Bento (written 弁当), or obento (お弁当) to use the honorific term, is the Japanese word for a meal served in a box. Beyond that basic definition though, just about anything goes as to what kind of box or container is used, as well as what is put inside that box,.
(See also: Types of homemade bento .)
There are several different kinds of bento, with different purposes. Makunouchi bento are elaborate bento meals presented at formal meals, meant to be eaten at table. This is the type you will see served in restaurants, arranged in elegant lacquered boxes. Kouraku bento are picnic bento, to be shared by a group of people enjoying themselves outdoors - the most popular settings is while enjoying the cherry blossoms in spring ((o)hahanami). Ekiben (a shortened form of eki bento) are boxed meals sold at train stations for travellers (though nowadays you can buy ekiben at many other places, such as department store food halls or convenience stores).
The kind of bento that have garnered the most attention recently, especially outside of Japan are what are called kyaraben or charaben, ‘cute bento’ ‘art bento’ or ‘entertaining bento’ (entertain-bento), extremely elaborately decorated small works of art, as exemplified by the work presented on sites like e-obento  (Japanese). These are usually made by mothers for their small children. There can be a high level of competitiveness in this arena - there are tons of contests and such that feature these bentos.
Finally, there’s the plain simple bento that most people bring to work or school for lunch. It’s important to note that most Japanese people do not spend their time making elaborate charaben or ‘cute bento’ - that’s more in the realm of a hobby and craft rather than practical everyday living. The type of bento that JustBento concentrates on for the most part are practical, tasty, healthy everyday bento lunches.
As with a lot of things, my first inspiration for making bento lunches is my mother. Even with three kids and a full time job, my mother always managed to make delicious lunches for us to bring to school. They weren’t always the very prettiest, but they were tasty, filling and healthy. I also take inspiration from other members of my family - my sisters and aunts and my late grandmothers. Finally, I also refer to a number of Japanese bento books.
Here is the basic bento philosophy that’s behind the bento examples presented on this site.
Please also keep in mind that most of my bento are made with adult eaters in mind, rather than kids. They can be adapted for kids of course by perhaps reducing the quantities, or just used as-is for teenagers.
Since one of my main objectives is to make my bentos healthy, many are totally vegetarian or vegan, while all rely heavily on vegetable products. Meat is not used often as a main ingredient. However, some dishes do use non-vegetarian flavoring or texturizing ingredients, such as oyster sauce, fish sauce, dried bonito flakes or dried shrimp, and eggs. I’ve indicated when an obento is 100% vegetarian/vegan or not. Many bentos that are not vegetarian can be adapted to become so if needed. (I also use things like a little bit of sugar, tomato ketchup and so on as flavoring on occasion.)
Rice is the base for Japanese style bentos, and I have chosen to use brown rice (genmai) in most cases, since it’s nutritionally superior to white rice. White can be used instead. About half of the bentos presented here have Japanese flavors, but there are also plenty of not-Japanese bentos.
The traditional Japanese bento ratio of rice or carb (shushoku), protein and other (usually vegetables) components is 4:2:1, or 4 parts rice to 2 parts protein to 1 part other ingredients. The recommended ratio, advocated by various nutritionists, for people trying to lose weight or eat healthily is 3:2:1. I aim more for a 1:1 ratio in terms of volume between rice and protein, with the rest taken up by lots of vegetables. In other words I try to have a bit less rice or other carb, and a lot more veggies. There is usually 3/4 to 1 cup of rice, which is about 160 to 220 calories, in each ~600 calorie bento box.
Below are links to more pages in the Bento Basics handbook.
To round out Back To School Week, here are my top 10 rules for bento making. They are the rules or philosophies that guide all the content that you see on JustBento. They’ve evolved quite a bit over the years, but they are what I’m happy with at the moment. A version of these rules appear at the top of The Just Bento Cookbook  too. They’re the rules I try to live by in my daily bento life.
Sometimes I stray away from them when my life goes haywire - like trying to renovate an old house in a foreign country, and then getting infected by an insect bite which turns into a zombie bite …well you know, things happen. But I when I can return to these rules, I know that life is nice and normal again.
I make sure to include protein and carbohydrates in every bento box. I always add vegetables. Besides being nutritious, they are so colorful! In my bentos vegetables are not an afterthought—they take a starring role alongside the other main ingredients. I sometimes add fruit as a dessert, though occasionally I treat myself to a small brownie or something.
I sometimes see bento boxes online that are not quite balanced. One I saw recently (I’m not going to link to it, since it’s not my objective to embarass anyone) had a little bit of chicken and assorted M & Ms, plus one half of the box was filled with Cheese Whiz. Another one had a whole compartment of candy, some Pocky sticks, and a sandwich. Is that a bento, or a just box of snacks? Some commercially available lunch sets (cough Lunchables cough) may look rather like that, but that doesn’t mean you have to follow their example.
I realize that it’s sometimes difficult to pack lunch for picky kids. This is where cute charaben bentos come in - they were originally devised as a means for Japanese moms to get their picky kids to eat healthy food. Why not try some vegetables cut into flowers, or a healthy sandwich with a smiley face, and see how your kids react? Another idea that I talked about previously is to just use stickers .
I don’t have the time to spend making multiple items for my bentos, unless it’s for a party or something. I stick to a maximum of four or five different items per box for everyday bentos; many of my bentos contain three items or less.
Any bento I make has to taste so good that I’m drooling in anticipation of opening my box at lunchtime. (Sometimes I can’t resist and have lunch early.) I never pack something just because it’s supposed to be healthy. I also make sure that the food I put in tastes good even when cold or at room temperature. Sometimes I carry along an ice pack, but they do add extra weight, so most of my bentos are meant to be eaten at room temperature.
We eat with our eyes as well as our mouths and stomachs. A bento box should look colorful and appetizing. I keep elaborate, time-consuming bento decoration attempts for special occasions.
I have a general rule of keeping bento decorating time — the time needed for the addition of things like cutely cut vegetables or decorated rice balls — to a maximum of ten minutes per bento for everyday bentos. Usually it takes me no more than five minutes to add a fun, decorative element.
I think that it would be helpful if bento bloggers who post elaborate charaben photos could include the time it took them to make their amazing creations on occasion. I’m pretty sure it takes them longer than the 20 to 30 minutes maximum I allow myself in the mornings (it rarely goes over 20 minutes for one bento, or 25 for two.) I am not an experienced charaben maker by any means, but I’m a pretty experienced bento maker and cook, and for me whenever I try to make a very decorative bento it takes me ages. There’s a joy in creating something beautiful, even if it’s going to be eaten up in a few hours, but to my mind charabens are more akin to crafts rather than everyday cooking, sort of like creating colorfully decorated cupcakes.
Also keep in mind that a well-balanced, colorful bento can be beautiful on its own without any additional frills.
I try to make use of seasonal produce as much as possible. I also try to stay away from pre-made, processed foods. Most of my bentos are made with fresh, natural ingredients - organic and untreated fruits and vegetables, ethically raised meat and poultry, and so on. When I do use processed foods such as canned beans or processed meats, I try to stick to ones that have a minimum of additives.
When packing food that may have to sit at room temperature for some time before being eaten, it’s crucial to follow proper, safe, bento-packing practices. Try to handle the food with your bare hands as little as possible - use chopsticks and other utensils to arrange your food, or consider using those disposable gloves that commercial food preparers use. Don’t lick your fingers while you’re arranging your cute little bento-scapes! In warm weather or for food that might spoil easily, be sure to use an ice pack.
The biggest time waster in the morning is peering through the refrigerator and the cupboards, wondering what to make! I try to spend a few minutes every week planning out my bentos. I may not stick to the plan all the time, but it’s so helpful to have some idea of what to pack beforehand. My Weekly Bento Planner  and Weekly Meal Planner  forms may help.
Staples are items that have been fully or half-cooked in advance and that can be packed into a bento box with little or no additional cooking. I try to keep at least a few such items stocked in my freezer, refrigerator, or pantry. Most of my bento staples are homemade—I usually make them when I’m cooking dinner, or when I have some time on the weekends. I have a stock of store bought staples too. See Johbisai: Building Up a Bento Stash .
Bringing a bento from home saves a lot of money over buying lunch from a fast food place or eating out. It’s also a great way of using up leftovers which otherwise might go to waste. To help me save even more money, I try to stick to economical cuts of meat and fish, and vegetables that are in season. See also: Bento making: Variety and saving money .
I love Japanese cuisine above all other cuisines—after all I am Japanese! I don’t try to replicate Japanese bentos that are made in Japan to the letter, however. While the increasing popularity of Japanese food worldwide has meant that staple ingredients such as soy sauce and miso are getting much easier - and economical - to buy, many fresh ingredients that are taken for granted in Japan are hard or impossible to get outside of regions with large Japanese expatriate or immigrant populations. And if you can get hold of them, they may be too expensive for the average household budget.
For my everyday bentos, I alternate traditional, authentic tasting Japanese-style bentos that have been adapted to use ingredients that are widely available, with bentos that combine various non-Japanese dishes and flavors. That’s exactly what I feature on this site.
These rules are more personal rules of mine. They may or may not apply to you.
I believe a homemade bento lunch is appealing because it is a healthy, attractive, and delicious meal, made with care and attention, that is compact enough to carry easily to work or school. These are the factors that make a bento a bento . A bento doesn’t have to be a work of art using only Japanese recipes, nor should it be simply a thrown-together meal in a plastic container. This is the philosophy that underpins all the recipes, tips and ideas on this site, as well as in my book.
Feel free to chime in with your rules, or tell me if you disagree with anything!
This is Tip no. 3 of Back To School Week . I hope you’ve enjoyed them and found them useful!
There seems to be a common misconception that one needs to go out and purchase a purpose-made lunch box or a bento box from Japan, in order to start making bento box lunches at all. While I do like cute bento goods and boxes, they are certainly not required, or even needed. I think for most people, they would like bento making should be a daily habit, not a time consuming hobby.
Actually any container that meet the following requirements will work work fine. You may already have a suitable container in your kitchen. You could be bringing lunch to work tomorrow!
