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Posted on Apr 25, 2008 in Equipment, Freezing, Organize, Shopping, Tips | 55 comments

Save time & energy with bento baskets for the freezer

Save time & energy with bento baskets for the freezer

Because I don’t sit down and plan the week’s bento lunches in advance, every morning involves some poking around inside of the refrigerator and freezer to see what looks good to pack for lunch that day. I realize that my life would be easier if I kept a written inventory other than just my freezer magnets, but it’s just not going to happen as I don’t have the staying power to keep things updated.

One thing that Japanese bento cookbooks recommend if you pack lunch in the morning is to think of one dish the night before that you’d like to pack the next day, and just start visualizing the lunch. This takes some of the pressure off when you step into the kitchen as you’ve already got a starting point.

Freezer basket with bento food

One problem with my approach is that I tend to stand in front of the refrigerator or freezer with the door wide open while I look around for something that inspires me. Unlike looking in the pantry, though, this actually wastes energy and I often overlook buried food that would be perfect for bento lunches. Enter plastic organizer baskets and trays. (Read on for details and variations.)

Freezer with organizer basketsA tip that I’ve read in my Japanese speed bento and freezing books is to gather foods that you often use in packed lunches, and put them together in an organizer basket or tray in the refrigerator. Then when you’re ready to pack lunch, just pull the entire basket or tray out of the refrigerator or freezer, close the refrigerator door, and browse through your entire bento stash on the kitchen counter. The benefits are energy saving, time saving (less digging around), and reduced food waste as everything is together in one place (so you’re less likely to overlook food that might spoil or develop freezer burn).

In my freezer bento basket I have meatballs, ravioli, microwaved thin egg sheets (whole and julienned), shumai, rectangular Korean dumplings, waffles, mini pancakes, frozen appetizers like spanakopita, mini quiches, mini crab cakes, mini scallop & shrimp cakes, etc. In the pull-out bin on the left I have all kinds of sausages (mini, regular, etc.). I need to get some additional baskets to hold my frozen rice and frozen pasta — it’s a work in progress (try not to look too hard at the messy bottom section!). A bento basket or tray in the refrigerator could hold any number of staples, including tiny containers with small amounts of leftovers.

Plastic refrigerator organizing trayA variation on this would be to fill a refrigerator tray with everything you commonly use for breakfast, with your jams, spreads, and butter. Then in the morning you can quickly grab the basket or tray and put it on the table or counter, instead of poking around in the fridge for buried food treasure.

Equipment: For the freezer, I like to use deeper baskets with holes in the sides to allow free circulation of the cold air. In the refrigerator I have a variety of shallow plastic trays that reach all the way into the back, giving better access to food in the back recesses of the refrigerator. I got these for less than US$1.50 each at Daiso and Ichiban Kan discount stores (retail store details at my San Francisco Bay Area shopping guide for bento gear, and online store details for Ichiban Kan at my review), but you can find similar baskets at stores like WalMart or Target. Check out Ichiban Kan online’s selection of kitchen organizers. (Disclaimer: I have no commercial affiliation with any of these stores.)

What’s your favorite freezer or refrigerator organizing trick? Where do you get your organizing baskets and trays? Let us know in comments!

RELATED READING ON LUNCH IN A BOX:

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  1. I have an upright freezer that I organize with wire baskets. All the smaller packages of meat in one, frozen roasted chile peppers in another (I buy them buy the bushel), berries in another, and so on. Makes it a lot easier to find stuff!

    I finally got to Ichiban Kan on Saturday and it was a complete madhouse because the Japantown Cherry Festival was also going on. But I found some fun stuff! I posted what I got here.

  2. I LOVE DAISO! :P everytime we go there we’ll end up spending a bunch ^^; Very nice ideas for storage, I need to reorganise my knife drawers ^^;

  3. How funny! Your inventory magnets inspired my “FOOD TO USE” list:
    I typed it out on my computer (the first one was the toughest). Then I print it out every week and put it on the fridge. I don’t have quantities, just the food. When the food is gone, I cross it off. On really busy weeks, I just write in new stuff on the existing list and on calmer weeks I go to the computer with my supermarket receipt and fill in the new stuff.

