As I touched upon briefly in Bento Basics, there are different kinds of bento box meals, and this site is primarily concerned with bento lunch boxes. Even these come in different varieties.
There are three main types of homemade bento lunches that are popular in Japan at the moment. Here I’ll try to describe them, with example blogs and books from Japan. (Please note that all book links are Amazon or other associate links, which help to support Just Bento and Just Hungry.)
This is a homey bento with no particular aim or philosophy behind it beyond being tasty, filling, reasonably nutritious and attractive. They use meat, fish, and prepared foods that have been used in bento lunches for decades: fried korokke, frozen shumai, the ubiquitous wiener sausage, and so on.
Example Japanese bento blog: Bento. This has helpful ingredient listings in English, though it’s mostly in Japanese.
A great book of this type is Kihon no Obento, a “mook” (magazine-format book) published by Orange Page, a popular magazine. It’s in large format with gorgeous closeups of all the bentos and recipes, so even if you don’t understand Japanese you should be able to get a lot out of it.
Also known as “cute bento”, “character bento (kyaraben)”, “entertaining bento (entaatein-bento), etc. This type of bento has garnered the most interest outside of Japan on the web, because they are so visual. This is really more of a hobby rather than an everyday thing that most Japanese mothers do, contrary to some misconceptions out there.
Example Japanese bento site: the famous e-obento - not a blog, but updated frequently.
This site, by a mother of a kindergarten age child is a slightly less extreme example. She decorates a bit, but not always, and all the bentos are quite pretty even without smiley faces.
Example book: Miyazawa Mari no waku waku oekaki bento, by the owner of the e-obento site. (This is another “mook”, and has beautiful large photos.) She has several other books out on the same subject. The bentos she makes are quite mind-boggling. I can barely imagine actually eating them because they are so pretty.
Health-conscious bentos have been around for a long time, but in the last decade or so there has been a lot more attention being paid to bentos made with soshoku in mind. Soshoku means plain, simple food that is respects the ingredients. Much, though not all, of the focus is on traditional Japanese foods. Organic food, fresh vegetables, and whole grains are emphasized. Not all of it is vegetarian, since fish is used sometimes. There are offshoots of this category that are vegan or vegetarian: some go back to traditional sho-jin cooking, vegan cooking developed by Zen Buddhist monks. Macrobiotic bentos are quite popular too. While they appeal more to adults, some health-conscious mothers focus on this for their kids’ bento lunches too. It’s interesting that even e-obento is focusing on things like sprouting brown rice these days.
Example Japanese bento blog: C’s Blog, a mostly macrobiotic bento blog.
Example book: Soshoku no susume: Obento recipe. This is one of my favorite bento books, and it was a real eye opener for me when I first read it. It advocates simple, seasonal bentos, emphasizing brown rice or half-hulled brown rice (which is unfortunately not very available outside of Japan) and vegetables.
My all time favorite bento book, Watashi tachi no Obento (Our Obento, links on the left sidebar), which features bento lunches from regular people, has quite a lot of bentos that could be considered to be in the soshoku type.
I tend to make bentos of this last type, with some forays into the first type, the basic bento. Simple soshoku bento really keep me grounded health-wise, as well as being tasty and beautiful to look at without too much fiddling around. (I have nothing against bento artists who have the time and enthusiasm to make art bento, but I’d rather admire them rather than make them. I do make amigurumi and things though. Maybe that’s another blog.)
For more bento recipes, ideas and tips, subscribe to Just Bento via your newsreader or
by email (more about subscriptions).
And visit our sister site, Just Hungry for great Japanese home recipes and more.