Getting started with bento making: Are bentos right for you?

[Note: This is my New Year’s message from 2008, but it’s just as applicable this year. I’ll be posting a brand new New Year’s post tomorrow later on, but in the meantime, if you are thinking of making bentos part of your routine this year, this is worth a read I think!]

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to incorporate bento lunches into your life, this is the first part of a mini-series on how to get going.

Are bentos right for you?

I know that a lot of people get seduced by the idea of jewel-like little boxes of food greeting them for lunch. But before you embark on the bento route and start collecting bento boxes and cute supplies and so on, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you have the time? Do you really have the time to make bento? Even with the speed bento tips that are featured here and on other bento sites, there’s no denying that making bento lunches on a regular basis does take a bit of time and effort. If the idea of waking up 20 to 30 minutes earlier in the morning to assemble your bento just sounds unrealistic to you, you may want to consider if bentos are really for you.
  • Does your lifestyle or workstyle allow for bentos? I’ve already talked before about the benefits of making bentos if you work from home. But what if you have the type of job where you are always taking clients out to lunch? Is lunchtime an important socializing time, where you spend time gossiping with coworkers? Do you have a good cafeteria already? Perhaps you will just want to make a bento once a week or so, or concentrate on picnic bentos for outings on the weekend.

Reasons for making bento lunches

If you answered yes to the questions above, let’s look at the main reasons for making bento lunches:

  • For healthier eating, or to meet specific dietary needs. Bentos are great if your main goals are to eat healthier, to keep up with your specific dietary requirements (dealing with allergies, vegetarian/vegan, etc.). The best way to achieve this is to cook most things from scratch, rather than relying on pre-made foods, so expect to dedicate a little more time to your bento making than people with other goals.
  • To lose weight. Related to the above, making your own bento lunches is a great way to stick to a weight loss plan, as I’ve written about already. If this is your main goal, make sure your bento box is the right size to start with, and also be prepared for a little extra effort to prepare fresh vegetables, whole grains, and so on. Also, beware of high calorie prepared foods, even if - or especially if - they are Japanese! Things like korokke (breaded and deep-fried potato or cream croquettes), tonkatsu (breaded and deep-fried pork cutlets), gyoza dumplings, shuumai, and so on are featured quite a lot in bento books and blogs, but just because they look cute tucked into a box doesn’t mean they’re healthy! (There are ways of incorporating these goodies into your bentos, but that’s a bit more advanced.)
  • To save money. Making your own lunch can save you a lot of money compared to eating out at restaurants or buying fast food. If this is your primary goal, you do want to be careful not to go overboard on ingredients, cute bento supplies and such. Also beware of prepared Japanese foods, which are cheap in Japan but not really elsewhere.
  • To learn new cooking skills. Perhaps your main goal is to learn more about, or refine, your Japanese cooking knowledge by making bentos. Not many restrictions for you here, but again, those beautiful jewel-like bento boxes take some time and effort, so be prepared for that.

The bottom line is: committing to making bento lunches regularly does mean you will have to invest some time. But the payoffs are worth it!

Incidentally, the main goals I have for my own bento making are the above, in the order they are listed. So chances are that this site will suit you fine if they are your goals too.

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.

26 comments

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Most of my goals were based

Most of my goals were based on: 1) Healthy eating. 2) Saving money. 3) Saving time.

I’ve actually found that despite some time commitments, overall a “bentoesque” approach is a timesaver. I’m not someone with an actual bento box, but what I am doing is looking for nutritious, healthy, food that can be packed and made in an efficient way.

And for me, that’s Bento. Last night I made some Chicken Parmagiana. Instead of 2 servings I made 8. It took me an extra 10-20 minutes, but that’s now 6 meals (after dinner) I just don’t have to do anything but unthaw. They’re easy to pack (in those lined cups), and I keep various frozen veggies, fresh fruits, and more around.

very true

That is absolutely true Dragon…over the long run, bentos definitely save time (and money too)!

Based on my estiments, since

Based on my estiments, since I went “bentoesque” (more premade meals, balanced portions, a mix of classic and innovative recepies etc.) we’re saving $6-$12 a day (but leaning to the $6 long term).

