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Posted on Mar 7, 2007 in Equipment, Parent Hacks, Tips, Tutorial or How-to | 75 comments

Guide to choosing the right size bento box


So you ordered a bento box online, it arrives and you’re shocked at how tiny it is. People try to tell you to just eat less, but you have a sneaking suspicion that you may have accidentally bought a bento box sized for a 2-year-old instead of an adult. Here’s how to tell: check the box’s total capacity against the gender/age/height guidelines in the table below (I translated them from a popular Japanese website that’s been getting a lot of media exposure in Japan — they’re based on official Japanese nutritional guidelines).

In Japan, bento box size is described not by its dimensions (inches or centimeters), but instead by its volume or capacity (in milliliters — ml). Why? Because a rule of thumb in Japan is that when you pack a bento box normally (A: 3 parts grain dishes, 1 part protein dishes, 2 parts vegetable dishes; B: without candy, junk food or fatty food; and C: without empty space), calories correspond directly to capacity. So a 600ml box should hold a 600-calorie meal.

Capacity is usually written on the bento box package and also often on the bottom of the bento box in raised plastic. If you’re not sure of your box’s capacity, you can measure it yourself by filling the box with water, pouring the water into a liquid measuring cup and checking the milliliters (ml) or ccs there. Most, if not all, Japanese eBay sellers should be able to tell you the size of a box in ml if asked. (Edited to add: 240ml = 1 cup American)

Here’s a quick height conversion chart in case you don’t know your height in centimeters.

Age (Women) Avg. height (in cm) Calories per meal (kCal) Bento Box Size (in ml)
3-5 85-110 450 400
6-8 116-128 500-550 500
9-11 134-147 600-650 600
12-14 155 770 700
15-17 157 735 700
18-20′s 158 685 600
30′s 157 670 600
40′s 157 670 600
50′s 152 650 600
60′s 152 650 600
70′s 147 520 500
80′s 147 520 500

* Source:

Age (Men) Avg. height (in cm) Calories per meal (kcal)
Bento Box Size (in ml)
3-5 85-110 450 400
6-8 117-128 500-550 500
9-11 133-145 600-650 600
12-14 160 885 900
15-17 170 920 900
18-20′s 171 885 900
30′s 170 885 900
40′s 170 885 900
50′s 165 800 800
60′s 165 800 800
70′s 160 620 600
80′s 160 620 600

* Source:

Step 2: Adjust for your level of physical activity and height *

Physical activity:
Level 1: Low (spend most of your time sitting or quiet)
Level 2: Moderate
Level 3: High (lots of exercise, sports, etc.)

Adjust the size of the bento box for your height and physical activity:

Add 100ml to your bento box size for:

  • Taller than average height
  • High physical activity (Level 3)

Subtract 100ml from your bento box size for:

  • Shorter than average height
  • Low physical activity (Level 1)

* Source:

Ad: Right sized cardboard boxes

I’m not sure how much to adjust if, for example, you’re both taller than average and have high physical activity (add 100ml or 200ml?), but it’s something to start with. If you’re dieting, you might want to choose a smaller box, but these are the general Japanese guidelines for packing dense food (i.e. rice or pasta, veggies and a protein). Bulky foods like sandwiches or salads would require larger boxes than the chart above.

The Japanese Food Guide Spinning Top defines the following food groups:

Category Cooking Category (Ideal Japanese Bento Makeup)
Grain dishes Dishes that mainly include rice, bread, noodles and pasta (carbohydrate sources) 3 parts
Vegetable dishes Dishes that mainly include vegetables, potatoes, beans (excl. soy beans), mushrooms and seaweeds (various vitamins, minerals and fiber sources) 2 parts
Fish and Meat dishes Dishes mainly include meat, fish, eggs, soy beans and soybean products (protein sources) 1 part
Milk Milk, yogurt and cheese (calcium sources) (occasional)
Fruits Fruits and fruit-like vegetables (Vitamin C and potassium sources) (occasional)

Source: What is Shokuiku (Food Education)?