The container should be as leakproof as possible.
This is quite important since you don’t want the inside of your carrier bag, whatever it is, to get stained by leaking liquids. Many bento boxes from Japan have leak-resistant rubber seals. For any container you use, do a leak-test by filling it with water and shaking it around a bit. If any moisture leaks out easily, you probably want to try another box. (There are ways of adding leak protection to your box, such as putting it in a waterproof bag or securing it with a wide * rubber band, as well as making the food itself not so leaky.)
The container should be easy to wash and take care of.
This may sound like a no-brainer, but you should consider this especially if you want to use a bento box ordered from Japan. Most Japanese bento boxes are not dishwasher safe, so if you think you won’t remember to (or don’t want to) handwash your bento box, you will want to make sure you get a dishwasher safe container.
The container should be microwave safe if you intend to nuke it.
If you work in office and have access to a microwave oven, you may want to heat up your lunch in it. Most Japanese bento boxes are not microwave safe, since the typical Japanese bento is meant to be eaten at room temperature. So be sure your container is nuke-ready if you want to heat it up.
The container should be the right size for your dietary needs. This is especially important if you are watching your calories to any extent. Generally speaking, for a tightly packed Japanese-style bento, the number of milliliters (ml) that a box can hold corresponds roughly to the number of calories it holds. This is why so many Japanese bento boxes, in particular the cute ones with anime characters and things on them, are tiny - they’re meant to be used by kids and young girls on perpetual diets.
To determine the capacity of your intended box: Fill it to the top with water, then pour off the water into a measuring cup that can measure in milliliters.
Some people don’t like the individual items in their bento boxes to be rubbing against each other. If that sounds like you, then you will need a compartmentalized lunch box, such as the ones offered by Laptop Lunches . Personally I would rather have the compactness of a non-compartmentalized box, supplemented when needed with a separate container for something like fruit.
Insulated bento containers such as the Mr. Bento  keep your food hot (or cold). Again, this is a personal preference but I am not a big fan of these. For one thing they are bulky and a bit of a bother to take care of. For another, the fact that the food is kept hot for several hours means that it’s being held in steam table like conditions, rather like at a buffet. This means that while some foods like stews will taste great, others may not. They are nice to have for a chance of pace though. The capacity of the Mr. Bento is quite big, which can be a concern if you’re trying to watch calories.
(Note: my collection of bento boxes has grown considerably since I wrote this originally back in 2007, and I have new favorites now. One of these days I’ll get around to photographing them perhaps. In any case, the general principles written here still apply.)
I have several bento boxes in my stash, from one shaped like Hello Kitty’s head to a beautiful lacquered box which I keep for special dinners at home. But I mainly use these practical containers for everyday lunch.
The box I use most of the time is not a bento box at all - it’s a plastic lunch box I got from the supermarket. (For Swiss residents, it’s available at Migros.) It has an attached flip-top lid that is fairly leak resistant, and came with a detachable bottom section that holds a cold pack. I rarely use this bottom section but it’s nice to have. It’s dishwasher and microwave safe, though I hand wash it most of the time. The plain white plastic body is very easy to keep clean and stain-free, which is a big plus. Finally, the capacity is about 600 ml, so it’s great for my goal of keeping my lunch calories at or under 600. It’s also rather comforting to know that if it gets damaged or something, I can easily replace it.
Sometimes I use this two-section bento box from Japan, a type that is widely available from bento box sellers such as Jlist . The main advantage of this box is that you can keep ingredients totally separate, so it’s good if you have a very strong flavored item that you want to keep apart from other things. The inner rubberized lid is quite tight fitting, reducing the risk of leakage. It’s also taller rather than wider, so it fits well in a bag. The empty containers can be stored nested within each other compactly.
The main disadvantage of this type of box is that it’s not not microwave or dishwasher safe. I also find the multiple parts a bit of a bother to wash up compared to my main white plastic box. (Yes I’m a bit lazy.)
This is the main ‘man-size’ bento box that I use to make Max’s bentos. It’s a plastic storage container from the Ikea 365+ line. It has a microwave vent in the lid which makes it great for bentos that taste better warm, though the vent does have a tendency to leak a bit if the box is carried upside down or something. The capacity is about 900 ml.
The other one I use is a sleek black bento box from Japan that’s officially designated as being ‘man-size’. It comes with an integrated chopstick container in the lid, and a divider to separate rice from other ingredients inside. The capacity is around 850 ml. As you can see it’s quite understated, though it has a head-scratching Engrish phrase on it (“impressive. My heart cannot stop throbbing. My dream that has begun to move.”).
I hope this gives you some ideas as to what kind of bento box to use!
In this section, I've grouped all of my reviews and 'spotlight' features of bento boxes and related supplies. A review is a hands-on review, while a 'spotlight' is just talking about a box or piece of equipment I haven't tested out yet but has caught my eye. There are also some information pages.
(Note, this section is a work in progress.)
You’ve browsed the bento blogs and flickr bento groups, and while you know that any appropriate box can be used for bentos , you’re hankering after a ‘real’ bento box. But bento boxes aren’t that cheap, especially if you’re ordering by mail. How do you know you’re getting a box that’s the right size for you?
You may have read what bento box sizes are considered appropriate for kids, women, men and so on. But that’s advice given for traditional-style Japanese bento meals, where about half of the capacity or more is taken up by tightly packed rice. If you’ll only be toting Japanese style lunches those recommendations are fine, but if you plan to mix it up with salad bentos, sandwich bentos and more, then the box-capacity recommendations may not apply to you.
So how can you really tell, before you spend the money for a bento box, if it’s the right size for your specific needs?
Most bento supply sellers these days will list the capacity of a bento box in ml (mililiters) or the dimensions in centimeters or inches. If the capacity is listed, note that down. If only the dimensions are listed, use a handy calculator such as the one here  to figure out what those dimensions translate to, and note that number down.
If you already have a bento box, it’s easy to figure out if a potential purchase is right for you. If the box you own is just right, aim for one of a similar size. If not, then go for a larger or smaller one. If you’ve forgotten what the capacity of your existing box is, just fill it up with water, and empty out that water into a measuring cup that has milliliter marks on it (most standard measuring cups have these now, even ones in the U.S.) Some bento boxes have the capacity embossed on the bottom of the box.
If you don’t own a ‘real’ bento box yet, but you are using an alternative box for bento-ing, it’s just as easy to figure out if a new box will be right. Just measure the capacity of your existing container as detailed above, and compare that to that cute box you’re eyeing.
If you haven’t embarked on your bento adventures yet, there’s still a way to figure out if a box will be the right size. The biggest concern I see voiced amongst people who have yet to try bentos is that a box will be too small. To see if that is the case, try the following:
I hope these steps will help you to find the perfect box for your needs!
This is Tip no. 1 of Back To School Week . Stay tuned for more!
Are you confused about what material is most appropriate for bento boxes? Plastic is easy available, or maybe you want something greener - but is the extra cost worth it? Here’s a handy comparison chart to help you make the right choices.
This table lists all the materials that are commonly used to make bento boxes, lunch boxes and other containers that are repurposed for carrying bentos. As you can see, there are pros and cons to each type. Take a look and see which criteria matter to you the most. Keep in mind that, whatever type of box you choose, the fact that it’s reusable is a plus for the environment, not to mention your wallet.
|Material||Pros||Cons||Examples and notes|
|Aluminum||Very lightweight, plastic-free (if no seal), lasts a long time. Usually dishwasher safe (check instructions).||Not microwave safe. Can dent easily, though that doesn’t affect functionality. Uncoated aluminum boxes may get corroded by acidic foods. Questions about possibly harmful effects of aluminum. Not leakproof unless they have silicone/plastic seals around the lids.||SIGG Midi box  - coated aluminum|
|Bamboo||Lightweight, durable. Sustainable material.||Not microwave or dishwasher safe. Needs handling with some care. May stain. Well made bamboo boxes and baskets are expensive to very expensive.||Bamboo is most often used for basket-type boxes (used to carry onigiri rice balls and sandwiches, though they can be used with inner containers for other foods); solid bamboo boxes are available too (and very expensive). Dried and fresh bamboo leaves (called sasa no ha) are used as disposable food wrappers and dividers. More here .|
|Glass and ceramic||Not plastic (though usually a plastic lid is included), microwave-safe, dishwasher safe, fairly inexpensive||Heavy, breakable||Pyrex glass containers with plastic lids.|
|Melamine||A type of resin that is used for kitchenware. Colorful, attractive, feels solid.||Heavy. Can be expensive. Not microwave or oven safe.||Vivo Kids Bento Box |
|Paper (coated)||Not used for bento boxes, but used for bento cups and dividers. Lightweight, disposable, fairly waterproof. Comes in many cute designs.||Not microwave, oven or dishwasher safe. Not reusable (you may get 1-2 more uses out of a paper cup). Expensive when you consider the per-use cost.||Paper bento cup |
|Plastic and styrene - disposable||Very cheap to free, lightweight.||Disposable plastic and styrene boxes (such as takeout bento boxes) are okay for a single use, but it’s not recommended to re-use them. They may leech or corrode. Clear plastics may contain BPA. See What are Japanese (and other) plastic bento boxes made of .||Don’t reuse disposable bento boxes and takeout boxes unless you are really desperate.|
|Plastic - reusable||Practical, economical, lightweight. Prices range from cheap to expensive, depending on design, quality, etc. A huge range of designs and sizes to choose from.||Some people are concerned about the safety of certain plastics. May stain. Not all plastic bento boxes are microwave or dishwasher safe.||Reputatuble bento makers always include information on what plastics are used, and whether the box is microwave safe or not. See What are Japanese (and other) plastic bento boxes made of .|
|Silicone||Not used for bento boxes but frequently used for bento cups and dividers. Lightweight, durable. Microwave, dishwasher and oven safe. Comes in many colors and shapes.||If you are against using plastic, you may also object to silicone. Can get a bit sticky and oily after several uses in the oven or microwave (try washing in very hot soapy water).||Silicone cupcake/muffin tin liners|
|Stainless steel with seal||Durable, usually well made, usually dishwashwer safe (check instructions). Thick stainless steel boxes can be heated up on a hot plate (handle with care!)||Not microwave safe. Heavier than plastic. Retains fingerprints on the surface (use soft cloth to buff off). Not totally plastic/silicone free because of sealing elements. More expensive than most plastic boxes.||Zen 01 stainless steel bento box , tiffin boxes. Also see stainless steel bento boxes .|
|Stainless steel with no seal||Durable, plastic free, usually dishwasher safe (check instructions)||Not microwave safe. Rather heavy. Retains fingerprints on the surface (use soft cloth to buff off). May not be suitable for food that might leak because of the lack of sealing elements on/around lid. More expensive than most plastic boxes.||LunchBots , Planetbox , New Wave Enviro |
|Stainless steel and other metals used for bento accessories||Durable, plastic free, usually dishwasher safe (check instructions)||Cheap metal cutters may discolor or get bent over time.||Bento and cookie cutters used to cut out decorative shapes are usually made of stainless steel; some cheap ones may be made of tin. Nori cutters are often made of plastic with zinc cutting parts.|
|Thermal bento boxes||Usually consists of a stainless steel cylinder into which plastic containers fit. The plastic containers are usually microwave and dishwasher safe. Keeps some of the food warm to hot for several hours.||Expensive. Can be rather bulky and heavy. Not plastic free. Not all parts may be dishwasher safe.||To get the most out of a thermal lunch box, be sure to read the instructions carefully! Mr. Bento line from Zojirushi, similar range from Thermos, Aladdin box . See in-depth look at thermal bentos/lunch jars .|
|Wood, coated or lacquered||Beautiful traditional craftmanship. Less susceptible to staining than uncoated wood. May make rice taste better. A pleasure to handle. May become a treasured heirloom.||Not microwave or dishwasher safe. Needs some handling with care. May stain. Well made boxes are expensive to very expensive (a cheap wooden box is not worth buying).||Kyo bento box. Besides boxes, chopsticks can also be made of coated wood. See also: the care and watering of wooden and lacquerware bento boxes |
|Wood, uncoated||Beautiful traditional craftmanship. Makes plain rice taste better since it absorbs any excess moisture. A pleasure to handle. May become a treasured heirloom.||Not microwave or dishwasher safe. Needs some handling with care. May stain. Well made boxes are very expensive (a cheap wooden box is not worth buying).||See Magewappa bento boxes . See also: the care and watering of wooden and lacquerware bento boxes , and see how traditional magewappa boxes are made .|
This is Tip no. 2 of Back To School Week . Stay tuned for more!
