As I’ve mentioned several times, putting together a Bento box isn’t difficult. It’s all about what you put in to it (sorry for the pun, but I couldn’t help myself). You can go either end of the spectrum, from last night’s left-overs and a handful of snacks around the house to full-on Bento art creation worthy of a Kawaii fashion show in Harajuku. If you’re a normal person, like me, you can do a little of both, depending on your energy level, pantry ingredients, and mood of the week.
Determine Your Portions
The first thing you’ll want to do is decide how much of what you want to put into your Bento. Some folks like the 4:2:1:1 rule which means 4 parts carbs, 2 parts protein, 1 part veggie, and 1 part fruit. Generally, I prefer the following: 2:2:2:1. But, really this decision is a personal one that you’ll determine based on family values and diet needs. Keep in mind, that there is no set-in-stone rule for portions in your Bento. Changing it up is just fine. The goal is to create balance and harmony in your meal and to ensure healthful eating.
Color and Texture
One of the things that makes Bentos successful in lunch land is their visual appeal. This is possible when you vary the colors and textures of the foods you put into your Bento. There are two approaches to take to make your meal interesting using color and texture: (1) alternating, or (2) graduating.
In the Alternating example above, notice that the orange-colored foods (the clementine, the carrot slices, and the cheese cubes) are physically separated from each other by other differently-colored foods. Also, almost every food has a distinctly different texture from the one placed next to it. Pretty much each of the items in the box above have a different texture.
In the Graduating example above, you see the colors flow from left to right – brown, yellow, and green. Although the food items in the yellow container have similar textures, the graduating colors give this lunch visual appeal.
The general rule of thumb is to pack Bentos tightly. This allows you to put in a decent portion while keeping the food in place as you travel to and from work, school, and home. When packing for a toddler or other little eater (as you can see from my photos in this post), you don’t need to pack each container full so keep in mind what types of things might shift and what might leak and put in the right part of your container. If you’re going to make a kawaii critter, keep in mind that you’ll want to find a way to pack tightly so that backpack jostling won’t scramble your panda rice face.
In the example above, you’ll see that I placed the messy banana sushi rolls into paper cupcake liners to keep them from sliding around and making a mess. For the skewers below, I wedged the toothpicks sideways so the neat little line of skewers wouldn’t stir in transit.
Now you’ll be faced with the conundrum of how to keep it up. How do you plan for and execute delightful Bentos every day of the week? First off, take it easy as you get started. Set easily attainable goals – like one from-scratch prep each week, or only dress-up left-overs at first to get a feel for packing your box.
Then, when you’re ready to step it up, take a look online for ideas. There are about a zillion Bento Box ideas on Pinterest and Tumblr, for starters. I’ve also put together a cheat sheet of my favorites below to help you out.
- Eggs – scrambled, hard-boiled, sunny side-up, poached, hard-boiled diced, omelette, mini quiche (use muffin tins!)
- Tofu – baked strips of fillets, cubed
- Tempeh – pan-seared or baked strips, fillets, or crumbled
- Veggie Burgers or loaves – sliced, quartered
- Sliced meat – pinwheels, strips, sliced shapes, rolls
- Fish – flaked, mixed with miso or mayonaise for a spread, pan-seared steak fillet, sashimi-style, smoked or candied, fish balls, fish cake, immitation crab sticks
- Shrimp and scallops – pan-seared, sauteed with a sauce, diced, wrapped in bacon
- Chicken or Pork – cutlets, breaded sticks, diced, scrambled with egg and veggies, meatballs, shredded, ground for stuffing savory pastries
- Spam – pan-seared (can be cut into lots of fun shapes), diced, scrambled with egg
- Nut butter – grain and fruit balls, mock sushi with bread or fruit, sandwiches, dips, spreads
- Beans – spreads, dips, sauteed or boiled
- Cheese – slices, cubes, spreads, embellishments
- Sausages – wrapped in phyllo dough, sliced, diced for skewers
- Rice – steamed white, wild rice, whole grain
- Grains – quinoa, couscous, amaranth, grain salads with chopped veggies, grain cakes with legumes
- Breads – rolls, flatbreads, pita, sandwich slices, bread bowls, muffins, crackers
- Pasta – shaped pasta, stuffed shells, orzo, with veggie pesto (broccoli, spinach, kale, basil, nut), try other types (bean, potato, rice)
- Lettuce or greens – salad, garnish, dividers, beds, wraps
- Cabbage – boiled, shredded, sliced, raw, steamed, with olive oil and vinegar or lemon juice, boiled in tomato juice, pan-seared with ham hocks
- Carrots – diced, sliced, sticks, raw, sauteed, braised with balsamic vinegar or honey, shredded salad
- Beets – slices, shredded salad, dressed with sesame oil and sesame seeds or olive oil and lemon juice
- Broccoli – raw or steamed, with hummus or other dips
- Avocado – halved, sliced, mashed, used as condiment or salad dressing when whisked with olive oil, salt, and lemon juice
- Seaweed – embellishments, wraps, slivers as garnish
- Radish – raw as garnish, with dips
- Peppers – sliced, cups for stuffing, diced for garnish
- Sprouts – embellishments, garnish, raw
- Cucumber – sliced for rolls, sandwiches, embellishments, served with diced tomato and red wine vinegar for a salad
- Tomatoes – cherry, sliced or diced raw, skewered
- Mushrooms – sauteed, raw, garnish, savory layer or topping
- Corn – on the cob, loose kernals, with light mayo dressing, with diced avocado for salad, mixed into a rice cake
- Spinach – sauteed, dressed with sesame oil and seeds, raw baby spinach for beds and garnish
- Peas – snap, loose, mashed, side accompaniment, garnish, mixed with other small veggies and dressed with light mayo
- Celery – sticks, shredded and dressed with olive oil and lemon and salt
- Strawberries – sliced and diced, served with nutella for dipping
- Bananas – sliced, mashed, served with peanut butter
- Apples – carved into figures, sliced, cut into shapes, served with nut butter and raisins, baked with cinnimon and butter
- Oranges – cut into fruit salads
- Berries – raw, topping for yogurts, mixed with drizzled honey
- Kiwi – slices with mint leaves
And, finally, I’ll leave you with a couple links to great Bento resources:
How to Make Bento http://www.justonecookbook.com/how-to-make-bento/
Bento 101: Let’s Pack a Bento http://justbento.com/handbook/bento-courses-2013/bento-101-getting-bento-making-habit-part-3-lets-pack-bento
Bentology Library: https://bentology.com/resources/bentology-library/
The Just Bento Cookbook: https://www.amazon.com/Just-Bento-Cookbook-Everyday-Lunches/dp/1568363931
The last item is one of my favorite luncheon cookbooks! Do you have any favorite resources worth sharing?