Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: Let's pack a bento

bento101-sunnybento.jpg

Welcome to Lesson 3, which is actually the fourth lesson (I know, a bit confusing) of Bento 101: Getting Into the Bento Making Habit. The assignment this week will be to actually pack at least one bento for lunch and bring it with you to work or school, or even to the park.

In the last lesson we covered the subject of the right kind of bento box or container for your eating style. Hopefully you’ve been able to get a box that suits your needs. If not, I’d like you just pick a suitable container with a tight fitting container.

The tl;dr version: Your assignment for the week

The most important part of this week’s lesson is to pack a real bento for lunch at least once during the upcoming week. Make a little extra of whatever you’re having for dinner, and set it aside to pack for lunch the next day.

So how do you make this bento-packing business as painless and fast as possible? Here are a few tips:

Planning ahead

1. Planning a day ahead (dinner into lunch)

I’ve already talked about setting aside some of your dinner for packing the next day. This is one of the easiest ways of planning ahead, and for your first bento efforts I would like you to concentrate on doing that. Note whether the foods you thought would work the day after cooking actually do hold up or not. You may want to adjust your list of packable foods accordingly for the future.

2. Having your gear in place

Quite a few people get stuck on the question of what to pack their lunch in and so on. We’ve already covered this question in a lot of detail, so you should be all set and ready to go.

3. Advanced planning: the weekly planners

but you can do a bit more planning too. Many people find the simple Weekly Planner form or the slightly more complex Weekly Menu Planner forms very handy for not only planning what to pack for lunch, but for mapping out the meals for the upcoming week, figuring out what leftovers need to be used up, and so on.

A bit about nutrition

I don’t want to dwell too much on the nutrition issue at this early stage - the most important thing right now is to get into the flow of packing your lunch. But if you want your bento to be healthy as well as tasty and economical, try to include at least one item each of the important macro-nutrient food groups: protein, carb, vegetable, plus fruit. If you need to fill some space in your box, fill it with more vegetables rather than the other foods - especially if you’re trying to cut calories.

Tip: Cherry tomatoes and steamed or broiled broccoli are your best bento friends

I use both cherry tomatoes and broccoli florets a lot in my bentos. They’re both pretty inexpensive year-round, very low in calories yet still very nutritious (especially broccoli), compact and very colorful. They are perfect for filling in any gaps in your bento, regardless of the cuisine.

This is a prototype of the bento that was on the cover of the Just Bento Cookbook. (We ended up using another bento box.) Basically I used a row of cherry tomatoes and broccoli to fill the gap between the rice and the rest of the food.

bento101-cherrytbrocbento.jpg

Packing your box

If there’s one rule that you must follow for packing cooked foods, it’s this: Make sure that everything has cooled down to room temperature at least before putting the lid on. If you put a tight fitting lid on still-warm food, condensation will form under the lid and make your food unpleasantly soggy. Extra moisture also means that unpleasant microbes are much more likely to flourish. This is especially important in warmer weather, but since most of our indoor environments are well heated these days, it’s just as important for colder times of the year too.

When to pack your bento: In the morning or the night before?

The standard advice given for packing bentos in Japan is to pack them in the morning. I remember my mother, who had a full time job for most of the time I needed bentos for school (in middle school and high school), waking up at 5:30 or 6 to pack bentos for me and and my sister, make breakfast for all of us, get ready for work then drop off my youngest sister at nursery school before taking the train to her office. Bentos do taste better when they’re made in the morning - if you have the time and energy to do so.

But most people don’t have either, so the logical thing is to pack it in the evening. If you do make your bento in the evening, just make sure to cool it down completely before putting in the refrigerator - see above about the importance of letting your food cool and avoiding condensation. You may want to open up your box and inspect the inside of the lid anyway; if you see moisture there, wipe it off before re-sealing your box.

The part of a bento that can go ‘off’ the fastest when packed ahead are the grains - rice, quinoa, or whatever else you’re using. They can become unpleasantly hard and dried out in the cold of the refrigerator. One way to have the ease of a packed-the-night-before lunch with good tasting rice or other grains is to pack up everything but the grains in the box, then to pack the grains in the morning.

(Incidentally, one reason why many people love wooden bento boxes, especially uncoated ones like the gorgeous magewappa made in Akita prefecture by Shibata Yoshinobu Shoten, is that the wood absorbs excess moisture and allows the food to ‘breathe’, which actually keeps it fresher and better tasting than food packed in plastic.)

