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Posted on Jun 11, 2007 in Bento, Parent Hacks, Tips, Tutorial or How-to | 54 comments

Guide to bento packing and gap fillers

Guide to bento packing and gap fillers

When I first started studying Japanese-language bento cookbooks, I was surprised to find that there are guidelines for how to physically pack a traditional bento lunch. This is separate from bento arrangement aesthetics or the 3:1:2 “Spinning Top” nutritional guidelines put out by the Japanese government (3 parts grains, 1 part protein, 2 parts vegetables). Like any guidelines, though, I think of them as interesting reference points (not rules!), and feel free to pack our lunches however I like.

How to Pack a Bento Lunch
(detailed notes and gap fillers behind the cut)

 

Guide to packing a bento lunch

How to Pack a Bento

1) Spread Out Rice

If packing warm rice, spread it in one layer across the bottom of the box for speedy cooling. This reduces condensation inside the box for better food safety and ease of opening.

Packing bento: Step #1

2) Pack Rice

When cool, push the rice over to one side of the box. In a traditional bento meal, this would take up one half of the box.

Packing bento: Step #2
3) Pack Main Dish
Pack the main dish or bulky food that can’t change shape to fit the container (i.e. piece of fried chicken, long shrimp, etc.). This traditionally comprises one quarter of the meal. Dividers (plastic or edible) or food cups (disposable or reusable) are often used to keep food flavors from mingling.
Packing bento: Step #3
4) Pack Side Dishes
ln the remaining space, pack side dishes or food that can be arranged flexibly to fill the available space (i.e. small pieces of vegetable). There are traditionally two sides, comprising the remaining quarter of the meal.
Packing bento: Step #4
5) Plug the Gaps
If there is any empty space in the bento box, plug those gaps with small, non-fragile food items. See examples of gap fillers below.
Packing bento: Step 5
6) Garnish, Accessorize
Add any garnishes, decorations (furikake sprinkles, surprise animal cap, or cutouts of nori, vegetables, cheese or meat, etc.), sauce containers or picks for easy eating. Allow the lunch to cool sufficiently before closing the lid.
Roasted enoki lunch for toddler

(Details on the contents of the lunch pictured above are here.)

Don’t Leave Empty Space!
You can spend a long time creating a beautiful, intricately decorated bento, but if you don’t pack things tightly the contents are likely to shift in transport and ruin your efforts. The list of potential foods that are well suited to fill small gaps in your bento box is endless, but they should be small, sturdy (avoid fragile items such as raspberries), and unlikely to transfer flavors to neighboring foods. (Click links to see sample lunches.)

What are your favorite gap fillers? Comment and let us know!

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  1. Wow! The rice trick is cool! I’ve never seen that. My favorite gap fillers are the laughing cow cheese cubes and grapes. I always add baby carrots too. I slice pink & white kamaboko, and hot dogs, and freeze them and keep it on hand. Always adds nice color and a little variety here and there.

    • @1 from Julie: Those are all great ideas, Julie!

      • most of these ideas are from YOU, which is why I don’t have a website and you do. thank you! : )

  2. Great tips as always! I think cherry tomatoes have to be my fave gap filler.

    • @2 from amvn: Absolutely, me too. Plus it give me a “red” when I’m trying to pack according to the 5-color bento packing guidelines (5 different naturally colored foods for maximum nutrition and aesthetic appeal).

  3. Thanks for the tips! My bento still has a lot of gaps. I am afraid that the flavor would be ruined.

    • @3 from Clair: That’s when we start to get creative: how to plug the gaps with whatever’s on hand in the kitchen and not ruin the flavors of the gap-filler or the food it touches. I’ve started looking at the food in the kitchen a whole new way — what can I use as a quick gap filler?

  4. Another great and very useful blog entry…thanks!The photos are gorgeous too

    • @4 from Cesca: Thanks Cesca!

  5. Love your blog, have been reading it for a while and love the tips you give us! Thanks so much for sharing all this, you make me want become a bento luncher…but I still have to work on my packing skills. =)

    • @5 from Jenny: Hey, just dive right in and pack your own lunches if you’re leaning that direction anyway! Cherry-pick whatever tips work for you and leave the rest — there’s no special “bento test” that needs to be passed to pack your own lunch!

  6. This is incredibly useful information! I bring in packed lunches most days, but have no real sense of how to put them together properly. I picked up a few appropriately sized containers in Chinatown, which helps. This guide is such wonderful advice, and exactly what I needed to learn. Thank you!

  7. Reusable ice cubes, if you don’t have the mini-puds or jellies or such, would also be good gap-fillers. I used some today to chill down my mandarin oranges on the way to work, as they were warm (very warm, it’s Miami) out of the can. They also kept my salad from getting overly warm, set between the greens and the bento’s seal.

    Alas, my meal was missing either yellow or red, depending on how one interprets mandarin oranges and cheddar cheese.

