This fall, we are planning our first “with a kid” trip to Walt Disney World, and I’m excited. I’m looking forward to experiencing the parks through new eyes and doing some of the kid things the Godfather and I skipped on our previous trips. One thing we won’t skip though is the World Showcase in Epcot, and I hope A enjoys it, because the World Showcase has always been one of our favorite places to visit on WDW property. It’s definitely not the same as actually traveling to the countries, nor are the pavilions an accurate representation of life and culture, but there is some good food to be found in some, and it’s fun to walk around. We also got married there millions of moons ago.
What does this have to do with bento boxes you ask? A lot, because I didn’t know the first thing about a bento box until we found ourselves in the Japan pavilion window shopping in the kitchen section, as we do, and admiring the bento boxes they had for sale. What really piqued our interest though, was the cookbook they had next to the bento display, which was all about packing bento boxes. Intrigued, but not the type to rush into purchases, we decided to research bento boxes more when we got home. Bento boxes, for the unfamiliar, are a lovely compact lunchbox that give you a chance to pack a balanced lunch in an attractive fashion, where the food doesn’t have to touch if your picky eater deems “touching food” unacceptable. They’re also really really really cute and give you an excuse to collect all sorts of fun little accessories, which is a win in my book. Armed with our new knowledge and wanting to shop in person, we found the closest Japanese goods store to our home at the time and took a mini-road trip out to bento shop. Years later, those two bentos are still happily in service (and in these photos!). A will get her own bento soon, once we find the “perfect” one.
That’s great Mary… so how do I pack one?
There are many websites out there with a lot of rules, but having packed these for a few years for both the Godfather and I, here are my very practical, real world, not traditional at all Top 7 Tips for packing a bento box:
1. Stick to a 50/25/25 ratio.
Typically, this is 50% starch, 25% protein, and 25% vegetables and fruits. Look for nutrient dense foods. Bento boxes are not very big, so you need to maximize the space in a box, and so a big leafy salad won’t cut it. For our bentos, I typically follow more of a 30/40/30 ratio, with the largest portion going to proteins – not necessarily all meat – just protein of some sort. Keeping the ratios in mind will help you plan and build a bento that is balanced and healthy with minimal additional effort because…
2. Leftovers are your friend!
At first, I’ll admit I cooked some things specifically for the bento boxes, but then realized it was taking more time than I wanted to spend, so I started utilizing our leftovers. Get creative and present everything a little differently.
For example, and it’s not very creative because I was making these with a toddler that wanted food immediately, but the smaller bento in the picture was loosely inspired by “cheeseburgers”. I used a leftover hamburger patty with a bit of melted cheese to make burger kebabs using some cute little bento picks, mixed a bit of ketchup with medium grain rice to make “ketchup rice” decorated with a bit of nori, and served it all with a little arugula salad with a bell pepper star and fresh raspberries for “dessert”. The only thing I “cooked” for this box was the rice.
I used the same rice, no ketchup, for my husband’s bento, which he took for lunch the next day, and made leftover steak “nigiri” with some sauteed asparagus on the side. Since I plated his rice with his protein, I used the rice compartment to make him an arugula salad, with the dressing packed on the side in one of these dressing containers.
It took me about 25 minutes total to pack both of these, and 15 of those minutes involved me waiting for the rice to cook.
3. Don’t stress design
One day maybe I’ll be able to make the really amazing bento boxes I see online, but that’s not happening every day right now for us, and I don’t think it happens every day in the typical Japanese kitchen. The only thing you need to worry about when it comes to bento design is to pack things neatly so they don’t shift in transport, and in such a way that flavors that need to be separate, remain separate. Everything else is just fun.
One thing that I find super helpful though, is the use of rice molds! They have them in fun shapes like these animal faces, but I only have the nigiri style and the triangle because that’s what I found at my local international market.
I consider silicone baking cups an essential. I have some little ones I use to keep foods separate, and before I bought the dressing/sauce containers I mentioned in tip #2, I used the silicone liners wrapped in plastic wrap (not pretty, but functional) to hold sauces.
OH! and you don’t need an “official” bento box either. Thankfully, bento lunches are becoming very popular, so you can find a bento or “compartment” lunch box at many grocery stores, home goods stores, and online, but if you just want to test out the bento idea, use a shallow reusable container and fill it as a single layer bento! It’s a great way to test out bento lunches using something you likely have at home. Of course, it is hard to resist the darling designs, I understand!
4. Pick the right size for your bento box.
You’d be amazed at how much food you can fit into one of these things! When you remove all the items in the smaller bento you see in the photo, you have a standard salad plate filled to the brim. The smaller bentos are great for kids or adults with a smaller appetite (or watching calories), the Godfather’s primary bento (the rectangle) is perfect for him, and we have a larger bento that works great for holding sandwiches or other less-dense foods.
5. You can fit more vegetables if you cook them.
I usually saute dark leafy greens so I can fit more in the bento box, and it helps if you steam your carrots, broccoli, or cauliflower a bit to soften so they are more pliable and share space with other foods better.
6. Don’t pack anything too perishable in a bento box.
Many bento boxes I see now, especially for kids, come with a coordinating carry bag large enough to hold an ice pack to help keep the bento fresh until lunch. Even with that, I would still suggest keeping food safety in mind always, and avoiding any highly perishable items, like undercooked or raw meats or seafood. It will be in close proximity to other food, and it’s always better to be safe.
7. If you plan to re-heat your bento, pack hot foods together and cold foods together.
The Godfather always re-heats the food in his bento, so I pack salads or items to stay cold in removable containers, or as in the photo, on two different levels so he can heat one and eat the other as is. We checked to be sure his bento box was microwave safe before making the purchase. Not all bento boxes are, so please keep this in mind as you shop for your bento.
I hope these tips helped you learn how to pack a bento box. We’re still a few years away from sending our little to school, but I’m already looking forward to packing her lunches. In the meantime, we’ll take our bento lunch on toddler-worthy adventures. 😉
If you have kids heading to school, I hope you’ll enjoy packing bento lunches for them, or better, WITH them!
If you enjoyed this post, I do hope you’ll visit some of my other bloggy friends also sharing some great “Back to School” ideas today:
How to Pack a Bento Box, Goodie Godmother
Perfect Teacher Gift for Back to School, Cook. Craft. Love.
Essential Oils for Back to School, Little Blog on the Homestead
Back to School Must Haves, No Bohn’s About It
Back to School Brunch, An Aiming High Wife