Don’t pack your bento further ahead than the night before though, unless the food you’re using keeps very well.

Pack tight, unless your food needs space

As we talked about in the previous 2 lessons, in most cases you want to pack your food as tightly as possible so that it doesn’t shift around. This actually makes your bento look way more attractive and appetizing at lunch time. You may have already tried packing leftovers and things for lunch - say, some pasta salad or something - and been a bit dismayed at how messy it looks after it’s been bouncing around in your backpack.

For lunch jar users (e.g. Mr. Bento)

bento101-lunchjar.jpg

For lunch jar users who want to pack a hot soup or stew in their thermal jars: make sure to heat the jar up by pouring boiling water into it, then emptying it out, before filling with your piping hot soup or stew. (This is usually included in the instructions that come with the jar.) If you put the food into a cold container it will only be lukewarm at lunchtime. You don’t have to heat up the non-thermal side containers of course.

Salad and sandwich lovers

If you want to pack a salad, try packing the vegetables and the dressing separately rather than mixing it all up, to avoid soggy greens.

Ths is a prototype version of the ‘Deconstructed Salad Niçoise Bento’ that appears in the book (you can see the recipe under the listing on the Amazon page.) Each part of the salad is packed separately in little boxes, to be combined at lunchtime.

bento101-deconsalad.jpg

Sandwich lovers may want to take a look again at the deconstructed sandwich ideas I listed in the previous lesson.

Back to the assignment

To repeat: your assignment (Assignment 4, if you’re counting) for this week is to pack a real bento for lunch at least once during the upcoming week. Make a little extra of whatever you’re having for dinner, and set it aside to pack for lunch the next day.

If you’d like to share your results, besides posting a photo, I’d like you to reflect on the following questions:

  • Did you enjoy your lunch?
  • Did you enjoy making your lunch?
  • Were there any issues with toting your lunch to work/school? Any issues at the office?
  • Is this something you see yourself doing regularly?

I look forward to seeing your results!

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.

32 comments

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Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

"...as painful and as fast as possible?"
I hope you meant 'painless'. :) I really love these lessons. Thanks so much for doing this!!

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

Oops! Thanks for catching that ^_^

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

Ok, so I did the previous assignments but I never posted them, because I meant to set up a blog-like thingy for this but I keep postponing it :) Anyway, I actually did take the result of my "packing in 3D" assignment. Here it is: http://goo.gl/wNQqc It contains egg & chicken stir-fry, corn & soy sprouts, and a salad. It's in a 850 ml lock n lock container. The divided part with the chicken and corn is seperable. I took that part out and heated it in the office microwave.

I will eventually set up that blog wehere I post all my assignments (with reference to your blog, of course) and let you know. Thanks for the lessons, they've been incredibly helpful! >^.^<

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

Hmm I can't seem the access the page...?

Re: Bento 101 Part 3

Ok, I bought my box last night. I made spaghetti squash for dinner, so the other half I put into a bento lunch this morning. I added two slices of ham, one provolone, three celery sticks, and 1/4 cup of sun-dried tomato Alfredo. ..and one of the bento packing rules is 'enough food so it doesn't shift'. Well, mine was not quite enough. I would love to post a pic, but do not see a place for it.

Re: Bento 101 Part 3

I bought more spill proof, lid locking food containers today. 8 pc (with lids) and they also nest, so the small containers work perfectly as food dividers =D

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

It seems I went a bit ahead of schedule then, I already made one for last Monday.
I very much enjoyed making it, I made a pasta salad with mushroom and ham. The only issue is that I packed it the night before, including some grated cheese on top, which tasted very strong the day after.
No issues getting it there or eating it, which surprised me, my colleagues can be quite picking on each others food, but no such thing so far :D
And I definitely see myself doing this more in the future, maybe not every day but at least to get some variety from the sandwiches :)

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

Is there any advantage to using a box specifically designed for donburi, like the OSK one at:
http://www.jlist.com/product/BENTO253

I make donburi a lot - and this red box sure looks attractive, but it's pricey when the shipping charge to USA is added. Would like to know if anyone has tried this item?