As the popularity of bento boxes spreads around the world, bento box and accessory manufacturers are also becoming more international. One of the most interesting bento box makers is monbento. Their headquarters are in Clermont-Ferrand, France, and their site proudly proclaims that their products are designed in France.
monbento boxes come in a variety of chic, modern and bright colors, and you can even specify your own color combinations (more on that later).
Everything about a monbento box is classy, even the box it comes packaged in. This is a red 2-tier model; each layer has a 500ml capacity, for a total of 1000ml for both layers. (They also have single-layer 500ml boxes.)
This is an orange model, that was sent to me by monbento for review. (I actually bought the red one for myself.) I’m not an orange kind of person but the orange that monbento uses is really nice. What makes the bentos look and feel even nicer is that they have a gorgeous matte finish. (Note: the standard bento band color is now grey instead of the black shown here.)
Here’s the bento un-stacked. There’s an outer lid, plus an inner lid for both of the layers. (Note: the inner lids are now grey in the standard configurations instead of the black shown here.)
The inner lids have small capped lids so that they can be vented when you want to microwave your bento. The lid is color coordinated with the bento, which is nice. The entire box, including the lids, is microwave and dishwasher safe.
This is the inside. It comes with one moveable divider in one of the compartments.
The monbento sauce cups are also very well made. They come in sets of two in a variety of color combinations that match the bento boxes. Each pot holds 20ml.
What makes these pots special, besides their cuteness, is that the lids screw on securely and have 2 little silicone gaskets, which make them pretty leakproof. They will leak if you carry them sideways or upside down for a length of time, but if you carry the bento box right way up (as you should really, to avoid a mess) they are about as secure as any sauce pots I’ve seen.
monbento makes two kinds of utensils: color coordinated chopsticks, and a metal cutlery set. I was sent the cutlery set for review. There’s a fork, spoon and knife, all packaged neatly in a plastic case with a snap-on lid.
The cutlery is small, but not too small as to be unusable. It kind of reminds me of the nice cutlery you used to find with airline meals. They are also very sturdy metal, so you don’t have a feeling they’re going to bend or anything while you’re using them.
So here I filled up a monbento with a fairly standard bento for me. The two tiers are quite easy to pack. I put things I might want to heat up in the bottom compartment, and salad and fruit type things in the top compartment. (The sauce lids are off just to show the insides.) One thing to keep in mind is that if you pack both layers very tightly with calorie-dense foods like rice and you are trying to watch your intake (i.e. you’re on a diet), 1000ml is quite a lot. So you’ll want to pack those dense foods in maybe just one layer, and fill up with vegetables or something.
Cleanup was very easy too since I could just throw everything in the dishwasher. I put everythning in the top rack, with the little bits in a basket.
This last accessory is brand new and very interesting: the monbento mold set. The set comes with 3 pieces: 2 small cups and a larger one, all made of silicone that is heat-safe up to 240°C/464°F. It comes in this classy grey, blue and fuschia combination.
The smaller cups fit perfectly into one of the monbento box layers, so they can be used as dividers.
The bigger mold however does not work as a box liner, since it has a big lip all around.
This mold is meant for cooking things in, that fit perfectly into a monbento box. It has a slightly smaller capacity than the box itself at around 450ml. You could use the small molds/cups for cooking too, since they’re made of the same heatproof silicone material.
Now, monbento used to make a double-mold, which I have in my collection, but they no longer manufacture it. It’s the fuschia one here. I’ve been experimenting with cooking things in the molds - here I’m trying out cake salé, a savory “cake” (like a quickbread in the U.S.) of the type you see sold quite often at markets in France.
As you can see, the mold produces a flat little cake that fits perfectly in the boxes. (I’ll have the recipe for the cake up on the site soon.) I can see the mold being used for many other things…what about a baked omelette for example? I’m going to continue experimenting and post the good results.
I guess the one quibble I have with the mold is that it’s small, so baking something in it in a big oven feels very wasteful somehow. If you have a toaster oven with baking functions that might work out better. I may try using it in a frying pan too, as well as the smaller cups. In any case it’s a really good idea in principle.
All in all monbento makes great stuff. Besides the items reviewed here they also have bento bands in many colors, bento carrying bags, chopsticks and a few other things.
There are several options for buying monbento products:
1. Directly from monbento 
Shipping costs vary depending on where you are. If you’re in France you get free shipping if your order exceeds 60 euros. Note: If you live outside of the EU, e.g. in the U.S., you can subtract 20% of the listed price, which is the VAT. You may have to pay customs in your home country but do keep that in mind.
2. From Bento&co
Bento&co  carries a good selection of monbento items, starting with their bento boxes  of course, as well as sauce pots, chopsticks, the cutlery set and more. If you’re on a shopping spree there anyway, or if you’re in Japan, it’s a good option.
3. From Amazon
The Amazon stores carry a limited selection of monbento items:
(Disclaimer: Some of the items reviewed were sent to us by monbento for review purposes. (The other items were purchased.) We did not receive any compensation for the review and the opinions expressed are my own. The links to the sellers are affiliate links. By making your purchases via these links you help to support the site at no additional cost to you. ^_^)
As I have said often on these pages, bentos are usually filled with food that is supposed to taste good at room temperature. But there’s no denying that sometimes we want our lunch to be hot, or at least warm. There are various ways to make sure this happens of course, from using a microwave (if you have access to one) or carrying your lunch in a thermal lunch jar  and/or an insulated bag. The Atsuben Kun bento box  takes the warm bento lunch a step further: it actually heats up your bento within the box itself.
From the outside, the Atsuben Kun looks like a regular bento box. It’s very sleek, and the white plastic feels very nice.
The logo is very cute - the “u” of At(s)uben is a litle steamy pot. (The “atsu” or “atu” part of the name means hot,”ben” is short for bento, and “kun” is just an informal, affectionate suffix for a name, usually used when addressing a young man or boy.)
The Atsuben Kun reveals its secret when you look at the base. It has power input…
…for the bottom section, which contains a ceramic heater, similar to the ones you see in space heaters. (The warning label in Japanese says to not touch it when it’s plugged in or while it’s still hot.)
Here’s what’s in the the Atsuben Kun package. It looks like a three-tier box from the outside but it’s actually two-tier box with the bottom tier being the heater. The top compartment has a leak-resistant flexible plastic lid. There’s also a power supply for Japanese electric outlets.
The power supply has 100/110V-220/240V / 50-60Hz input and 3Amp / 8V output, so you should be able to use it just about anywhere in the world. You can use Japanese plugs as-in most U.S. outlets, though if you are not sure you can get an adapter plug. In Europe and many other places you will need an adapter plug, which is not included (the one shown in the pic is for France) - they are cheap and easy to get at any electronics store. You can also order the Atsuben Kun with a cigarette lighter car power plug instead.
I tested how well this thing worked with a real bento! I filled it up with fairly standard (for me) bento foods: rice in the bottom section with a little furikake  on top, and the other foods in the top compartment (Miso marinated pork , Easy sugarfree carrot kinpira , some steamed broccoli to fill the gaps, and tamagoyaki ). I put the rice in the bottom compartment because I wanted it to get the warmest. Then, I put the 2 sections filled with food in the refrigerator for about 8 hours. This was to simulate a typical scenario where I can see this bento box being used - you make the bento and fill it up the night before, pack it with an ice pack in the morning (in an insulated bag to really keep things cool) and heat it up before lunch.
I re-assembled the Atsuben Kun and plugged him in, and set my timer for 70 minutes as per the Japanese instructions.