I must admit that my

I must admit that my interest on bento making was first sparked off by the creative and awesome-looking bento lunches that the Japanese mothers make for their children. As I research more about the art of bento making, I realize that it is not just about creating cute images but more importantly extending the healthy eating from home to work/school and the act of love (be it a bento prepared by mother to a child or wife to husband). I am a homemaker and do not need to prepare lunchboxes (Thankfully! ;-)) for my husband since he comes home during his lunch break. However, I want to embark myself on a bento making journey right now so that I can make healthy lunchboxes for my daughter when she goes to a preschool in a couple of years’ time. I am excited to get more tips from your site!

I'm with you!

I’m reading your blog since its beginning (thanks to Biggie! www.lunchinabox.net). I’m must say that I’ve been attracted by bento because some are so cute! I’m still learning about them and Japanese food (which is new for me), but I’m already taking care to make healthier and more attractive lunches. I can’t buy too much of this cute stuff since there is not that kind of store here in Quebec.

I don’t have time in the morning to make bento, so I prepare most of them in the evening, as I do with usual lunches. Since most of them go to microwaves, I pack the fruits or other things that must stay cool in a cup or anything that I just have to remove before. These are my tips to not go crazy!

I’ll try to leave comments, but you must excuse my mistakes, I’m not writing very often in English…

My interest in bento would

My interest in bento would be to lose weight and eat healthier meals. Although I might be interested in some Japanese cooking, I’m less concerned about traditional bento and “cuteness” than convenience and health. Since I am most decidedly not a morning person, I’d have to do most of my preparation the night before, perhaps while making dinner, and only add finishing touches (or very perishable items) in the morning.

my goals

My goals for the bento endeavor have been healthy eating and saving money. I started as a nice way to send healthy food in to school with my kids. They weren’t eating stuff out of baggies that they would normally gobble down at home, and when I sent in separate containers they kept losing lids. This way they get the love of knowing that I’m preparing and sending in stuff they like to eat as well as keeping a healthy diet.

I’m quite happy to be seeing bento for adults on your site. Unlike some bento-moms, I’m kind of turned off by all the cutesy stuff. Both my kids are boys and we’re just not big into that sort of thing. I want it to look attractive, of course, because it’s got to look good to eat, but it’s not like I’m trying to persuade picky eaters. Once I started making the lunches for the kids, my husband got jealous, so I bought him his very own box. When I went back to work I bought one for myself as well.

My husband has limited success with the bento. He’s on a heavily restricted diet but his work is one of those places where people go out to lunch together often to socialize. The kicker is that most of the time he can’t eat much of anything at the places his colleagues choose, so occasionally it’s used as a backup rather than as the first choice for lunch.

my goals

I teach, so my main goal with bento is to always have something with me that looks appealing and will keep me from eating school lunch (which is way to carb friendly-even for me) or eating out (which someone always is and it’s sooo easy just to add on to their order.)

I think my biggest challenge with bento is that asian cuisine does not appeal to me at allso I’m hoping to find my own path with that. I do want to include more fresh fruit and anything that could count as a vegetable at least 3 x a week.

FOOD ALLERGIES

My son is a very proud 1/8th Japanese. (LOL) He is also allergic to anything with dairy or egg. So healthy lunches are important to me for him to have at school. He also LOVES plain rice with soy sauce. I can't wait to start making him Bento!!! Thank you...

Re: Getting started with bento making: Are bentos right for ...

I am totally new to bento boxes and I happened to stumble across them while looking for ways to get my little ones interested in vegetables. I find that some of the bento are so cute, but I like that there is so much variety and style that can be incorperated. Being a sahm, I love the idea of meal planning and money saving. I think that the portion control will also help with my weightloss goals. All in all I think it will be a fun journey.

A minor question, if I

A minor question, if I might.

My new year's resolution is to eat healthier and take better care of myself, and I think bento is a good starting point. However, my big issue is not with loosing weight like it is with the rest of my family, but gaining weight. I'm naturally underweight and I know it's not healthy. Are bento lunches still a good idea for me?

