Skinny bento vs. not skinny bento: how to (and how not to) fill a bento box


One of the great points made in the Yaseru Obento Recipe book is that just because your bento box is small and fits the guidelines for selecting the right size bento box, it doesn’t mean you can fill it with anything. I thought I’d illustrate that with two bentos which use chicken as the main protein. In the photo above, the two leftside containers make up one bento, and the two rightside ones another. They are both Lube Sheep brand two-tier bento boxes, which I think a lot of people have since they are nice and compactand quite inexpensive. The nominal capacity for the two compartments combined is about 500ml.

The two bentos may look pretty comparable, but calorie wise there’s a big difference. Let’s see how I filled the right side bento first.


It has:

  • Chicken karaage made with 90g of thigh meat with the skin - 300cal
  • Sauteed bean sprouts with 1 Tbs. oil - 100cal
  • Fried rice with 250g rice, 1 1/2 Tbs. oil, green onions, ham - 490cal
  • Tamagoyaki from 1/2 egg - 50 cal

Total: 940 calories

How did I manage to pack in so many calories in such a small space? First of all, I used oil for all four elements - deep-frying the chicken with the skin on, and sautéing and frying the bean sprouts and rice. I was fairly liberal, but not as liberal as a typical takeout restaurant might be, with the oil. I also packed the rice into the slightly larger compartment as tightly as I could.

Now let’s look at the other bento. bento-calorie-lower.jpg

  • Chicken kijiyaki (or teriyaki) made with 90g of thigh meat with the skin - 210cal
  • Blanched bean sprouts with umeboshi - 5 cal
  • Blanched spinach - 10cal
  • Plain rice (I used haiga-mai, or germ rice, here), 150g - 170cal
  • Tamagoyaki from 1/2 egg - 50 cal

Total: 445 calories

What did I do differently? The chicken is cooked, with the skin still on, in a non-stick frying pan with no added oil. (You could save more calories by taking the skin off, but I do like that crispy caramelized skin.) The rice is plain, which is fine since the chicken and tamagoyaki are well seasoned. I also packed it into the slightly smaller compartment, and left space to put in the tamagoyaki (which is the one element that is identical between the two bentos). And the vegetables are blanched, so no oil is added.

Which tasted better? To me, the lower-calorie version had much more contrast and variety. The high calorie one was tasty, but rather greasy. (I admit I fed it to the Guy for his bento…he liked it but did agree it was a bit too greasy even for him.)

I do see quite a lot of bentos around the interweb that are in cute little bento boxes but are quite high in calories. Here are some things to watch out for:

  • Watch the carbs! I recently saw a bento that had some fried rice, two little bread rolls filled with yakisoba (fried noodles), and a couple of taiyaki (fish-shaped pancake batter filled with sweet bean paste). That bento is not going to be very low in calories, even if it’s packed in a cute little box. (Always remember - just because it’s cute and Japanese does not mean it’s either healthy or low in calories!)
  • Watch the cooking methods you’re using. If you are craving something deep-fried like katsu or karaage, by all means use it - but compensate for it with the other things you put in your bento. Try the dry- or water-sautéing method that I’ve described in previous bentos (like this fried rice bento) that use just a little oil for flavor.
  • Use lots of low-cal vegetables. Try to fill in as much space as you can with vegetables that you’ve cooked using as little added oil as possible - steamed, blanched or boiled, stewed or dry-sautéed.

These points are important to remember if you are using bento lunches to aid in weight loss, but even if you aren’t they should be kept in mind if you want your carefully prepared lunch to have the maximum health benefits.

I’ll do a step-by-step of the lower-calorie bento in another post. I think I’ll skip the high-calorie one though!

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my bentos

I like to use brown or wild rice. To me, it has more flavor and texture than boring old white rice (though it is much more difficult to find and expensive in Japan!). To give it a bit more flavor I dash on some Cajun seasoning and lemon juice. Yum!

Also, delicious sauces can be made with a teaspoon of tahini and lemon juice!

