This is the top page for listing all the bento courses conducted in 2013 on JustBento.
All courses are absolutely free. And if you miss them when they are running 'live' you can just go back to the lessons posted and follow them on your own time.
In 2008, we held a very successful Bento Challenge  here on JustBento, which got a lot of people started with bento making. A lot has happened since then - many more people are aware of the advantages of making bentos a part of their daily lives for one thing. But after reading through all the questions posted to the previous open thread , and elsewhere, I think there is still a fair amount of confusion about what exactly is required to ‘get into bentos’. In addition, many people have gone beyond the basic things and are looking to expand their bento making skills.
Therefore, this year I’ve decided to try something new: a series of somewhat structured Bento Courses, as well as some Basic Cooking courses over on Just Hungry . Here’s how they will work:
I am planning to have at least a couple of beginner courses, as well as more advanced level ones. (It does rather depend on the success of the first couple of courses, which I have already planned out, so we’ll see how it goes!)
So, here’s the first course, which will start in February.
I’d really like to see how much interest there is in this, so if you think you would be interested in participating, let me know in the comments!
The response to the Getting Into The Bento Habit course announcement  has been overwhelming! I’m really glad to see so many people interested in participating. I’m busy getting things ready now.
Reading through the comments, there may be a little bit of misunderstanding about the objectives of this course, so I just wanted to clarify them here.
I did say in the announcement  that I’d have a list of required materials and supplies. It may not be what you thought it would be!
You will need:
And that’s it! You don’t even need a bento box to start with for this course. As I wrote above I am going to assume you have a kitchen at least.
So, he course will start during the week of February 4th (Note: I’ll post the first lesson on the 5th, due to an unexpected technical glitch caused by Google Ads). I’m very excited, and hope you are too.
If you have any questions please leave a comment here.
(A note about the forum here on the site: A couple of people asked if they needed to sign up to the forum (or requested to do so). Unfortunately due to my long absence from blogging actively and so forth due to my illness and lack of updates to the system that runs this site (other than security updates), new user account registrations aren’t really working. So we won’t be using the forum this time — hopefully for future courses we can get it back up and running again. Note that if you already have a JustBento user account you can log in and post to the forum, but since we can’t accept new user accounts we won’t be using it for this course.)
Welcome to the first lesson of Bento 101: Getting Into The Bento Making Habit! As the course name implies, and as I outlined previously , this course is all about incorporating the bento making habit into your daily routine.
A note for latecomers: The ‘live’ version of the course has now concluded. But don’t dismay - you can follow along with it at your own pace, and I’m always happy to answer your questions; just post them in the comments for the corresponding lesson. Start at this page , and follow the posts in sequence.
If you have purchased the Just Bento Cookbook , first of all- thank you so much! ^_^ Second, you can think of this course as a preparation course for diving into the book.
So let’s get started! First, a preamble…
It’s been more than 5 years since I started JustBento. In the past few years the term ‘bento’ has become a lot more popular than it used to be. But there is still a lot of confusion out there about what bentos are supposed to be. As I wrote way back in October 2007 , in Japan there are several types of meals that are called bento. The one thing they have in common is that they are meals packed into a box type container. Beyond that there are quite a lot of differences, but I think you can divide most bentos into two categories: practical everyday bentos, and special occasion/decorative bentos.
90% of this site is dedicated to practical, everyday bentos that contain tasty, healthy, everyday foods, and this course is 100% focused on that. Over the years that I’ve been writing about bentos, I’ve been alternately amused and frustrated that so many people around the world still think that all Japanese bentos look like this:
So we won’t be talking about making bentos that look like that, and neither will we be talking about the type of bentos you may encounter in Japanese restaurants, that look like this:
You can think of these as multi-course meals that just happen to be presented at once in a decorative box. They are not very portable and are made to be eaten immediately in most cases.
What we’re aiming for is something more like this:
…a humble yet tasty bento that still looks colorful and appetizing, is reasonably healthy and is quick and easy to assemble.
An everyday homemade bento lunch should be:
My 10 bento rules  add a few more things, but the 5 above are the most important in my opinion.
