Kitchen Focus

Bento lunches are compact, balanced, visually appealing meals packed in a box. Historically, it’s a Japanese box lunch, similar in concept to the Indian tiffin, the Korean dosirak, or the Filipino baon lunch. In Japanese, “bento” or “obento” refers to the packed meal, and “bento-bako” refers to the bento box itself.

There are many benefits to packing bento lunches:

  • Packed in reusable containers, they reduce lunch waste such as plastic baggies and disposable containers, and allow you to pack a wider variety of food for lunch.
  • Portion control is also easy if you follow the general packing rule of thumb of 3 parts carbs, 1 part protein and 2 parts fruits and vegetables, without candy, junk food or oily foods. Packed this way without gaps, a 600ml box holds a 600-calorie meal — a simple method for weight loss without counting calories.
  • Picky eaters may be tempted by an attractive presentation of a variety of foods.
  • Save money you might have spent on restaurant meals by bringing food from home; the savings from less than a week of eating packed lunches makes up for the initial cost of a bento box or lunch container.

Bento boxes don’t have to be filled with Japanese food; I often pack whatever we happen to be eating that week. Greek, Thai, Middle Eastern, Chinese, Indian — the possibilities are endless! Some foods are better suited to packed lunches than others, though. Particularly wet or moist dishes don’t do well packed in the same container as other foods; either drain or dry these foods, pack them in a separate container, or leave them out. The general rule of thumb for putting together a bento is to include 3 parts carbohydrates such as rice or pasta, 1 part protein, and 2 parts fruits and vegetables, but without candy, junk food or oily foods.

  • Think balance, not only nutritional but also visual. Use a variety of colors and textures in the lunch.
  • Pack it compactly with little gap fillers like cherry tomatoes or grapes to stabilize the lunch for transport. There’s nothing worse than packing a lunch that looks nice in the morning, only to open it and find that everything’s slid around and mixed up when you’re ready to eat.
  • Think about what foods will be touching, and which flavors won’t be appetizing if they mix. Use edible separators such as lettuce or cucumber slices, or reusable silicone baking cups or lidded condiment cups to keep everything at its best until lunchtime. Wash and reuse disposable condiment cups that you get with takeout — they last forever when hand washed.
One of my all-time favorite bento lunches is a Mediterranean box filled with hummus, baby carrots, cucumber slices, cherry tomatoes, olives, feta and pita bread -- usually on the side. I like to use the cucumber slices and cherry tomatoes as edible separators. The hummus receives a little drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of paprika before I close the box. This is a particularly wonderful picnic option for concerts in the park in the evening. I've been known to pack several, bring along a bunch of pita bread and chilled white wine and make a wonderful outing in the summer with friends. In fact, I think I'll go put together such a feast now and call together an impromptu picnic in the park. Enjoy your June!