So did it heat up from refrigerator-cold to hot in 70 minutes? Not quite. It was warm enough to be pleasant, but not hot. Probably if you heated it up from room temperature 70 minutes would be enough. Anyway, no big deal - I gave it another 20 minutes.
After the additional 20 minutes, the rice in the bottom compartment was actually hot! It almost tasted like freshly cooked rice. The top compartment doesn’t really get hot since it is not in direct contact with the heating element, just warmed up a bit from the little steam rising from the food in the bottom compartment. But that’s enough really to have a warm-bento experience. I really enjoyed it!
I think this bento box is great for people who don’t have access to a microwave at lunchtime, but still want a warm lunch experience. With the cigarette lighter power plug, you could even heat up your bento on the go! (Personally I think I’d order the box with the cigarette lighter plug and get the house-current one separately, if I needed to use this in my car.) It doesn’t draw much power (the instructions say it consumes about .6 yen per use - and electricity in Japan is expensive), and is quite unobstrusive.
To sum up: I think this is a very cool box that is sure to draw comments at the office. If you yearn after a hot bento at lunchtime, especially if you like making your bento the night before and sticking it in the fridge, this may be just the box for you.
(Disclosure: This product was supplied to JustBento by the vendor for review. I was not compensated in any way for the review, and the opinions expressed are my own.)
(I have a whole bunch of other cool bento product reviews coming up. Stay tuned ^_^!)
Unless you were living as a hermit away from any internet connection last year, you have probably heard of Gangnam Style, the phenomenal video sensation by South Korean entertainer PSY, aka Park Jae-sang, that took over the world. But Gangnam is not just the name of a rap song featuring a geeky looking dude dancing like a madman.. It’s also the name of a district in Seoul, South Korea, and that’s where this interesting line of bento boxes  come from.
You’ll notice right away that unlike most reusable bento boxes, these boxes have slanted sides, rather like some disposable bento boxes. This means that they hold a bit less than they seem to - which is not a bad thing, especially if you’re using bentos to try to keep your calories down. The Small size holds 500ml, and the Large holds 900ml, although they feel a lot more bulkier than that somehow. On the plus size, the slanted sides make them a lot easier to wash by hand. You don’t have to wash them by hand though since they are totally dishwasher-safe, unlike many other boxes where the lids must be washed by hand.
Here’s a view from the top. The boxes have clear plastic lids and colorful contrasting color gaskets, which make the lids pretty waterproof. The color combinations may or may not work for you - besides the white and orange and the chocolate and pink combos shown here, there’s also a green/green variety. I was a bit taken aback at first at the brightness of that pink, but now I kind of like it.
The clips are really large and fit securely to the box. They are a bit hard to snap into place the first few times you use the box, but they do loosen up a bit over time.
The lid is also equipped with a covered steam vent, so you can put the box into the microwave lid and all - although I might be inclined to remove the lid to preserve the longevity of the gasket.
Inside, each box has two equally sized inner containers that fit snugly into the box. The inner containers are about the same thickness as the outer boxes, which makes them quite solid - but does make the box overall a bit heavy compared to boxes with thinner and ligher iner compartments. But the inner compartments stand up on their own, which is nice.
The bigger box also has two equal-size compartments.
Here I’ve used the larger (900ml capicity) box for a salad bento. I’ve filled one side with a pasta and chicken salad, and the other with a green salad with corn salad or mâche and boiled egg, with dressing in the small container (not included with this box). It’s really great for bentos of this type, since it’s nice and deep. Plus, you could put something you want to heat up in one compartment and something you want to keep cool in the other, and just pop the first compartment in a microwave to heat up.
Here I tried using the smaller box (500ml) for a more Japanese-style bento, with an onigiri on one side. It kind of works, although you need to work with the slanted nature of the box. (Note, I did tuck in the leaves when I closed the lid.)
All in all, there’s a lot to like about the Gangnam bento box. I think I’m going to add them to my regular rotation.
The Gangnam bento box costs US $32 for the large (900ml) size, and $25 for the small (500ml) size, and is available from Bento&co .
(Disclaimer: The boxes were provided to JustBento for review purposes. We did not receive any compensation for the review, and the opinions expressed are solely my own.)
More reviews of interesting bento products coming soon!
As I have written here before , I am a big fan of the LunchBots  line of all-stainless steel bento boxes. (They actually call them ‘food containers’, but they are a great size for bentos.) Here’s an in-depth look at one of the latest offerings, the LunchBots Quad , as well as some of the pros and cons of the LunchBots boxes in general.
Here’s how the LunchBots Quad looks when it comes to you. The lid is available in three tasteful colors: lime green as shown here, sky blue and all-stainless (a shinier stainless than the box itself), all sporting the LunchBots logo. The box feels very solid and durable. I’ve owned another LunchBots box for about 4 years now, and after many uses it looks as good as new.
The Quad unit has for evenly divided units. The dividers are fixed in place. The total capacity of the box is about 700ml, a great size for a lot of people. Two-part Duos and three-part Trios are also available on their site .
What makes the LunchBots containers different from other stainless steel bento boxes  is that they are totally plastic or silicon free. have leakproof liners around their edges. The Lids are quite tight-fitting.
As an experiment, I tried filling the box to the brim with water that I colored a bit by adding some soy sauce. If you turn the box upside down, the water does start to leak out immediately, showing that it is not leakproof.
And if you turn it sideways, it definitely does leak. So, you should not use the LunchBots boxes for very liquid food like stew, or food that has a lot of sauce.
Another slightly annoying problem that is shared by all metal boxes: if you have very hard water, as we do have here, water stains will show up very quickly on the shiny surface. The solution to this is to try to dry off your stainless steel containers as soon as they are washed, and to occasionally give them a wipe with vinegar.
Here’s the Quad in action. The 4 equal compartments make packing food quite easy. Clockwise from top left I’ve packed some steamed broccoli and a cherry tomato, some Pan Fried Lemon Chicken Nuggets  (or as some readers who’ve tried and loved them call them, “Maki Nuggets” ^_^); tri-color bell peppers simply sauteed in olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper, and some plain rice. That’s two vegetable compartments, one protein and one carb. A pretty good balance for someone watching their weight, like me! Note that I’ve chosen foods are not likely to leak. Ther was some moisture around the sauteed bell peppers that came out of them as they cooked, but I drained it off as I packed them into the compartment.
The green things decorating the top of the rice are thin slices of broccoli stalk, that I just steamed together with the broccoli florets. I think they look like little abstract flowers.
The LunchBots containers are very attractive and well made, and are totally plastic or silicon free. If you are concerned about the amount of plastics in our environment, and want to stay away from them for your lunch containers, LunchBots are a great solution.
LunchBots has kindly offered a 10% discount and free shipping to the U.S. and Canada to JustBento readers! This offer is valid for one week from the time of this review. Just order from the LunchBots  and use the coupon code JUSTBENTO . LunchBots containers are also available on Amazon.com  and Amazon UK  (Amazon UK doesn’t have the Quad yet, but the Duo and Trio are available).
(Disclosure: This product was supplied to JustBento by LunchBots for review. I was not compensated in any way for the review, and the opinions expressed are my own.)
[Update:] Sadly, the Idea bento box reviewed here has gone out of production. A good substitute is the Shikiri Bento , which is another single-tier multi-compartment box.
I’m often asked questions along the lines of, “What’s a good bento box to get started with?” A generic answer would be “whatever appeals to you, is the right size for your needs, and is within your budget.” (See the links at the bottom of this article for more to help you select a bento box.) But when I saw this box, I thought this might just fulfil the brief as a great first bento box.
The logo on top says “Ideal”, so I’m calling it the Ideal box. (Bento&Co calls it the Shikiri bento  - shikiri means ‘divider’ in Japanese, and that’s a very appropriate name for it too, as you’ll see.
One thing that appeals to me immediately is its design. It’s quite sleek and neutral, suitable for a wide variety of tastes. (The maker claims it is inspired by 1980s design and is therefore ‘retro’. I don’t see it, but maybe you do.) It comes in black as well as white.
When you open the lid, which has a leakproof gasket all around and snap-on fasteners - great things for a bento box for newbies to have, since it eliminates most chances of leakage - you get to a clear plastic layer, which holds the included chopsticks. I love it when bento boxes include chopsticks. Have you ever brought along a bento somewhere and realized you’d forgotten to pack any utensils? It’s not nice.
Under the clear lid, we get to the really interesting part of the box. Most bento boxes come with one divider, or at the most one divider plus a little inner cup. This one comes with two multi-compartment dividers plus a simple I-shaped divider.
You can use the dividers and compartments in all kinds of ways - or just leave them out. The great thing is, each of the inner elements fits snugly enough in the box not to shift around, even when used singly. You could even leave out the dividers altogether if you wanted. But having so many compartments to fill may just inspire you to diversify your lunchtime menu with different foods.
The Ideal bento box is not cheap, but it’s very sturdily built and should last for a long time with proper care - and it could just be the only box you’ll ever need. It’s microwave-safe with the lid removed.
(Tip: if you tend to favor foods that can stain, e.g. curry or tomato sauce, go for the black model.) (Actually it seems the dividers are white even in the black box so…that doesn’t quite work ^_^; For what it’s worth though I have the white model, and so far it hasn’t stained at all, even after packing some tomato-sauce pasta in it.) Available at Bento&Co for US $32 / €23 .
And here’s the box in action - also a sneak preview of the next Guy Does Bento !
Several people noted how the red, black and white color combination bento from monbento shown in the in-depth review  looks like a Pokeball. I just wanted to let Pokémon fans out there know that there’s a “real” Pokeball bento box out there.
It is kind of small, at just 170ml capacity. (For the metrically challenged that’s a bit less than 3/4 U.S. cups - so it’s just about big enough for a yogurt or something, not a full adult size lunch!) And it’s rather expensive too. But if you are a die-hard Pokemon fan…or as a gift for the Pokemon fanatic in you life, well, why not? It comes in its own drawstring bag and matching bento band, and is available from J-List/JBox  and Amazon.com .
There’s also a Pikachu shaped bento box. It too is rather small, at 270ml capacity. In Japan it’s clearly cost as a novelty bento box for kids. Here it is in a Pokemon bento-stuff display at a Tokyu Hands store in Japan.
