The bento box is a traditional Japanese lunchbox that contains partitions so that the different parts of a meal can easily be carried while also being separated. The Japanese bento box is reusable, but there is a bit more to the bento box than just a convenient container for food.
Although early records show that packed lunches in Japan had beginnings as far back as the 5th century, the bento box didn’t make an appearance until the 16th century. It was introduced to Americans in the 1980s by Japanese-American sugar plantation workers.
Today, there are many types of bento boxes, some featuring beautiful art, and others shaped to look like cartoon characters, flowers, buildings, and other items. But regardless of what it looks like, the main point of the bento box is convenience — in fact, the word bento is derived from the term biàndāng, which means convenience.
Choosing the Bento Box
With a bento box, you can carry the perfect lunch with you wherever you go. But selecting a bento box isn’t so easy, as there are dozens of shapes, sizes, and even the ones with multiple tiers.
Bento Box Size
The typical bento box comes in either 1 or 2 tiers. The size of the bento box can also give you a rough idea of how many calories worth of food it can hold.
For example, a small, one-tier bento box is usually 400ml-500ml in size. That roughly equates to being able to hold 400-500kcal of food that can contain.
Two-tier bento boxes come in several sizes. The Small-medium size is typically 600-700 ml, roughly holding 600-700kcal of food. The large size is about 800-900ml, which contains about 800-900kcal of food.
When choosing a bento box for yourself or someone else, think about how much food you would need for a sufficient meal. As a rule of thumb, try to determine how much rice you typically eat. In a standard Japanese bento box lunch, the rice portion will fill up half of the one-tier bento box. In two-tier boxes, one tier is usually dedicated to rice, and the other layer holds the main dish or side items.
Bento Box Material
Plastic bento boxes are standard, inexpensive, and practical. The plastic bento boxes are microwave-safe, so you can quickly heat your meal. Many also come with leak-proof interior lids.
However, it should be noted that the lids aren’t always microwavable. Additionally, it can be challenging to wash the oil off plastic bento boxes, and you also need to consider whether you want BPA-free plastic.
A wooden bento box costs a little more, but it also delivers a feeling of nostalgia when using one. As long as you maintain the box well by washing it as soon as you are done with a meal and allowing it to air-dry, the wooden bento box can last as long as ten years!
Additionally, because the wood material is breathable, the food inside actually stays fresher. The only downside is that the wooden bento boxes are not microwavable, shouldn’t be put in a dishwasher, and can sometimes leak since they don’t often come with leak-proof lids.
Stainless Steel/ Aluminum
Stainless steel/ aluminum is another common material utilized for bento boxes. One upside to using one of these is that the color and odor of food can sometimes stick to plastic when used frequently, but won’t with stainless steel. Additionally, these boxes are lightweight, durable, and easy to clean.
Again, the downside is that it isn’t microwave-safe and shouldn’t be put in the dishwasher. Also, some sour foods such as umeboshi can ruin the material.
Five Basic Rules of Making a Bento Box
1: Heat/ cook the ingredients very well.
This is especially important for meats, fish, and eggs. Since the bento box might be unable to be refrigerated for several hours, you’ll want to ensure that all the food has been cooked properly to avoid the possibility of food poisoning.
2: Remove excessive water/ liquid before putting food into the bento box.
Foods high in liquids can leak if the bento box isn’t properly closed or doesn’t have a leak-proof lid. To remedy this, you can strain foods such as noodles or dry fresh vegetables with a paper towel. Additionally, place cooked side dishes onto a plate to make it easier to remove excess oil or sauces before putting them into the bento box.
3: Use Vinegar.
Vinegar helps to sanitize food. Add a side dish or two that contains vinegar as an ingredient, or add pickled foods such as umeboshi to your rice. This will help to keep the remainder of your food clean.
4: Use Soy Sauce.
Just like vinegar, soy sauce has a food-sanitizing effect. Add a side dish that contains a small amount of soy sauce to keep food clean.
5: Cool-down ingredients before putting them into the box.
If you close the lids of the bento box before food items cool down, the steam released from the food will form moisture on the interior of the bento box. This can have a damaging effect on your food, or at the very least, ruin the flavor and texture.
What Food Items to Include in a Bento Box?
When composing your bento box lunch, the basic rule is to have an overall ratio of rice to side dish as 1:1. As for the side dish, the basic rule is to have one main side dish (usually meat or fish), and two to three smaller side dishes (vegetables, eggs, etc.).
Keep It Colorful
A palette of color is an integral part of a Japanese meal. When thinking about what side dishes to include in your bento box, remember to add one item from these color schemes: black (or brown), yellow, red, and green.
Black (or brown) items: chicken, beef, pork, shiitake mushrooms, eggplant, hijiki seaweed, nori seaweed, black sesame seeds, etc.
Yellow: Kabocha pumpkin, yellow peppers, egg, cheese, corn, potatoes, etc.
Red: Tomato, salmon, carrot, ham, bacon, etc.
Green: Asparagus, snap peas, green peppers, broccoli, spinach, cucumber, etc.
How to Pack Your Bento Box
1-tier Bento Box; place rice in the half of the bento box. 2-tier Bento Box; place rice on the bottom tier of the bento box.
Rice seasoning suggestions: Sprinkle black sesame seeds; soak nori seaweed in soy sauce and place on top of the rice; place one umeboshi in the middle of the rice to add some color, sprinkle rice seasoning.
For the side dish, the key is to put in ingredients that are bigger first. Large and bulky items like karaage fried chicken should be first, followed by big vegetables like pumpkin and broccoli. Lastly, use soft and small items like spinach, ham, hijiki seaweed, etc. to fill up the remaining space.
Another rule of thumb is not to place similar-colored items next to each other. If you can, use aluminum foil or small and colorful cupcake cups to separate each food item. Colorful cups will add additional colors to your bento box. And if you can find silicone cups it’s better for the environment!
Suggested Items for Bento Box
Main Side Dishes
Shogayaki is a bento box staple that is easy to make in bulk. Add some ginger to help keep the food sanitized.
Fried chicken is an excellent addition to a bento box. Cut karaage in halves or quarters to make it fit more easily.
Saikyo Yaki is a typical Japanese fish dish made with salmon.
Try tsukune for another popular bento box staple.
Small Side Dishes
Try this recipe to add a bit of a Japanese kick to your everyday broccoli.
Carrot and Broccoli Kinpira
Kinpira is a staple bento box item. It’s easy to fill extra space in your bento box with this delicious and healthy side dish.
Spinach and Egg
Try this recipe for an easy but nutritious side dish.
Eggplant and Chicken Miso Stir-fry
After making this recipe, be sure to drain the extra sauce and use cups or aluminum foil to keep it separate from other items.
Bean Sprouts Curry Soy Saute
Leftover bean sprouts? Make this to fill your bento box’s extra space.
If you’re tired of rice in your bento, substitute with udon noodles.
Placing soboro on top of rice is an easy way to add color and nutrients, especially if you’re using a small or 1-tier bento box.