Vegan Bento Boxes: Plant-Based Lunches for Kids
By Autumn O'Neil
I'm a busy mom. Many friends ask where I find the time to make my daughter her lunch every morning. The truth is, I have to make the time.
Most mornings I wake up late (around 6 am), spring out of bed to make coffee and then pick through the cupboards or produce bins to piece together her bento box.
Like all kids, my daughter’s taste has changed as she’s aged. Her 12.5 year old palate is maturing; however, she still struggles with certain textures and levels of spiciness. I've learned which nuts to avoid packing, to send fruits and veggies she is most likely to eat, and we've transitioned from nori to soy wrappers for sushi rolls.
I do my best to keep her lunches fresh and have a solid rotation. But I do end up repeating certain foods like pistachios or cucumbers simply because I know she'll eat them. No matter what I try to have fun and hope it inspires her to be a healthy eater!
Why make bento boxes?A fellow mother from my daughter’s school pulled me into the bento boxing world. She started a Facebook group dedicated to bento boxes for her children and added all her friends.
Before I purchased Ri’s first box, we were in a lunch slump. I think I sent a sandwich nearly every day, which is totally cool if your kid eats them - but she didn’t. I was tossing her food out at the end of the day and wondering if she was getting proper nutrition. It’s hard enough getting kids to eat, but even more worrisome while vegan. Perusing the Facebook group, all of the lunches looked yummy and interesting, and what I loved the most about the bento boxes was how darn versatile they were! I was hooked from the start.
Posting on the page became a weekly ritual and I really felt connected to the other parents. Being the only vegan in the group, I think most of the parents were pleasantly surprised with the options I presented. Many of them jokingly asked if I could prepare their lunches as well!
Not too long after, I decided to start an Instagram account just to show people the endless possibilities that vegan kids have in their lunchbox. I'm not a chef or a food blogger. I use my favorite recipes from other chefs and bloggers, veganize regular recipes, and tweak others to suit whatever I have on hand.
Some of the bento items should be made in advance, but most of them are based off what I have in the kitchen and the amount of time I have to create them that morning.
I often have big mistakes and great lunch successes all in the same week! But what's most important is that my kid is eating her lunch nowadays. She doesn’t always finish every single bite, but we’ve made great progress!
A few things to consider:
- I live in Southern California and generally have a pleasant climate for most of the year. Please take that into consideration when planning your own child’s lunch.
- Most of what I have listed is from memory and I'm always flexible with ingredients! If something doesn’t taste right, I change the recipe.
- I don't add any spicy seasoning to the recipes, even if it’s listed in the ingredients. Rileigh’s palate can’t handle the heat and I want her to enjoy the food! I recommend introducing new flavors at home.
Breakfast For Lunch
1. Mini Pancakes
This is my favourite pancake recipe! Make sure the batter is thin enough to easily pour. If it's too thick add a little milk or water for the desired consistency.
Decorate mini pancakes with food! The Halloween themed monster pancake has almond teeth and mummy sausages! I 'accidentally' used vegan packaged crescent rolls from Trader Joes’s for the gauze.
2. Banana Bread French Toast!
This kid friendly banana bread was made by Rileigh and repurposed by mom when it was starting to go a little stale! I recommend staying away from regular sandwich loaves for vegan french toast as they don't hold their form very well.
3. The Breakfast Burrito
The Breakfast Burrito with roasted garlic potatoes, sauteed kale, breakfast links, avocado, and hummus spread.
- Make potatoes to your child’s liking.
- Saute kale, and cook vegan sausage links (chop into bite-size pieces).
- Heat flour tortilla over the range or in a lightly oiled pan. Spread hummus, or cashew cheese, then add filling.
- Roll the burrito properly! I like to seal our burritos by grilling it seam down in a cast iron. You can lightly press on the burrito and turn after a couple minutes. Make sure to brown the opposite side, then slice in half.
We love Soba Noodles in this house! They take 4 minutes to cook and you can eat them hot or cold. I use either tahini or vinegar and tamari-based sauces for the lunches. You can use cutters to make it fun!
5. Mushroom Stroganoff
This Mushroom Stroganoff is so yummy! In this version I used gluten-free penne, gluten-free all-purpose flour, tamari, and a vegan chive cream cheese. If the sauce is too thick, add water and continuously whisk sauce to avoid burning! Recipe works fine when halved.
6. Tofu Ricotta & Pesto Stuffed Shells!
- Cook and strain jumbo pasta shells. Then lay on parchment-lined baking sheet.
- I replaced ricotta with half a block of tofu that's rinsed and pressed of excess water. Mash the tofu with a fork and season with salt, pepper, dried basil, and nutritional yeast to taste.
- Thoroughly mix ingredients (I also add 1/4 cup of vegan mozzarella).
- Make pesto sauce.
- Stuff shells with ricotta, add tablespoon of pesto and bake at 200ºC until slightly brown. Coat bottom of bento with more pesto and top with vegan parmesan.
1. Crispy Corn Fritters
These are Rileigh’s favorite! She asks for them at least once or twice per month. They're slightly sweet and totally good.
I often halve this corn fritter recipe since we're a family of three and it turns out fine. The fritters are easy to make and like the other batters if it seems too thick then just add a little water.
I've made them both with and without an egg replacer. I would experiment a little to see what your child prefers. We leave out the jalapenos and substitute the milk for a non-dairy option.
Make sure your griddle is hot and oiled. Once you have made a couple of successful fritters you can turn down the heat to avoid burning them. Serve with anything!
2. Baked Zucchini Fries
Baked zucchini fries are yum for kids and adults alike! It’s really important to season the bread crumbs and use your favorite vegan parmesan cheese. Also, make sure to thoroughly coat fries in flour, then aquafaba*, and finally a good coat of panko or italian breadcrumb. Bake at 425℉ and turn every 10-12 minutes to cook evenly. Serve with vegan ranch dressing.
*Aquafaba is an egg-replacer that works really well for frying or baking breaded foods. You can get it from a can of garbanzo beans by straining the beans while reserving the fluid instead of tossing it out. It can be stored in the fridge for a couple of weeks and used as needed.
3 tablespoons of whisked aquafaba is equivalent to one egg.
3. Fish Sticks
These Crab Cake Fish Sticks were a hit with Rileigh’s dad. Shape into sticks or patties and fry in oil of choice. Serve with vegan ranch or tartar sauce!
4. Sushi Rolls
Sushi Rolls are popular with Rileigh and her non-vegan friends at school.
The whole process of preparing the fresh sushi rice takes about 1.5 hours, but it’s worth it. Prepare the rice according to the instructions on the bag, assemble roll, tightly wrap in cellophane, and store in fridge overnight.
Spicy “Crab” consists of rinsed and pressed tofu with spicy miso mayo, nutritional yeast and salt. We also use avocado and cucumber with tofu filling in nori or soy wrappers.
Bio: Autumn O'Neil resides in the foothills above Pasadena, CA, with her 12-year-old daughter and 3 furry children. She's a small business owner, part-time college student, and has been vegan for 17 years. Her hobbies include hiking, baking, audio books, creative writing, and lover of all things related to horror!
You can follow Autumn @vegan_bento_box