Building up a bento staple list for the poor college student

Bento-ing from: San Jose › California
Joined: 22 Apr 2009
User offline. Last seen 7 years 49 weeks ago.

(From the forums…what’s on your bento staple list? - maki)

Hello & hate to pop back in after so long.

So I’ve FINALLY found the right opportunity to start bento-ing. I’ll be living in dorms next year, but it’ll be an apartment set up, so i’ll have my own freaking kitchen to cook.

So I was wondering if I could get suggestions on a staple list that I can acquire at your basic grocery store. I live in the bay area of CA so Safeway, Costco, Walmarts are the best options for me.

Does anyone have suggestions on wholesale brands that you purchase from their for your bento creations?

I was thinking things such as rice, chicken breasts, and veggies, but I’m not familiar with brands I should try.

Thank you. :D

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Bento-ing from: Madrid › Spain
Joined: 13 Feb 2009
User offline. Last seen 7 years 2 weeks ago.
Re: Building up a staple list for the poor college student

I can't help you with brands because i live like 12.000 km away from you BUT i can give you some tips ^^

if you're buying jsut for you i'd recommend to buy smaller amounts of food, or it'll spoil; specially if it's your first time living on your own and you still don't have "your measures" (i had to throw a lot of food away when i started liviing on my own because of this).
However there are some things that you can buy without fearing the spoilage, like canned oilves, canned tuna and canned everything you like ^^
Babybell cheese is a popular option, i'm not a fan but you may like it. Spam can be used in bento too, you can marinate it in teriyaki sauce and love it <3

I'd recommend to buy frozen food such as peas or veggies that you can quickly roast in the mornings. There's a typical staple food here known as "menestra" (i don't know the translation, sorry) it's just lots of frozen pre-cut and pre-boiled veggies. What i do is to heat some oil, grab a handfull of these frozen veggies and roast them until done. I'm sure you'll find something alike. Also, frozen gyozas are a good and handy thing to have on your freezer.

I hope this helps a bit ^^


My bento blog:
My art blog:

Bento-ing from: › USA
Joined: 12 Aug 2009
User offline. Last seen 7 years 9 weeks ago.
Re: Building up a staple list for the poor college student

I'll have to take stock at my local Wal-Mart and see what brands I can recommend. In the meantime, rice, chicken, and veggies are all good ideas. Fresh veggies are the best, but it never hurts to keep some frozen veg in the freezer in case of an emergency. You'll probably see 5-lb bags of rice labeled "Botan calrose rice," "Kokuho Rose," or "Nishiki medium grain rice." All of these are perfect, but make sure to follow Maki's rice cooking instructions and not the ones on the bag. ^^ I can easily go through a 5-lb bag of rice before it starts having any quality issues.

From time to time, I have been able to find dried shiitakes, wakame, nori, and miso paste in the Asian section of Wal-Mart. Buying dried products is good since they'll keep a while and you can rehydrate what you need as you use it. I'd avoid the bottled sauces (teriyaki sauce, plum sauce, General Tso's, etc.) if possible since Maki and the rest of the internet have so many simple, tasty sauces (of course, soy sauce and fish sauce are exceptions). Good saucemaking staples are soy sauce, honey, sugar, and sesame oil.

I always find it good to keep some chicken stock in the pantry (freezer if it's an open package) to use when I forget to make dashi or run out of ingredients. I would avoid buying in bulk unless the produce is frozen or has a good shelf life. Wal-Mart doesn't usually sell nanami togarashi, but chili powder or cayenne pepper are good substitutes if you adjust the amounts.

Okay, in summary:
-frozen chicken
-frozen emergency veg
-dried mushrooms or seaweed
-soy sauce
-sesame oil
-soup stock

Bento-ing from: San Lorenzo › California › USA
Joined: 15 Jan 2009
User offline. Last seen 8 years 23 weeks ago.
Re: Building up a staple list for the poor college student

I would recommend heading to a local Asian market for pantry staples every so often, since they are so much less expensive (and generally better quality) than what is available in the "ethnic" isle. The things that I normally stock up on are seaweeds, noodles, pickles, miso and sauces since they have a relatively long shelf life. But for fresh and frozen items Safeway and Costco are very good options.

If you have a roommate you also might consider splitting things to keep down cost. In college my roommate would split a $20, 10 lb bag of rice and it would last us months. Although this can go quite wrong if you aren't careful.