    Of course, I’m not a mom and wife, so I have a little more free time to update a file on my computer…it’s just I started doing this after learning of your magnets.

    I have baskets in my fridge and freezer (and pantry) for easy access to “stuff to throw in a bento.”

    Sorry this is so long! :)

  4. Geez! I am so organized at work but not at home! I have a chest freezer so I have to dig for things, but making a list on my computer would be a huge help!

    My husband works on the weekends every other week and I pack his bentos on Saturday and Sunday. A list would help greatly to know what’s in the freezer so I can pack fast! Great tip! Thanks!

  5. Though our fridge is usually a disaster, and the freezer doesn’t fare much better, there are a few things we do pretty well at. First off, our pantry has a shelf with 3 pull-out baskets for the rice/pasta/etc. we use all the time. Our freezer (it’s a side-by side fridge/freezer) has 3 or 4 pull out bins that we (try to) separate into categories like meat, fish, veggies. Then, my addition to this list, is for those annoying packs of ketchup, soy sauce, etc. that seem to get lost–one day I got fed up with them being all over the place, so I stuck them all in a small juice glass and then put that in the fridge door.

    I should thank you for the bento organization post btw. I’ve since found a shelf with baskets that is perfect for the space, and all my bento gear fits like it was made for it. (From Target: here. Now out of stock, but you can still get the shelf and baskets separately!)

  6. I have a white fridge and got into the habit of using dry erase markers on it for remembering appointments and whatnot. It’s easy enough to write on the fridge door what the contents are and at a glance know what’s available. The dry erase cleans off easily too and stops me from turning the fridge into a filing cabinet of paper bits and magnets. Kids pictures are proudly displayed on the wall beside the fridge.

    I’d have to defrost the fridge before attempting your basket trick, but then mine has built in baskets. I may be reorganizing (and defrosting) this weekend.

    Also – in major excitement – we have Daiso being imported via a London Shop (Japan Centre <- not a typo)and I placed my order last night for bento toys and egg shapers and rice ball shapers and I’m All kinds of Excited!

    Hope you have a great weekend!

  7. @1 from Kitt: I was at Ichiban Kan about two weeks ago for the start of the Cherry Blossom Festival — wow, what a madhouse! So packed! I also picked up some big plastic baskets from Kamei to organize my chest freezer. Very helpful.

  8. @2 from a.J.: I’m either totally organized or a slob — I bounce back and forth between the two. I’ve let the fridge get too full recently and it’s unmanageable now except for the refrigerator trays. Time to get all Organized again (for however long that’ll last!).

  9. @3 from chun: Have you seen those cool drawer organizer inserts at Daiso? They come in flat packages and you can basically custom-build your own drawer separators in any number of heights. That has really helped with some of our kitchen drawers.

  10. @4 from Amber: I really admire you, being able to pre-plan your bentos! Idly thinking of one food element is about as much as I can manage. For a while I tried making a list of the different kinds of foods I had in the house. This was great while I managed to keep it updated, but I have so much food around and I got out of the habit…

  11. @5 from princess_design: You know, that level of organization I might actually be able to manage! Nice idea! For me, it wouldn’t be listing all the food in the house (overwhelming), just stuff to keep top of mind. Thanks!

  12. @6 from Cherie: I’ve made a spreadsheet on the computer before, organized by food types. Totally useful for jogging the memory & inspiring me, but I fell out of the habit of updating it.

  13. @7 from Kakugori: First off, what a pretty shelf system from Target!!! Very nice. Also sounds like you’ve got some good organization systems — thanks for sharing them with us!

