ARMED with kittens of molded rice and sweet potato flowers, Sheri Chen took aim at her 2-year-old daughter, Lucy — a picky eater.
“I have to make her food look like something she recognizes,” said Ms. Chen, 42, a stay-at-home mother in San Leandro, Calif. “If her boiled egg is shaped like a bunny and it is holding a baby carrot, she’ll eat it.”
With cookie cutters Ms. Chen makes her daughter star-shaped vegetables; and with decorative skewers, a plastic top hat and pieces of nori (dried seaweed), cherry tomatoes become smiley faced, mustachioed creatures.
Her ruse includes assembling each meal in her version of a bento box, a Japanese lunch box, decorated with cute cartoon characters.
It might seem like silly kids’ stuff, but that sense of fun has helped make bento boxes — obentos as the Japanese call them — increasingly popular with grownups in the United States, too.
For dieters, they are an eye-popping form of portion control. Artistic preparation of ingredients can act as a pleasant distraction for health-conscious parents. For others, bentos are a way to make lunch pretty or indulge their love of things Japanese.
In Japan, compact, compartmented bento boxes are traditionally filled with rice, pickled vegetables and fish or meat. Japanese mothers take pride in their obentos and hope they outshine those of other mothers, said the Japanese cookbook author Hiroko Shimbo.
“Obento making is a kind of cult,” she said.
It’s approaching cult status in the United States. On Saturday in Central Park, as part of its Crossing the Line festival, the French Institute Alliance Française will be handing out bento boxes with components made by some top French and American chefs — including Inaki Aizpitarte, Pascal Barbot, Alexandre Gauthier, Michel Bras, David Chang and Wylie Dufresne.
On a more plebian level, Amazon.com said sales of the boxes and accessories like egg molds, rice shapers, plastic skewers shaped like animals or flowers have been growing.
But toothache-inducing cuteness is not the only appeal.
Jordan Smith, 20, a junior majoring in East Asian studies and political science at Yale University, started making bento boxes in high school in Port Orange, Fla.
“I was on the football team,” Mr. Smith said, “so I tried to have a balanced diet and eat healthy as much as possible.” He would group protein, rice and vegetables. “I would usually use snap peas, tomatoes, carrots; basically things that were relatively colorful and not too bland tasting.”
He endured a bit of ridicule — “like, look at that white person pretending to be Japanese” — but that didn’t stop him.
“Japanese culture here is getting more popular by the day,” he said.
He’s still making bento boxes, but now they’re mainly a way to save money by making his own lunch.
Debra Littlejohn, 52, a quality-assurance engineer from Edmonds, Wash., estimated that she and her husband were spending $400 a month buying lunch out every day.
So in June she started packing her dinner leftovers into bento boxes.
“If I had to price out all my ingredients,” Ms. Littlejohn said, “each box would probably cost $2.”
She likes to find artistic ways to present the food.
One of her recent boxes included a multihued medley of halved figs, curried eggplant, green leaf lettuce and sliced purple carrots.
“I don’t have time to break out the art supplies in my drawer,” Ms. Littlejohn said. “Every evening when I pack our lunches, I get this creative outlet. And if I don’t do something artistic, I might implode.”
Creativity matters as much as taste and nutrition to Jason Miller, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of South Florida.
“It doesn’t hurt to add a funny element as well,” Mr. Miller, 28, said. He recently made onigiri, triangles of sticky rice with various fillings. “Instead of leaving them plain, I cut nori — seaweed — in strips and made the onigiri into sumo wrestlers.” Artistry is what differentiates a bento box from a plastic container of leftovers, said Makiko Itoh, 46, who lives outside Zurich and runs the blog justbento.com, filled with how-to’s, recipes and discussion forums.
“Food presented attractively looks more appetizing, since we eat with our eyes as much as our taste buds and stomachs,” said Ms. Itoh, who was born in Japan but lived for a while in New York. “That’s emphasized more in Japanese cuisine and culture perhaps than in other cuisines.”
She said bentos often reflect the Japanese belief that each meal should have five colors — a version of the food pyramid. It helps people remember to vary their food, especially since the most colorful foods are usually fruits and vegetables.
“You can apply that to any lunch combination,” she said. “For example, sliced bread (let’s call that white, even if you use whole wheat) with peanut butter or cold cuts (brown), a green salad (green) with red peppers and cherry tomatoes (red) and a banana (yellow).”