BTW, if you get excited about the bento boxes at the Yellow Studio website linked from the charts above, be aware that they won’t ship outside Japan. (UPDATE: You can use one of the shipping services on this page to receive orders from companies that won’t ship internationally, though.)



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  1. Wow, that’s very cool. Thanks for taking the time to translate and post it.

  2. This is extremely helpful as I had no idea what I would be purchasing looking online. Thanks for posting this!

  3. Wow. At 178 cm, I am -way- taller than the average Japanese woman, and still have a bit on men as well…

    Thanks for this!

  4. What a fantastic bit of info. Thanks so much for posting. I’d heard about the rule of thumb, but hadn’t seen it being promoted with visuals and a food pyramid before. Interesting website…how I wish they shipped to the U.S.

    I am also curious as to why the Japanese are having to start this little food project. Is it a company advertising gimmick or is it something the government is sponsoring? Because I always thought the East had good eating habits and a low obesity rate.

  5. Me too. Eheh…

    Anyway, very interesting stuff.

  6. @5 from sprater: The Japanese Food Guide Spinning Top and the Shokuiku Law (passed in 2005) are an official government thing (not a company advertising thing) — take a look at the Shokuiku link above.

  7. @4 from dark_blade: Yup, I’m 177cm, so I’m with you! It was always fun wearing 3-inch heels to work in Japan. :-)

  8. @3 from bibliovixen: Yes, it helps you get a handle on bento box sizes — I’m lost without capacity in ml.

  9. @2 from tzel: My pleasure — it’s been on my mind for a while now.

  10. Thanks for the great tip on finding out the ml value of bento boxes w/o the ml’s posted. I used the water method on my boxes and was amazed to find that even my smallest ones were a whopping 725 mls. I’m trying to diet and stick to a 1200 calorie a day diet…so filling these to capacity will be a no-no. I just thought because they look so small and compact that they didn’t hold that much food. I have a couple of smaller polka dot bento boxes that hold around 470 ml; I originally thought they were miniscule, but now I’ll have to take them out and use them more often.

  11. XD WOW… Im average height… somewhere in the world!

    But seriously… I read your post early this morning and I couldnt help but think of how helpful and informative it was. Like sprater said before me… I used to think my obento boxes were small, :X but after having learned that the ml roughly equal the calories they seem so huge. >_> Now I also realize why my boyfriend complains that bento arent enough food… XD because according to that chart, he needs a box about double the size of mine! =^.^= Shopping time it is!

  12. @13 from furikakemonster: Ooh, enjoy your bento shopping! Happy to give people a rationalization for getting more bento boxes!

  13. @12 from sprater: Excellent — I’m so glad that helped.

  14. Hello Biggie - so glad that your Flickr friends made this link - your first entry made me laugh, cos it was EXACTLY what I thought - bought online, thought it was for a 2 year old…ha ha…but this has been very interesting, and I’m now going to check out more of your wonderful tutorials and your pics on Flickr - Thank you very much - Best wishes from Cesca in Berlin (aka Bowhaus)

  15. Thanks for translating! That was really helpful in answering the whole “how big should the box be?” question!

  16. I’m loving the Spinning Top diagram. The charts are really easy to understand, using familiar japanese dishes! I love that their number 1 guideline is to “enjoy eating”. So much of the Shokuiku program is wonderful, from educating your kids about farming and fishing…and teaching them how to prepare meals…I love the holistic approach, getting corporations and communities involved with food education! great stuff. thank you for sharing that.
    Also, I’m loving all the bento size guide chart! I was using a bento box too big for my daughter. I notice if I put a itty bitty piece of something, she’ll eat it. Rather than a big pile.

  17. @17 from commoi: Hooray! My job here is done! ;-)

  18. @17 from Julie: Thanks, Julie! I’m intrigued by Shokuiku as well, especially getting kids involved.

    My son also eats better if I serve him small portions from little plates, bowls or bento boxes. I was doing some reading on this and evidently it’s common for that age group — huge servings overwhelm them.

