Expression of love: How two mothers find joy in making their kids' bento boxes

Yap with her sons, Tzyy Han (right) and Tzyy Sern. — Photos: YAP SHUET YEE

EVERY school day starts early for Yap Shuet Yee, 37, mother of two boys. She begins her morning ritual in the kitchen at 5.45am, while her family is still asleep.

“Most days, planning and preparation for my kids’ lunch start the night before to ensure a smooth process in the morning,” she says.

However, some mornings demand an even earlier start. “Depending on the menu, I may need to wake up earlier, but there are days when oversleeping forces me to quickly jump to plan B,” she admits.

Yap’s morning duties don’t end with the cooking of her planned menu. After the meals are cooked, she puts on her creative hat and meticulously assembles the day’s meals into carefully-selected bento boxes.

Some mothers might find the idea laborious, given the typical morning school rush, but Yap relishes her routine.

“I choose bento boxes to complement each day’s menu and assembling the dishes in the bento box is my favourite part of the day,” she says.

After capturing her creations for her Instagram followers, Yap then packs the boxes alongside pre-filled water bottles in the accompanying lunch bags. “By 6.40am, the packed lunch for my boys, Tzyy Han, 10, and Tzyy Sern, six, are ready to go,” says the IT project manager.

Animal-shaped sandwiches with cherry tomatoes for Yap's sons.Animal-shaped sandwiches with cherry tomatoes for Yap's sons.

Palate pleasing

Akie Sen, a 36-year-old mother of two from Selangor, shares how she started preparing bento boxes for her daughter, Isabella Eng, eight.

“She is a fussy eater. I began packing food for her morning snacks ever since she started preschool because I was worried that she wouldn’t eat anything. I thought if I made the food look nicer and more attractive, she might be encouraged to eat,” she adds.

With Isabella now in primary school, and her second child, Dexter Eng, four, in preschool, Sen began taking packing lunch boxes seriously.

“The children actually look forward to their lunch boxes daily,” says the mumpreneur, “because their lunch boxes started drawing attention from some of their friends and teachers.”

“Some teachers even take photos of Isabella’s lunch box,” says Sen.

Sen says she spends almost an hour preparing her kids’ packed lunch, although she admits she would enjoy the process more if she has extra time.

Lunch boxes by Sen.Lunch boxes by Sen.

Sen begins preparing her daughter’s lunch at around 10:30am, after breakfast. “My daughter attends the afternoon school session, so I have time to prepare,” she adds.

Sen prefers to go impromptu on her choice of dishes so that she has more time assembling the meal in their lunch boxes.

“It’s whatever-comes-to-mind based on what’s available in the fridge,” she explains. “That’s why I usually opt for easy-to-prepare dishes.”

Nevertheless, Sen ensures the packed lunch is a complete and balanced meal with fruits, vegetables, a portion of protein and a portion of carbohydrate.

Yap agrees: “Managing time and finding the balance between the nutrients is always a challenge for me.”

However, Yap approaches the task with a positive mindset, turning her daily bento pursuit into an enjoyable passion. “I like to challenge myself with new ideas and recipes, although I mostly stick to quick and easy options for convenience,” she adds.

Occasionally, Yap surprises her sons with a spur-of-the-moment cheat day, packing them some snacks.

“It’s all about keeping things fun and lively,” says Yap, who has become a bento box collector since she started preparing packed lunches for her sons two years ago.

Sen with Dexter (centre) and Isabella. — Photos: AKIE SENSen with Dexter (centre) and Isabella. — Photos: AKIE SEN

Family activity

But these mothers don’t keep the fun of preparing lunch boxes all to themselves. Both Yap and Sen involve the whole family in making bento boxes a family activity.

“On our weekly marketing trip, my children get to pick their own food, of course with our supervision and advice,” Sen explains, adding that this practice helps reduce food wastage. “They are more inclined to eat the food they choose.”

She believes that involving her children in planning and shopping is an excellent way to teach them about a balanced diet.

“When they are allowed to choose, even the pickiest eater may be more open to eating healthier foods simply because you’re not telling them that they have to,” she adds.

Yap’s sons also accompany her on their weekly grocery shopping trip and have their meal preferences and ideas included in the shopping list.

“Sometimes, I let them help with simple tasks in preparing their lunch boxes,” says Yap.

Being part of the process gives the children a sense of autonomy over their meals, she says.

Yap says advance planning and preparation will help mothers manage the load. “Plan and prepare meals ahead; this will help especially on busy mornings. Use weekends to prepare for meals or at least the night before,” she says.

“If you are new, start with easy-to-prepare recipes and gradually add variety over time. For instance, start with basic sandwiches and then experiment with different fillings. It helps give you a footing before you attempt other food,”

Sen says parents can make mealtimes exciting and joyful for children by decorating bento boxes. “You can use cookie cutters to shape sandwiches into fun designs,”

“You can also have surprise snack days with treats like biscuits, cookies, pretzels and jelly. Include a small bag of cookies or fruit snacks as a special treat,” she says.

“At the end of the day, packing and decorating these bento boxes is about bonding and an expression of love,” Sen concludes.

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