I’m guessing that most of the people following this course are not Japanese, and didn’t grow up eating Japanese food. The concept of a bento is Japanese of course, and many Japanese foods are suited to bentos. But as the mix of bento styles listed on this site  demonstrate, bentos don’t have to only contain Japanese food. (I also purposefully divided the bentos in my book into 2 sections, “Japanese bentos” containing mostly traditional Japanese foods, and “Not-so-Japanese bentos” with foods from many other cuisines.) Even the bentos that regular Japanese people living in Japan pack for their lunches don’t all contain Japanese food all the time.
Trying to get into the habit of making banto lunches on a regular basis while learning new recipes using unfamiliar ingredients can be a lot of work. You don’t even have to learn a single Japanese recipe to make tasty bento lunches, as long as you follow the 5 basic rules above - and you get to reap all the benefits of the bento habit anyway! Chances are that you’ll be far more likely to want to pack a lunch full of foods that you know you like rather than something new. And when it comes to packing lunch for your loved ones, especially kids, they’re even more likely to prefer eating foods that they’re familiar with.
Whatever food you want to pack though, they should still be suitable for the purpose. The basic bento lunch is meant to be eaten several hours after it’s prepared, usually cold or at room temperature. So anything you pack should be safe and tasty to eat under those circumstances. This means things like:
…are ok. In addition, certain other foods are fine if you carry them along in an insulated container and/or with an ice pack, such as:
Finally, there’s a group of foods that need to either be kept hot or must be heated up - things like soups and stews. To use these for your bento lunch you either need access to a microwave or specialized, insulated containers that are usually called lunch jars. (See Looking at thermal bento sets and lunch jars .) A bonus is that a lot of soups and stews taste better if they’ve been sitting for a while.
That’s quite a lot of foods you can bring for lunch — far more than a simple sandwich!
There are some foods that you should think seriously about not packing in a bento you intend to eat hours after packing it. These include things like raw and undercooked proteins, as well as very moist and perishable foods. Raw fish sushi is not a good idea unless you’ll be eating it within an hour. (And no, dousing it with wasabi will not kill all the nasty microbes.) Uncooked, moist tofu is also very perishable.
See also Keeping Your Bento Lunch Safe  for more, including tips about extra precautions to take in hot weather.
This leads us to your first assignment. Make a list of all the foods that you like to eat and that are part of your everyday meals, that you think will be great to pack for lunch.
I’ve made a handy form that you can fill out, or you can do this in a notebook or make up a spreadsheet with the same columns. I have labeled it good the next day foods, since cooking planned leftovers at dinnertime is one of the best ways to make packing your lunch as stress-free as possible. Feel free to add other foods that aren’t planned leftovers to the list too. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)
The form is divided into columns by food type - proteins, carbs, vegetables and fruits/treats. (I’ve put fruits and treats in the same column sort of to sneakily encourage you to think of packing fruits as treats, although of course the occasional cookie is all good.) There’s also a column called ‘combo foods’. This is to list things that are a mix of foods, such as a chicken with pasta (protein and carb), or a bean salad (protein, carb and veg).
Try to list at least 3-4 foods for each category, that fit the guidelines for bento-safe foods listed above. Mark the items that need cooling with a C for Cool, and the ones that need to be kept hot or to be reheated with an H for Hot. This helps you to determine what kind of bento box or lunch container is most useful for you - if you find you’re listing a lot of H foods, then you probably want to get a thermal lunch jar, and so on.
For now, don’t go through this site or the book (or other bento sites) to pick up ‘bento-friendly foods’ for your list, unless you’ve already made them several times and they’re part of your regular repertoire.
Also, try not to list any sandwiches. Sandwiches are a great portable lunch of course, but we’re trying to think beyond the sandwich with this exercise, so bear with me.
One more thing: don’t get too hung up on listing compact foods that you think would fit into a typical bento box. The idea is to make the bento box or container fit your food, not your other way around! We’ll be talking about bento boxes and containers that fit your lunch style in future lessons.
(I’ll post my own list later on, so as not to unnecessarily influence your lists to start with.)
For this assignment you don’t need to take any photos. The list you make is just for you, but if you want to share what you put on there, especially some unusual takes, please post them in the comments or on the Facebook page . There’s no firm deadline, but to follow along with the course I would recommend that you make your list sometime this week.
I will be uploading another lesson later this week, so stay tuned!