Sometimes, I use soba noodles instead of rice and make a stir-fry with steamed veggies, sauteed chicken and mushroom/hot pepper/leek, and tahini with lemon juice. It is great the next day microwaved! Not sure how low-cal it is because I use 1-2 tsp of olive oil, but it is over two meals (dinner and lunch), so it probably isn’t that bad…. :)

Stunning comparison!

You’ve made me go back and check out my past bentos. I’ll admit that I haven’t exactly been calorie counting with the bento (I think it’s awesome that you list the calories and the exact amounts of what you put in your bento!!!), but I have noticed a change in weight for the good since I started packing every day. I’ve found that even if I pack the smaller tier with rice, I can never eat more than half of it, so now I only pack half of the smaller tier, or I make a small onigiri/musubi instead. I often find it curious when I can’t finish a lunch from a tiny box! :D

Love your blog! :)

Decisions, decisions

I loved this post. Not only was it an eye-opener with regards to caloric content, but it gave some wonderful tips on color and layout ideas. Nice to see that you don’t have to stuff a bento from side to side to achieve a nicely balanced box.

Also, the kid in me loved the idea of trying to guess which box was the healthier one.


We all know that frying isn’t good for waist but it’s amazing how “heavy” can become a bento. I usually eat big portions and tried, whith the bento mania to reduce. It was amazing how a normal bento can be filling since it contains plain rice. + i love your posts!

Blanched bean sprouts with umeboshi

I really like the idea of the blanced bean sprouts but I am not wild about umeboshi; what would be other good low-cal suggestions for seasoning the bean sprouts? Thanks!

Ella, you can try a little

Ella, you can try a little bit of salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon or lime juice; or sauté the bean sprouts very briefly in a tiny bit of oil (sesame oil would be nice) and season. Just a few ideas!

Thank you for the tips!

Thank you so much for the suggestions maki! That sounds like a delicious alternative. Also, I just wanted to say that Just Bento is a fantastic. I have done some bento in the past but I am looking forward to making it a part of daily life and hopefully lose some weight!

Re: Skinny bento vs. not skinny bento: how to (and how not ...

Could you do a step by step page about the high cal one? I frequently hike 20 to 40 miles and I like to pack high calorie meals since I kinda need them! Not to mention it looks extremely tasty. I usually want each meal I carry with me to have 1200 calories or more. Thanks for the interesting post!

Re: Skinny bento vs. not skinny bento: how to (and how not ...

I'm pretty sure that's the exact bento box I have (^.^)
Great site here :)

Re: Skinny bento vs. not skinny bento: how to (and how not ...

i need more fattening foods though how can i gain weight using bento boxes?

i'm under weight 98 lbs and 5'8" :/

Re: Skinny bento vs. not skinny bento: how to (and how not ...

I'm not a doctor or dietician, but that sounds seriously underweight...maybe it's a good idea to consult a medical professional.

Re: Skinny bento vs. not skinny bento: how to (and how not ...

No idea on how much it is in pounds, but with my 1,52m and 44 kilos, GP and pdoc are quite strict about the not-losing-weight song (pdoc was quite concerned about an eating disorder, but it turned out that I am naturally thin, as I've always been since childhood).
I take Concerta for ADHD and boy, it suppresses appetite !!
I saw a RD at hospital (pdoc darn wanted me to do so) who said that there is nothing to worry about.
Unfortunately, it's genetics. And great deals of stress can make me become very underweight. It all depends on persons, not two react on the same way.

The only mean to put on weight and keep yourself healthy is sleeping well. If you deprive yourself from sleeping, you burn, burn, burn, and you also get sick, catching everything around (from the slightest cold to the pericarditis which makes you stay in bed for a month and a half. Personal experience).

Re: Skinny bento vs. not skinny bento: how to (and how not ...

there's more people with that problem, check out this thread: and keep in mind that you probably won't gain weight with fatty foods if you are underweight. the fat just gets burned up for energy (and messes up your digestive system if you have bad luck). try some extra proteins, combined with a light workout.

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