  19. @16 from anonymous/Cesca/Bowhaus: I’m glad it hit the mark! I suspected that was happening, looking at some of the pictures…

  20. @22 from luh3417_au: Glad it helped — it’s never good to be unpleasantly surprised after you’ve shelled out good money online for something.

  21. @24 from 00goddess: I don’t necessarily stick to the guidelines either, but I find them interesting to know (as just that — guidelines). I’m not sure why all of the items are categorized exactly the way they are by the Japanese government; you may as well count them however you like for your own dietary purposes, right?

  22. I’m trying hard to bring my own lunches to school since the bento I can order at school are kinda spendy (and often include things I can’t eat cause of food sensitivities) and I’ve gotten into a rut with what I eat at the cafeteria. I have a cute pink bento box I found at a store but have received a few comments from other staff and students that it’s too small. (I work/live in Japan, also got my B.A. majoring in Japanese ^^)

    Having no background for judging the size of bento boxes, your info here is sooooooooooooo helpful! I just tested my box and its around 500 ml. I don’t pack it full on the bottom either. I think tomorrow would be a great day to get out and find a slightly larger box and avoid the many “are you eating enough? are you eating properly” questions.

    I’m so glad I stumbled upon your lj. I look forward to reading more of your hints and tips. ^_^

  23. @27 from tenshisama: Oh boy, your comments brought back memories! It’s nice that everyone’s concerned, but sometimes I wished they’d just give me a good reliable resource to use to solve the problem myself instead of chiming in with opinions I wasn’t sure if I should trust or not.

  24. Thank you so much for this!! While I’ve been drooling over bento photos/blogs for quite awhile I’ve only started looking to buy a bento box within the last few days. And looking through auctions on eBay I was struck with a near constant sense of, “Uhhhhhhh…??” I had absolutely NO idea what I should be looking for! Thank you again!!

  25. Thank you for all of your beautiful photos. I admire all your work, too!

    My son is starting preschool in September and I thought I had until then to get started, but it turns out he needs to begin taking his lunches to daycare now (starting today!) because he doesn’t like the food they serve there and his teacher is worried about him not eating. I’ve always felt that bento was the way to go and I gave it my first shot this morning.

    All of this info and your posts will serve as definite inspiration and a handy resource.

  26. THANKS for the advice. I packed him some grilled chicken breast slices, we had left over from dinner, apple slices, carrot sticks, black olives and some muenster cheese. And in two other smalls containers, some hummus and some blackberries.

    Yesterday, I went to Mitsuwa and bought him a child-size bento so tomorow’s lunch should be much more compact and organized. I’ve also been eyeballing little condiment bottles on eBay.

    I’ll definitely be getting loads of inspiration from your toddler lunches. ;)

  27. @33 from avalera: Glad to hear back from you! With my toddler lunches, just remember that I still eat with him (he’s not in preschool yet), so I help him with eating & utensils when he needs it. This fall when he goes to preschool I’ll be focusing on foods he can eat all by himself without assistance.

  28. I just joined your Kids Eat flickr group! I am loving your LJ, btw. Thanks again for all your hard work and wisdom! :D

  29. I am curious if you have any idea how many ML/Calories a full Mr. Bento would be?
    I’ve been trying to find this out…
    I am on a 1,300 calorie diet.. and I am used to eating only a banana for my breakfast and lunch combined… but I wasn’t able to resist the beauty and appeal of bento , so I have since then gotten a Mr. Bento for me and my fiance .. and I am imagining that I’m eating wayyy over my calorie allotment right now >_< lol please help if you can? :D

  30. @36 from anonymous: A Mr. Bento (or Nissan Stainless thermal lunch tote) is 1230ml total capacity: 450ml (rice), 300ml (side), 200ml (side), and 280ml soup container. If you pack it with loose, bulky food like salad, breads or soups, however, the calorie count will come down from 1:1. It’s a little too big for me for a single meal, but my husband likes it especially when one of the tiers is packed with a snack. Maybe the smaller Ms. Bento would be a better size for you?

