Bento Basics

What is a Bento Anyway?
The “official” Wikipedia definition is “a single-portion takeout or home-packed meal common in Japanese cuisine.” Of course, many bentos (my own included) go beyond just Japanese cuisine. Bentos can easily be made from any cuisine…from pb&j’s to pasta to polenta.
Bentos are usually packed in a bento box…but you don’t have to purchase an expensive “authentic” bento box. My first bento box was a humble Glad Take ‘n’ Toss container (seen here and here). You can also use just about any sort of plastic food container as long as it works for you. If you do want to purchase an actual bento box, there are several good online sites listed to the right in my Links section. I highly recommend Ichiban Kan…it is where I have bought all of my boxes and most of my accessories thusfar (see here, here and here). They are very inexpensive ($1.00-$1.75) with low shipping costs, but sell out of many bento items very quickly.

How to Pack a Bento
If you decide to go with an actual bento box, when you first see it you will probably think, “It’s so small! How am I supposed to get anything in there?!” (I know I did it too!) The secret is to utilize every bit of space in the box as efficiently as possible. If you pack a bento the Japanese way, the milligram volume of the box will approximately equal the number of calories.

This is an example of a traditionally-packed bento. Rice (which is very filling) is packed tightly into the majority of one tier with tamagoyaki (rolled egg) providing part of the protein and nestled into the remaining space. On the second tier, there is wakame (seaweed salad) and black plums (our fruit and vegetable) in silicone cups, flanking crab sticks (a second source of protein). I deviated just a bit from traditional by substituting a fruit for another vegetable. Usually fruits and/or dessert items are not part of the main bento.

Obviously, you are not required to follow this template, but it does make for the most nutritious and filling bento. You will notice that I only follow this guideline about 50% of the time myself. The most helpful rule to follow when packing a bento is to try to use natural, healthy foods. Not only are they (obviously) better for you, but they’re also easier to pack into a bento. Pizza, fried chicken, and Twinkies don’t fit into those little boxes nearly as well as rice, baby veggies, diced lean meats, and little steamed dumplings. And they’re not as pretty and colorful either.

Jazzing Things Up
Part of the fun for so many bento-makers is creating a bento lunch that is not only satisfying to the palate, but also to the senses as well. Many bento artists delight in creating kyaraben (character bento) and oekaki (picture bento) which can be very ornate and time-consuming, but result in beautiful bentos that are works of art. Examples of kyaraben can be seen here and examples of oekakiben can be seen here. Obviously, the majority of bento-makers don’t go through that much time and effort to make an artistic bento…but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of simple ways to make a bento fun and colorful.

  • The easiest way to make a bento look great is just to make sure that you use a good range of colors. An all-brown bento is not only boring, but also probably not as nutritious as one that has lots of colorful veggies to break up the monotony. There’s a great guide to food colors in bentos here.
  • Something else that bento-makers do to add interest to a bento is to cut and mold food into fun shapes. You don’t have to buy alot of special gadgets to do this either. Cookie cutters, paper punchers, ice cream molds, scoops…or just a knife and your imagination are all you need. However, you can also buy rice molds, nori punches, and even wiener shapers (yes, I know it sounds funny, but these are little tools that cut weiners into octupi, penguins, tulips and crabs…see here).
  • You can also liven up your bento with decorative accessories. Think of these as the “finishing touches” to the bento. They’re pretty, but they’re also quite practical. Decorative picks hold mini-kebabs…fun dividers keep your meatballs from cozying up with your fruit salad…colorful cups hold saucy dishes…tiny bottles contain seasonings and sauces. There’s a mind-boggling amount of cute and fun bento accessories out there. The key is not to go too overboard or feel like you have to use them.

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