I actually used this bento once, at my book signing/talk back in January 2011 at Kinokuniya bookstore in New York. The bento box was provided by the store, and I filled it with a bento and we gave it away. This is the bottom tier - there’s also a second tier. As you can see, it is rather small. But it may work for little kids or someone with a tiny appetite, or as a snack bento box. In any case it’s sure to cause a bit of a sensation!
The Pikachu bento box is available on Amazon.com .
Finally, if you want to enjoy the world of Pokémon inside your bento box instead, there’s a book dedicated to that - in Japanese only, but with plenty of photos. It even comes with a bento box (a plain one, not one of the fancy shaped ones…but hey, plain is practical!) so you can get started right away. it’s called 食育レシピでつくる! ポケモンお弁当BOOK - Make it with healthy recipes! Pokemon Obento Book and is available from Amazon Japan . (Note, Amazon Japan will send books-with-free-gifts overseas.)
So, there’s plenty out there for the Pokémon and bento fans. ゲットだぜ - Gotta catch ‘em all! (maybe ^_^)
When I saw this unusual looking lunchbox via the delicious bento tag stream , my first thought was, “Wow, that looks so cool”. The Goodbyn™ Lunchbox  is a one-piece, molded plastic container with fitted lid, that looks like an odd/cute (or in anime parlance, kimo kawaii) space alien or animal. It comes packaged with 275 stickers , so kids can customize it to their hearts’ content. Looking inside, it seems perfect for those kids (and adults, if you are brave enough to carry this to the office) who hate their food to touch. Yes, I know you are out there, you touchy-food haters!
It comes with an 8.5 oz. water container, which the website suggests can double as a cooling element if it’s filled with ice cubes and a beverage. The whole thing is dishwasher safe, made of recyclable and safe plastic, etc. The slick website emphasizes the environmental advantages of a dedicated lunchbox, but bento enthusiasts like you know that already.
The only thing that makes me pause about this colorful beast is - well, it’s huge, judging from these photos:
The site doesn’t say how much it weighs or its capacity (the dimensions are 13 x 8.5 x 3.2 inches or 33 x 21.6 x 8.1 cm - thanks Midknyt!), but judging just from how much it can hold (whole banana in the upper compartment, etc.) I am assuming the plastic is fairly sturdy. So, I am really wondering how portable it is, especially for small kids.
Other than that though, it is one cool looking lunch/bento box! It’s available for preorder on their website , and they have a list of retailers  too. The retail price is $29.95, and it comes in four colors.
What do you think about this box? If you decide to order it or have already, I’d love to hear your first hand impressions of it.
Incidentally, this is a return of the previously discontinued “Bento Item of the Week” series where I talk about various bento related goods and equipment. I won’t be holding myself to a weekly update, but hey - I like doing product reviews. Also, if there’s a particular bento box, equipment or something that you’d like to review and see it published here on Just Bento, let me know at maki at makikoitoh com.
I am still catching up on things after my long illness and everything. One of the things I need to seriously do is post some bento box and accessory reviews. I have several very nice products supplied by various vendors, as well as a few new acquisitions I’d like to share. So, starting next week expect several reviews of products for your reading pleasure.
Here’s a sneak peek as one of the bento boxes - it has a rather interesting profile.
I’m also going to take the opportunity to seriously sort through all of my bento supplies. Who knows…I may be getting rid of a few things. Stay tuned. ^_^
I really, really don’t need any more bento boxes. But when I spotted these incredibly adorable little onigiri boxes, I just couldn’t resist.
Since I have adopted them, it’s a good opportunity to show how to use this type of single-onigiri box.
These are meant to hold a single onigiri plus a little something else, so unless you have a very small appetite they are supplementary boxes to use for snack bentos. This particular model, which is made by Hakoya , has a lid section that holds a single onigiri, and a bottom section with an inner plastic lid that holds whatever sides you want with your onigiri. The box snaps shut with two little plastic clips, which are the ‘ears’ on the faces.
You can use the lid part as a mold and measuring cup for making your onigiri, using the plastic wrap/cling film and cup method . Here I have lined the lid/cup with plastic wrap, moistened the surface and sprinkled some salt.
I then pack in some rice. The lid/cup holds about 3/4th of a U.S. cup of rice, about 160ml and 160 calories - or 1 Japanese bowl of rice (一膳 ichizen). The filling is salted salmon , one of my favorites.
I then form and wrap the onigiri, following the steps detailed on the plastic wrap onigiri forming page , making sure that the onigiri ends up as a triangle.
The onigiri fits perfectly in the lid. The nori seaweed strips are tucked outside the plastic wrap to prevent them from getting soggy. I wrap them around the onigiri when I eat it. The little compartment holds some forgotten vegetable kinpira . You could pack some finger-foods in there if you want a utensil-free mini bento. The total calories in this particular mini-bento: about 210.
I bought these amazingly cute beasties from Bento & Co. , a relatively new online bento gear store. Based in Kyoto, Bento & Co.  is run by a French guy, Thomas, and his Japanese wife Erico. It’s the most attractively designed bento site I’ve ever seen, with terrific pictures and great descriptions of all of the boxes they carry, including critical information for bento box collectors like capacity in mililiters, what material the box is made of, and so on. The selection of boxes and accessories is not huge, but really tasteful. I find myself coveting about 90% of their stock!
At the moment the site is in French only, but Thomas tells us that they are working on an English version of the site. In the meantime, you can email them in English (or French of course) about anything on their site at contact [at] bentoandco [dot] com. They ship worldwide from Japan. (We have no affiliation with Bento & Co. And yep, I ordered all three onigiri boxes. How could you choose between them?) Update: Bento&co. now has an English version of their site , and we’re happy to have them on board as advertisers on JustBento- since I was a repeat customer well before that!
I tend to be a traditionalist in the sense that I don’t mind having room temperature food in my bentos. Most bentos are eaten that way. But when it’s really cold outside, there’s nothing more comforting than some hot food, or even a hot beverage. If you have access to a microwave, all you have to do is find a microwave-safe bento box. But if you don’t, or you object to microwaves in general, a thermal lunch jar may be the thing for you.
There are two basic types of thermal lunch jars. Let’s take a look at them.
The first time of thermal lunch jar consists of a stainless steel, insulated cylindrical container, into which one or more plastic containers fit in neatly. To use, you heat up the stainless steel outer container by pouring some boiling hot water into it for a few minutes, emptying out the hot water, then packing in the inner plastic containers.
Mr. Bento  and its smaller sibling Ms. Bento  are the best known of this type of thermal lunch set. This is a classic Mr. Bento set. There’s the large stainless steel container with screw-on lid, a container to hold about 2.5 cups of cooked rice, a container with a screw-top lid with gasket to hold soup or other liquid, and two more containers to hold other foods. Everything fits inside the cylinder, so theoretically all the food should remain hot for some hours. (Not pictured are a non-insulated carrying bag and a pair of chopsticks in a plastic container.)
This container setup is ideally geared towards a classic Japanese meal construct, of rice, a small soup (miso or otherwise), plus sides. (See Anatomy of a Japanese meal  for how a Japanese meal is put together.) When Zojirushi brought Mr. Bento over to the U.S. market, they kept the same construct. The only change made was to replace the chopsticks with a spork (though Ms. Bento still seems to come with chopsticks for some reason). So if you like multiple items in your bento/lunch, Mr. Bento is ideal for you. People commenting on Amazon seem to agree  - it’s been selling well there for years now.
The advantage of the Mr. Bento is that you can keep your entire lunch hot for hours if you wanted to. The disadvantages are that the container set itself is quite heavy (Mr. Bento with the carrying bag and chopsticks weighs about 1.2 kg or more than 2 pounds) and bulky. Plus, if you want to carry some food that’s not hot, like fruit for example, you will need to carry yet another container separate from the unit. A not so small consideration is that thermal lunch sets of this type are not cheap, ranging from around $40 to $60.
A variation on the stainless steel thermal container with inner containers concept is this type of set is shown below. I got this set in Japan, but several international bento sellers, including Bento&co  and J-List , sell similar sets. The set consists of a smaller stainless steel thermal container, into which fit the rice container and a small miso soup container. Then there are two more containers which are meant to be carried outside of the stainless steel cylinder.
The rice container and the soup container. The soup container has a screwtop lid with gasket.
Everything fits neatly into this reasonably stylish insulated carrying case. These insulated carrying cases come in all shapes and sizes. Some even look like designer handbags.
This unit is 30% lighter than the Mr. Bento set. Usually you only want your soup, and maybe your rice, to be really hot, and the other food can be just warm or even cool. If that fits your lunch patterns, this kind of partially-hot thermal set may be for you. (Keep in mind that the insulated carrying case will keep the outer containers reasonably warm, though not as well or as long as food inside the thermal cylinder.)
To make sure that the food remains actually hot inside the thermal cylinder, make sure not to skip the heating up the cylinder with boiling water part. Also, the food you put in should be as hot as you want it to be and maybe more when you pack it inside. The container will not make cooled food hotter!
You can use the thermal cylinder without using all the inner containers. In my book I have a mini-muffin and soup bento, where I experimented with packing heated muffins in the heated container with soup in the soup container. The muffins were quite warm when I took them out, though they did get a bit moist. Try something like packing chili in the rice container, and a piece of warm cornbread in the space above it.
You can also use the thermal qualities of the steel cylinder to keep food cool. Try packing an ice pack inside the cylinder and freezing the whole cylinder overnight. In the morning, put a container of whatever you want kept really cold right on top of that frozen ice pack. I’ve tried this with ice cream, and it works - it was still pretty hard after about 3 hours!
The second type of thermal lunch container is a lot simpler. They are basically good old thermos bottles that are squat and wide mouthed, shaped for eating out of rather than sipping from. A good example is this Stainless Steel Food Container by Thermos. It comes in 10 ounce  and 16 ounce  sizes; the one pictured here is the 10 ounce, which is about 300 ml (1 1/4 cups). It’s really simple, consisting of the body and a screw-on top with gasket.