Bento-ing from: Binghamton › New York › USA
Joined: 4 Oct 2009
User offline. Last seen 8 years 32 weeks ago.
Re: Building up a staple list for the poor college student

Not necessarily. There's an Asian grocery up the street from our box-name grocery that I've heard from my Korean friends is at least twice if not three times more expensive.

Bento-ing from: San Lorenzo › California › USA
Joined: 15 Jan 2009
User offline. Last seen 8 years 23 weeks ago.
Re: Building up a staple list for the poor college student

There are a lot of things like seaweed that are still considered specialty items in the US, in the San Francisco Bay Area we have a ton of Asian markets (99 Ranch Market has several locations) so I think it is worth checking one out for certain items. I consistently able to find miso, seaweed, and other things at a 1/3 to 1/4 of the price they are in a regular grocery store.

Re: Building up a bento staple list for the poor college ...

Congrats on finally having a kitchen to cook in! I was the exact opposite. It was so much easier to cook in apartments because my dorms only had one kitchen every floor or every other floor in the newer buildings and one kitchen PER DORM in the older ones. I had to lug my pots and pans and ingredients to the kitchen each time (because leaving it there was fair game for everyone to use/steal).

I second the advice to not buy too much until you know you use it often. Nothing's worse than being stuck with an ingredient months later that you don't want to eat anymore (I have issues throwing away edible food). Frozen stuff is great for college students because they're convenient if not necessarily cheaper. If you can get to a Ranch 99, it's a FANTASTIC Asian supermarket with tons of stuff: I also recommend Trader Joe's. They sell lots of great frozen foods. They have frozen yaki onigiri, frozen veggie mixes, frozen fruit, curries, hummus, big cheese selection.. though they're not a typical supermarket.

Another_amanda's advice on rice is good. Those are Japanese rices, the shorter the grain, the better in my opinion but then the price goes up.

Sorry I can't help you too much with brands, I usually buy whatever is on sale or looks good. Costco mainly sells major national brands anyway and I don't shop at Walmart. I've go to the Bay Area a lot but there are no Safeways in NY where I live. I'm also not sure what you mean by wholesale brands since Costco is the only whole seller in your list. Hope this helps.

Re: Building up a bento staple list for the poor college ...

Well, I noticed that you're located in San Jose, so it doesn't seem like it'd be hard to find Asian goods. I live in the Bay Area too, and I know that San Jose has both a Daiso and Ranch 99 Supermarket. It's like a playground of goodies!

Local farmer's markets are a great way to stock up on fresh veggies. A bunch of local farmer's gather on a open street or lot and start selling their goods! I've lived in three different cities in the bay area, and they've all had similar markets like these. I'm not a fan of freezing anything; fresh veggies keep longer if you wrap them in paper towels and seal them in zip lock bags. It certainly reduces chances of any possible freezer burn flavor (yuck). Vegetable offerings change with the season, so there'll be good variety too as time goes on.

Rice lasts a long time if you're cooking for one. I prefer Nishiki brand for medium grain, and it's usually available in Safeway's "ethnic," aisle. 10 lbs is a manageable size and, as mentioned before, can last for months.

I'm not a fan of ready-made sauces either, but I really recommend oyster sauce. Some of you might be cringing, but it's really really good stuff! There are different brands, and you can buy it at Safeway too. Just stir fry oyster sauce with meat, veggies, some garlic, a touch of sugar, a little water, and you're done. Oddly enough, despite it's name, it tastes nothing like oyster. The resulting stir fry is a savory-sweet flavor (hmm, hard to describe maybe). The reason I suggest this is that stir frying takes very little time.

Anyway, I hope this helps. Enjoy your new kitchen!!

Re: Building up a bento staple list for the poor college ...

Japantown in San Jose is walking distance from San Jose State (if that's where you are), and they've got a supermarket that has a lot of the more exotic sauces and oils and so on that you'll need for the stuff on this site, plus a great ramen shop where you could treat yourself so it's less of a chore

Re: Building up a bento staple list for the poor college ...

I think the Oyster in Oyster Sauce refers to Oyster Mushrooms.

Joined: 5 Nov 2009
User offline. Last seen 11 weeks 2 days ago.
Re: Building up a bento staple list for the poor college ...

Vegetarian versions typically use oyster mushrooms, but the regular kinds use actual oysters.

Re: Building up a bento staple list for the poor college ...