  8. I have been subscribed to this for a couple weeks now, and it’s just in time for my kindergarten daughter. Even if it takes me a while I think I will eventually use your tips. Your lunches look so inspiring compared to what my poor husband takes as leftovers. Thanks for all the time and ideas you’ve put on here!

  9. @19 from Sarah:
    My pleasure, Sarah, and thank you for reading! I don’t use all of my own tricks all the time either — I’m really just experimenting and working my way through new speed techniques that I find in my J-lang bento cookbooks. I think I’m easily bored, so quickly move on to the next thing…

  10. Thank you for this post. I have done a write up on it for DIYlife.com. I am not sure when it will be up, sometime in the next couple of days.

    Thanks again!

  11. @22 from Heather: Hey, thanks for the kind write-up, Heather! I checked it out and it looks like a good, informative introduction to the whole bento-packing thing. Well done.

  12. I have been using nuts as gap fillers. Especially pistachios b/se the shells keep them from bleeding or absorbing flavor into other things.

  13. @28 from snappiness: Hey, nuts (esp. pistachios) as gap fillers is a great idea! I can’t use them for Bug’s lunches because his school is nut-free, but I can definitely use them for mine!

  14. at the farmers’ market the other day, i picked up the most precious baby green peppers – perfect for bento, i thought. and i was so right! they’re a perfect substitute for cupcake papers/dividers and they’re really adorable. they make
    for gap filling, i use raisins and other dried fruit. they’re perfect for very small gaps or many little gaps. also, tiny candies are perfect – individual hershey kisses, cubes of caramel, and starkist gummies work wonders every time.

    p.s. i just found your blog, linked from “cooking cute.” thanks for all the helpful info! it’s nice to find a bento blog that’s not devoted to being cute (though cute is wonderful!)… college time constraints and lack of audience (no kids, yet!) make really cute bento impractical. thanks again!

  15. @30 from psulinkie: Tiny baby peppers are great for bento! I once seeded/deveined them from the top, filled them with soft cheese (those wrapped triangle cheeses), and packed them in a bento. I like the raisins/dried fruit idea for gap filling as well, but can’t use candies in my son’s lunches (the school asks us not to pack candy). I hear you on time constraints WRT cuteness in bentos; I’m all for maximum payoff for minimal effort. Thanks for reading!

  16. nice guide! especially about the rice.
    i have just got into making my own bento box and found a cool little tool used to make cocktail hotdogs into little flowers and animals when cooked. they are great space fillers and even through i make them for my little sister’s lunch i just cant resist putting one in my lunch if i have the room :)

  17. @32 from k.lee: Those little cutters are fun, aren’t they? I picked one up at Daiso – the package says you should lightly freeze the cocktail hotdog for like 10 minutes or so before cutting for best results.

  18. The ting that I usually use is a few pieces of edamame that I quickly boil the night before. That way it feels like those bentos from the supermarket, which is also a great place to get gap-filler ideas from

  19. @34 from anna: Good idea on the edamame! I think you can also microwave some frozen edamame or let it defrost naturally, depending.

  20. Hi! I’m a Japanese housemaker, I have two children. I enjoyed reading your blog. I heard a cute small muffin cup is good for food cups. A cut broccolli is my favorite to fill the blank space.

  21. @36 from hewei: Thank you for visiting, hewei! I like using both disposable and reusable silicone baking cups for food cups too — very convenient!

  22. Again, very useful tutorial, I just realized my lunchboxes have tooo many gaps… :)

    Margot

  23. pickled asparagus, carrots or green beans often make it into our bentos, to fill long skinny gaps. Same goes for sugar pea pods from the garden.

    As for fruit, banana rings (wedges?) are always a hit here.

    That idea of using the reusable ice cubes is something I hadn’t ever thought of!

    I need to tell myself your site will be here tomorrow, and get to bed! Too much good info!

  24. @40 from Leigh: Thanks for the gap filler ideas for long, skinny gaps, Leigh! What’s a banana ring? Just sliced bananas (dipped in citrus juice)?

  25. Good morning!!

    I just have to tell you, I am in love!! My 7 yo DD has been bored with her lunches lately, so I was looking for something fun online when I stumbled upon your site. You are my new best friend! While my DD is a great eater, loves ‘odd’ foods for a 7 yo….she still gets in a rut. She will absolutely LOVE the new lunches I have planned, thank you SO much!!

  26. @44 from T: Welcome to the site, T — glad to have you!

  27. @46 from Sunflower: Frozen shelled edamame doesn’t need much cooking at all — just enough to warm it through is enough. As you discovered, though, you need to heat it with water or else they get dry and shrivelly — yuck. Microwave steam until hot is good, quick simmer on the stovetop is fine too.

    I really got a kick out of seeing your homemade reusable food dividers that you created by cutting a flexible cutting mat!!! So original!