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

I just wanted to say thank you for posting this course and introducing me to the world of Bento. I think the link to your first getting into the habit post was on Lifehacker or some other site I was browsing and I became intrigued. I am trying to lose weight and also to reign in my spending so this came along at just the right time. I have undertaken all of the assignments though bot a bit ahead of myself by packing a bento lunch twice already this week - today I have some of your taco mince, some cous cous salad with pumpkin, some carrot sticks and the space is filled with cherry tomatoes. As well as the ideas for what to put in the meals I have been struck by the notion of making my meal appealing to the eye - filling the box so it doesn't get too messy in transit, having an array of colours and textures and so on. Even having a prety lunch box is all a part of it. When you are dieting meals can be something of a bore but with the bento box I had yesterday i felt like I was sitting down to a real treat - all the food was very tasty and appealing even if there wasn't a lot of the 'bad for me' stuff. I've ordered your book but am enjoying browsing the recipes on the site here until it makes its way to me in Australia. Thanks so much for sharing your expertise.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

Hi, Maki. I started making bentos after finding your site a little over a year ago. While I bring my own lunch to work 75% of the time, I'm not as consistent as I'd like to be, and I'd really like to continue to streamline my process towards "building a better bento". I was really excited you decided to host the 101 and I hope there will be an intermediate course in the future!

Anyway, here is the bento I decided to make for this lesson. It contains katsu, bulldog sauce, rice, and a cabbage-cilantro slaw:
http://flic.kr/p/dWSpHW

I knew when I bought the pork chops to make katsu that I'd be making extra for both me and my boyfriend's lunch, so the planning was easy enough.
The slaw was a last minute addition that I made the night before - I think it adds much needed color and freshness.
I knew the panko crust of the katsu would be mushy after reheating the next day, so I was not surprised or disappointed. On the bright side, the slaw stayed crisp and the rice didn't dry out. All in all a quite enjoyable bento!

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

Hey BentoMaster,

Longtime reader/follower now participator; I too was an over ambitious student and started making as soon as the course started. Have been less about leftovers and more pre prepared staples with rice made fresh each morning.....need to figure out how to share a pic? Any ideas?

To the reflections on this process- LOVED my lunch. I now look forward to lunch rather than enduring the works canteen food. Have become somewhat envied at work from colleagues ;) even made doubles and brought in as gifts for a select few.....methinks this stops soon tho ;)

No issue bringing it to work, I just need to get better at having more in the freezer so less work, currently averaging an hours work the night before but then I have put more variety in the box than normal. Divided by the 2-3 days my stock lasts I suppose this isn't so bad.

Thanks again, and please keep up inspiring - got your book too so will start incorporating your dishes more

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

I guess you managed the photo issue (assuming you're the same Gregor as the one below ^_^)

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

Awesome! I will do a nice bento for Monday, since it's easiest to spend a little more time on Sundays. My job and lifestyle have been changing a bit lately so I'm still trying to figure out how to fit in bentos more easily.

Besides broccoli and tomatoes, for filler I also like pea pods (raw or blanched), carrot slices or chunks, olives (if there isn't too much other fat in the box already), small dill pickles or gherkins (I wrap in a bit of plastic so they don't season the other food too much), zucchini slices, radishes, baby corn, mushrooms (quartered if they're large), and shredded cabbage.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

I will admit I do have some experience packing bento already, but I wanted to go through the course to get back into the habit.

Salmon Kale Quinoa Salad with a soy vinegar dressing and Chinese 5 spice, grape tomatoes and celery, blueberries, and strawberries. I made the salad for dinner the night before and used the leftovers. The salmon was smoked and canned. The tomatoes were starting to go a little soft, so I wanted to use those up.

Here was my result:
http://cutebentoideas.tumblr.com/post/43721036651/assignment-for-just-be...

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

Both your posted bentos look good! I like the Keep Calm And Make Bento pic too ^_^

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

I made my lunch with some potato oyaki, some leftover buffalo wild wings chicken pieces and some small tomatoes. http://instagram.com/p/WA1DmWKHJs/ I should have put more meat in the oyaki and I think next time I'll try boiling them with some sugar in the water so they will be sweet.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

Looks delicious! I haven't made oyaki myself in a long time - thanks for reminding me to make them again ^_^

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

Not sure if this link works....but here's my bento

http://instagr.am/p/WBhFZZHboE/

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

Link works fine - and wow, bento looks great!

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

I had two tries this week:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jessecoug/8501340788/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jessecoug/8500233201/

They both had an apple and maybe a sidecar of peanuts or pistachios and a few squares of dark chocolate/quinoa bar I keep stocked at work.