  14. @8 from Lyvvie: Thanks for the heads up on Daiso stuff at Japan Centre. And what an ingenious idea to use dry erase markers right on your refrigerator! I’ve got a lot of STUFF on our refrigerator so I’d have to clean it off to implement this, but it’s still clever as heck.

  15. I love this idea. Reminds me of those awesome Lock and Lock freezers they have at H mart. ^_^

    My family is not that organized, but I like to have things in place so I’ve started to convert them. We have a simple snapware bin that’s 8 1/2″ x 11″ and about 2″ deep in the fridge that holds all the sandwich fixings: lunch meat, cheese, mayo, sprouts…etc. And it works…when people remember to put the stuff back in it. I also keep little bento things in a small tupperware container in the fridge. It has filled sauce bottles, a spray bottle of lemon juice/sugar/water, sakura dembu flakes, and other various things.

  16. This is such a good idea. I have so many things that need to be organized. I’m working my way to the kitchen eventually. Biggie, you rock!

    @4 from Amber… that’s so cool! I am not organized enough for that. I would love to see some of those sketches. I am going to have to try that.

  17. That is a fantastic idea! It saves time and energy. There has been so many moments when I have to root through the contents of my freezer looking for something that got buried with the door open.

  18. One more thing: Mine started out just “fresh” and “frozen” to avoid anymore moldy mushrooms and off cheese. I added only pantry things that I usually only stock one of, i.e.: artichoke hearts. Things like pasta isn’t on my list because, well, I don’t think I’ll ever run out of pasta – lol.

    My list is only 1 page in columns…but again, I am 1 person, so more than that and I am sure to have food go bad.

  19. Visualizing the lunch; that’s an interesting idea! Thanks for sharing.

  20. @18 from Kaits: Wait, a whole Lock & Lock freezer?!?! Tell me more!!! I’ve seen the huge kimchi chest-style refrigerators with big L&L boxes set inside, but I’m not sure I’m familiar with a Lock & Lock freezer…

    I like your idea of a sandwich bin — that totally makes sense. Kudos to you!

  21. @19 from Mimi: Gosh, I so hear you about needing to organize — it’s a never-ending process! Kitchen stuff, books/CDs, computer, kid’s toys & clothes, etc. In an ideal world that’d all be nice and organized, but unfortunately I’m human… ;-)

  22. @20 from Wendy: I just reorganized both of my freezers (regular and the chest one), and I felt bad about how long the doors were open. The chest freezer wasn’t so bad as less cold air escapes out of the top, but the regular freezer can be a real energy suck when the door’s open. I found some frozen buried treasure, and resolved to make it easier to access going forward.

  23. @21 from princess_design: I REALLY like that idea! Bite-sized, manageable refrigerator organization. You’re good!

  24. Hi, I’ve been following this blog for a while and just love it!

    We do the baskets in our deep freezer too. I buy all of our meat at a butcher shop, come straight home and Seal A Meal it. I’ve found that I have a lot more space.

    Everything is organized in the baskets so you can just grab one and move it to find what you want.

    The door on the fridge is also organized as to how I use them. Butter and eggs on top shelf, cooking sauces on the middle and dressings on the bottom.

  25. @22 from Jj: My pleasure, Jj. :-)

  26. @27 from Kear: I think movable baskets are definitely the way to go for deep freezers. If you don’t use something like that with a chest freezer, it’s just TOO SCARY (I speak from experience!).

  27. Is Ichiban Kan selling the egg molds? I found the onigiri molds, but I wanted the egg molds. I see them pictured, but I don’t see them for sale.

  28. @23 Biggie: Maybe they are just fridges. I’m not sure. But yeah the big ones with the boxes set in. We always go to admire them when we’re at H mart. :D

  29. Our fridge and freezer are both disasters. Seriously. They are tragedies (compounded by the fact that the back of our fridge gets cold enough to freeze produce and yogurt cups, so we have to make sure nothing falls back there that isn’t freezable). Grr!

