This is the Ultimate Guide to Bento Box Lunch! Whether you’re making school lunches for your little ones or work lunches for yourself, this guide will help you plan and pack a healthy and colorful bento. Plenty of tips and tools for you to get started.
These days bento boxes have become synonymous to lunch boxes. I have seen so many wonderful bento lunch boxes filled with all kinds of food (from American comfort food, Tex-Mex, Indian, Italian to fusion) and it makes me really happy that the bento culture has gone global.
As a Japanese mother, packing bento boxes for my two children are the ultimate act of love. And I believe it is the same no matter your background. In this post, I will share how I make bentos for my children.
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 bento container “bento-bako” (弁当箱).
The Benefits of Home-Packed Bento
- Healthy – If you follow the rule of thumb for bento packing, you naturally have a good portion of carbs, proteins, vegetables, and fruits in your lunch box. As the bento comes in compartmentalized containers, it is a good reminder on the amount of food you have for the meal.
- Economical – 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.
Did you know the Japanese bentos are meant to be eaten at room temperature? In Japan, bento food is prepared carefully with that in mind. In general:
- The food tends to be more heavily seasoned (more salt) than fresh cooked food so it tastes better at room temperature.
- Dishes that may not taste good at room temperature such as Japanese Curry or very fatty food (oil will solidify) are often avoided.
- Deep fried food such as karaage, tempura, and wings are common bento items because Japanese method of deep-frying creates a crispy, airy surface for the food and brings out the flavor that taste good even at room temperature.
What We Will Cover In This Post
- Bento Boxes and Tools
- Plan Bento Menus
- Meal Prep for Your Bento
- Pack Bento (The Morning)
- Food Safety
- Real Life Examples!
Now let’s begin!
Chapter 1: Bento Boxes and Tools
In this chapter, we’ll go over different bento box options and helpful tools for bento making.
1. Bento Boxes (Lunch Box)
It doesn’t have to be a Japanese bento box. You will need some sort of container or lunch box to put your food in. I use thermal lunch boxes for warm food like pasta and grilled cheese sandwiches.
I also find it convenient when an ice pack is already attached to the bento box lid to keep food safe (read more about food safety tips for bento here).
- Food jars (after trying several jars over the years, we think Zojirushi jars keep the food warmer than Thermos.)
- BPA-Free plastic bento containers (the Bento&Co sells varieties and ships internationally)
- Utensil sets like this and this.
I do not use these wooden bento boxes called Magewappa (曲げわっぱ) for my children, but the classic look makes it a popular choice among the adults.
Updated in 2021: Now that my children are in high school and middle school, I use these Zojirushi Lunch Jars to pack their lunches.
- Ms. Bento® Stainless Lunch Jar SL-MEE07 (2 inner bowls)
- Ms. Bento® Stainless Lunch Jar SL-NCE09 (3 inner bowls)
2. Silicone Cups
The silicone cups are great for keeping wet things away from dry foods and holding loose items like blueberries in one place. Usually, silicone cups come in bright and cheerful colors which improve the presentation of the bento. They are reusable and come in many different sizes and colors.
The silicone dividers come in bright colors to improve the presentation for the bento and they help separate one food from the other without mixing up the flavors. You can also use edible separators such as lettuce, shiso leaves, cucumber slices, etc.
4. Colorful and Fun Food Picks
These picks come in many shapes, patterns, and colors and some are really playful and cute (like my little panda picks)! They are helpful to put small foods together (like meatballs and berries) and also add extra color to your bento. Children are gravitated in eating foods with those picks.
5. Sauce Containers
The sauce containers help you store the sauce separately so that the food will stay dry until lunchtime. It’s not so pleasant when the sauce ends up getting mixed with foods it’s not meant for.
- After trying different containers, I prefer a jar style containers like this and this with a twist lid so it’s easy to wash.
- For those who prefer a cute soy sauce container, here are animal containers and fish shaped containers.
Chapter 2: Plan Bento Menus
First, use your creativity to visualize how a bento should look like. It doesn’t have to be complicated and you can start with simple dishes that you are familiar with.
Since I mostly cook Japanese food at home, I focus mainly on packing Japanese dishes.
Tip #1: Prepare 5 Types of Foods
For a Japanese-style bento, we commonly include 5 types of food in the lunch box:
- Carb – Fill up tummy! (rice, yakisoba, yaki udon, takikomi gohan)
- Main (Protein)– Meat, fish, and seafood (karaage, gyoza, teriyaki salmon)
- Sides (Vegetables) – Also, tofu, egg, or mushroom dishes (hijiki salad, potato salad, tamagoyaki, green bean gomaae, kinpira renkon)
- Fillers – Simple yet colorful ingredients to brighten the bento (blanched broccoli, cherry tomatoes, boiled egg)
- Fruits – In the bento box or in a separate container (berries, grapes, apples)
This will help you assemble a nutritiously balanced meal.
Tip #2: Keep Rainbow Colors in Mind
When making choices on which foods to include in the bento box, choose bold colors to provide visual impact. Echoing the doctors’ advice ‘eat your colors’, colorful vegetables and fruits are often high in nutrients.
If I have similarly colored dishes like broccoli and asparagus, I separate them and put other foods in between to make the bento more visually appealing. Sprinkling colorful furikake (rice seasonings) or garnishing with chopped parsley and green onion gives nice accents to the overall presentation.