I think making the list of proteins was helpful for me. I hadn't thought about baked tofu in a while (which I can lazily buy pre-made) and while I thought the small tiffin wouldn't be enough, it turns out that a few pieces of baked tofu with the other stuff was MORE than enough and let me cut down on extra carb snacks throughout the day. And the idea of fillers was helpful too - I'd forgotten I could add things like olives and cherry tomatoes in...and the steamed broccoli is a great idea for getting more greens into my bentos.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

I had two tries this week:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jessecoug/8501340788/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jessecoug/8500233201/

They both had an apple and maybe a sidecar of peanuts or pistachios and a few squares of dark chocolate/quinoa bar I keep stocked at work.

I think making the list of proteins was helpful for me. I hadn't thought about baked tofu in a while (which I can lazily buy pre-made) and while I thought the small tiffin wouldn't be enough, it turns out that a few pieces of baked tofu with the other stuff was MORE than enough and let me cut down on extra carb snacks throughout the day. And the idea of fillers was helpful too - I'd forgotten I could add things like olives and cherry tomatoes in...and the steamed broccoli is a great idea for getting more greens into my bentos.

Bento box silicon pieces

Have you ever seen PickYourPlum? Daily little goodies, and today there's some different shapes of silicon containers perfect for dressing up a Bento box! I just got a whole set, and wish I'd gotten more flowers, now that I'm thinking about it.

check it out here: http://pickyourplum.com/#

Happy eating!

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

Hi, Maki.

Sadly I haven't been able to participate, but I have been reading and paying attention. I'm just going through a very rough patch in my private life, and it caused me to be unable to actually participate.
But I will use these posts for reference when I do get my feet on the ground again, and have a place to live and things have settled down again.
I do feel like I've learned a few very handy tips by following your posts, and I am really hoping I'll be able to participate in your Japanese Cooking course too, because I really want to learn.

If I can participate in that course too, I might have a few questions about substituting ingredients, because I live in Iceland, and we have no specifically Japanese market. We do have a couple of Asian stores, but they are more Vietnamese, Thai, and Filipino oriented than Japanese, so a few things might be difficult for me to get.

So, thank you so much for this course, and I can't wait to really get started on making my bentos. :D

Sincerely, H.B.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

Does anyone have any other suggestions for healthy, tiny space-fillers besides cherry tomatoes and broccoli florets? I'm decent at packing but the tiny spaces left between....always end up turning my bento into a mess due to small spaces coming together to make big spaces and ruin everything. Cherry tomatoes are so-so in my opinion and to say "I hate broccoli" is a gross understatement on my part (more like the fiery loathing rivaling the burn of a thousand suns).

Thanks!

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

Take a look at the recipes in the side dishes and space fillers category for some ideas. For instance everyone seems to love the easy sugarfree carrot kinpira - you can make it in batches and store it in the fridge, and tuck it into a space corner of your box as needed. Or, any kind of cut-up vegetable, cooked or raw depending on the veg, works too.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

Assignment 4! Here is a pic - blog post will soon follow.

I made this lunch to take to church on Sunday, as we are always just getting pre-made obentos from the supermarket or eating fried things - so Sunday is a key day for me to try to make bento. Anyway, it is buta no shougayaki (ginger pork) and sweet potato, in the bottom - rice and carrot sticks and almonds.

http://instagr.am/p/WHeOs8gwXI/

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

First of all thanks a lot for sharing this!

You got me hooked with the "Why make a bento lunch if you work at home?" post.
When I still went to the office daily, I used to bring lunch almost every day. Usually that was one box for the microwave or one bowl of salad + bread.
So the Bento to me is somehow the same and yet still totally different.

And this was my first try to "separate" food. I tried to make something ordinary I'd make myself for lunch anyway.

The Result :
http://www.flickr.com/photos/skotasma/8513999098

  • The food tasted surprisingly well at room temperature
  • The rice turned out a bit stickier than I'd like it
  • Eating it separately is not really my thing, though it definitely looks a lot better
  • Eating with chopsticks is great, one of the few ways to slow me down a bit :)

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

The course has been a success, i am very much into the bento habit already, here is my second attempt:

http://cheesy-mash.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/bento-lunch-pea-curry-omelette...

And this was my first one:

http://cheesy-mash.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/bento-lunch-with-quinoa-carrot...

Thanks ever so much for organising this course! zx

Re: Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 3: ...

Bento Assignment 3:

http://amandafosburg.wordpress.com/2013/02/27/水曜日・wednesday-bento-101-3/

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