    We did recently buy a whiteboard for keeping track of food items. The marker has an eraser on the cap and a magnet, so it doesn’t go anywhere. The list started off as just Produce We’ve Bought, sorted by date, but we’re branching off into Leftovers To Take To Lunch (for the guy) and Leftovers To Make Into Bentos (for me) and Meat.

    But I think we’ll need some of those bins for our scary, scary freezer.

  30. Wow, lots of great tips here… very helpful for me, will have to look more carefully another time! When I first started bento, I used to sketch out my lunches at first too. My mother found it highly amusing to see me drawing what I imagined onigiri to be sized… lol in little boxes, …

  31. In addition to making the list on my computer, I’ve also adopted your magnet method. I think the list will help to jog my memory, but the magnets will help me when I’m making a fortnightly grocery list to know what NOT to buy, again! Lol!

  32. Help Biggie! I’ve made onigiri using leftover rice (reheated in the microwave) using cookie cutters, but when I defrosted them to eat them, they fell all apart!

    What did I do wrong? Or what can I do to fix this?

    I’d hate that to happen at work instead of at home on a day off!

    They were not fried or wrapped in nori.

  33. Our fridge has the freezer on the bottom with drawers which makes it easy to see what is in there. The bottom drawer is reserved for bento fixings, so I can pull it out and see at a glance what I have.

    Right now, I can see I have: mini chicken drumsticks, a batch of okonomiyaki, meat soboro, salted salmon, dumplings, onigiri, plain rice, veggies, mini pies and pre-cut chicken strips.

    I also plan my bento the night before, writing down the menu on a whiteboard by the fridge. This helps me to think about it briefly before I go to bed, and also as a reminder to take items out of the freezer if need be, and what vegetables need to be used up.

  34. My freezer is ridiculously unorganized but that’s not what I’m here to say…

    You’re bento lunches are SO ADORABLE. I’m a big fan of Flickr and I stumbled across a lot of your photos while surfing around & I fell in love! I wish I was half as creative and that my refrigerator was half as diverse. I’m moving in with two other girls (I’m 19) in August in an old country house by our college & I know I’m going to start to get them (and myself) to pack our lunches in this style, even if I have to make them all myself. I love it! Thank you for the inspiration!!!

  35. This question has absolutely nothing to do with this post, but…

    I’m getting ready to go on a plane trip. I’m planning to pack our collapsable sandwich cases to use while we’re there, but I don’t want to pack a box of foil or plastic wrap. Should I just grin and bear it (and maybe pack a tiny bottle of dish soap) or should I pack the plastic wrap too?

  36. Hey Spiderdust- try wax paper sheets. You can cut those to size and pack them in a manila folder so they don’t get too wrinkled, and then use and discard those.

  37. @30 from Kim: Ichiban Kan online used to stock egg molds, but I think they’re out of stock right now. Evidently they’re expecting a lot of new bento gear in early this week, so keep an eye on their online store to grab them once they’re up! (Again, I have no commercial affiliations with Ichiban Kan — really!)

  38. @32 from Rachel: Ha ha, I hear you about scary fridges and deep freezers! The bins really help with the chest freezer — definitely worth trying out (and the bins don’t have to be pricey at all as they’re nice and hidden inside the freezer).

  39. @33 from Yvo: Wow, sketching out your bento lunches in advance — now that’s dedication! I’ve read about that as being a useful technique for the elaborate food art bentos (kyaraben, etc.), but obviously my lunches aren’t so complex.

  40. @34 from Cherie: That would be helpful — it seems I always wind up either duplicating or forgetting something when shopping. Efforts to have my husband actually put stuff on the shopping list when he uses the last of something are beginning to pay off, though!

  41. @35 from Cherie: You were using warm rice when making the onigiri initially, right? Assuming you were, when microwaving frozen shaped onigiri I find it helpful to wet my hands with salty water and just firm things up a little after I’ve nuked the frozen onigiri. Onigiri made with plastic wrap seems to be a little more vulnerable to falling apart after reheating.