A balance of flavors, textures and cooking methods also matters, she said.
Sheri Lindquist saw bentos as a healthy choice for her five sons and her husband after he had triple-bypass surgery. “I don’t make them bento lunches all the time,” said Ms. Lindquist, 48, who lives in Denair, Calif. “But if there is something especially yucky or healthy or new I do try to present it in a more fun format.” Like breaded spinach balls with carrot ears and faces.
Acquiring accessories like plastic giraffe picks or star-shaped nori punches, however, proved challenging for Ms. Lindquist, as most of the boxes and tools were sold only in Japan. So in March 2008 she began iloveobento.com, an online bento box store.
Another bento blogger, Jennifer McCann, began veganlunchbox.blogspot.com on her son’s first day of school in 2005.
She made him sushi for lunch in a bento box from laptoplunches.com, which sells Americanized bento boxes with lidded compartments for items like yogurt or dips like ketchup. She took a picture of it and posted it.
“I thought it might give a lot of vegan moms inspiration for other lunches besides PB and J, “ said Ms. McCann, 38, who lives in Kennewick, Wash.
Within months she was getting thousands of page views a day of the boxes she was making, she said. She’s since published “Vegan Lunch Box” (Da Capo Press, 2008) and “Vegan Lunch Box Around the World” (Da Capo, 2009), which includes recipes for a Japanese tiger bento, Caribbean plantain wraps and Indonesian tempeh.
Her son, James, now 11, has outgrown the boxes and no longer takes the bentos to school. “He wants his lunch to be totally normal now, like everyone else,” she said.
Making lunches look cute for children is an art called kyaraben in Japan.
But some bento-ists think cute takes too much time.
Deborah Hamilton, 40, who writes the blog lunchinabox.net, makes boxes for her husband and 4-year-old son of, for instance, tamales, broccoli florets, cherry tomatoes and a strawberry. “You can make these as intricate or fancy as you like,” she said, “or you can make them plain and simple. You don’t have to get all kinds of Martha with it. My regular bento takes 10 to 15 minutes, maximum.”
Ms. Itoh, the author of justbento.com, said the boxes, about the size of a fat turkey sandwich, let her control her portions and helped her lose 30 pounds.
“Generally speaking, for a tightly packed Japanese-style bento, the number of milliliters that a box can hold corresponds roughly to the number of calories it holds,” she wrote on her blog.
Crystal Watanabe, 30, an administrative assistant in Honolulu, used bento portion control when she began a Weight Watchers program in 2007. She lost 22 pounds and wrote about her experience on her blog, aibento.net (Adventures in Bentomaking).
The blog got her involved in the bento community on the photo-sharing site Flickr.com.
“We post pictures and people take ideas from each other,” Ms. Watanabe said. “It’s really a very creative community and fun. Everyone is so supportive.”
Ms. Chen, in San Leandro, one of the more prolific contributors to the photo pools, can be a little wilder when making bentos for Lucy’s brother, Koa, 6, who, unlike his sister, is not finicky.
“He even eats the lettuce I put in his boxes as garnish,” she said.
A recent lunch box for him included teriyaki salmon with peapods, two kinds of sweet potato and golden beet “maple leaves.” On the side: skewered purple carrot discs and a tomato made to look like a frog man. For dessert: a strawberry, champagne grapes, blackberries and a litchi.
“I am not a gourmet cook,” Ms. Chen said, “but when you put anything in a bento box it looks nice.”
Where to Get Boxes and Supplies
BENTO & CO Bentoandco.com (French language site, ships from Japan).
BENTO CRAZY Bentocrazy.ecrater.com.
FROM JAPAN WITH LOVE From-japan-with-love.com (ships from Japan).
I LOVE OBENTO Iloveobento.com.
JAPAN CENTRE Japancentre.com (ships from England).
J BOX Jbox.com (ships from Japan).
KINOKUNIYA 1073 Sixth Avenue (41st Street), (212) 869-1700.
LAPTOP LUNCHES Laptoplunches.com.
BOOKS: “501 Bento Box Lunches: 501 Unique Recipes for Brilliant Bento” (Graffito Books, 2009) and “Vegan Lunch Box Around the World” by Jennifer McCann (Da Capo, 2009).