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The Basics Guide to packing a bento lunch

Okay, I’m in!Got Bento?

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What is “bento”? Is it the style of packing? Is it the box? Is it the food?

A bento lunch is a compact, balanced, visually appealing meal packed in a box. Historically, it’s a Japanese box lunch, similar in concept to the Indian tiffin, the Korean dosirak, or the Filipino baon lunch. In Japanese, “bento” or “obento” refers to the packed meal, and “bento-bako” refers to the bento box itself. See the Wikipedia entry on bento for more details.


What are the benefits of packing a bento-style lunch? Is it healthier?

Bento lunches seem to be becoming more popular in North America recently.

  • Packed in reusable containers, they reduce lunch waste such as plastic baggies and disposable containers, and allow you to pack a wider variety of food for lunch.
  • Portion control is also easy if you follow the general packing rule of thumb of 3 parts carbs, 1 part protein and 2 parts fruits and vegetables, without candy, junk food or oily foods. Packed this way without gaps, a 600ml box holds a 600-calorie meal — a simple method for weight loss without counting calories.
  • Picky eaters may be tempted by an attractive presentation of a variety of foods.
  • Save money you might have spent on restaurant meals by bringing food from home; the savings from less than a week of eating packed lunches makes up for the initial cost of a bento box or lunch container.


What should I put in it? Aren’t bento lunches filled with Japanese food?

Salmon Mediterranean lunchBento boxes don’t have to be filled with Japanese food; I often pack whatever we happen to be eating that week. Mexican, Thai, Italian, Chinese, American, Indian — the possibilities are endless! Some foods are better suited to packed lunches than others, though. Particularly wet or moist dishes don’t do well packed in the same container as other foods; either drain or dry these foods, pack them in a separate container, or leave them out. The Recipes and Decorative Food pages have links to a number of bento-friendly dishes.


Are there packing rules? How do I pack a bento lunch?

The general rule of thumb for bento make-up is 3 parts carbohydrates such as rice or pasta, 1 part protein, and 2 parts fruits and vegetables, but without candy, junk food or oily foods. Packed this way without gaps, a 600ml box holds a 600-calorie meal, although it’s simple to cut back on carbs for a lighter lunch if you like. See the step-by-step bento-packing post for illustrations and the Top Tips page for links to numerous packing tips. In addition:

  • Think balance, not only nutritional but also visual. Use a variety of colors and textures in the lunch.
  • Pack it compactly with little gap fillers like cherry tomatoes or grapes to stabilize the lunch for transport. There’s nothing worse than packing a lunch that looks nice in the morning, only to open it and find that everything’s slid around and mixed up when you’re ready to eat.
  • Silicone cupcake linersThink about what foods will be touching, and which flavors won’t be appetizing if they mix. Use edible separators such as lettuce or cucumber slices, or reusable silicone baking cups or lidded condiment cups to keep everything at its best until lunchtime. Wash and reuse disposable condiment cups that you get with takeout — they last forever when hand washed.


Doesn’t it take a long time to make a bento lunch? How can I speed things up?

You can take a long time if you get really ambitious with decoration or cooking multiple dishes, but I tend to keep things simple by making “speed bentos”. A “speed bento” is a meal packed in 10-15 minutes making full use of leftovers and a freezer stash. My goal is to cook no more than one thing in the morning for a bento (if that — yes, I’m lazy!).

Frying pan does double dutyMy Mommy’s Lunch Manifesto has an overview of speed bento techniques such as pre-packing the night before, using ready-made food and sauces, and simultaneously cooking multiple things in the same pan or bowl (“multi-cooking”) via grilling, broiling, frying or boiling. Some special equipment can also speed up prep time, like electric kettles, mini-mandoline slicers, microwave mini steamers, and convection toaster ovens. Organize your refrigerator/freezer and pantry to provide easy access to lunch items. If you collect so much lunch gear that it becomes a problem, organize your containers and tools for easy access, and keep the bento accessories at hand with a variety of organizers. See the Top Tips page for a comprehensive list of all speed tips. Leftovers are always your friend:


Wait, I thought bento lunches looked like paintings made out of food. Where’s the food art?