Re: A minor question, if I

Actually, bentos are still goo for you. Eating healthier whether to lose weight or gain it works pretty much the same, just with different dietary needs. To help you put on weight and try to get it up, may I suggest a balanced bento with a solid portion of protein, green leafy veggies, a small portion of starch, and some fruit. The protein helps with muscle development, while the starch give your body some sugar and energy to work off of. But don't do a big amount of starch! Too much and your gaining unhealthy weight, the green leafy veggies are always good for you (iron) and the fruit will help give you natural sugars. I would suggest not eating a starch every day and doubling up on the fruit sometimes as that will help your body from being starch craved all the time. The natural sugars will keep you going and the protein should help too. All of that should help you gain a fair amount of weight (I've not seen anyone gain more then ~15 lbs. and quite frankly most of that was muscle), but if you need beyond that I would suggest consulting a doctor.

Re: Getting started with bento making: Are bentos right for ...

Not throwing away so much plastic packaging on a takeaway lunch was equally important to me as healthy eating. Using the freezer as a part of the lunch making repertoire has really changed my lunch habits. Really appreciate all the advice on what freezes and for how long it can keep. I'd never thought of freezing rice or individual servings of whatever was on my dinner table- having a bento stash has made it so much easier to take home made bentos to work. Thanks so much for that. Looking forward to the book.

Re: Getting started with bento making: Are bentos right for ...

I love making bentos for my husband and myself, but unfortunately as I have been changing my diet over the last few months neatly arranged bentos have not been in the cards for me. Raw kale salads and the like may be quite nutritious, but they do not look tidy and the small portions just do not hold me over when I am eating mostly raw vegetables and fruit.

Yes, Bento is for ME!

Well, maybe not my life, but certainly my relationship and my stomach! I came to your site after doing some hard thinking about what to make for lunches. My stomach is delicate and I have HUGE difficulty cooking for myself ever, much less 3 meals a day, but now that we're out of the job and doing odd things out on the road, I have to figure a way to make a cheap lunch that I don't have to heat up, and somehow manages to stay appetizing for me for more than 3 days in a row. In addition, I'd never learned how to cook or even put together a balanced meal, but I really enjoy nutritious fare when I can get it. My solution had always been eating out for most meals! It was the only way I could get what my stomach was willing to take on a moment's notice. The only things I could make were hot foods, besides sandwiches, which already turned my stomach (at least with cheap/limited ingredients I could get).

Then I thought, BENTO! The Japanese eat cold lunches every day, and much of their food culture has developed around preserving foods and eating them cold. There's already tons more vegetables and far fewer fried things in their everyday menus! (Yes, not all Japanese food is healthy, but it seems like there's a bigger list of delicious healthy things to choose from... I've been eating a lot of Chalupas, it would be nice to have some veggies!) And I already know I love Japanese food (at least the non-spicy parts). My very first search result led me here, where I've pretty much been learning to cook from scratch! Fortunately we'd just bought a big bag of Calrose rice, and my first (self-made, proper) onigiri emerged on Christmas Eve. Your washing instructions worked like a charm. I've been so happy thinking about cooking all these delightful things, and my stomach has really enjoyed the experimentation, too!

I started with onigiri with diced cucumber (salted with soy sauce) filling. No Japanese ingredients necessary! Then I tackled tamagoyaki, which despite not using any oil or mirin, came out deliciously! I have a new favourite non-desert food! Next came carrot kinpara, as carrots are cheap, and I left out the chili flakes for my delicate stomach. Tonight I'm going to improvise cooking some frozen tuna someone gave us long ago, into something that can be put into onigiri or taken as a main protein. My ingredient cupboard is slowly growing (I have fresh soy sauce, and Nori now), and my courage and enjoyment is growing with it! I'm recommending your site to everyone I know!

It doesn't need to be pretty, or expensive, or even have a nice box... Bento is definitely for me!

What?

This is going to sound bitchy, and I'm sorry because it's genuinely not intended to be. I just don't get it. I don't get why taking a packed lunch to school or work requires all this drama. People have been doing it for centuries. It's not special or new, and calling it a Japanese word doesn't make it special or new. It's just taking a packed lunch to work.

Re: What?