This is my current favorite thermal lunch jar, a Thermos Stainless King  which holds 16 ounces (almost 500ml or 2 US cups). It has an inner screwtop lid with gasket and an outer lid that doubles as a cup.
There’s also a well designed folding spoon that clips into the top of the inner lid.
If all you want to do is to bring one hot item, say soup or stew, these one-piece lunch jars are ideal. If you already own some bento boxes, you can use a lunch jar to supplement them on cold days. Or you could just carry one on itself filled with soup, with a piece of bread in a plastic bag. They are also cheaper than the multi-part thermal lunch sets (since they are simpler), ranging in price from around $15 to $25, depending on the size, features and so on. (Keep an eye out for thermal jars sold as baby food containers if you’re looking for a small container.)
In fact, if you’re just starting out with bentos, or have been gazing at these pages and various bento blogs wondering if bentos are for you, a lunch jar just might be the ideal starter container for your bento journeys. Heating up some leftover soup and packing it into one of these takes almost no effort. And if you decide that bentos are not for you, you can still use a lunch jar for holding some hot chocolate or something.
These lunch jars also benefit from a pre-heating before you fill them up. Just fill with boiling hot water, leave for a few minutes, empty an fill up with the piping hot food of your choice. The lunch jars can also be used to keep the contents cold.
I find it a bit harder to wash these compared to the inner containers that come with the steel-cylinder type. Try to wash them out as soon as possible. Handwash the gasketed inner screwtop lid to keep the seal tight - the other things are top rack dishwasher safe.
There is one issue to keep in mind with all thermal lunch containers. Yes, these containers can keep your food really nice and hot for hours. However, keep in mind that that means the food continues to cook in that heat. So for maximum flavor and tastiness, stick to food that benefits from slow, gentle cooking. Soups, stews, curries and chilis work great. Steamed rice and other grains hold up well too. But other foods may suffer. Pre-cooked chicken may get dried out, and steamed vegetables may end up looking like the steamed vegetables you encounter on a sad buffet table. Hot pasta may sound like a great idea, but not if it turns out soggy and gooey. If you like a mix of foods, the partial-thermal type of set or just having a lunch jar plus regular, non-insulated containers may work better.
Reader Sandy sent in this question recently. She’s having trouble with certain bento boxes, which are making her food taste like plastic!
Hi. I’ve recently begun collecting and using bento boxes (which I adore), but I’ve had some troubles when eating out of them. Everytime I eat something, it tastes like plastic. I’ve purchased almost all of my boxes through reputable sellers via ebay and have posted about this problem previously in another forum. One of the members there mentioned that maybe I was packing food that was too hot. Well, I tried cooling it down since then (not ice cold but lukewarm to the touch and easily held in the palm of one’s hand) but it still has a plastic taste to it. This is especially noticeable in foods without lots of spices to mask the flavor: rice, plain steamed veggies, etc… And while most of the boxes display this trait, not all of them do. My Lock and Lock bento and a Totoro single tier bento box I own do not have this characteristic, but both boxes have a noticeable different heft and feel to them than my regular Lube Sheep, Hakoya, or the other typical plastic wood grain usagi boxes. Is there a breaking in period? Have you experienced the same issues? Is there any kind of treatment I can use to keep my boxes from becoming bric-a-brac?
I’ve since purchased the small totoro aluminum bento box, but it’s soooo small. I’ve thought of wooden boxes but am afraid they might stain (I love Kimchee). And I can’t bear the thought of being limited to a Lock & Lock and single tier. Can you offer some advice so that I may continue to indulge my passion for this most adorable Asian hobby?
I haven’t had a problem myself with any Lube Sheep or Hakoya bento boxes, but I’ve had issues with other plastic containers. I think the formulation of the plastic used in various bento boxes varies, so you could be more sensitive to one kind than another.
Here are some things to try:
Actually, some people do have a problem with that ‘plastic taste’ of plastic bento boxes. They use wood, bamboo, aluminum and stainless steel boxes instead. But as you say, most of those boxes are not in the ‘cute’ category. :) Anyway, try the steps above and see how it goes!
Do you have any suggestions as to how to solve Sandy’s ‘plastic taste’ problem?
[I’ve substantially updated this article recently to answer some emailed questions about bento accessories and so on, so here it is again for your reading pleasure. Originally posted in August 2008.]
I recently got an email from a Just Bento reader concerning the plastic used to make bento boxes. She was concerned, since she couldn’t read the Japanese writing on the packaging. I’m sure a lot of other readers have similar concerns, especially given recent scares reported in the media about plastic containers leaching chemicals into food and beverages. Keeping in mind that I am not a scientist or expert, just a concerned consumer just like you, here’s what I’ve been able to find out by doing some research on various Japanese as well as English-language web sites.
The parts of plastic bento boxes that touch food from known Japanese manufacturers are generally manufactured using three types of plastic: polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polypropylene (PP), or a compound of PET and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) called PET-A. A common practice is to use PP or PET-A for the bento box body and outer lid, and polyethelene for the flexible inner lids, or the main lids on small side boxes.
For example, the cheaper bento boxes made by Nakano Co.  (manufactured in China), which includes popular brands like Puti Fresh, Lube Sheep and Clickety-Clack that are sold at Daiso and similar ‘100-yen’ stores (previously ), are made of PP. According to The Green Guide  ( a site that is owned and operated by National Geographic), PP is a safe plastic, though it’s not very recyclable.
Higher end plastic bento boxes such as the very popular ones models made by Hakoya aka Tatsumiya Shikki  or Yellow Studio  (mostly manufactured in Japan, some accessories manufactured in China), use mostly PET or PET-A. (Hakoya also uses other plastics on parts of their boxes that aren’t in direct contact with food.) According to The Green Guide list, the main objection against PET seems to be the porous nature of the plastic, so it’s not recommended to re-use thin PET water bottles. However, from reading some Japanese reports, PET-A in particular seems to be regarded favorably as a recyclable yet food-safe plastic. In practice, I do find that my Hakoya and Yellow Studio bento boxes are easier to keep clean and of a better finish than my Lube Sheep boxes. (Update: As of late 2009-early 2010 I’ve stopped using any of my Lube Sheep boxes…not because of safety concerns, but just because they do tend to get a bit beat-up looking with continuous use. Well what can you expect from boxes that retail for 100-200 yen ($1-2 or so) in Japan?)
The substance that has generated the most controversy and concern in recent years when it comes to plastic food containers is bisphenol-A, or BPA. This exists in polycarbonate, a clear plastic that is used for some water bottles, as liners in metal cans, and so on. None of the major Japanese bento box manufacturers use polycarbonate in parts of their plastic bento boxes, water bottles and so on that touch food. (I have seen a few thermal mugs that use polycarbonate on the exterior parts that do not come into contact with the liquid.) It may be interesting to note that the Japanese canning industry began to voluntarily cut down on the use of BPA as can liners as early as 1998 (a decade before BPA even began to be talked about the the United States for example), and have been using other plastics since. (see .)
So in a nutshell, any bento box from a reputable Japanese maker should be perfectly safe. Generally speaking, food safety regulations in Japan are just as strict as they are in North America or Europe.
However, you should always heed the directions about whether or not a box is microwave-safe/dishwasher-safe or not. If you are not sure and are concerned, ask the seller of your bento box, or just don’t put it in the microwave. Needless to say, plastic is not oven or stovetop safe!
(Studies on the safety or not of BPA, especially for adults, still seem to be inconclusive. As with any other health related news, try to read as many reputable studies as you can and keep an open mind.)
Most rigid plastic bento accessories made by companies like Torune  such as picks, are made of ABS and/or polystyrene. Many reusable inner cups are made of silicone. Flexible plastic items such as baran (dividers, like ‘sushi grass’) made by Torune are made of PET.
Note that most of these accessories (except for silicone cups) are not microwave safe, so use your cute little picks and such for bentos that you don’t intend to nuke, or else take them out before doing so.
Nori cutters made by Arnest  (the Niko Niko Punch line) and Kaijirushi  (the Chuboos line), are made of ABS (the body) and zinc or a zinc alloy (the cutting parts). I do not have information on repurposed cutters that are meant for use on paper and other non-food products. If you’re really concerned about safety you may want to avoid using these on food.
Food cutters by Arnest (e.g. the Kyarappa line) are made of polystyrene.
It might be tempting to re-use takeout containers, but again according to The Green Guide, that may not be such a good idea  (this link is now broken, and their internal search leads back to their home page. grr). In essence you should not be re-using plastic containers that are not meant for multiple use, like takeout boxes and such, if you’re concerned about plastic safety.
The most practical alternative to plastic for bento boxes is probably stainless steel. See Stainless steel bento boxes . My favorite model of stainless steel bento box has a silicone sealing element around the inner rim of the lid; this is quite acceptable to me as a ‘green’ bento box, and makes it very practical. There are also 100% stainless steel bento boxes or lunch boxes, such as those from Lunchbots  (their orange-lid model is a good size for a bento box). Beware of packing any moist food in them since the lids are not leak-resistant.
Stainless steel bento boxes are generally more expensive than plastic, but should last a lot longer with proper care.
A very stylish though rather high maintenance alternative to plastic is wood. Traditionally bento boxes were made of wood, either untreated or coated with lacquer. Wooden bento boxes are wonderful, but need to be handwashed carefully and dried with a soft cloth immediately after washing. A famous type of wooden box is the Magewappa , made of uncoated bent Japanese cedar.
This is my personal opinion, but when it comes to wooden bento boxes, you really get what you pay for. Avoid cheap wooden boxes - these usually have a rough finish, inferior workmanship, and are generally rather nasty. Expect to pay at least $40-50 or more for a good wooden bento box. A genuine Magewappa bento box will cost you at least 6,500 yen (around $70) and on up from reputable stores in Japan. On the other hand, a high quality wooden bento box will last for years with proper care.
(Update added 1/09: All of the links in this article to The Green Guide site  are broken because they have changed them all apparently without proper redirects. What’s worse, their internal search results lead right back to the home page too. As a web developer myself I have to say this is so very lame. Anyway, once you get to their site (all links just go to their new front page) you can look around for the appropriate information. This page regarding Bisphenol-A (BPA)  is current, as of now, unless they change things around yet again.)