Children's Day bento lunch for preschoolerI’ve made some Decorative Food, also known as kyaraben or oekakiben, but it’s not my specialty (too lazy!). For better examples of what bento food art can be, have a look at coffee table book Face Food, Anna the Red’s Bento Factory (amazing!), the Cooking Cute website, or Sakurako Kitsa’s Flickr photostream. There are additional links to Japanese food art bento blogs on the Lunch Links page. If you create a lot of food art, though, you may want to think of things to do with the leftover food scraps besides snacking on them while packing lunch.


When do you make a bento lunch? Can I make it the night before?

I tend to pack my son’s bento lunches in the morning, but that’s just because I don’t have my act together enough to do it at night. Packing the next day’s bento lunch the night before when you’re cooking or cleaning up from dinner is a great way to save time in the morning. Some foods do suffer texturally from an overnight stay in the refrigerator, though, and benefit from morning prep (rice, some sliced fruits, pasta).


Do you eat the lunches hot, cold, or at room temperature?

There’s no microwave oven at my son’s school, so most of the lunches shown here are meant to be eaten cool (packed in insulated lunch bags with ice packs) or at room temperature. The only foods that turn out warm are those packed in thermal lunch jars or thermal food jars. If you have a refrigerator and a microwave oven available where you’ll eat, you may want to pack a cold bento lunch with multiple tiers packed so that you can easily microwave only the container of foods you want to eat warm (i.e. keep the fruit away from the meat). If you’re going to microwave your lunch, be sure to use a microwave-safe container. Details at the hot vs. cold lunch packing considerations post.


Isn’t room temperature food dangerous?

Reusable ice blanket for packed lunchesBe mindful of packed lunch food safety: bacteria thrive on moisture and protein at room temperature. Use an ice pack and an insulated lunch bag when packing particularly perishable foods that will be unrefrigerated for more than two hours. Freeze little pudding cups, juice boxes, or containers of canned fruit to use as edible ice packs. Certain foods like oregano and cilantro have antibacterial qualities that help prevent food spoilage; spice food more aggressively than usual if you will be eating lunch at room temperature (details at the food safety post).


I don’t want to microwave or pack food in plastic containers. What are my options?

Stainless steel food containersThere’s information on the risks of microwaving in plastic at the post on tempered glass bento boxes, which are microwave-safe but heavy. Stainless steel boxes like these or multi-tiered tiffin tins like ToGo Ware are lighter, and can be warmed in a stovetop steamer. Or line plastic boxes with an edible liner such as lettuce so that the food does not touch the plastic directly. Details are at the hot vs. cold lunch packing considerations post. The Gear section of the Lunch in a Box community forum has the most up-to-date information on the latest bento gear of all kinds.


Do you have suggestions for kids’ lunches? What about picky eaters?

How to make apple rabbits

  • Don’t overpack the lunch. Kids like to be able to finish a whole lunch in one sitting; you can do your part toward portion control by packing a manageable lunch in a small container.
  • Don’t forget the fun! Kids especially respond to the fun aspect, and picky eaters are more likely to try foods presented in a fun, appealing way. This can be as simple as adding cute food picks or other bento accessories, or including a little container of a dip for fresh fruits or vegetables (kids love dipping). For special occasions you can try your hand at kyaraben food art where you sculpt faces or animals out of food, but don’t feel that you need to do this every day. You’ll burn yourself out!
  • Practice with your young child ahead of time to make sure they can open and close their lunch containers, oshibori hand towel cases, etc. on their own.
  • Find out about any food allergy restrictions in the school and make sure you’re not packing anything that could send another child to the hospital through casual contact.
  • The Kids’ Corner section of the Lunch in a Box community forum has lots of discussion about children’s lunch issues, including a thread dedicated to showing off our children’s packed lunches.


What do I need to buy to start?

