5 healthy bento boxes for kids (gluten-free, sandwich-free) + giveaway

5 gluten-free and healthy bento box ideas that are fun, and kid-friendly too! Plus, a bento box giveaway!!

Based off of a Japanese tradition, making healthy bento boxes for your children’s lunch is fun for them, plus they can be really nutritious as well! Today I am sharing five healthy bento box ideas, all of which are gluten-free and sandwich-free. Make sure you check out the bento box giveaway as well, where you get a chance to win over $100 worth of bento box supplies, including four stainless steel bento boxes!

My girls have had so much fun helping me make bento boxes for lunch every day this week. We are gearing up for the school year, gathering supplies, and getting lunch ideas for when we are away from the house. We are part of a homeschool program that includes one day “at class,”, but even when eating at home, I’ve found that these help make lunchtime healthy and fun for the girls.

Why bento boxes?

So why I do think that bento boxes are so great? Here are just a few reasons.

1. They encourage variety. Because you are serving smaller servings of a variety of items, your kids get the chance to try out a lot of different types of food. This is important for developing your child’s palate.

2. Variety often makes healthier meals. When you include a variety of fresh produce and other healthy items in a bento box, you are much more likely to give your children a balanced diet.

3. They are super fun! My kids love eating from a bento box all the time, but especially if I take the time to cut some of the food into cute shapes, and use little Japanese food picks (more on that in a second). And when the food is fun, they are so much more likely to eat it.

Quick and easy bento box formula

An easy formula to think of when making bento boxes could be 1 or more servings of protein, 1 serving of carbohydrates, 1 serving of fruit, 1 serving of vegetables. We don’t follow that every time, but it gives a loose format to build on. Just up the servings for older children, but keep the ratio about the same.

I should also note that whether or not what is packed in one bento box is filling enough for the whole lunch will depend a lot on the appetite and age of your child. For example, my seven-year-old is growing like crazy right now and has a big appetite, so I’m adding extras on the side to her lunch for some of these.

Disclosure: MightyNest is graciously  sponsoring the below giveaway! I will be linking to their website products, used in these photos, as well as a few random Amazon items using my affiliate account. 

Japanese GF bento box, plus 4 other great bento box ideas

Traditional Japanese Bento Box (our favorite)

I think it’s appropriate to start with a Japanese inspired bento box, considering that they are the ones that started this trend! For this specific bento box, I recommend making teriyaki chicken for dinner one night, along with steamed vegetables and sticky rice, but make extra of the chicken and rice. Cut up the leftover chicken for the bento box, and while the rice is still warm, pat into balls with wet, clean hands (we sprinkle salt and sesame seeds on our hands as well when making rice balls). Then all you have to make is the Japanese Cucumber Salad and cut up nori for the lunch. This is all gluten-free, provided you use the recommended tamari sauce, instead of soy sauce, in the recipes as called for.

Food

In the picture: Quad Lunchbot 

Star Struck GF Bento Box, plus 4 other great ideas

Star Struck Bento Box

One of the problems with gluten-free lunches is gluten-free bread, which doesn’t always translate well into packed lunches. My solution? I butter it, and then cut into small shapes, and it ends up like a yummy cracker! This works well even for hearty paleo nut breads, and my girls love it this way. Here I used a small star shaped cookie cutter. It pairs very nicely with my homemade lunchmeat.

Food:

In the picture: Duo Lunchbot

GF Bento box ideas that are kid-friendly and fun!

Healthy Store Bought Item Bento Box

You don’t have to actually cook anything to make a great bento box. Here is an example using only storebought foods.

Food:

  • Nitrate-free Lunchmeat, make into meat rolls
  • Cheddar Goat Cheese (cut in the shape of tulips)
  • Plantain Chips (from Trader Joes – make a great cracker substitution and are even grain-free)
  • Carrot and celery sticks
  • Plum on the side

In the picture: Trio Lunchbot 

GF Lettuce Wrap Bento Box, plus 4 other great gluten free bento box ideas

Gourmet Lettuce Wraps Bento Box

This box is labeled “gourmet” (and it is) but it’s the one my daughters planned the most. While a little more expensive because of the specialty goat cheese and salami, it was amazingly delicious! This is a great example of what children genuinely like if you let them experience a wide range of flavors. They already want this lunch again.

