Many of us undoubtedly resolved to save money and get in better shape during our time in Japan. However, life never quite goes how you plan, and the occasional bad habit sometimes has a way of becoming a costly or unhealthy routine. Stopping at the conbini between school visits for lunch can be costly, and those school lunches you are expected to finish if you purchase are sometimes just too much food, or the wrong proportion of nutrients for your goals. Making your own bento (planned lunch boxes) can be a great way to start a healthier, more economical, and more ecologically friendly lunchtime routine. It’s also a failproof conversation starter if you eat with your students!
When looking for a bento set, consider the following: budget, style, safety, and size. The hyaku-en shop is full of bento sets, some cute and colorful and others very simple. In general, these sets tend to be the same size (580-610ml total for a two tiered bento) and made of material that might not be entirely microwave safe, or keep your food at its desired temperature.
Home stores have bentos dedicated to insulation, leak prevention, and bigger appetites, but they will cost much more than 105円 each.
If you don’t want a brightly colored bento box, consider a Lock’n’Lock type container, also available at home stores. These stores food safely, are microwave safe, and come in a variety of sizes for less than the home store bento sets.
You can buy many accessories for bento making, including character-themed toothpicks, specially shaped onigiri molds, and even special hole punchers for nori to add shapes and faces to rice or onigiri. Generally, the most necessary accessories are two or three silicone bento cups. These look like cupcake wrappers and come in many different sizes, shapes, and patterns. These are reusable and keep small portions of the bento (little salads, different meats, rice balls, etc) from touching.
Also consider finding an insulated bento bag, just in case you do not have access to a refrigerator at your BOE, school, or in your car.
With these basics, it’s easy to make an easy bento you will enjoy eating.
Some Assembly Required
How elaborate your bento ends up is entirely your call. You can go crazy with charaben , add heart shaped onigiri and decorated toothpicks, or just put your leftover meat over rice and veggies in the cups and call it a day. Sites like Bento Central and Just Bento have bento recipes for all time constraints, dietary restrictions, and skill levels in English. However, these sites can be a little intimidating for those of us with small kitchens, not a lot of time, or who just want a lunch.
The only “rule” for assembly is to bear your nutritional needs in mind. Traditional bentos tend to have a 2:1:1 rice/carb, meat/fish/protein, veggie ratio, and will give you about a calorie per ml. Maki of Just Bento tries to stick to a 2 parts veggie, 1 part protein, 1 part carb rule of thumb. If you are an athlete or vegetarian/vegan, you might want to try a 2 parts protein to one part rice, one part veggies ratio and use brown rice rather than white. When you think of a bento as a proportion problem, assembly is easy: just fill that proportion of the bento box with whatever carbs, veggies, and proteins you have on hand in a manner that pleases you aesthetically.
Bento doesn’t have to be an art or a hobby; for me, it’s a way of using up leftovers and stuff that would normally have gone bad in my fridge. Instead of regretting throwing that extra tofu or last bit of kabocha away, I look forward to eating it because it’s in a special box. My own impatience limits assembly time to about five minutes in the morning: heat up the rice I made and froze, season (or thaw) veggies, and place things where they are supposed to go. Fried rice from the previous night makes a great bento, as does leftover zarusoba or zaru-udon, cold tofu in broth, and fish or veggie donburi.
If you like to plan, Just Bento has a downloadable weekly bento planner which you can use to turn leftovers into delicious lunches, save some money, and cut down on food waste.
If you have any bento tips of your own, please share!
Posted by Lauren, who could never bring herself to eat an onigiri with a nori face.