I’ve seen some discussion in the comments and elsewhere about whether the bento-friendly foods form posted with the first lesson  can be used by vegans or vegetarians. I’m not a vegetarian myself, but I eat like one about 70% of the time, and I certainly think that the form is usable for listing up foods that don’t contain the obvious proteins like meat, eggs and seafood.
For lacto- or lacto-ovo vegetarians it’s pretty straightforward. You’d put things like cheese and other dairy products in the Protein column (and eggs too of course). Vegetable based protein sources that are eaten by both vegans and vegetarians are a little bit more tricky. Many such foods are a combination of protein and carbohydrate, so I’d write them into the form spanning both Protein and Carb columns. Here are some vegetable based protein foods:
If you’re not sure about other beans or grains, look them up on nutrition breakdown charts. Do remember though that the main objective of listing your favorite foods is to just have an idea of what you think would be good to pack for lunch. Don’t get too hung up on the nutritional classifications, just aim for a good balance.
Hi Bento 101 followers! Hopefully you have at least gotten a start on the list of your favorite, bento/packed lunch-friendly foods as described in the first lesson . You may want to keep the list lying around and add to it as inspiration strikes. This approach works pretty well for me, and it’s actually how I think up up the bento-friendly recipes  I add to this site.
Let’s move on to the next topic: what to put your bento lunch in. We will get into more detail about this next week, since many people in my experience get stuck on this point. Some people go out and get a bento box and find it too small, or too big, or just not usable for some reason. Others look at the tiny looking boxes pictured online and think, “no way am I going to be full eating just that”. Then there are people who want to lose or maintain their weights with bento lunches and think that getting a tiny one is the answer. In other words, there’s quite a bit of confusion.
So we’re going to work on that container question. To start with, I want to work on that ‘a bento box is too big/too small’ perception for a bit. Most of us are used to seeing food spread out on a flat plate, but not packed in a box. But a plate is basically two-dimensional (diameter or width x length), with no rules or restrictions as to how high you can pile up the food in the 3rd dimension. This applies even to deeper food containers like bowls, except for liquid foods which will spill out once they go over the rim. Here Roy (played by Richard Dreyfuss) exceeds the expected limits of the third dimension of his dinner plate in the classic sci-fi movie Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
A container like a bento box, on the other hand, has 3 clearly defined dimensions - width, length and height. If you spread out your food in a bento box as you might on a plate leaving lots of air space above, your food is going to shift around in there during transit and look messy by the time you open it up at lunchtime. But if you overstuff the box and can’t close the lid, that’s a problem too.
The ideal way to fill a bento box you’ll be porting around in your backpack or briefcase for a while is to pack it as tightly as possible, as high as possible to the rim while still being closeable, so that the food has little chance to shift around and get messy. This means that for most foods a pretty small looking bento box will actually hold quite a lot of food.
Let me show this to you in pictures. Here is an ordinary dinner plate that I’ve loaded up with a typical McDonald’s spread of Chicken McNuggets, potato wedges and a small salad. Note that I’m not suggesting by any means that this is a healthy meal (the tiny salad doesn’t really improve it much), but I decided to use McDonald’s food for this demonstration since I’m assuming most readers worldwide are familiar with them, and how big a Chicken McNugget is. (Also, after shooting the photos I realized that the potato wedges aren’t sold at all McDonald’s, including in the U.S. Here they are on the McDonald’s France  site if you’re interested - they’re called “Les Deluxe Potatoes” and are just your normal fried potato wedges, coated with some mildly spicy powder. They’re pretty good actually.)
Anyway, so a McNuggets meal on a plate. The plate is around 28 cm / 11 inches in diameter (it’s a square-ish plate). There are 6 McNuggets, a regular portion of potato wedges, the sauces that came with them, and a small salad still in the plastic container it came in. I’ve added a couple of cherry tomatoes for color. I think many people would feel fairly satisfied after eating all of this.
For this demonstration this plastic container, which can contain up to 630 ml of liquid (see how to determine the holding capacity of a bento box (or any other container) ) and measures 12.6 x 5.8 x 18 cm (5” x 2.3” x 7”). It’s a box made by Thermos with a snap-lock lid by the way - plain but practical. Size-wise it would be classified as ‘medium’ in bento box terms.