I'm in your same situation; and while the best food is fresh, it can be time consuming or a problem to get it regularly. If you have access to a fridge, a quick way to have veggies ready faster is this: cut carrots, broccoli, onions, green beans (and any other veggie that won't go brown or is not too moist, like tomatoes) bite-size and put them all together in a ziplock; just drop on a pan with a bit of oil to prepare. You can cut enough for around a week and it's a nice fast way to get stir-fries or even fried rice if you cut them small enough. I suggest to put the broccoli in a separate bag and add it later than the other veggies, to keep it from overcooking. I also make a huge bowl of salad to last me for a week; so on days that you don't wanna bother too much you can just get a portion and add some dressing. Grilling several chicken breasts and keeping them ready in a tupperware to snatch when making salad or sandwich is great too.

I guess it's all about pre-making something that won't spoil too fast. Although I know sometimes you won't have time to prepare in advance, I'm trying to give points on stuff you can find in any store while still a healthy option since it's easier than getting the "asian" kind (which sometimes can be just as or worse than the regular unhealthy packed foods).

Re: Building up a bento staple list for the poor college ...

I am a University student who started Bento last year. I don't make Asian cuisine, but I do love Basmati rice, it's fantastic and if you buy it in bulk it costs pennies a serving. Buy cuts of meat that are cheap (in Canada I can buy Beef Loin or Pork Loin, those are the best cuts of meat, for about a dollar a pound, and then I cut it into single serving portions and freeze it.) My indulgence is the Laughing Cow Cheese Cubes. They are little cm square cheese cubes that come wrapped in bright foil. They can be pricey but they are a nice treat.

Stay away from convience food in the grocery store. That is pre-cooked, and pre-sliced chicken breasts, or pre-cut vegetables - they just cost so much more.

As for containers - I used a Lock n' Lock container for my first few months and used empty food dye bottles to put soys sauce in. If you get take out or go to a restuarant, save the mini plastic tubs they put sauces in for doggy bags to use again.

Joined: 6 Jan 2009
User offline. Last seen 6 years 45 weeks ago.
Re: Building up a bento staple list for the poor college ...

If avoiding wasting food is a key concern, I would counsel you to start with fresh:

- onions
- garlic
- potatoes if you eat potatoes.
- carrots
- other root vegetables that keep for along time, if you like them (sweet potatoes!)

and buy the rest of your cooking vegetables frozen.

- frozen broccoli
- frozen peas and carrots
- frozen "stir fry vegetables".
Frozen food is processed and frozen within a day or two of harvesting, usually, so it's actually often lost fewer nutrients then that bag of fresh broccoli that knocks around in the back of the fridge until it gets yellow. A note: if you can get to a farmer's market, the fresh vegetables are often as much as a week fresher than grocery store vegetables, and will last longer accordingly. This is also a good place for cute, easy-to-eat things like cherry tomatoes and snap peas! I generally found that while I was in school, the only way to make sure that I used fresh cooking vegetables was to cook them as soon as I got home. Stir-frying is great for this.

If your freezer makes things, well, taste like freezer, you might consider double-bagging them or keeping the twist-tied veggie bags in a lock n' lock. It's been a problem I've had in apartments, though less in dorms, which are often better cleaned between residents.

I would also encourage you to consider what you already like eating when choosing what kind of ingredients to stock up on - I only discovered after buying lots of bento rice that I'm actually more of a noodle person! So while I was in school I ate a lot of packed lunches with buckwheat noodles with peanut sauce (peanut butter, watered down and microwaved with some curry and sesame oil) and broccoli - don't know if it's authentic to anywhere, but it was something I knew I'd eat, and so it was reasonable for me to stock up on soba noodles. I'd sit down and make a list, even, of the kinds of things you already eat, and then think about bento recipes that have similar ingredients. It's good to have a nice solid group of recipes you know you can always eat and then branch out, in my experience.

Joined: 6 Jan 2009
User offline. Last seen 6 years 45 weeks ago.
Re: Building up a bento staple list for the poor college ...

Also, finding one or two sauces or pickles that you just love can really help when it comes to extemporaneous cooking or stir-frying. The basic ingredients of most sauces are:

- a salt (like soy sauce)
- something sour (rice vinegar, citrus juice)
- something sweet (in varying proportions, usually sugar or honey)
- something savory, like herbs or garlic. (or spicy!)

For a long time, the primary things that I kept on hand were:
- some kind of vinegar (usually rice, at that point)
- soy sauce
- "italian herb blend" for pretty much anything I made that was remotely European-seeming
- chili-ginger sauce
- lime pickle
- curry paste.