  31. I was thinking of this post when I sent a note to the owner of the eBay shop ‘Japan Souvenir’ and got this reply:

    Tha manufacturers do not display the milli-liters hence our omission. But your proposal is well noted. Thank you.


  32. I’ve got that rust-red square usagi box, and I’m pretty sure the volume isn’t marked on that one, either on the sticker or molded into the plastic — I had to measure it (and yes, it’s bigger than it looks! 550ml, to my surprise).

    And I agree, it’ll be interesting to see if that vendor starts adding that information. :)

  33. Got Nagomi, Inc. ^_^

    …Regarding your advice on the bento’s description,thank you so much.We really appreciate it.We will revise our bento’s description one by one….

    I just got some items from him and when it wasn’t embossed on the box, the volume was noted on an enclosure or the packaging.

  34. @41 from sff_corgi: Very responsive! Smart seller.

  35. Thanks for your website. I stumbled upon your website via Wikipedia, and I am glad that I did. However, the link here on your website to gives sizes in grams and I was wondering what the equivalents are to ml - measurements? Thanks for your help :)

  36. Hi, I’m starting to make my own bentos as well after being inspired by you! I undertstand that the Yellow studio website doesn’t post items out of Japan but would you have any clue where to get the mapping for the Shokuiku from? thanks! Keep up the wonderful job! Jun

    • Hi Jun! Do you mean that clear plastic sheet with gridlines shown on top of the Yellow Studio boxes in the link? It appears that that’s something from Yellow Studio sold with their 3:1:2 Shokuiku line of boxes. You could always eyeball it — rice in one half, then roughly approximate one third of the remaining space for your protein. That sheet is nifty, though — wish I had one for fun!

      • Sorry, that was me in Admin mode.

  37. Hey Biggie, the pack comes with 3 containers around 800ml each, so at the moment I’m using 2 of the lunch boxes for his lunch and dinner and one of them for snack. Food in Asutralia is beautiful just harder to find bento and accessories here and postage is so expensive on ebay too.

  38. This has been so helpful. I don’t have any actual bento boxes, I have been using Tupperware-like containers. My husband is starting a diet and this works for him to know just how many calories he’s getting.

    On another note, he’s 1/2 Japanese and this is his first experience with bento boxes! He really likes it. So… thank you!!

  39. @52 from kian:
    Glad it helped! Those tables helped me get a handle on how much I should be packing for all of us, and transition up to a slightly larger box for my almost-3-year-old. Good luck to your husband on his diet!

  40. This was EXACTLY the info I needed. Now to find the right size bento boxes for me and my husband.

  41. @59 from Prem: Thanks for the kind words, Prem! Feel free to comment with any questions or thoughts you might have.

  42. @60 from Sunshine 9905: Glad this was helpful to you! Before I was used to packing food compactly, the little bento boxes seemed alarmingly small. But once I figured out what size box I should be using, I was able to cram it with enough food to be satisfied — helpful for portion control

  43. wow, thanks for all the tips. I really want to make a good bento for someone…I haven’t been able to master it as of yet but I’m sure I will with your help!

  44. @66 from Chiki: As long as you’re satisfied with what you’ve packed, that’s a great start. Is it tasty? Does it get eaten? Does it make it to its destination intact? If so, the rest is just gravy.

  45. This is useful information, even if I currently just use tupperware that’s lying around when I do the occasional semi-bento. (When I do order a “real” bento box I’ll have this in mind) But I’d like to add, since some people couldn’t find how many ml their box was, all you need to find out the how many milliliters all you need to find out is the volume, which could be easily found with a calculator. (Or, depending on the numbers, in your head) Then, just plop it here, round it off, and you’ll know how many milliliters there are! Also, keep in mind, a cm cubed is a milliliter! :D

  46. @68 from Elli: Thanks for the tip on calculating ml! The other thing you can do is fill your Tupperware with water, pour the water out into a measuring cup, and see how many cc’s (or ml’s) it is. Easy peasy!