Even though the box is much smaller than the dinner plate in its width and length, due to its height I could get just about all the food that was spread out on the latter into the box. (I couldn’t get all the salad in there, but it wouldn’t fit without the container’s height on the plate either.)
From the side you can see how this ‘3-dimensional packing’ is done, by lining up the McNuggets soldier-fashion instead of flat. Although you can’t see it here, the mustard sauce packet is stacked under the Creamy Sauce packet.
This leads us to your 2nd assignment. Sometime in the next few days, take a meal - lunch or dinner - that you have arranged on a plate. Pick a meal that has mostly stuff that you might pack for lunch (as per your Assignment 1 list), that isn’t very liquid like soup or stew for this purpose. Take any empty food container you have and measure its capacity by filling it with water and emptying the water into a measuring cup (see how to determine the holding capacity of a bento box  again). Now try packing your mealinto the container, as compactly as possible, using the third dimension or height. If your chosen container was too small, just leave the food that didn’t fit on the plate. If your container was too big though, pack the food compactly anyway to see how much space is left over. (And of course you should eat the meal after you’re done playing with it.)
This exercise should give you a fairly good idea of what size of container you need for your favorite kinds of meals. There are different kinds of meals you can pack for bento of course, but for now the main objective is to get a general idea of what a box can hold as compared to a plate.
If you like (this is not mandatory) take a photo of your packing experiment results and post them to the Facebook page , to the JustBento Twitter account  using the hashtag #bento101, or to the Flickr group . Please add somewhere in your description that the pic is for Assignment no. 2. Or, post a link to where you’ve uploaded it on your blog, Tumblr, Instagram page, etc. in the comments!
So that’s it. I hope you’ll have fun with this assignment, and I’ll see you next week!
Welcome back to the 3rd lesson in Bento 101: Getting Into the Bento Making Habit . If you’ve been following along, by now you should have a list of foods you like to eat that you consider to be packable for lunch , as well as experimented with putting a meal in a box . If you’re just joining us, there’s still plenty of time to catch up!
In Part 2b we’re going to continue thinking about the all important question of the container or containers we want to bring our lunches in. The type of container that is ideal for you depends primarily on the types of foods you want to bring for lunch. This is one of the main reasons why I had you make a list of foods that you’d like to pack for lunch in Assignment 1 . The food you want to pack should dictate the type and size of container you need, not the other way around.
So let’s look at the container types to consider.
Japanese and Japanese-style (since not all boxes of this time are actually made or designed in Japan these days) bento boxes are a marvel of compactness and portability, and are available in a wide variety of designs, colors, materials and price ranges. And let’s face it, they are the most fun to collect. (Take a look at my visit to Hakoya, the largest bento box maker in Japan  for example, to see the care they take in making even mundane plastic boxes.) Japanese style bento boxes are available in sizes ranging from around 250ml capacity (about 1 US cup) to 1000ml for single-person use. Most bento accessories such as silicone cups for dividing up your food inside the box are sized for Japanese bento boxes.
One third to one half of a typical Japanese bento box is packed tightly with rice. Besides the rice there are usually various other foods called okazu that go with the rice, also packed in tightly so that the food doesn’t shift around when the box is in transit.
This is a classic Japanese style bento (how-to here ):
If you like Japanese style bentos anyway, naturally the bento boxes designed to hold them are ideal for you. They’re also well suited for any kind of meal that’s based on some sort of cooked grain or beans, not just rice. Think of couscous, quinoa, barley, lentils, whole wheat berries, a mixed bean salad…the list goes on. The larger sizes are great for pasta salads that use short pasta, as well as potato salad and so on.
Here’s a fairly small bento box filled with quinoa and beans (how-to here ):
Here’s a pasta salad in a larger-size (around 700ml) Japanese-style (but not actually Japanese) box (how-to here ):
Most of my boxes are Japanese bento boxes, since most of the bentos I pack (as well as the ones featured on this site) are based around cooked grains or legumes of some sort.
The bento size guide  is especially useful for this style of box. In most cases you’ll be packing your lunches tightly using the ‘third dimension’ as we covered in the previous lesson , so if you haven’t done that assignment yet I’d encourage you to do so before going shopping for the bento box that’s right for you.