Food:

  • Romaine heart lettuce leaves (center cut out) rolled with a slice of smoked goat cheese and Applegate salami
  • Sweet mini peppers
  • Sliced strawberries
  • Sauerkraut

In the picture: Uno Lunchbot 

Mexican Bento Box, plus 4 other great gluten free bento box ideas

Mexican Bento Box

This was the most filling bento box I made, because the Mexican bean dip is quite hearty when served with a side of chips.

Food:

  • Either healthy refried beans or whole beans topped with salsa and avocado – sprinkle avocado with lemon juice (You could also use leftovers of this Paleo Mexican Seven Layer Dip)
  • Organic blue chips
  • Sliced apple

In the Picture: Duo Lunchbot

Bento Box Accessories

Extras for bento boxes

As you might have noticed, there are a couple of extras in the pictures above. 1. First, most helpful are the silicone cupcake liners you see in many of the pictures. They help keep food separate, even if the container you use isn’t bento-style. I find it especially helpful when packing things like sauerkraut, as you wouldn’t want liquid to seep from that onto sliced fruit. 2. We were pretty thrilled to find these tiny bamboo spoons, too! So cute, and easy to pack. We found ours locally, but Amazon carries this set that looks like the same thing. 3. You will also notice the use of food picks, which are glorified toothpicks! My girls love them, and they make everything so cute. I got mine at Amazon (this set and this set), and there are a lot of other options on Amazon as well.

Mightynest is not only including the pictured silicone cupcake liners in our giveaway together, but they are also sending along the pictured above 4. cute reusable napkin and a 5. whole set of bamboo utensils!

Giveaway

Win 4 lunchbots, plus more (worth over $100 dollars!)
I’m excited to partner with Mighty Nest with the following giveaway of stainless steel Bento Boxes and accessories! I’ve found them wonderful to use, and one lucky person will get the opportunity to win this collection, including the uno, duo, trio, and quad, and the silicone muffin liners, bamboo utensils, and napkin pictured above. Plus, you will be entered into a giveaway for a 1,000 dollar donation to your local school (3 winners!).

MightyNest also donates 15% of their profit to your local school when you purchase from them. I love that they offer such a wide selection of nontoxic lunch school supplies, and support local schools at the same time. That’s a win-win!

Enter this giveaway and subscribe to Mighty Nest for a chance to not only win this giveaway, but also to win a 1,000 dollars for your local school. (You can unsubscribe easily whenever you wish.) U.S. Only. You are responsible for communicating with MightyNest if you are the winner (You will be sent an email if you win, so make sure you use your correct email address).

Considering that I’ve just started experimenting with bento boxes, I’d love to hear from readers on your tips for bento boxes!

French Tuna Salad with Tomatoes & Herbs (Mayo-Free)

French Tuna Salad with Tomatoes & Herbs (Mayo-Free!)

By Alison Diven, Contributing Writer

It’s hard to beat a no-cook meal in late summer, and if you’re looking for something simple and a little elegant too, this French-inspired tuna salad is quick to please. We love this olive oil-dressed salad for its blend of easy prep and fresh, sophisticated flavors. Even better, it showcases two of the season’s superstars, tomatoes and fresh herbs. Serve it in lettuce cups for brunch, on sourdough bread for a last hurrah summer picnic, or alongside a giant salad for dinner.

I’ll never forget the inspiration for this recipe. I sat cross legged on the lawn of Versailles, with the palace in full view across the Grand Canal, as I tasted my first forkful of herby, tomato-filled tuna salad. It was idyllic. That was four years ago on a bicycle tour from Paris, and we’d stopped in the town of Versailles to pick up picnic goods. I remember splitting a Nutella-banana crepe with my mother-in-law—oh, that Chantilly cream!—before selecting a blue cheese that turned out to be one of the best I’d ever tasted, some forgettable odds and ends, and that marvelous mayo-less (in France, of all places!) tuna salad. I came home inspired.

Because this salad is so simple, you’ll want to use the best ingredients you can. Gourmet extra virgin olive oil really makes a difference here. Did you know that, unlike wine, the fresher the olive oil, the more prized? That’s one reason many experts recommend choosing a USA product over imported Italian ones, not to mention concerns about adulteration. Kimberly has written before about her favorite olive oil source, but if you just want to dip your toe in the water, Trader Joe’s carries an award-winning California Estatesextra virgin olive oil in a 16.9 oz bottle at a fabulous price point. That’s what I’ve been using to dress cold dishes and drizzle over soups, and I just love its robust peppery flavor.

