Bento Box Lunch Ideas

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“Bento” is a Japanese word meaning “convenient” and refers to a single-serve, usually home packed meal, often beautifully arranged in a box with compartments for holding the different foods. Bento lunches are common in Japan, and are sold in markets and convenience shops, but packing a bento box at home is just as common as a brown paper sack lunch in the United States.

Traditionally, a bento contains rice, meat or fish and vegetables that are pickled or cooked. Bento lunches are often very artfully arranged, and in fact, there are competitions in Japan for the most aesthetically pleasing meal. Bento designed to look like popular cartoon or anime characters are called kyaraben, while bento arranged to simulate flowers, buildings, landscapes or other objects are called oekakiben.


What Is A Bento Box?

Bento boxes range from disposable plastic trays, to beautiful, lacquered boxes that are quite ornate. As bento boxes have spread to the west, it has become easy to find boxes made of plastic, with separate compartments or containers that fit together, sometimes designed to look like animals or cartoon characters. You can even find stainless steel bento boxes, usually designed to fit together in a reusable sack.

You can buy a bento box already fit with smaller compartments and boxes, or create your own by starting with a small plastic box or lunchbox, then using small Tupperware or plastic boxes to hold separate foods. You can even use silicone cupcake holders as little containers, something most children will love. Look for bento boxes at Target, Wal-Mart, Bed Bath & Beyond; or find a large selection of boxes online at specialty websites or Amazon.com.

Some advantages of packing your lunch or your kid’s lunch in a bento box include:

  • The boxes are reusable, cutting down on wasted baggies, foil or paper bags
  • Bento boxes enforce portion control, making it easy to watch your food intake
  • The appealing presentation of the box makes even a simple lunch more enjoyable
  • Packing a lunch instead of going to a restaurant saves considerable money over time
  • Picky children often find the small portions and fun look of the box to their liking

How Do You Pack A Bento Box?

You don’t have to eat Japanese food to pack a bento, and you don’t have to follow tradition in choosing your contents. There are a few general rules that are good to follow when packing your box, though.

  • Pack a variety of colors and textures.
  • Keep a healthy balance of carbohydrates, protein and fruits/vegetables. There should be at least two fruits or vegetables in the lunch.
  • Fill the box. There should be little open space. This keeps food from shifting during transport.
  • Avoid very wet or messy foods. And stay away from very odorous foods unless you want glares in the lunchroom.
  • Pack neatly. Rather than tossing in a handful of celery sticks, stack them in the same direction.
  • Cut food into bite-sized pieces.
  • Take a few extra minutes to cut food into fun shapes or designs. A cookie cutter can turn a sandwich into a gingerbread man, or a paring knife can create thin carrot ribbons.
  • Choose foods that complement each other’s flavors.

What Can You Pack In Your Bento Box?

Your imagination is the only limit when it comes to packing lunch for yourself, your children, or your significant other, as long as you keep the meal nutritious, tasty, pleasing to look at and easy to eat.

  • Fill your main container with chicken fried rice, then set slices of peach in one small container, grapes in another compartment, and a cookie for dessert.
  • Roll slices of lunchmeat, and arrange them like petals around a center “eye” made with a cherry tomato. Fill a smaller box with raspberries, and another with additional cherry tomatoes. Add a package of string cheese, and finish with one or two Hershey’s Kisses.
  • Use a cookie cutter to fashion a gingerbread man shaped peanut butter sandwich. Carrot and celery sticks should be neatly arranged in a smaller container, with a third box holding cut strawberries. A cup of chocolate pudding for dessert will be much appreciated.
  • If a microwave is available at lunchtime, cut pizza into bite-size pieces, and fill your largest box. Salad greens with chopped carrots are a nice accompaniment, and the third box can hold orange slices. Add a few chocolate graham crackers to finish the meal.
  • Use chunks of roasted chicken breast for your protein, fill a smaller container with rice and a third with a mix of raspberries and blueberries. Fill a lidded container with tomato soup, and add a handful of goldfish crackers.
  • Use small floral-shaped cookie cutters to slice cheese into flower shapes, and layer the slices in your protein box. Add a container filled with crackers, another with red grapes and a smaller box with broccoli florets.
  • Roll slices of turkey breast, avocado, cheese and bell pepper inside a tortilla, and cut into sections. Arrange them neatly in your protein box, then fill the smaller boxes with cantaloupe and watermelon cubes. Add a couple of cookies for a sweet ending.
  • Fill the large box with a nicely displayed assortment of sushi, and fill a smaller box with rice. Slice cucumber and shredded carrots in the third box and finish off with fresh strawberries for dessert.
  • Most children love mini meatballs. Fill the large box with beef or turkey meatballs, and accompany them with boxes holding apple slices, celery sticks and cinnamon graham crackers.

You don’t have to win a competition with your bento, or spend all night cooking and all morning arranging a fantastic food creation. Just focus on an attractively displayed, healthy and enjoyable lunch, and feel good knowing that you are providing yourself and your family an economical, delicious and balanced meal.

Last Updated: August 12, 2012
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About Michelle Ullman Michelle Ullman has lived and gardened in Southern California since childhood. A freelance writer, she covers topics ranging from gardening to home improvement to health issues. She also has experience as a catalog copywriter and poet. Michelle has trained and worked as a respiratory therapist and surgical technologist, but prefers to spend her time gardening, and walking with her dog. Michelle holds a Bachelor's Degree from Redlands University in Business Management. 

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