One thing to note about Japanese style bento boxes is that they are designed to be carried upright in your bag, with the lid facing up. There are even ‘slimline’ boxes that can be packed upright in a briefcase. This means that your lunch will not leak out in most cases, especially if you choose a box with a sealing lid. Most modern bento boxes have sealing lids, but a few don’t, such as traditional wooden boxes. These just need to be carried with extra care if you pack something leaky in them. Furoshiki or square cloth wrappers are traditionally used to wrap around such bento boxes tightly. (If you’re crafty, take a look here  for long time JustBento friend Bronwyn Carlisle’s instructions for making your own furoshiki.) An American box like the LunchBots line  which have non-sealing lids can also be used like this with leaky foods. There are also dedicated bento box bags, some of which are insulated.
Thermal containers are great if you like the idea of a hot stew or soup for lunch, and don’t have access to a microwave at lunchtime. I took an in-depth look at themal containers here .
Personally I am not the biggest fan of the large, bulky thermal lunch jars like Mr. Bento, just because they’re rather heavy and bulky. I prefer to use small thermal lunch jars for the hot/liquid stuff, paired with a regular bento box for the other things. But The Guy (aka my husband) loves his Mr. Bento, and I know that the all-in-one solution has a lot of fans.
This is a meatball stew bento that The Guy made using a thermal lunch jar set. (how-to here ).
By “fluffy food”, I mean food that needs quite a lot of space and air around them, that would suffer if pressed into a compact container - in other words, things like salads and sandwiches. There are two approaches to this type of lunch packing situation: to choose large, roomy containers, or to use multiple containers.
For sandwiches, I often make a ‘deconstructed’ version, where the bread is packed separately from the fillings and are assembled just before eating, like the deconstructed bahn mi bento , where I’ve used a regular Japanese style bento box to pack the fillings plus extra salad:
For this even simpler deconstructed sandwich  I also used a regular Japanese-style box for the fixings:
Here’s another deconstructed sandwich , where I used a bento box that is way too small (at around 350ml capacity) for a regular bento, but works great to hold the fillings for a sandwich plus fruit
If you’d rather bring an assembled sandwich though, there are plenty of sandwich containers out there, from the plain plastic bag plus brown bag combination on up.
If you like eating leafy salads and the like you will need a larger container, and the sizing guidelines listed above won’t really apply to you. While there are dedicated ‘lunch containers’ for this purpose, you’ll find the a much bigger choice by looking at regular food containers. The larger, deeper size of Ikea 365 container for instance is not too bulky, but is deep enough to hold a good amount of salad - and you can use the smaller capacity models in the same line  as side boxes.
You could also pack a salad lunch in multiple smaller boxes as Idid here - the leafy greens in one box, a potato salad in the smaller box.
There’s another category of lunch container that I haven’t discussed too much on these pages, and that’s the large, multi-compartment type of carrier, such as the Goodbyn Lunchbox  or the PlanetBox . The advantage to these containers is that initially they seem easy to use since the compartments are so well defined. I am not sure if any were inspired by the muffin tin lunch  movement, but I wouldn’t be surprised since the concept is similar.
The drawbacks that all of these containers share is that they are quite large and bulky, and can only logically be carried vertically unless you have a shopping bag or something with a very big bottom. If you have food a very ‘wet’ food with sauce or something in there, if you carry it vertically there are good chances it’s going to leak, no matter how leakproof the manufacturers claim their carriers are. They usually try to prevent leaking by fitting these containers with tightly fitting lids that may or may not be hinged, but it’s hard to fight against the laws of gravity. Most Japanese style bento boxes are designed to be carried upright with the lid facing up, so they are much less likely to leak.
Therefore, in my opinion the large, flat lunch carrier is most suited for people who do not pack ‘leaky’ foods. If your lunch style is some cut up fruit and vegetables with hummus or cheese cubes and some nuts and raisons and so on - which is the kind of lunch that tends to be featured in the marketing materials for these containers - then they are great.
(Note: I’m not sure what to make of the current form factor of the Laptop Lunches  line, which I now notice are being marketed as ‘bento boxes’. I seem to recall they used to be bigger in height and width, but now it looks like theyv’e made them smaller h x w wise and deeper. The current stated size is 9” x 7”, which could be carried upright at the bottom of a roomy backpack. Any Laptop Lunch owners out there that want to comment?)
