Many of us have grown up with the brown bag, sack lunch. We pretty much just shove as much as we can in there, crumple it up, and take it with us to school or work. A plastic bag is also a staple in my house, but it’s really easy for me to over-pack a plastic bag or sack lunch with too much food and too many calories.
Enter the bento box. I was researching websites that offered reusable lunch bags and I came across a few websites that talked about the popularity of bento lunches. Bento lunches are popular among the Japanese and soon found their way into American culture. I was curious to see what it was all about, so on I read. I noticed that bento lunches consisted of fresh, healthy food. I was used to taking frozen meals, like Lean Cuisine and Healthy Choice meals, but I was put off by the amount of sodium and preservatives in these meals. Plus, the cost of these can really add up. After researching bento-style lunches, I realized that it was easy to prepare fresh and healthy lunches and practice portion control at the same time.
Many people see bento lunches and notice that they are very creative: true bento enthusiasts can make anything out of rice and seaweed, such as animals and cartoon characters. I’ve seen little rice balls dyed pink or gray and shaped into pigs, elephants, kitties, you name it. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a lot of talent to make my lunch cute. While I would love to have little rice ball piggies to munch on, I just don’t have the time.
I generally like to Americanize my bento. Typical Japanese bento consists of mostly rice, fish, and other staples of the Asian diet. I don’t like to eat rice that much (I am watching my carbohydrate intake) and I generally don’t like to reheat fish and eat it the next day.
The typical bento box consists of a box with two compartments. There are bento boxes that offer more than two compartments but if you are practicing portion control, I would suggest a smaller bento box. Bento boxes are readily available online; I got a cute red bento box with a Japanese lucky cat for around $17 on Amazon. You can even make your own bento boxes with every day items such as plastic pencil cases.
Packing a Bento Lunch
Bento lunches do require a good bit of planning, so a successful bento will be assembled (or at least partly assembled) the night before. You can put pretty much anything in a bento, as long as you plan to keep everything separate (unless, of course, you plan on combining foods together later). Keeping food separate is easy: you can buy special cups online for bento boxes if you want the true bento experience, or you can do what I do and use cupcake liners to separate foods. Either way, these options are both good for keeping foods and tastes separate in your bento lunch.
Another tip for bento lunches is to prepare a lot of smaller portions of foods and freeze them. For example, if you have a meatloaf recipe you love, why not try making them in a muffin tin? You’ll have several smaller meatloaves at your disposal; wrap these up tightly and freeze them individually. Take them out of the freezer as you need them for your bento lunches.
You can also pack sandwiches in your bento lunches but bear in mind that these might take up a lot of room in your bento box, leaving little room for other healthy snacks. My advice would be to prepare half-sandwiches and pack them in your bento box so that you can take a bigger variety of other foods.
Ideas for Bento Lunches
I’ve read that the typical bento lunch should clock in at around 600 calories (which is good for a meal if you’re watching your portions). There are several ideas that I’ve found for different types of bento lunches:
1 half sandwich on whole grain bread
3 cubes of cheese (in a cupcake wrapper or bento lunch cup)
6 black olives (in a cupcake wrapper or bento lunch cup)
2 strawberries (in a cupcake wrapper or bento lunch cup)
Mini muffin or brownie for dessert (or pack more fruit if you’re watching your calorie intake)
5 Morningstar Farms veggie nuggets (I like the buffalo chick’n veggie nuggets)
1/2 cup brown rice
3 small celery sticks with peanut butter
1 sugar free Jello cup
4 roma tomato halves stuffed with tuna salad
1/2 cup of mixed nuts (in a cupcake wrapper or bento lunch cup)
3 oz baby carrots with 2 Tbsp of hummus
As you can see, there really are no limits to what you can do with a bento box lunch. It’s easy, convenient, and offers endless possibilities for delicious, healthy, and calorie-conscious lunches on the go.