(Update added 2/10: Added link to Rubbermaid BPA page; added bento accessory information and plastic alternatives section.)
(Originally published in April 2008, and updated continuously since. Last updated March 2011.)
A very frequently asked question is where and how to buy the bento items and boxes mentioned here, especially in the Bento Item Spotlight  (formerly Bento Item of the Week) feature, as well as on other bento blogs and sites. I’ve listed you several options, which I hope will be useful.
As much as I love online shopping, I believe in shopping at your local stores first. You’re supporting your area’s businesses, and you don’t have to pay shipping costs. Besides, it’s arguably a bit better for the environment (especially if you take public transportation!) since the goods have already travelled to your area.
Even if you local stores don’t carry ‘genuine’ Japanese bento boxes, it’s always possible to find alternatives for lunch boxes, dividers, picks and other accessories. As I wrote in one of the earliest articles on this site, it’s not necessary to buy a box that is labeled as a Bento Box  in order to bring bento lunches. You can use cupcake cups, paper or silicon, as bento dividers, picnic utensils, and so on. Check out the JustBento Bento Gear Flickr pool  for a lot of creative ideas from fellow bento enthusiasts. Any general housewares/kitchenwares store or megastore with such a department is a good place to prowl for bento-friendly goods.
If you live in an area with Asian dollar stores, aka 100-yen stores, they are usually a good source for cheap and cheerful bento boxes and equipment. In the U.S. these for now are mostly in California and the west coast, though New York also has a few. Japanese or Asian housewares stores may also carry some things. To locate Japanese grocery (and related) stores near you, consult the reader-contributed and commented Japanese grocery store listings  (go to your geographical area page from there) on Just Hungry. Also check out the Bento Store Locator  on Lunch In A Box, another user-contributed listings page (Note: this hasn’t been updated in quite a while, along with the rest of the site, unfortunately).
General Japanese grocery stores used to not carry a lot of bento gear. Their non-food sections tend to concentrate on things like proper ceramic tableware and traditional gift items. However, this is changing as bento lunches continue to grow in popularity. Even if your local Japanese grocery is tiny, you may still be able to find some accessories like plastic baran (dividers) meant for sushi or decorative picks. You will, of course, find all kinds of food items. In addition, while bento lunches are not part of other East Asian cultures such as China and Korea, many such stores are also stocking bento boxes these days to meet customer demand. (Example: H-Mart or Super 88 in the U.S., Paristore in France, etc.)
Japanese bookstores and giftstores can also be worthwhile looking around in. Kinokuniya  for example carries a decent selection of bento boxes. I was at the Kinokuniya US flagship store in New York in January 2011, and the gift department manager told me that bento boxes are becoming so popular, she has increased the shelf space for them by 5 times in the last couple of years. That’s great news for bento fans!
Of course Japan is the best place to buy bento stuff. Be sure to check out Where to buy bento boxes and accessories in Japan.  if you’re planning a trip there.
Besides Japan, where are good places to shop for bento gear? You might not necessarily plan a whole trip around buying bento stuff, but it might be handy to know if you are in the midst of a bento mecca, just in case!
If your heart is set on getting a ‘real’ Japanese style bento box, for most people mail order is the only option. The good news is that the number of international shipping-friendly online bento supply stores is increasing, and getting in better stock, all the time!
Some people have a mental hangup about buying from suppliers that are not located in their country of residence. While international shipping costs are expensive, you should always compare the price of an item sold by one supplier vs. another, including shipping costs and sales tax or VAT, and see which ends up to be a better deal for you in the end. Personally I order from merchants based in Japan all the time. Shipping from Japan is usually very fast and efficient. I usually select SAL as my shipping option, which takes a little longer than EMS or FedEx (about 2-3 weeks), but is cheaper. SAL shipments usually (though this is a crapshoot really) don’t incur customs fees. FedEx or DHL are usually the most expensive shipping options, though they are reliable. FedEx shipments seem to always incur customs fees. EMS is the best choice if you want to receive mail via the postal system fast; EMS shipments incur customs fees about 50% of the time for me. I don’t have the patience for sea mail usually (and most vendors do not offer it since it’s rather unreliable).
You may or may not be charged customs fees when your shipment enters your country. I’ve found that generally speaking, smaller orders tend not to be charged customs, though there doesn’t seem to be a hard and fast rule that applies all the time.
I have tried most of these stores myself (ordering as a regular customer, no special treatment!) and have been very happy with their services. I think you will be too.
The main source of the widest variety of bento gear for non-Japanese speakers and residents is eBay. There are now dozens of merchants selling bento related supplies. Whenever you are buying something, make sure to comparison shop (some merchants are way overpriced). Most merchants are based in Japan or Hong Kong, and ship worldwide, but expect to pay quite a lot for shipping. I like to stick to the merchants who have clear descriptions of the dimensions and capacity of the bento boxes they sell.
Did you know that eBay offers RSS feeds of their listings, based on search terms? You can set up one and subscribe to it in your favorite news reader. For bento things, go to Advanced Search and enter bento in the terms to search for, and enter amy, cd, music, mac, osx, software in the terms not to search for. This filters out all, or most, mentions of Amy Bento (an aerobics instructor), CDs and music related items from Brazil or Portugal (Bento is a popular nickname in Portuguese it seems), and listings of Bento the software program. You can also select House and Garden as the category. Once the search results page is generated, scroll down until you see the RSS button, and click on it to subscribe. You will get a nice listing with prices and thumbnail pics. This is how I generate the eBay Bento listings page  (which you can just bookmark if you don’t want to bother with the searching).
The items listed on eBay, J-List and such are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to bento gear - a lot, lot more is available only in Japan. Unfortunately, most of the online stores that sell them are in Japanese only, and do not ship overseas.
But you don’t have to give up there. If you don’t have a handy friend or relative that lives there, there are an increasing number of shipping service web sites that will get the stuff you want and then ship it to you, for a fee. The fee varies but is usually around 10-15% of the purchase price, plus the actual cost of the goods and shipping. Some sites also charge a membership fee. This route may only be for serious collectors, but considering that they are offer a combination of translation, buying, shipping and payment services, it’s a fairly good deal.
An updated list of shipping (or shopping) services is maintained on this page . One that has gotten several positive comments is i-tm4u . For instance commenter Anna from Russia used them to buy a handcarved wooden bento box , and ODG from Hong Kong also had a positive experience .
Tenso  is another popular service. I have now tried them several times, mainly for shipments of Rakuten purchases, and they have been really reliable and prompt. (They have an official relationship with Rakuten.)
A new service that looks interesting is Flutterscape  if you want a ‘friend who shops for you in Japan’ kind of experience, albeit with strangers of course.
Update: Rakuten now has an International section - see this forum discussion . A Rakuten shopping guide is in the works.
There are two huge online sources in Japan for bento stuff: Yahoo! Japan Auctions  (which is so popular that eBay had to give up in Japan), and Rakuten Ichiba (marketplace) . Both sites are in Japanese only (Rakuten now offers machine translation of some of its pages, and their information pages are in real English). Here are some direct links to bento-related search results (let me know if you’d like to see some others):
Yahoo! Japan auctions:
So you are planning a trip to Japan. You want to stock up on bento boxes and accessories. Where should you go? There are stores to cater to many needs and budgets. Note that this guide is biased towards the Tokyo metropolitan area, but the general principles apply to other areas of the country.
The school year in Japan starts in April, so mid-February to early April or so is the big period for school supply shopping. Many young people who graduate from high school or university in March move away from home and start their new lives in April too. Mid-March to April is also the time when people go out in droves to appreciate the cherry blossoms (o-hanami), with picnic bentos in tow. So this is the big time for bento goods. You’ll see a big selection and lots of discount deals around. However, you can buy bento goods at any time of the year, especially at the specialist stores.
If you are looking for the most inexpensive bento boxes and supplies available, then head towards a 100 yen shop. This is the Japanese equivalent of the ‘dollar store’ concept in the U.S. (See how much 100 yen is in US dollars at current exchange rates ). Not everything sold at a 100 yen shop is 100 yen (some bento boxes for example are 200 or even 300 yen), but the vast majority of things are. At a 100 yen shop, you will find everything from bento boxes to utensils, picks to wrapping cloths (furoshiki), water bottles and more.
Tip: Bento boxes are typically located in both the kitchen supplies area and the ‘character goods’ area, so remember to look in both places.
100 yen shops are located all throughout Tokyo and many other metropolitan areas. Major chains include:
Most 100 yen shops are located within shopping malls or department stores. (You can also find other one-price-for all shops such as 300 yen shops, 500 yen shops, and so on.) Most of them sell the same products from the same manufacturers, especially Nakano Co.  (see more about their bento boxes such as Lube Sheep and puti fresh ). Savvy bento supply shoppers will already be familiar with these from various online sellers.
I’ve visited at least one branch of the stores listed above. My favorite is Seria - they have a nice selection of bento related products, as well as a lot of other cute or interesting kitchen, craft and bathroom supplies tht might appeal to the typical bento-ing fan. I’ve seen lots of cute picks, utensils, wrapping cloths and drawstring bags, and more there. The stores all have a bright, open feel and good selection of products. The one negative thing about Seria is that their bigger stores are out in the suburbs, more often than not in shopping malls that are not that easily reached by train. Their Tsutsuchigaoka store  and their Yokohama Center Minami store  are located close by a train station however (the latter one is the one I go to the most; I’ve also been to stores in the Machida area, where my sister lives).
My second favorite store is probably Natural Kitchen. Their bento supply selection is not that big, but they do have quite a lot of cute things for the kitchen and elsewhere to gawk at.
Daiso and Can Do are rather similar. I get the feeling that I’ve seen all their stuff already - if you live in an area with a Daiso store, or have visited one, I don’t really see any reason for you to make a trip to a Japanese Daiso unless you really want to. Prices are a little cheaper in Japan than they are elsewhere, which is a plus of course. I’ve visited both small and large Daiso stores, including the biggest one in the Kanto (Tokyo metropolitan) region, which is near Machida station.