This chart of bento box/container materials  shows you the pros and cons of each type. For instance, glass is great if you are looking for something that is plastic-free (although the lids are usually some sort of plastic) and dishwasher and microwave save, but does have the considerable disadvantage of being breakable, as well as heavy. Stainless steel is dishwasher safe and plastic-free, but can’t go in the microwave. Wood or lacquerware should only be used if you’re willing to commit to their high maintenance. And so on. (If you’re concerned about BPA, see this article  also.)
When you are selecting the right type and size of container for your style of eating, you may be tempted to use containers not meant for food use. I wouldn’t recommend doing this at all, since you don’t know what is in the plastics used, not to mention any coatings or paints.
So, this leads us to this weeks assignment:
If you get a bento box or lunch container, please do share a pic of it if you would like on the Facebook page , to the JustBento Twitter account  using the hashtag #bento101, or to the Flickr group . For this assignment you can also consider the JustBento Bento Gear Flickr Group , both for posting your pics and for inspiration from other bento lovers. Please add somewhere in your description that the pic is for Assignment no. 2b. Or, post a link to where you’ve uploaded it on your blog, Tumblr, Instagram page, etc. in the comments!
By now, you should have worked on your list of packable foods that you like , tried putting a meal on a plate into a box  to see how big a bento box you’ll need, and chosen a bento box or container that’s right for you  - or at least given it some thought.
I’ve really been enjoying looking at your posted photos! Everyone should take a look at other people’s photos to get ideas and inspiration - it’s very instructive.
We will be wrapping up Bento 101 next week. And in case you missed the announcement over on Just Hungry, right after Bento 101 is concluded I’m going to be starting Japanese Cooking 101: The Fundamentals of Washoku  over there. I hope those of you who are interested in Japanese cooking as well as bento making will join that course too! Please do be aware that while Bento 101 was more about general methods and tips rather than cooking, Japanese Cooking 101 will be all about cooking.
At some later date I plan to run a similar course for making some very traditional Japanese bentos, so if you think you might be interested in that subject Japanese Cooking 101 will be a very good foundation course to take.
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 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Sandwich lovers may want to take a look again at the deconstructed sandwich ideas I listed in the previous lesson.
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:
I look forward to seeing your results!
Welcome to Part 4 (which is actually the 5th lesson) of Bento 101! If you have been following along on schedule, by now you should have packed a bento and brought it along to work or school . How was the experience for you? Was it too much work or doable? Did you run into any problems during transit (such as your box leaking) or during lunch (such as your co-workers trying to steal your lunch or making comments)? Above all, is it something you see yourself doing regularly? If the answer to the last question is yes, then you’re well on your way to becoming a bento convert.
The theme of this lesson is about something that will enhance your bentos in many ways…
A bento or meal stash (or johbisai/jobisai in Japanese) is a collection of premade foods that are stashed away in your freezer, pantry and refrigerator. Having a bento stash is the best way to make packing a bento easier and faster, and to make your bentos more varied. And it’s your ultimate backup for when you’re too busy or tired to cook.
I’m often asked how I manage to pack a bento in 5-10 minutes. Are those estimates unreasonable? I don’t think so. It’s not like I’m a super-fast cook or anything like that - it’s just a matter of being prepared.
Let’s look at some of my 5-10 minute-assembly  bentos to see how it’s done with help of the Stash.
This is a fairly standard bento with rice and mini chicken burgers. If I assembled everything from scratch, it would easily take me 30, 40 minutes or more.
Instead, I assembled it in less than 10 minutes . The main protein component is mini chicken burgers , which I had made in some quantity. We had some of the chicken burgers (formed into a bigger size than for bentos) for dinner one night, then I’d stored the rest, formed into mini-burgers, in the freezer. I defrosted them as described in the recipe in a frying pan and added a simple glaze with ketchup and Worcestershire sauce. The other made-ahead component is what I call cooked to death peppers . This keeps for a few days in the refrigerator, so I just make a batch (especially when peppers are on sale) and store them in an airtight container. Even the rice is premade and frozen in portions , although I did jazz it up a bit and make it into carrot rice in the microwave . The greenery came from my container herb garden.