Collapsible sandwich holder (exploded)You probably have enough in your kitchen right now to get started packing bento-style lunches: a shallow Tupperware-type food container with a watertight seal (I love the cheap, secure Lock & Lock boxes with locking lids), a little bag, and utensils to take with you (collapsible utensils or chopsticks that you keep in your bag are cool but a luxury). If you really get into it, you might want to expand your food repertoire by adding an inexpensive thermal food jar for soups and stews, a collapsible sandwich case for bulky sandwiches, fancy bento boxes from Japan, a thermal lunch jar like the Mr. Bento for a variety of warm or cool items including soup, a microwave-safe donburi bento box for rice and a separate topping, or a Laptop Lunchbox for loosely packed dry meals. There’s no single correct answer; you’ll find yourself gravitating towards different containers depending upon the foods you pack. The Gear section of the Lunch in a Box community forum has the most up-to-date information & feedback on the latest bento gear of all kinds.


What size bento box should I get?

To pack calorically dense foods like rice or pasta in the traditional compact manner, use the chart in the bento box size guidelines to select the right size box for your gender, age and height. Use a smaller box in combination with a thermal food jar, or a larger box to accommodate loosely packed foods like salads and sandwiches.


Where can I buy bento boxes and accessories?

For retail stores near you, see the Bento Store Locator (BSL) with Google Maps for international reader-generated store listings and feedback. Online sources include the online bento store list as well as the Lunch in a Box Amazon store. Purchases made through the Amazon store or affiliate links support Lunch in a Box with pennies on the dollar at no increased cost to the buyer. If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, have a look at the SF Bay Area shopping guide for bento gear, which has all of my local store reviews together in one place.


Help! I can’t read the care instructions on this Japanese bento box!

Cleaning under the rubber packing strip of a bento box lidA good rule of thumb is to hand-wash anything with decorations on the lid, all inner lids from multiple-tier bento boxes, and tiny plastic accessories that might fly around in the dishwasher and land on the heating element. Many items that are marked “hand wash only” can actually go through the dishwasher in the top rack as long as the heated dry cycle is turned off. Avoid microwaving greasy or staining foods (tomato-based or curry-based, for example) that are in direct contact with plastic containers as this can cause pitting and staining. The bento gear care guide has detailed information on handling odors, staining, washing, and maintenance (although I’m having a character encoding problem preventing the display of the Japanese characters in that post — sorry!).


Can you recommend some good cookbooks or websites for lunch ideas?

For recipes, see the Recipe page, a full list of the food books in my kitchen with feedback, and the books section of the Lunch in a Box Amazon store. For other packed lunch websites, online communities and blogs, see the comprehensive list on my Lunch Links page.  Subscribe to Lunch in a Box via RSS feed or e-mail updates.


What do you think of this particular [bento box, packaged food, cookbook, or kitchen gadget]? Could you review my product?

I occasionally write non-paid mini reviews of things in my kitchen; see the Product Reviews page for a full list and my review policy.


Who are you, anyway?

Biggie photoI’m Deborah Hamilton, a.k.a. “Biggie”. I live in San Francisco with my nine-year-old son who I call “Bug” online. I lived in Japan for nine years and am fluent in Japanese, so when my ex-husband was misdiagnosed with celiac disease (an intolerance to gluten found in wheat, barley and rye) in 2004, I turned to Japanese-language bento cookbooks for great tips in packing bento lunches. Later, when I found my diaper bag filling up with Tupperware containers filled with snacks for our toddler, I realized that I already had the answer to my problem: pack speedy bento lunches so that we could stay at the playground longer. Bug went to a Japanese-immersion preschool where bento lunches are the norm, and his lunches are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between food art and sandwiches in plastic baggies. (He’s at a school with a bilingual Japanese program now.) There’s more on the About page if you’re interested, with notable press and web mentions of Lunch in a Box on the Press and Awards page. I can be contacted at lunchinabox AT gmail DOT com.


Nice photos! What kind of camera do you use?

My old camera was nothing special: a plain point-and-shoot from Canon (a Powershot A520 4MP). I recently bought a Canon Rebel xSI digital SLR and a reasonably priced 50mm macro lens, and am learning how to make the most of it. :-)

Did I leave out something important? Your question not answered here? Ask the helpful folks on the Lunch in a Box community forum! A search of the website via the search function on the side bar may also turn up your answer. Subscribe to Lunch in a Box via RSS feed or e-mail updates.

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