  47. I sometimes use those Wonderbread sandwich boxes I found at WalMart. It’s kind-of cute to find your meal is sandwich-shaped, and they have such a cute retro-American feel to them, especially if you use a red handkerchief as a furoshiki.

  48. @71 from Candi: Those little sandwich boxes are a great alternative to pricey bento boxes — so cheap and widely available at supermarkets and superstores.

  49. @73 from Tanja: Welcome to the site, Tanja — glad to have you here! I look forward to your comments as a non-Japanese in Japan. :-)

  50. I am 195 cm, thus your translation is not very useful for me.

  51. @76 from reggie: I hear you on being much taller than these Japanese height charts, reggie. I’d recommend using your own preferred authorities to figure out how many calories a day you should be consuming for your height, gender, activity level, and diet goals. Divide by three to get your per-meal calorie goal, and that’s the size bento box you can aim for.

  52. Hello, I wanted to tell you how much I am enjoying your site.

    I am new to the Bento craze and this site has been an excellent source of info to me.

    I also made my first purchases on that awesome online dollar store and am enjoying my new Bento products.

    I have a question though and hope someone can help me.

    Yesterday I stopped by a local asian grocery store and I purchased a unique plastic storage container that reminded me of a Bento box. I have been trying to identify it as I want to make sure it is safe for microwave and also just safe in general as it has no real identifying markings.

    It is very cute though and is about 6″ long, 4 ” wide and 5″ deep and it is rectangular shaped and has these hinges on the lid that secure it. On the inside it has a smaller removeable compartment such as what is in a regualr bento box. I bought a blue and red one and on top of the lids are a decal with flowers. Unfortunately these decals are not imprinted but are more like stickers and could easily be peeled off if not careful. But the boxes themselves are very sturdy hard plastic. It also feels like it is thermal on both the lid and base as it is heavy. The only markings on the bottom say “Phoenix” and Made in Taiwan.

    I have been fervently searching the net to find info on this container but have had no luck.

    I will try to post a pic if someone could show me how but I hope someone may be able to identify this container. I also plan to stop back at the store and ask them if they know or have more info on it. I am really not even sure what it as I said it is very cute, unique and looks to me like an insulated bento or small rice container perhaps.

  53. It’s really easy to figure out the approximate capacity of bento boxes. For example if a box measures as follows:
    5 inches X 5 inches X 2.75 inches
    you just multiply the 3 dimensions:
    69 cubic inches
    then go to this site to convert to mL:
    in our example the box is approx. 1130 mL, but keep in mind that tapered sides and thick lids will mean that the capacity is somewhat lower than calculated.

  54. I love this page! I am slowly gathering my bento gear and have tried a couple of times. I haven’t mustered the courage to microwave my bento (on my real bento boxes) so I end up pouring the reheatable food on a paper plate. I got a question tough: I am a 162 cm tall, and exercise 5 days a week (3 times 45 min, 2 times 30 min) would it be accurate to say that a 700 ml box will fit my food needs (I am in the middle 30′s age wise)?
    My husband is in the 40′s age wise, has low physical activity, but he is 178 cm tall. Will an 800ml box work for him? I need to find out because the boxes I have (2 tier models) are between 500 to 600 ml capacity depending on the model. I have microwaveable sandwich boxes that sometimes use as “make-shift” bento but the shape is limiting for placement of food dividers. A million thanks , Isabel

  55. @82 from Ksenia in Canada: Thanks for the link to the conversion tool! I’m sure that’ll come in handy for people trying to figure out the capacity of boxes they see online that only show dimensions.

  56. @83 from Isabel: I’m not a nutrition/diet expert, so I’d say you should consult a trustworthy resource to figure out how many calories per meal you and your husband should be consuming. Then the rule of thumb would be to get a box that holds approximately the same number of milliliters as the number of calories you’re aiming to consume.