Speaking of the chicken burgers though, I actually made two recipes at once and stashed some of both. The other bento that I made from that ground chicken batch was this:
This bento  is even simpler than the previous one. Basically I used the dumplings from my freezer stash, cooked green beans from the night before, and more rice from the freezer stash, this time decorated with a bit of furikake (rice sprinkles).
Speaking of furikake: if you like rice-based bentos, furikake is a great staple to have around. You can buy furikake at any Japanese grocery store, or make your own - I have a lot of recipes for homemade furikake  on the site. (I’ve included a moister kind of ‘thing to sprinkle on rice’ that’s usually called soboro in that category too, since you can use them in similar ways.)
An example of a very easy bento made with pre-made and stashed furikake is this one, from the Guy Does Bento series:
We make salted salmon  and salmon furikake  at least once a week. Once the salted salmon is done we store it in the freezer, but the furikake lasts for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator if well covered, and we usually manage to use it all up in that time. So this bento  is just a matter of mixing up the sushi rice, cutting up some vegetables and piling on the furikake.
The Power Of The Stash does not just apply to Japanese style bentos of course.
This bento  features two very ‘stashable’ items: chili and muffins. Muffins are my other favorite thing to stash, besides furikake: if you make them in the mini-size, you can just grab them out of the freezer and they’ll be defrosted and edible by lunchtime - or, you can warm them up a bit if you have access to a microwave. I have several packable muffin recipes , even a low carb, gluten-free one ; most are savory or go well with savory foods, although my sweet (but not too sweet) Earl Grey Tea muffins  may be the most popular.
I have a ton of recipes on this site for ‘stashable’ food, especially in the johbisai  category for you to try. Besides that though, think of the foods you like (referring back to the first assignment ) that can be kept for some time.
This is Assignment no. 5.
You can go with all-cooked, all-storebought items or a mix.
An example of a storebought set of stash items: frozen veggie burgers like Boca burgers (freezer), Mini Babybel chees (fridge), almonds (pantry).
If you’re sharing your lessons, please report back in the comments or on Facebook with your stash items!
(A note for people who wil be participating in the Japanese Cooking 101  course on JustHungry: there will be a one week overlap, but the this one is your last formal assignment for Bento 101. Ther last lesson will be a summary and wrapup, so no worries about too much homework. ^_^)
Welcome to the last lesson of Bento 101: Getting Into The Bento Habit.
(Here’s Academic Onigiri-man, back for an encore.)
During the last 4+ weeks we’ve:
In Part 5, I’ll talk about some ways to keep yourself motivated to make bentos on a regular basis.
We live in a world of abundance and convenience. But paradoxically, eating out all the time and maintaining your health can be as difficult as ever. Maybe you’re lucky enough to have a place to eat near your work or school that makes great tasting, inexpensive lunches that only use fresh ingredients, lots of vegetables, only healthy oils and so on - and can deal with people with food sensitivities or allergies with no problem. Most of us aren’t so lucky. In a lot of cases lunch is a hasty, greasy meal eaten on the run.
Spending a few minutes out of your day to pack yourself a healthy bento, that contains foods that you like, is a great way to take control of your health, especially if you have a specific goal in mind like losing weight, eating more vegetables, dealing with food allergies, and more. This applies if you are making bentos for your kids or other loved ones too.
I have a confession to make. The last time I had a corporate job I was working 80+ hours a week, and I’m ashamed to say I ate almost all my meals out. I usually had a muffin and coffee or a bagel and coffee for breakfast, a sandwich or Chinese takeout for lunch (unless I went to a restaurant for a meeting or something); and because I was so tired at the end of the day I’d order a pizza or sushi or something for dinner, or go to the pub around the corner (mmm…shepherd’s pie and Guinness). After a few years of this, one day I realized I just didn’t have any money in the bank, even though I was making a pretty decent salary. It wasn’t as if I was using my money for fun either (I went out maybe once a week, at most; most weekends I was just too tired to do anything but catch up on my sleep.) Where was my money going, aside from impulse purchases of books and things? Why, for all that takeout and bought food - half of which I didn’t even enjoy. Plus it was making me fatter and fatter too.