It really is not that special or new , but it is made out to be that way a lot in the media (especially recently), focusing on the type of bento that is mainly for show (charaben). However there is a certain way of thinking behind bentos that may go a bit beyond 'just taking a packed lunch to work'. In other words, it's a packed lunch made with care and with an eye towards aesthetics, balance - what have you.

Re: What?

For my family the thought of a packed lunch is a sandwich and chips. But we have another idea entirely when we think of bentos.

My children ask for bentos, they don't ask for dreaded packed lunches that are the same thing day in day out. We take care to pack particularly healthy foods in a pleasing fashion.

It's about how you view it. For us it's a fun new and healthier take on lunches. The old way had became blaze and really not so good for us.

Re: What?

You're right. It's not new. Neither is knitting (shoot, you can buy a cheaper sweater at the store!), fishing (my brother, an avid sport fisherman, often jokes about his $100/lb tuna), or target practice.

It's a hobby.

For me, a bento for lunch is like serving dinner on the good china. Yes, it'd taste just as good off of plastic plates, but a nice ambiance is cool. A bento, because it's pretty as well as tasty, just gives me this little capsule of specialness in the middle of a busy day.

If it doesn't do it for you, there's no need to waste your time. I'm sure you've many things you really love. Do them and have fun!

Re: What?

True - it's the aesthetics that got me excited when I saw the lunch sets, and I've found with many day-to-day things, paying attention to aesthetics and taking care really does make a difference. So, although I agree with the original post, I'm still browsing for a pretty bento lunchbox. But I will probably make my actual food the way I have for many years - sometimes just thrown together leftovers, other times more care and time put into it.

Re: What?

I agree! I love the look of the boxes and all, but sheesh! It's like a fad or a fetish or something... From browsing the web, it looks like a lot of bento boxes are just interlocking plastic containers, and apparently a lot of them don't seal very well either.

A small, bigmouth thermos for the hot food, plus smaller plastic container or two of veges and fruit, in a softsided lunchbox - isn't that essentially the same thing only better? Leakproof, more flexible, and forgiving.

Yeah, it's called a brown-bag lunch, not so special.

Re: What?

I like the fun factor. :) I mean, I'm not going to start spending loads of time in the morning prepping my lunch to take to work - I'll keep it simple. But I did just order a bento box that comes with chopsticks in a case, a band to hold it shut, and a carrying bag. Why? Because it's fun and different, and for me, that's more likely to hold my interest and keep me making my own lunches instead of noshing on pizza or other stuff from the cafeteria in my office building. I think it's an easy thing for people to develop into an obsession, just because some of the acoutrements are so darn fun and cute and pretty and elegant and so on. But you don't *have* to be obsessed to think it's enjoyable.

I also think it might have something to do with the popularity of anime - bento boxes show up a LOT in anime programs.

I wish you all the best and

I wish you all the best and hope all your dreams come true!

Happy New Year!

Re: Getting started with bento making: Are bentos right for ...

My husband's family is Korean and my new mother in law has been teaching me the basics of Korean cooking. In reading your recipes, I think that many of the Korean banchan dishes lend themselves to bentos. Just thought I would post the suggestion for another "new bento builders" looking for recipes. Thanks so much for your suggestions and instructions. I am looking forward to this new culinary adventure!

:]

I've always thought bento lunches were adorable.
I am an art major and I really love the food art aspect of bento
also i have lost quite a lot of weight and dont want to gain it back.
This bento idea is really awesome when it comes to portion control
and also alot of the food is much leaner than the average lunch.

I <3 bento :D

Re: Getting started with bento making: Are bentos right for ...

I've just been made aware of bento after watching a great little 5 minute program called 'Sense of Japan' on a satellite channel called NHKWorld (I'm in the UK).

After doing a little more research I've now been bitten by the bento bug! For me the priority is a combination of healthier eating, the opportunity of engaging in artistic creativity, as well as learning a new skill.

I've now watched several videos showing various bento dishes being made, and what struck me in each of them was how relaxing it seemed to be to make this stuff. It's been a long time since something has really appealed to me in this way, and I think this will become a great hobby.

I also wanted to extend my thanks to Makiko for putting this blog/website together - I'm finding the information here is extremely helpful in getting me started. I've also ordered The Just Bento Cookbook and am looking forward very much to reading it.

Rick

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