The Japanese Influence on School Lunch

Over 15 years ago, I recall being invited to be a keynote speaker at a Walmart Associate Summit in Kansas City and addressing 2,000-plus produce managers and company leaders on food trends.

The overarching point I made during that 45-minute presentation was that food trends which have come from another part of the world, such as the popularity of Asian or Latin foods, end up permeating far beyond the food business and the produce department specifically. I did a deep dive into the increasing popularity of Japanese cuisine and also pointed to its effect on music style, art (think minimalistic décor), and even clothing (remember when kimonos became popular?).

So, while I was walking through my local Whole Foods Market earlier this week, an end display of bento boxes caught my attention. And it reminded me of my speech from years ago.

An example of bento box end cap at Whole Foods

According to Wikipedia, bento is a single-portion takeout or home-packed meal common in Japan. A traditional bento holds rice, fish or meat, and pickled or cooked vegetables, usually in a box-shaped container. Often, the box will have dividers to keep the side dishes or pickles separated from the main dish.

If you’ve ever eaten in an authentic Japanese restaurant or sushi bar, you will recognize what I’m talking about.

"Bento de luxe" by Abendstrom via Wikimedia Commons

“Bento de luxe” by Abendstrom via Wikimedia Commons

So, even though many of us may pack our own lunches or for our family members in small Tupperware-like plastic containers, who would have imagined it would become so trendy? We all know about the popularity of lunch pails decorated with cartoon characters for young children.

To me, this is the just a continuation of the popularity of everything Japanese, combined with the growing trend of home-cooked, healthy meals.

And just look at the recipes out there specifically for traditional bento boxes like these by Rachel at La Fuji Mama.

Baked Chicken Katsu bento by Rachel Hutchings

Baked Chicken Katsu bento by Rachel Hutchings

Earlier this morning, I was reviewing a recent Gallup Poll which revealed the dramatic reduction in the consumption of sodas. Part of the study included insights into what foods consumers actively try to include in their diets; it showed 93 percent of consumers polled try to include vegetables and 90 percent try to include fruits in their diet.

So, back to my discovery at Whole Foods. In doing a little research on the manufacturer Bentology, it was interesting to learn that a mom founded the company in 2001 as a way to make lunches for her kids more interesting and nutritious. The company started with the name Laptop Bento-Ware and recently changed it to Bentology—a great case study in rebranding.

This woman, Tammy Pelstring, was ahead of her time. I wonder if she realizes that her decision to launch the product with its design and name came from global trends dating back decades.

Special thanks to my coworker Jennifer who used the term “pack a bento for her lunch,” which brought this to my attention!

Itadakimasu! (Have a great meal!)

Karen

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