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Lunch out of the box

Blogger Deborah Hamilton has a fresh idea for school-lunch packers: the bento box. She sends her son off every school day with her own version of the compartmentalized Japanese lunch container.

"I would like to say I have a master plan and my evil genius of bento kung fu tells me what to do, but really it's whatever I have in the house,'' said Hamilton, who blogs at

"I try not to spend more than 10 to 15 minutes on any one bento because I have a kid I'm getting ready in the morning.''

A bento box is simply a reusable container that encourages the packing of a variety of foods. A company called Laptop Lunches makes an Americanized version. Hamilton uses an assortment of inexpensive containers she's purchased for that purpose.

There's nothing that can't go into a bento.

"I can't stick to one particular ethnic group or food,'' Hamilton says. "So I bop all over the map, based on what I'm making for dinner.''

Leftovers often go inside, and Hamilton also keeps three bins -- one in the refrigerator (single-serving cheeses, hard-boiled eggs, grapes, cherry tomatoes), another in the freezer (single-portion leftovers frozen in muffin cups) and a third in the pantry puddings, nuts, crackers) -- with items she calls "gap-fillers'' that can be thrown into box.

She includes frozen fruit or juice that serves as an ice pack and also melts by lunchtime.

"You can make it really Martha [Stewart] if you want to,'' she says. "But it really doesn't have to be.''

Laptop Lunches got its start back in 2001 after its mom-founders saw school kids opening prepackaged items like yogurts and Lunchables, taking a few bites and tossing the rest.

"We were shocked by what we saw,'' says Tammy Pelstring, co-founder of the parent company, Obentec. "There was a lot of food and packaging waste.''

With the bento in mind, they designed a line of plastic containers that could carry foods like sandwiches, applesauce and salads. There's a basic lunchbox-type case and containers of various sizes that fit inside, some with individual lids.

"It really encourages you to pack a vegetable, a fruit, a main course and a little bit of dessert,'' Pelstring says.

She herself remains undaunted by packing three lunches a day. She cooks an extra serving or two of dinner, puts the leftovers straight into the bento containers during cleanup, then adds crackers or nuts to the box the next morning.

"It's a coming together of having maxed out our environmental resources and our financial resources so that we have to take a step back and simplify things,'' she says. "It sounds pretty daunting, but when you get into a routine, it's not that hard. It's just a change in routine.''