Quality tuna is important too, not only for taste and texture, but also for health reasons. There’s the mercury content to consider, of course, but also the potential radioactive effects of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. You can read more from the Nourishing Gourmet about this here, including several tuna brand suggestions like Cole’s from Radiant Life. I used oil-packed Tonnino tuna fillets myself. We’ve cut way back on our tuna consumption, especially since these brands are pricey, but every once in a while, tuna is the only thing that will do!

French Tuna Salad with Tomatoes & Herbs

Finally, let’s talk tomatoes. Believe it or not, we still don’t have farm-fresh tomatoes at the growers’ market here in northern New Mexico! This short growing season is killing me. If you’ve got fresh tomatoes right now, well, eat an extra for me, and then use the rest fresh—deseeded and chopped—in this salad. If, however, you share my sorrow and are making do with grocery store tomatoes, you may enjoy “melting” cherry or grape tomatoes to concentrate and enrich their flavor. Actually, it’s hard for me to decide which way I like this salad better. You really can’t go wrong. (I follow this super easy method for melting tomatoes. Don’t skip the parchment paper!)

Looking for more summer food inspiration? Check out these other recipes from the Nourishing Gourmet:

Chai Tea Fauxccino
Cuban Picadillo Lettuce Wraps
Late Summer Garden Veggie Soup
Summer Kale Salad
Honey Garlic Drumsticks (a Simple Summer Crockpot Meal)

French Tuna Salad with Tomatoes & Herbs
 
Author:
Recipe type: Main course
Cuisine: French
Serves: 4
 
A French-inspired light and refreshing tuna salad with a gourmet touch. Use high quality tuna, olive oil, and tomatoes for best flavor. Either garden-fresh tomatoes or "melted" cherry tomatoes work beautifully--each gives a different, equally delicious flavor profile. Serve the tuna salad as a main course, or stuff lettuce cups with it, or pile it atop sourdough toast. You can't go wrong!
Ingredients
  • 13-14 ounces canned or jarred tuna, preferably packed in olive oil (I used Tonnino)
  • 6 Tablespoons finely chopped fresh herbs - any combination of basil, dill, and/or parsley
  • ¼ cup minced shallot or purple onion
  • ½ cup seeded and diced heirloom tomatoes OR "melted" tomatoes (see this method)
  • 3-4 Tablespoons quality extra virgin olive oil, plus more to drizzle (I used Trader Joe's California Estate)
  • ½ large lemon, juice added to taste
  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Instructions
  1. Drain the tuna and place in a medium bowl. Add the chopped herbs, minced shallot, 3 tablespoons olive oil, salt, and pepper. Mix gently with a fork, breaking up the tuna.
  2. If using fresh tomatoes, carefully fold them in. If using melted tomatoes, break them up with a fork a bit before stirring in--they make a delicious sauce as they burst.
  3. If the mixture is dry, add another tablespoon of olive oil. You may need even more if your tuna was water-packed.
  4. Add lemon juice to taste. Adjust salt, pepper, and herbs to taste.
  5. Serve with an extra drizzle of olive oil on top.

 

 

Miso Noodle Soup with Greens & Pork Ribs – Grain Free (Stove Top or Slow Cooker)

Miso Noodle Soup with Greens & Pork Ribs (Grain Free)

Pork ribs are simmered in a ginger-laced broth, then accented with greens and mushrooms and layered with flavors of miso, tamari and umeboshi plum vinegar (or rice wine vinegar). If this isn’t Japanese(ish) soul food, I don’t know what is.

Up until recently we enjoyed this with rice noodles, but lately we’ve loved it with mung bean cellophane noodles or (affiliate link) kelp noodles! Both of these grain free varieties are silky and lovely and totally neutral in flavor. And my kids give the thumbs up for slurpability which – you know – I tolerate, because they are eating such a nutritious meal!

Here are some more grain-free pasta options if you are looking for alternatives. As for the base, I make my own frugal chicken stock or a broth out of drumsticks.

Miso Noodle Soup with Greens & Pork Ribs (Grain Free)

Kelp Noodles

I fell in love with Japanese food in my early 20′s. After graduating college, I worked for a large Japanese company as a project engineer. It wasn’t long until I made a career leap to teaching Pilates and other wellness pursuits, but I was there long enough to get a good glimpse into Japanese culture, get comfortable with chopsticks and even have the opportunity to travel to Japan.