  57. I am very excited to find this site. I’ve subscribed and I have a question, if you don’t have time to answer I understand. I am wanting to learn japanese and was wondering how you learned. What is the most accurate way?
    Also I’ve been told the japanese aren’t accepting at all, is this true, because I would like to visit Japan and this sounds dissapointing.Thanks for your time, I can’t wait to get a bento!

  58. Thank you..Should I be worried about BPA and phalates? Or Led?
    I so want to do this well. Any particular bento?
    I found a great retailer on esty..

  59. what if ur 172.5 and a level 1?

  60. I’m living in Okinawa, Japan for the next three years and just found out about bento. I LOVE how cute they are! I also really like the portion control. I’m aiming for no more than 1500 calories a day, so would it be a feasible idea to buy 3 bento boxes and pre-pack all my food for the day? Breakfast, lunch and dinner?

    Maybe I could get three 400 ml boxes and then use the rest of my calories for a morning and afternoon snack.

  61. I go between really liking your site, and wishing I’d never stumbled on a new obsession! I’m still waiting for my first bento box to get here. It holds 977mL, according to a reviewer, so it should be good for lunch and a snack. I also fell in love with a pretty box with sakura blossoms, but it’s only 620 mL. Since I’m 171 cm (and eat like a pig) I don’t know that it’ll be big enough. Not that I can buy a second box before I’ve gottent the first. You see what you’ve started, Biggie?

  62. So a 6″x5″x2″ bento box is too big for a 12-year-old girl with below average height? I’m glad I found this before my dad ordered it. Where can I get one that’s the right size? So much for trying to use a 6.5″x6.5″x2″ sandwich container as a bento box in order to save money… But I think I will, anyway, since there’s nothing else I can do. My dad refuses to buy me a bento box.

  63. @103 from Angel: I get it, Angel! I’ve been going through old blog comments and realized I never responded to your comments. I’m sorry about the delay. Quite a conundrum you’ve got there, but without really knowing the details of your situation I’m not sure what to tell you.

  64. Aw, I just check the bento I bought in Japan while I was there studying and it’s about 200 ml short…not that that will stop me from using it

  65. oh wow! now i know my bento box is kiddy sized! its a two tiered dragon fly bento box measuring:

    “3 5/8 inches tall, about 4 1/2 inches wide, and about 3 3/8 inches deep. The bottom tray is about 1 7/8 inches tall, while the top one is just over 1 3/4 inches tall”

  66. Loved your advice! I bought a 500 ml Japanese bento and was shocked and angered by how tiny it appeared to be for the money. Then, after seeing the recommendations on your site, I decided to give it a ‘test” and see just how tiny this bento would be actually using it as recommended. During this experiment I realized how awfully big my “normal” portions were-and how the bento sized portions really did fill me for one meal-as designed. I have come to use my bento for portion control and it works! Thanks so much for the information!

  67. hello, how can i find out if my height is average or not? I feel a little lost on this one ^__^;

  68. This is so helpful.. I never knew there were different sizes for different people, in America we don’t have that! Lucky for us, the bento people have thought of everything.. Thanks for the information, I’m going to be able to find the right size for me and my husband now! Kudos.
    Deep Fryers

  69. Great info! Just made my “french version” of your pos, hope you don’t mind.

  70. you know anthoer cool website to buy bento boxes and supplies besides jlist is just click on the link that saids bento boxes or japanese culture there really good price too

  71. Hmm…
    Biggie, its still online in this website?
    this page is quite usefull for me..
    im collage boy and want to be economics and making a bento is one of the way…

  72. I actually think they don’t make bento boxes large enough. With Gastroparesis, I am only able to consume a maximum of 8oz per meal. Makes it so hard to find any bento boxes. Does anyone have an idea of where to find one this size?

  73. @48 from Jun: Thanks for the kind comment, Jun! What size is each of the Lock & Lock containers? Sounds interesting! I’ve got a Lock & Lock picnic set for multiple people; I wonder if yours is similar. I love the produce markets here — great variety and excellent prices (much cheaper than in Japan). Good luck to you in your produce hunt in Western Australia!


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