- some kind of interesting oil like sesame oil.

I always meant to add mirin to the list, but I could never seem to keep it around.

Again, not authentic to much of anywhere or anything, but the list provided a really nice range of possible flavors without taking up a lot of space or being too expensive.

Re: Building up a bento staple list for the poor college ...

i was in the same situation as you last year. I would suggest the following for dorm living:

- get bento supplies from Daiso - there's one near the menlo park/mountain view area if i'm not wrong. THere's a bunch all around the bay area.

For food:
- soy sauce
- sesame oil
- sugar
- vinegar --> didn't use this as often as the rest so a small bottle should be fine.
- garlic --> you can choose either fresh garlic, or the minced garlic from Kroger or the asian markets. H Mart has a huge selection. Minced garlic saves time, but IMO doesn't taste as good.
- cooking oil, preferably olive - this way you can use it for pastas AND asian cooking =) tastes better and healthy too.
- onions
- spring onions --> good to add to almost any dish, requires little preparation/cutting. Also, makes for a very very quick egg omelette thing in the morning for bentos. =)
- black pepper
- small bottle of wine of some sort, e.g. sake. Useful when cooking.

when i was in college, to save time, i usually bought meat in bulk, then separated it into smaller personal servings, wrapped them in gladwrap, and froze a bunch. This way you save alot of time cooking, and the food lasts longer so you don't need to keep buying and wasting time cutting/cleaning etc. You need to do this immediately after you buy it though, else the meat will turn bad, but i found it very convenient.

Also recommend getting your veges from the asian markets. They sell loose vegetables by the pound, and it's cheaper. You can grab just enough for the week to last you. I buy my garlic/onions this way because i waste less food (last about 3weeks to a month out in the open)

Asian vegetables usually last you a week, unless they're really fragile like spinach. The usual bokchoys and more leafy, stiff vegetables will last 1.5 weeks for me, so i usually buy enough for that. Frozen veges are not required since these are easy to prepare, just wash and cook. Spring onions last about 1.5 weeks too if you keep them refrigerated. Keep lettuce/celery/carrots as a back up plan in case you run out of vegetables since these last for more than 2 weeks in the fridge.

Another time saving thing i did was to cook huge batches over the weekend to last me through the week, so that all I needed was to microwave. =)

Hope that helps!

Re: Building up a bento staple list for the poor college ...

This is what I use all the time:
Soy Sauce
Sesame oil
Sesame seeds
Sake (cooking)
Rice vinegar
frozen chicken breasts (Sam's has a good tasting grilled one in a gold/bronze colored bag - It's their brand Member Mark or whatever)
minced garlic
minced ginger
Udon noodles
sushi rice (or similar short grained rice)
Lemon juice (or fresh lemons)

These are the items that don't stay on my pantry shelf for very long. I use them over and over in sauces, stir fry, marinades, salad dressings.

Re: Building up a bento staple list for the poor college ...

Find a local asian market.

You'll be able to find rice and nori there. Probably a better selection of vegetables too.

And if you need a rice cooker or bento boxes, they'll have them.

Mrs. Hoisington
Re: Building up a bento staple list for the poor college ...

I don't know about specific brands, but I can tell you what I keep on hand.

Rice (I get the big 50 lb bags of sushi/sweet rice)

It takes about 4-6 months for our family of 3 to go through it, but it saves us money. Since there is only one of you, it may take a year or more to go through it, but it won't go bad. I make plain rice, sushi, rice balls, and many other rice dishes with it. I also recomend a rice cooker. I can't live without mine. I cook rice to mac & cheese in it. Costco has big bags of rice, but I like to go to the Asian market for this staple.

Fresh veggies & Fruit (any kind you like)

I pre-chop veggies and put them in little containers in my fridge and just put out what I need when I make each bento during the week. We like baby carrots, english cucumbers cut into flowers, grape tomatoes, sliced strawberries, sliced kiwi, zucchini, sliced melon, bell pepper, you name it.

Cheese (Any kind)

Get it in blocks and slice it yourself. Cut it into stars, hearts, or just slice it.

Salmon and other fish

I buy individually packaged and frozen. I just pull out one or two and just place the frozen fillets right on my rice in the rice cooker and steam them with the rice.

Pasta or other noodles (any kind)

Things with pasta I might put in a bento: mac & cheese, spaghetti, pasta salad, tuna salad with pasta, etc...