  28. Thanks. I think the first time I didn’t cover them, either.

    I’ve now tried again, and I wound up multi-cooking and I hadn’t even intended to. I microwaved edamame in the bottom of a covered glass dish with a little water, which is the way I usually “steam” small amounts of veggies. But I added some frozen vegetarian meatballs, in a silicone cup so they wouldn’t be in the water. When they were hot, I put the meatballs in the box on their own and the edamame in the cup. They came out very nice. So thanks for your advice and inspiration!

  29. @49 from Rowen: Great idea to stack low silicone baking cups, Rowen — I like it!! My toes are absolutely intact, no worries. ;-)

  30. On a scale of 1-10 I think a 10 hits the mark! great tips on tasty lunches. I like the layout of the site it is easy to navigate. Thanks for sharing!

  31. @52 from sharon: Thanks for the kind comment, sharon. The whole blogging thing been a long learning process for me, and I’m fortunate that readers have stuck with me throughout.

  32. @53 from Tammy: Yes, I saw that when it first came out — a reader pointed it out. Interesting; thanks for the link!

  33. Hello! Currently admiring my brand spanking new bento box :)

    It’s one by Lube Sheep, a two tier one thats bright bright red :D
    The top tier is 330ml and the bottom tier is 200ml, with the lid having space underneath for chopsticks or flat fillter. This would still count as a 600ml box right?

    In terms of packing, would I place the carbs/protein on the bottom tier, and the fruit/veg on the top tier? Or does it not matter?

  34. @58 from Zeb: That would count as a 530ml box. You could always pack extra food in a side dish container if it’s not big enough for you. For packing, there’s no strict rule about where the carbs go vs. the fruit/veg — it would depend on the volume and size of what you want to pack. Don’t feel restricted by your bento box, make it bend to your will!

  35. Hehehe yeah but I don’t want to get “snarked” when I start posting photos on a certain lj comm ;)

    Work supplies us with massive bowls of fruits every Monday and Wednesday, and I normally hoard for the days inbetween so my bento box will look somewhat void of fruit. That extra space can go towards foods that’ll fill me up :)

    Thankyou!

  36. @60 from Zeb: Your comment reminded me to go check out that snark community — it’s good to stay in touch with what irks people. Thanks back!

  37. First time poster here, with no kids, but I just got a two-pound box of champagne grapes at Costco — and I think that if I were packing a bento for a preschooler, I wouldn’t be able to resist putting a perfect miniature bunch of pea-sized grapes into it.

  38. Trader Joe’s is my friend!
    My refrigerator is always stocked with jars from TJ’s that make great bento ingredients: pitted olives, marinated mushrooms & roasted peppers for a start. I drain the peppers, slice and then put back in the jar with olive oil and garlic slices. TJ’s also has a spicy Corn and Chile Tomato-less Salsa that is very versatile. I use it to top chopped tomatoes for a fast, colorful salad. Tossed with penne and some of those tweaked roasted peppers make a tasty pasta. And the produce section often has small size veggies that look good in the bento box.

  39. My 5 year old’s favorite space fillers are: baby carrots, stick cheese, Edamame, broccoli, Fish Sticks, small piece of sausages, Lama Beans skewed with a tooth pick, ham rolled with thin sheet of egg skewed with a tooth pick. :-)

    Since her lunch time is short, I make everything in her lunch box as “finger food” as possible by using cute tooth picks. They are great.

  40. I always found these little things very amusing. So little and neatly packed just to have the kid open it up a be like “Alright! Pudding!” and totally destroy your art. The funny things Japanese do…

  41. My favorite gap fillers are blueberries, and apples that have been lightly rinsed with a water and lemon juice wash so they don’t turn brown, baby bell / vache qui rit cheeses, carrot sticks and little tomatoes. Am loving your website and getting inspired all over again! I am especially eager to try out the microwaved egg wraps!

  42. Hi Biggy! :D
    I just wanted to say something – I’m not a mom, I’m actually a 15-year-old high school freshman. So I’m not looking to make lunches for a kid, but for myself. :)
    I LOVE Asian culture, especially Japanese and Korean culture, so when I found your site I thought it was amazing. I love all your tips and everything you put up! It makes lunch so much better! Last year while making my lunch I tended to just throw random things from the pantry into my lunch box – not very healthy. But now I can make much healthier (and more fun) lunches. :D
    So thank you so much for this website!
    – your friend, Makenzie

  43. These are great tips! Now I’m tempted to make bento lunches for myself, too.

  44. @6 from Tala: Oh man, I learned the hard way early on about packing compactly (or using containers with divided compartments — makes life easier). I recall reading somewhere (eGullet Japan forum?) about someone saying that all of the elaborate decorations on the surface of a bento lunch just amounted to “lid decoration” once you give the lunch to your child to carry to school. It takes some creativity to get a nicely packed lunch to stay intact, but once you grasp the basics of “gap fillers” you’re 90% there.

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