cooking until skin starts to loosen. Add basil and cook until soft. Remove and let cool. Place a food cup into the bento box and fill it with the sautéed tomatoes.

Garlic Asparagus:

1 tsp extra-virgin olive oil

2 asparagus stalks

pinch of garlic salt

1. Peel bottoms of asparagus stalks. Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add asparagus and sprinkle with garlic salt. Continue cooking 3 minutes or until just tender.

2. Let cool and then arrange neatly next to other fruits and vegetables.

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