Spending a week in Japan was amazing in so many ways, but the food. Oh the food! It was out of this world.

Bear with me while I reminisce about some of my many food adventures there:

  • After a 13 hour flight and landing on soil that was 13 hours ahead of Atlanta, I felt completely upside down. I didn’t really come around until later at night when Tokyo was all lit up and a Japanese coworker and I settled into a sushi boat restaurant (here’s a good photo of one so you get an idea). We feasted on sushi and sashimi washed down with a little cold sake from a sort of miniature sake waterfall.
  • The next morning (after waking up bright-eyed at 4a.m. and watching the sunrise) I wandered down to the hotel restaurant and had the choice of an American or Japanese breakfast. I chose the Japanese breakfast which consisted of salmon, miso soup, pickled vegetables and rice. Such a great way to start the day!
  • My coworkers and I (both American and Japanese) often ate lunch at the company headquarters cafe. Usually I got the tonkatsu which is a breaded, deep-fried (but somehow light tasting) pork cutlet drizzled with a dark, complex sauce -salty, sweet and tangy. Such delicious food even in a sterile corporate cafeteria.
  • Then there was the magical experience I had in a green tea shop. In the interest of time, I’ll send you over to this Matcha-Ginger Scones post to read it if you’d like. (The scones are great too!)
  • One misadventure I had was at one of the finer sushi restaurants. I was with a Japanese coworker and we were both so excited about the meal to come. He was looking forward to eating some of the more exotic selections (sea urchin for one) but I stuck to the basics. We both had a “sweet shrimp” sushi and ate it at the same time. This was the first thing I had encountered that I didn’t like. In fact I couldn’t even tolerate it and to my horror, I started gagging involuntarily. But thankfully when I looked up, he had his eyes closed and was quietly moaning with delight so I took advantage and quickly spit it into my napkin. By the time he opened his eyes I was poised and smiling!

One of the popular “fast foods” is the ramen soup bowl. These are large hearty bowls of soup brimming with meat, vegetables and umami that hit the spot for lunch. I found a recipe for a pork ramen soup in (affiliate link) Slow Cooker Revolution and adapted it for the stove top and to make it more nourishing. It is deeply satisfying like the soups I remember in Japan. My husband raves about it and the kids down it without a complaint!

I hope you get a chance to try it and love it as much as we do!

Here are some more Japanese-inspired recipes from The Nourishing Gourmet:

Do you love Japanese food? What are your favorite dishes?

Miso Noodle Soup with Greens & Pork Ribs (Grain Free)
 
Author:
Recipe type: Soup
Cuisine: Japanese-Inspired
Serves: 4
 
This richly-flavored, decadent soup is simple to make and a family pleaser! Adapted from a recipe in Slow Cooker Revolution.
Ingredients
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons minced ginger
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil or ghee
  • 8 cups chicken broth or stock
  • 12 ounces mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 pounds pork ribs (bone-in baby back or a leaner cut of spare ribs, if using boneless use 1.5 pounds)
  • 1 (12 ounce) package of kelp or mung bean noodles
  • 6 cups spinach or kale
  • 2 tablespoons miso (white or red)
  • 1-2 tablespoons tamari (to taste)
  • 1 tablespoon umeboshi plum vinegar (or rice wine vinegar)
  • 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
  • Ideas for garnishments: scallions, sliced jalapenos, seaweed flakes and/or toasted sesame seeds
Instructions
  1. Over low-medium heat saute the onion, garlic and ginger in the coconut oil or ghee, careful not to let the garlic burn.
  2. Once softened, add in the chicken broth, ribs and mushrooms. (Since my kids don't like mushrooms I usually saute these on the side and serve at the table separately.)
  3. Simmer for 2 hours if you can (this will make the meat even more tender and the flavors come together better). If not, 1.5 hours is fine!
  4. Take out the pork ribs and cut the meat into bite-size pieces, removing the fat.
  5. If you are using spinach and mung bean or kelp noodles, remove the soup from the heat and stir in the rest of the ingredients including the meat. It's ready to serve.
  6. If you are using the kale and/or rice noodles that need some additional cooking time, you will need to add them in while the soup is simmering until they soften. Then take the soup off the heat and stir in the remaining ingredients.
  7. Serve the garnishments on the side.
Notes
To make this soup in the slow cooker, just add sauteed onions, garlic and ginger plus the broth, mushrooms and ribs. Cook on high 5-7 hours. Cut pork into bite-sized pieces. Stir in kale, spinach and noodles and let them cook til tender. (If you're using mung bean or kelp noodles they will be ready very quickly so add them right at the end.) Add back in the pork and season with the remaining ingredients. Serve.

