A little over a year ago I discovered bento lunches and marvelled over how people were making the most humble foods look absolutely amazing just by using a little creativity. For a long time I was a silent observer (or, really, an admirer). It wasn't until earlier this year when I started to make my own bento lunches.
First of all, you might be wondering what, exactly, a bento lunch is? At a very basic level, it is a traditional Japanese boxed lunch. There are rules for packing traditional lunches, but with the rising popularity of these beautiful displays of food, the rules can sometimes be bent.
One basic principal that I try to pay attention to, however, is the concept of goshiki (five colors). This means that the person preparing the lunch should try to include one dish from each color group. We know that we should vary the colors of our food in order to obtain optimal nutrition, and when it's displayed in a bento box, you can easily see what you're missing. Another thing I love about bentos is that you can pack small bites of several different things so your lunch stays interesting while you eat it.
Here are some of my favorite things to pack:
- Different kinds of raw fruit such as strawberries, blueberries, seedless grapes, chopped kiwi, etc. or any mixture thereof. (If you're slicing up apples or pears, soak them in lemon or lime juice prior to packing to prevent browning.)
- String cheese or Laughing Cow wedges and whole-grain crackers
- Cut up raw veggies like carrots, different colored peppers, celery, zucchini, and radishes with a small container of dressing for dipping
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Rolled-up deli meats or bite-sized chunks of leftover chicken, pork, or steak
- Pasta salads
- Muffins (and not just fruit muffins -- savory muffins are delicious as well)
- Green salads made with baby spinach or spring mix, nuts, dried fruit, and a little cheese
- Bagel with cream cheese
- Bean salad
- Any kind of leftovers
Really, the only limit is your imagination! There are also several bento photo groups on Flickr to help inspire you.
There are a variety of bento boxes for sale in Japanese import shops and on sites such as E-Bay. Some of the more traditional boxes can be hard to find unless you live in an area with a large Japanese population, so you might find that online sources have the best selection.
However, there are many containers that you can find right in the aisles of your favorite store that are suitable. Companies such as Lock & Lock, and Fit & Fresh makes divided containers that are perfect! Tupperware also has a few containers such as their Lunch 'n Things (pictured above) and Crystal Wave divided dishes that work well. I have even repurposed take-out containers to use for bento lunches -- this is a great option if you are going somewhere and would like to use something a bit more disposable.
One other great thing about bento boxes, though, is that by using one you're not using plastic bags, foils, or other wraps. It really is an environmentally conscious choice!
Bento Box Recipe/Packing Resources
- Lunch In A Box
This is a great site filled with tips, recipes, and resources to help both the novice and experienced to pack better bentos.
- Vegan Lunch Box
This might be one of the more famous sites for bento lunch ideas. While all the foods prepared are vegan, even the most voracious meat-eater will find things they love! Jennifer McCann's cookbook is fantastic, too.
- Bento Yum
This might be my favorite website for bento lunch ideas. The boxes are colorful, creative, and sometimes even surprising. You can also buy bento supplies at this site.
- My Lunch Can Beat Up Your Lunch
Lots of great recipes and information.
- Cooking Cute
- Bento Lunches LiveJournal Community
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