So…at this point you might think I drastically changed my eating habits. That didn’t quite happen actually ^_^; but I did make an effort to make at least one meal a day at home. I started with dinner, reviving my dormant passion for cooking, especially the food of my homeland- which indirectly, after a while, led to the start of my first food blog . Then I also started making my own lunch, for at least 1-2 days a week. It was usually something very simple like a sandwich, but I did occasionally make a bento too, using leftovers from dinner and so on. (In those days with my work schedule I couldn’t really do much more than that.) And the difference it made to my finances was amazing.
One mind trick I used to play with myself was to put the money I would have spent on my favorite Chinese takeout lunch combo, or my favorite sandwich from the deli around the corner, usually around $5-8, vs. what I spent on a homemade bento, usualy $0-$2 at most on top of whatever I spent on dinner. I’d put whatever I would have spent on lunch into a jar. It was so fun to see the coins and small bills add up. (Although to be honest I didn’t just let it accumulate as I should have - I dipped into it a lot when I needed change or cash!)
If you have a really busy life, it can seem almost impossible to think about packing your own lunch. Just try it though, even if it’s just once a week. Even once every 2 weeks. Maybe try the coin-jar trick to see how much you save, or just do it on paper and keep track of your ‘would have spent on eating out’ money.
A while back, I asked regular readers of this site why they make bentos. You can read their terrific responses here: Reasons why bento veterans make bentos . Maybe one of their stories will resonate with you.
Besides things like setting aside part of dinner and building up a stash, here are some more ideas for keeping up a bento making habit:
If your spouse or significant other and you both need bentos, one way to keep it going is to take turns making bentos. If you both cook anyway, it can be a whole lot of fun. We do this in our home; it started more or less during my illness, but we’ve kept it up now that I’m doing a lot better. (See The Guy Does Bento  series for some of The Guy’s favorites.)
Cooking with kids is fun, but I realize it doesn’t always save time. But if your kids are old enough or responsible enough, have them contribute to, or even make, their lunches. This can be something as simple as making their own PB & J sandwich, or putting out the packing supplies for their lunch the night before. If you trust them with knives and cutters, what about having them prep the vegetables (my nephew used to love peeling carrots - he could peel them for hours), cutting up cheese, or if they’re creative, even make an apple bunny ? My sister tells me that my 11 year old niece Lena has discovered the joys of cooking, and is making cute onigiri (rice balls)  for herself when she has a school outing.
You may be all gung-ho and full of enthusiasm for making perfectly arranged bentos for yourself all the time. But I can tell you, it’s not easy to keep it going every time. This is why I occasionally like to have a ‘one-dish’ type bento, such as the chana dal  (just needs to be packed in a lunch jar) or non-bento bento like putting some cold cuts and salad greens in a box .
Trying out new recipes is fun, but time consuming. I have a couple of bento combinations that we both like, and which I can almost make blindfolded; they appear in the rotation the most by far. (I featured 3 of my heavy-rotation bentos in the Redbook feature  - can you guess which ones?)
This last tip rather goes against the “bentos help you save money” statement, and you do need to keep it under control. But I find that one of the best ways to get out of a bento rut is to get a new, cute or intriguing bento box. For instance, when I encountered the triangular Light My Fire  lunchbox, I had so much fun figuring out bento combos that would take advantage of its unique shape, like this one .
As you may have noticed, I’m all for practical, healthy and fast over cute and decorative when it comes to bentos. But once in a great while it can be fun to sit down and make a decorative ‘character bento’ or charaben. I had a lot of fun making the tiger faces on these corn muffins for example (described here ):
Making molded boiled eggs  is really time consuming so I rarely do it, but again - once in a while it’s kind of fun - and believe me, adults love them as well as kids:
We didn’t get into all the aspects of making bentos, but it’s already right here on the site. Take a look at the Bento Basics listing in the left sidebar of the page.
For safety tips (which we addressed briefly) see: Keeping your bento lunch safe , which is the definitive article on JustBento about the subject.
So..that does it for Bento 101! I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and learned a little along the way. I’ll also have a roundup of the bentos and other assignment related photos people have posted during the course in a few days.
If you missed the course, don’t dismay: you can follow along with it at your own pace, and I’m always happy to answer your questions; just post them in the comments for the corresponding lesson. Start at this page , and follow the posts in sequence.