Yellow and Orange
White, Black, and Brown
Chapter 3: Meal Prep for Your Bento
Meal prepping can potentially save a lot of time and energy and you can do that with bento-making too. For me, I don’t want to wake up early, so here’s what I do.
Tip #1: Make extra portion (main or side dishes)
I double up the portion especially when I’m making a freezer-friendly dish for dinner. The extras can be reheated and packed in the bento the next day, OR freeze for later use.
Tip #2: Stock up on bento dishes in the freezer and fridge
Whenever I have leftovers, I always freeze them and use them in the bento later. And if I have extra 5 minutes in the kitchen, I blanch vegetables and freeze them (like broccoli), which I will use as bento fillers.
Here is the tutorial on How to Freeze Food for Bento.
Make sure to date the container so you can keep track of which food to use sooner. In general, food lasts 2-4 weeks in the freezer.
👉🏻 I have a list of Freezer-Friendly Bento Dishes that you can bookmark. 🔖
If you don’t have a big freezer space, you can also use your fridge to store some of the meal prep-friendly dishes and leftovers.
Tip #3: Plan Ahead
I know, for some people including myself, “planning ahead” can be hard. But trust me, planning actually helps you save time and money in the long run, and you will always be more prepared despite the busy schedule.
Allocate 15-30 minutes of your time during the week; figure what you have in the refrigerator, what you will be cooking throughout the week, and what you will need from the grocery stores.
A friend of mine in Japan uses a meal planner to organize her dinner and bento menus. I adapted hers and made a simplified Bento Calendar. With this calendar, you can visually plan out your weekly dinners and bento menus. If you would like a copy, please click here.
Chapter 4: Pack Bento (The Morning)
When you wake up in the morning, here’s what we do:
- Reheat the frozen food and prepare the food you were planning to cook (read Chapter 5 below if you are not sure why we reheat the food).
- Hot food should be packed immediately if you’re using a thermal lunch jar.
- Otherwise, let the hot food cool and then pack into a non-thermal bento box.
- Add the fillers and do the rainbow color check!
How To Pack Bento Dishes In Bento Box
Step 1: Put Carb
I usually fill 1/2 of the bento box with carbs. Of course, you can pack brown rice, pasta, wraps, sandwich, bread, etc instead of white rice.
Step 2: Put Main Dish (Protein)
Any kind of beef, chicken, pork, tofu, beans, eggs, or other protein sources can be packed in 1/4 of the bento box. If possible, add 2 kinds of protein dishes in the spot.
Step 3: Put Side Dishes (Vegetables) and Fruits
Vegetables and fruits should be filled up in the remaining 1/4 of the bento box. Packing at least 2 kinds of vegetable dishes is ideal. If you have more vegetable dishes, pack the fruits in a separate container.
Bento Packing Tips:
Tip #1: Pack from bulky and big dish
The main dish tends to be the biggest item that goes into the bento box. So start with that, followed by the side dish(es) in a silicone cup. Any gap can be filled with vegetable “fillers” such as a cherry tomato and blanched broccoli.
- Pack pre-shaped or bulky food first.
- Then put more flexible-shape food in remaining spaces.
- Finally, add fillers like cherry tomatoes and blanched broccoli to fill in the small gaps to prevent from shifting.
Tip #2: Pack tightly
It’s important to pack the foods tightly to prevent the food from shifting in the bento box. You don’t want to see messy bento when you (or your children) open the bento box at lunchtime. Try packing from bulky food and in the following order.
Tip #3: Remove liquid
Always drain sauce/dressing before packing into the bento box. If you like to add some sauce, put on top of shredded cabbage/lettuce and put the food on top to avoid spilling. You can also use a sauce container and pour it at mealtime.
Also, the liquid could spoil the food faster, so it’s best for food safety as well.
Watch Video Tutorial on How to Pack Bento
My very first YouTube video was published in 2013…
Chapter 5: Food Safety Tips
Food safety is especially important for bento. Always remember to wash your hands and use clean utensils when you handle the food. I highly recommend you to re-heat the food before packing and cool down the food completely before closing the bento. And don’t forget to keep ice packs in a lunch bag!
Chapter 6: Final Thoughts
Honestly speaking, packing bento does take longer than packing a sandwich and it’s more work than eating out. Why do we go through extra steps when our life is already busy?
I believe bento is much healthier overall and it’s more economical than eating out. But above all, I want to brighten my children’s day with colorful and cheerful bento. They look forward to their lunchtime, just like how I used to look forward to my mom’s homemade bento. And it only requires a little bit of time and effort to make the bento once you get used to making the bento.
I also hope this Japanese bento culture and technique will improve your eating habit to stay healthy and make everyone’s lunchtime more fun. Good luck!
Useful Bento Resources on JOC
- The Ultimate Guide to Bento Box Lunch
- Food Safety Tips For Bento
- Frequently Asked Questions About Bento – Check this post if your question hasn’t been answered.
- How to Pack Bento in 15 Minutes
- How To Freeze Food for Bento
- Meal Prep Freezer-Friendly Bento Dishes
- Meal Prep Bento Recipes Ideas: 3 Dollar Bento Challenge
- Bento Menus for Inspiration
- Back to School Easy Bento Box Ideas
- Back to School Easy Bento Ideas & Recipes
- How to Make Cute Bento (Video)