Forget not playing with your food! The lunchtime competition is heated when you’re making kyara-ben.

Bento Box Magazine, a Toronto-based Japanese New Concept Magazine.

With its beautifully laid-out compartments, the traditional bento box can already look like a work of art—but that’s nothing compared to kyara-ben, also known as the “character bento.” If you’ve ever attempted one of these edible creations, you’ll know that it takes time and meticulous effort to get it just right.

As a kid, my bagged lunch at school consisted of a sandwich, a piece of fruit—uncut—and usually a thermos of juice and a couple of cookies. When I took this concept to Japan, the staff at the school where I worked formed a crowd around my desk, convinced I was going to starve from malnutrition and neglect.

Eventually, I saw what they were eating and discovered what the fuss was about. They had these colourful and nutritious lunches presented beautifully in a compact box. School field trips and track meets were especially important exhibitions of bento creativity.

When I had children of my own, I sensed that there was some unspoken competition going on when it came to your child’s bento. I am not one to lose, so the challenge was on. I stayed up late preparing, then woke up at 5 am to complete the boxes and make sure their presentation would live up to Japanese judgment. Then I wiped the rice off of my face, popped a cherry tomato in my mouth and patted myself on the back.

I waited eagerly to hear about my children’s reaction. They loved it! However, reports of other friends’ bentos later trickled out: A-san had a Minnie Mouse bento! B-san had a cool Pikachu one! I thought they were referring to the container it was in, but, no—they were talking about the actual contents. I quickly Googled it and discovered a whole new world of bento making, the kyara-ben. They are truly the masterpieces of children’s lunches.

Who knew that egg, cheese, ham, a few carefully placed vegetables and some seaweed could make Totoro, Hello Kitty and Spiderman? What child wouldn’t be thrilled to open up their lunch and find Olaf from Frozen staring at them in his rice-y goodness? Not only are they cute, they really do encourage and convince children to eat a variety of healthy foods because they are so appetizing.

As a mom, it has been fun buying the neat colourful paper inserts, shape cutters and other bento products at the 100-yen store. I have enjoyed preparing cute pandas, smiley faces and even Ironman to get that desired squeal of pleasure from my children—or that coveted “Oooh!” when they lift the lid of the container and find what brilliant culinary creation I have laboured over. Although time-consuming, kyara-ben are well worth it and much more interesting than the traditional, boring sandwich. Rice and seaweed taste oh-so-much better when they’re shaped like a sweet bunny rabbit.

Illustration by Chieko Watanabe