In 2007, my then-boyfriend Jim and I bought some complex travel lunch kits called Mr. Bento. There was an insulated canister that fit four stackable containers inside – each one sliding into the canister, but only in their specific order. First the “soup” container, then the “hot food” container – which had an insulated lid so the two containers above wouldn’t heat up. Then two smaller containers slide atop, and the canister lid goes on last. Oh wait – except the whole thing had a carrying case, and a spork that fit into the carrying case’s side pocket. For a total of 13 pieces (did I forget to mention that the spork had a snap-on cover?), we could simplify our lunches and stop buying out.
My dear friend Anna laughed when she saw how much we had “simplified” our lunches. “That’s a lot of dishes to do every day,” she noted. We told her it was fine and we didn’t mind it. But that was the first time I had considered the extra dishes (and did I mention we each had our own Mr. Bento? Or that we lived in a 300-square-foot studio in New York City, with no dishwasher?)
Well, we didn’t end up using them as often as we’d thought. Back then I didn’t know what to pack for lunch except the sandwiches of my childhood, and none of the containers fit a sandwich. I have learned a lot about packing food since then – bulking out a bit of leftovers so it would be enough for lunch, balancing salty and crunchy and sweets so I was satisfied, and packing a little bit extra so I could have something at 3 p.m.
We still have most of the parts floating around. The sporks are mixed in with our “miscellaneous utensils” and get packed into lunches pretty often, fulfilling their intended purpose after all. One container is missing its lid, but the other seven are miraculously intact, if neglected.
When I pack lunch now, I aim for one “wet” container and one “dry” – but even better if I can just pack one three-quart container with everything in it. I claim no expertise in this department, however, since my homeschooled kids only ever needed a packed lunch a couple days a week, and that was pre-Covid. Now I’m downright rusty.
But in a Covid curveball, our Mr. Bentos have made a stunning reappearance! This winter we wanted to get out hiking, and warming up with a brewpub meal afterwards (a favorite winter outing of years passed) wasn’t an option. Enter Mr. Bento, thanks to whose various insulated compartments, my family has enjoyed some heart- and body-warming picnics al fresco. Two canisters filled with hearty food feed four of us nicely, plus snacks and chocolate bars that get packed separately. What felt like too much effort for a daily routine feels like a special ritual when getting ready for a cold weather hike.While it’s not the sort of thing I would buy now – long on parts and plastic and short on flexibility – I’m glad the old Me is making sure that we have some hearty meals in the woods to get us through a long winter.