 

Coconut Orange Ginger Beef Stir-fry

30 Minute Meal Coconut Orange Ginger Beef Stir-fry

By Lindsey Proctor, contributing writer

Would you like another quick, easy, nutritious meal to add to your menu rotation? Then this quick stir-fry is just the thing for you! Made with grass-fed beef, rice noodles, yummy veggies, fresh-squeezed orange juice, coconut water, and toasted sesame seeds, spices, fresh ginger, and fresh garlic, this dish is full of flavor!  Best of all, it comes together quickly (it took me just under 30 minutes from stovetop to table) thanks to the quick-cooking rice noodles and a hot sauté pan, plus a few other time-saving tips.

Plan ahead, prepare ahead

The key to getting dinner on the table quickly is to plan ahead and do a few quick preparations earlier in the day when you have just a few minutes of time to spare. For example, when you go to the freezer to get your meat out to thaw, grab your veggies, too! This will cut down on the time needed to sauté them, since they won’t have to thaw in the pan before they cook.

If you are working with a whole piece of meat – say a sirloin or flank steak – that will need to be cut into smaller strips for this dish, try to cut the meat when it’s still partially frozen. It’s so much easier that way, and when cooking time comes, your meat will be completely thawed and ready to sear.

When you put the water in the saucepan for the pasta, if you can safely use water straight from your kitchen faucet, make it hot! If you need to use bottled or filtered water, measure it out and put it in the pan earlier in the day so it can at least be at room temperature. This way, there’s less time needed for the burner to heat up the water, and it’ll reach boiling just a bit faster than if you start with cold water.

And I know that this is a commonsense tip, but sometimes I forget – when it’s time to start cooking, read over the recipe and gather your ingredients and supplies. It’s a lot easier to walk over to the spice cupboard and cooking gadgets drawer once and get everything you need, than to walk around your kitchen several times grabbing things as you need them!  Read over the recipe instructions and come up with a plan of action. Start the water boiling before you heat your oil, so that you can boil the noodles while you’re cooking the meat and drain them while the veggies are cooking. Make the most of your time, and you’ll have more moments to spend around the table enjoying a great meal with your loved ones.

Note: This recipe calls for soy sauce. Please see this previous post by Kimi for advice on choosing the right kind

Coconut Orange Ginger Beef Stir-fry
 
Author:
Recipe type: Main
Cuisine: Asian Fusion
Serves: 4-6
 
Ingredients
  • 1 lb sirloin or flank steak, cut into small strips, thawed
  • 1 lb frozen stir-fry vegetables - I used a mix containing broccoli, carrots, peas, red pepper, and onion, thawed
  • 3 Tablespoons Sesame Oil
  • ½ teaspoon white sesame seeds
  • ½ teaspoon black sesame seeds
  • 1 tsp Chinese 5 Spice powder
  • 1 tsp fresh grated ginger
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • ⅓ cup fresh orange juice
  • ⅓ cup coconut water
  • 3 Tablespoons organic, naturally brewed soy sauce (use tamari for gluten-free)
  • 2 Tablespoons organic, non-GMO cornstarch or arrowroot powder
  • 1 8 oz package rice noodles
Instructions
  1. Bring water for pasta to a boil, cook according to package directions.
  2. In a large skillet or wok, toast sesame seeds over medium heat. Add sesame oil, Chinese 5 spice powder, ginger, and garlic. Cook until garlic is browned. Raise heat to medium high. Add beef strips and cook until meat is no longer pink, about 8 minutes. Remove beef from pan and set aside. Do not remove any liquid that may have accumulated during the cooking of the meat. Add vegetables and cook until they are crisp-tender, about 10 minutes.
  3. In a glass measuring cup, whisk together orange juice, coconut water, soy sauce, and cornstarch or arrowroot powder. Pour over cooked vegetables and stir to combine. Cook until liquid has thickened, about 3 minutes. Add meat back into the pan and stir to combine ingredients. Serve over rice noodles. Enjoy!