Frozen foods

Frozen corn, frozen soy beans, pot stickers, perogies, tortellini, ravioli, frozen spinach(yum :), costco has a nice marinated frozen salmon, fish cake (Asian market), etc...

Canned Food

Canned beets, water chestnuts, canned mushrooms and stir-fry veggies, canned fruit (like mandarin oranges), canned beans, etc...

It will be a temptation to get too much stuff at once. Pace yourself. With the expection of rice and maybe pasta, and frozen meats, I wouldn't get anything in a large quantity. Even frozen stuff gets freezer burn. Do a menu and have a plan for your bentos. Try to use up the stuff from the previous week in the following week.

Re: Building up a bento staple list for the poor college ...

all of these suggestions are great... tinned veg and fish/meat, frozen veg and gyoza, and rice are all great bento "stash" or pantry staple items. i also rely on some boxed goods once in a while (there is a boxed rice pilaf mix i buy when it's on sale, and i keep some tri-color pasta bows in stock for cute bento decorations), and other frozen products i really enjoy for bento are veggie burgers or "chick-N" patties, soy hot dogs, and soy chicken nuggets. as far as condiments i keep a bottle of bulldog, a bottle of rice wine vinegar, and a bottle of soy in my fridge, and PAM cooking spray, olive oil, and sesame oil with my spices (for spices, sesame seeds, garlic powder, ginger, salt and pepper are my indispensables, and curry is a fun addition once in a while).

as far as fridge items, a stash of pickled vegetables (ginger, radish - takuwan, kimchi, green beans, etc.) will keep almost indefinitely, as will miso paste.

i also agree with the suggestions above about pre-making and freezing -- i do this with steamed broccoli and colored cauliflower, as well as entrees i've made for dinner (lasagna and chili freeze well, as do homemade dumplings).

i usually buy a supply of fresh veg that will only last a few days at most - it's easier to plan out the next 4 meals you are cooking than the next 10, and that way less goes to waste. if you plan out your bentos the day before you make them (or during your daily commute on the day you are going to make them) you may think of a color you need, and you can buy just one apple or one orange etc. to fill that need without overdoing it and ending up wasting.

good luck, can't wait to see your bentos in the justbento flickr photo pool!

Rocket Jones
Joined: 6 Jan 2009
User offline. Last seen 8 years 32 weeks ago.
Re: Building up a bento staple list for the poor college ...

I grew up in San Jose (left just as it was becoming the sillycon valley) and if there's one thing I remember that can apply here, it's that Bento does not have to be Asian!

Think Mexican food. Rice and beans. Chorizo. Fresh tortillas and tamales. Jicama and tomatillos. Queso fresco. Fresh or stuffed chilies.

Just looking at bento from a different angle.

Bento-ing from: San Jose › California
Joined: 22 Apr 2009
User offline. Last seen 7 years 49 weeks ago.
Re: Building up a bento staple list for the poor college ...

WOW everyone thanks for the replies. i had forgotten i posted this and wanted to check back to write things down. xD yay~!

Bento-ing from: Binghamton › New York › USA
Joined: 4 Oct 2009
User offline. Last seen 8 years 32 weeks ago.
Re: Building up a bento staple list for the poor college ...

All the food stuff has been covered, so as a fellow college-cooker allow me to remind you you need cooking tools! Whatever you can't get your parents to donate you're going to have to go buy.

Your first priority should be to locate a DollarTree or other $1> store. I know DollarTree very well and they generally have a consistent stock regardless of location. Things you can get at DollarTree:

-baking/cooling racks
-dishtowels, oven mitts, cloth trivets
-measuring cups/spoons
-tinfoil(The holiest of holies)
-saran wrap (I like DollarTree saran wrap better than Reynold :D)
-tupperware (make sure it is microwavable), sandwich bags
-silicone baking forms - the best part is they are often very little!
-tongs, knives, peelers, brushes, all that good stuff
-dish soap!
-plates, bowls, silverware, placemats, tablecloths - you can get DollarTree fancy!
-If you are really pressed for cash you can also probably get spices and stuff, but they won't be very good.


Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

New forum activity since your last visit

TitleAuthorAnswersLast Postsort icon
Sesame salad dressing Supertaster95 years 12 weeks ago
Authentic paella? maki105 years 13 weeks ago
IMPORTANT: If you have a blog on JustBento... maki25 years 16 weeks ago
Shiso - uses for this herb Loretta05 years 18 weeks ago
Fuki (Japanese Butterbur) Tsukemono Recipes kumo55 years 18 weeks ago