  42. @36 from alioc: Sounds like you have an excellent organizing and planning system for bentos, alioc! Kudos!!!

  43. @37 from ayla: Thanks for the kind words, ayla, and I hear you about the unorganized freezer! (Just look at the bottom part of my freezer in the photo — ugh.)

  44. @38 from Spiderdust: You know, I think that plastic wrap is optional for lining collapsible sandwich cases — it depends on what you’re packing and if you have a separate lunch bag to throw the whole thing into (kinchaku, insulated bag, etc.). I’ve had just fine results packing sandwiches without plastic wrap, and you can always use edible liners like a leaf of lettuce. One thing that you might want to pack would be little disposable lidded condiment cups (like the ones I use for the little jello cups) — this way you can pack a moist side dish in the sandwich case and it increases your flexibility. Enjoy your trip! (To other readers: You might want to look at my post on tips for making bento lunches for airplane trips: http://lunchinabox.net/2008/01/03/avoid-airplane-food-pack-your-own-bento-lunch/

  45. I have a… ZipLock Freezer bag where I keep all of my freezer foods (dumplings and edamame mostly). :P

    This is irrelevant to the post, but I had e-mailed a sauce tip for you earlier. :) Hope you read it soon! :P

    – Moo

  46. @49 from Moo: Thanks for the e-mail sauce tip where you create your own disposable sauce packets out of ZipLock freezer bags and a soldering iron. It was interesting!

  47. I do this too. I have a plastic storage container on one shelf of my fridge that holds string cheese and individual serving-size baggies of apple wedges, baby carrots, baby spinach leaves, sliced cucumber sticks and celery sticks. In the pantry I have a specific wire mesh drawer for “lunch snacks” – dried fruit, oreos, granola bars, etc. Everything is pre-bagged in single-serving sizes and ready to go. In the morning I make the Rugrat a sandwich, then grab the ready-to-go items from the fridge & pantry, and voila! Lunch is done.

  48. @51 from Snarkmeister: Ooh, sounds like you have a very efficient system going there, Snarkmeister! Speedy and neat.

  49. I appreciate this post tremendously. I have a Daiso store that I visit and I use the baskets in my freezer and fridge even though its just me. I use clear for the freezer and basically I just have dumplings, diffrent vegetables and soy patties in there. I use diffrent colours for the fridge for leftovers, sauces and other food stuff. I have one tray for fruits and yogurts as well so I can make lunch easily the evening beforehand!

  50. @53 from katiya: Color-coded baskets? Neat! Sounds very organized.

  51. Hey, just on the topic of frozen goods in a basket. I just wanted to mention to you that I found some really cool pot stickers at the supermarket the other day. And they’re mini! You can get them in diffrent types, I myself got the vegetable type–shredded cabbage and carrots. So good! They’re by Lucky Jade foods, and come in little boxes of 40 for about 3 dollars. Yum.

  52. Alexander, I am a sucker for anything mini. What supermarket? Where are you located in the US? Trader Joe’s has excellent potstickers (and Costco has good-enough potstickers that are pretty cheap) but I’ve never seen miniature ones.

  53. @55 from Alexander: Mmm, mini potstickers? I’m intrigued. Which supermarket?

  54. Rachel and Biggie,

    Found em at the Shoprite, I live in New Jersey. Don’t know if you have those over there where you live, but I bet you could find them in one of your big chain markets. They’re in the freezer section, red box. A bit easy to miss.

  55. I put items that come in bags (like frozen veggies, fruit, and rice that comes frozen) into tupperware boxes or cleaned out peanut butter jars. My fiance thinks I’m insane, but I hate to try and root around through the bags to find the things caught underneath.

    Not necessarily applicable to this post, but I also make complete premade meals and freeze them. They usually consist of a layer of rice followed by a layer of veggies, with a layer of meat on top. it reheats well in the microwave, and it’s great for mornings when I don’t want to do anything at all. :)