What is bento?
In Japanese, bento (弁当 bentō) or obento (お弁当 obentō) refers to a compact, nutritiously-balanced, visually appealing meal served in a box (we call the box “bento-bako” (弁当箱)).
What are the benefits?
- Healthy – If you follow the bento packing rule of thumb, you naturally have a good portion of carbs, proteins, vegetables and fruits in your lunch box. You also try to fit food in the bento box container so it’s a good reminder for how much food you consume as well as what you consume.
- Save Money – Bringing food (or even leftover) from home is always more economical than spending money at restaurants.
- Eco-Friendly – Bento box is reusable; therefore, you can reduce the amount of plastic bags, disposable containers, and waste.
Do I need to pack Japanese food? What do I pack?
No, you don’t have to pack Japanese food. I do because I cook Japanese food most of the time and I often pack the leftover in bento boxes. If you eat pasta the night before, pack the pasta! However, you should not put soupy, wet, moist food in bento boxes.
How do I make bento?
Is it time-consuming?
Yes and no. No for me because most of bento dishes that I put in bento boxes are all pre-cooked; either from previous dinners or meals that I had cooked and kept in freezer. All I need to do is to reheat the food (for food safety) and pack fresh vegetables and fruits in the morning. I typically need to cook only one thing in the morning if I find out I am missing food to fill out the bento box.
When do I prepare it? Can I make it the night before?
I recommend to prepare bento the morning of the day you are planning to eat because some foods suffer texturally from an overnight stay in the refrigerator, and it’s also not ideal in terms of food safety. If the majority of food is prepared previous night, all you need to do is to re-heat in the morning, and it should not take more than 15 minutes. Prepare bento before breakfast, and let it cool down (for food safety) while you eat breakfast. Once you get hang of it, it’s very simple.
However, if you cannot spare 15 minutes in the morning, you can make bento at night and continue to keep it cool till lunch time. Right before lunch, reheat the bento using a microwave oven. If there is no option of reheating, pack some food that can be kept cool throughout the day and still enjoyable at cool temperature.
How do you make the hot foods hot and cold foods cold?
Use an insulated food container like a thermal lunch box to keep hot foods hot. Include an ice pack or two into your lunch bag to keep cold food cold.
Can we eat bento at room temperature? What if there is no microwave to heat up bento?
Traditionally, Japanese bentos are mostly sold/eaten at room temperature. I carefully choose bento menus considering what kind of foods can be eaten at room temperature and still taste delicious. For example, food that are soaked in oily sauce doesn’t work as oil gets solidified. Deep fried foods actually works okay as long as you bake them to crispy in a toaster oven in the morning and let it cool completely before closing the bento box lid. Each person has preference in terms of what’s okay to eat at room temperature, so you might want to decide for yourself after experimenting. Eating bento in school growing up, I still remember which dishes are good in bento.
That being said, you still need to remember that bacteria thrive on moisture and protein at room temperature. If you are not familiar with this topic, please read Food Safety Tips for Bento. Remember, 1) re-heat thoroughly, 2) let cool completely, and 3) keep it cool with ice packs until the meal time.
If you have a microwave oven available, pack foods that are meant to be eaten warm separately in a microwave-safe container so you don’t microwave salad or fruits. 😉
Any tips for making kids bento?
I have a few tips that I can discuss here based on my own experience.
- Do NOT overpack their lunch! — Children are happy to show empty bento box when they come home (especially when mommy asks “how was the lunch?”!!!). If you want to encourage them to eat “everything”, do not overpack. My children’s lunch AND playtime is just 30 minutes (I assume their actual “eating” time is just 10 minutes). They really want to go play with their friends, so I pack less portion compared to what they would normally eat at home for lunch. I usually give some healthy snack after school to complement the small lunch portion.
- Make FUN bento! — Picky eaters are more likely try foods when the foods are presented in a fun and appealing way. Cute colorful bento always get more attention (and appetite) than dull looking bento. You can start with easy food art like apple bunny and ham flower to get their attention. Or start with cute food picks!
- Try ONE food at a time! — You can’t put everything that kids want to eat. All kids need to eat their veggies and fruits. If your children are picky eaters, try with one food at a time that your child dislike. Start with just a few pieces, then once he/she starts to finish that portion, slowly increase the amount.
Where can I buy bento box and accessories?
Just One Cookbook’s partner Lunch-a-Porter is a great bento and bento accessory online store. Use JOC15 to get 15% off!