Note that a 5% consumption tax (equivalent to VAT or sales tax) is added on to your purchase, so a 100 yen item will actually be 105 yen.
Any midsize or larger supermarket has a section dedicted to bento supplies. For instance my local Aeon/Jusco store has an aisle for character-oriented kid bentos, as well as one for more grown-up, restrained bento supplies. Prices are higher than at 100 yen shops - a typical character-adorned bento box, suitable for a child or someone with a small appetite, costs around 1000 to 1500 yen. Adult-sized bento boxes are around the same price.
For regular bento boxes and goods, look in the kitchen goods area of a department store. The selection of goods they carry varies from store to store. If a department store has a LOFT store or a 100 yen shop in the building, their own kitchen supply department may not have that much to offer in the way of bento supplies.
Many department stores also have a traditional Japanese crafts department, and they also periodically hold regional fairs on their ‘special events’ floor. These are the places to look for high end, traditional bento boxes such as magewappa, lacquerware, and so on. Kyoto, Nishi Nihon (western Japan) and Tohoku (northern Honshu) themed regional fairs are most likely to have some really nice bento boxes around. (Takashimaya, Isetan and Matsuya tend to have really nice regional fairs, but other department stores have them too.) The bamboo picks below were on sale at a regional Kyoto fair held at Sogo department store.
The two stores that have big, dedicated bento supply sections are LOFT and Tokyu Hands. Both chains maintain stores within department stores or shopping malls, as well as standalone stores. If you only have time to go to one or two stores for your bento needs, you should seek out a LOFT or Tokyu Hands.
If I had to choose one or the other just based on their bento supply selection, I would lean towards LOFT. However, Tokyu Hands is such a fun store to browse through anyway, I would really recommend you try to get to both.
Bento boxes sold at these stores range from around the 1000 yen range to 5000 yen and more for wooden boxes. The average is around 1500 to 2000 yen. All kinds of bento boxes for all ages and genders are available. Most of the boxes are plastic, but are more durable than the 100 yen shop type. Brands that you may recognize include Hakoya, Yellow Studio, Gel-Cool, Prime Nakamura and Aizawa Kobo. You’ll also see a wide variety of accessories, utensils and bento making goods that you won’t see sold by international online stores (especially eating utensils). The kitchen supply areas are worth browsing through too, for an abundance of cute and unusual gadgets.
Muji (Mujirushi Ryohin) carries 2 basic bento box models, a flat, large one and a narrow, stackable one, in black or white. I like these a lot and use the white one in particular far more often than the rest of my bento boxes put together. They have matching black or white chopsticks with cases too. Muji products are a lot cheaper in Japan than at their overseas stores. Most Muji stores are located within or right next to department stores.
You will often find unique bento boxes at stores dedicated to zakka (雑貨 - a catchall term for ‘things’ or ‘stuff’ - acccessories for the home, fashion stuff, kitchen supplies, etc…), boutiques, kitchen supply stores, and the traditional kanamono-ya (金物屋）or hardware and home supply store. Be on the lookout!
If you chance upon a crafts fair, you may find stalls selling wooden or bamboo chopsticks, accessories and bento boxes. Again, if you are into traditional crafts, be on the lookout for the regional fairs at the major department stores.
If your objective is bento boxes bearing the image of a specific character such as Hello Kitty, go to a ‘character goods’ store. Sanrio has stores in most of the major department stores as well as standalone stores (list of main stores in Japan in English ). I don’t know if the Sanrio amusement park Puroland  has bento boxes, but I’m sure they have plenty of other character goods for sale. Character-bento boxes can also be found at LoFt and Tokyu Hands; a few are also found at the 100 yen shops. I found some bento boxes and cute chopsticks at Tokyo Disney Resort, both at Disneyland and DisneySea - such as these Mickey Mouse hands chopsticks:
You may have heard about Kappabashi, the famous kitchen supply wholesale area in Tokyo. Is this a good place to go for bento supplies? If you are looking for the type of bento box used in restaurants (shokado bento), with the compartments and the flat lids, or perhaps a special wooden lacquerware box, then yes. But if you’re looking for that cute little Mameshiba box you saw online, then no - you should head to LOFT instead. However, Kappabashi is a fantastic place to go if you’re just into kitchen stuff, not to mention those famous plastic/wax restaurant food display models (warning: these can be expensive). You can find things of interest to bento-crafters such as interesting cookie/food cutters and so on. Note that prices for retail customers at Kappabashi stores are not cheap.
Konbini stores are all about things that people need urgently - and most people do not urgently need a bento box. So, konbini do sell ready-to-eat bentos, but in terms of bento making supplies the only things I’ve seen stocked are disposable inner cups and basic picks. (My local 7-11 did have a Winnie The Pooh bento box set for sale for a while but I think that was just a limited-time special.)
Personally, I don’t like the quality of the bento boxes sold at 100 yen stores. You do get what you pay for, I believe. However, 100 yen stores are great for picking up accessories like picks (which tend to break after a while anyway), as well as disposable items like paper or aluminum cups. You can also find some character-goods for cheap - for instance, I saw an Elmo bento box for only 100 yen at Seria. I do notice that often, the same item would be sold at a 100 yen shop and a LoFt or Tokyu Hands - except that at the 100 yen shop, there would be fewer items in a pack (for instance, fewer picks or cups) than at the regular-price shop. If you have time, try to comparison shop!
If you are concerned about buying things that carry the Made In Japan label - since, after all, you are visiting Japan - then you won’t find much to buy at a 100 yen shop. Most of the bento boxes sold at LOFT, Tokyu Hands, and better department stores are actually made in Japan, whether they are made of plastic, metal or wood. The accessories such as picks and cups are usually made elsewhere, usually in China.
Finally, if it’s in your budget, you may want to take a look at a real wooden magewappa and lacquereware bento boxes, as well as ones made of woven or solid bamboo, that you will encounter at the regional and craft fairs as well as some specialist shops. These traditional handcrafted boxes are a work of art as well as being practical boxes. The box below is a handcrafted bamboo box from a specialist store in Kyoto. It’s expensive and needs to be taken care of, but it’s such a pleasure to hold and behold.
I have put together a Google Map  of some of my favorite bento and other shopping destinations in the Tokyo-Yokohama area. (Note that I like crafts and stationery stores more than fashion-clothing stores or anime figurines and such.). It’s a work in progress, so please be patient :).
This is a list of kitchen equipment that I find useful in prepping my bento lunches as fast and as efficiently as possible. This is not about bento accessories such as cute picks and sauce bottles, which are nice to have but not essential.
For information about how to select a bento box that’s right for you, see Selecting the right bento lunch box .
I use the small frying pans for quick frying, sautéing, and more. I use the large frying pan for boiling and steaming tasks as well as sautéing.
How many minutes do you waste waiting for a pot of water to come to a boil? An electric water kettle does this essential task in the shortest time possible. One of the first things I do when making bento in the morning is to fill up my electric kettle and switch it on. If you are in the market for one, get the largest capacity model you can find.
A grill pan is one of the best ways to quickly cook a piece of fish or meat, but it can be used for vegetables, tofu and more too. (I actually use a Le Creuset grill pan , which is enamel coated on the outside and uncoated on the inside.)
Use a salad spinner to wash all the leafy vegetables you get and try to get into the habit of washing them as soon as you get them home. If you can’t manage that, at least try to wash them the night before you need them.
A rice cooker is the best tool for cooking white rice. The ‘set-it-and-forget-it’ convenience of a rice cooker with a timer function just can’t be beat. Many modern rice cookers can handle brown rice as well as white rice, and can cook other kinds of whole grains as well. People even make soups and breads in a rice cooker! See Answering some rice cooker questions  for more.
If you are a vegan or vegetarian, or interested in introducing more whole grains and pulses (dried beans and legumes) to your diet, a pressure cooker is a must. A pressure cooker is great for brown rice, whole grains that need longer cooking (like barley), and dried beans. Dried beans are so much cheaper and better tasting than canned, and cook up in a short time in a pressure cooker. I often make a batch of beans, portion them and freeze them. See Pressure Cooker Love .
The rest of the items should be self-explanatory.
For packing bento boxes:
Saibashi are long, uncoated chopsticks (usually made of bamboo) meant for cooking. Often they are attached together with a string, which I just cut off. They are great for mixing things up, stir-frying, and so on, as well as for putting food in the bento box. 2 or 3 pairs (or 4 to 6 individual) saibashi held together act sort of like a whisk for rapidly stirring things, but are much easier to clean. Regular chopsticks will do fine too, though be careful not to use the lacquered kind in hot pans.
And finally, a couple of larger appliances that are nice to have:
Essential bento making equipment to me is not about cute little egg formers or colorful plastic picks. It’s about tools that make bento assembly fast and easy. Using egg formers and the like is optional, not mandatory. There are several reviews of bento boxes and accessories on this site however - see the equipment and supplies  category, as well as the kyaraben  category for decorative bento supplies and ideas.
[It’s back-to-school time! This article was originally posted in September 2008, and revised several times since. There are lots of great ideas in the comments, so be sure to check them out! ]
Here’s a great question  from reader Jan:
I live in a college dorm, and I only have a microwave, water kettle and George Foreman-style grill (we aren’t allowed to have hotplates in here). Is it an option to grill tofu? And do you have any other suggestions for cooking with my limited resources?
Eating healthy in a dorm room can be a challenge indeed, especially without a fully equipped kitchen. I actually lived in a dorm-like setting (it was off-campus housing but set up like a dorm) for a few months during my early days in college. We had access to an ancient refrigerator, which was compartmentalized inside into lockable litle safe-like boxes with nameplates and keys (!). Each box was about the size of a hotel room safe, so there was barely enough space there for each person to store an apple and a can of soda. We could have a water heater in our rooms, but that was about it (though there were suspiciousl smells periodically wafting about the place from various rooms). I did move to a better place as soon as I could, but here’s what I remember doing from those days, plus some ideas about using those luxury items, a grill and a microwave!
From a regular (Western) grocery store:
From a Japanese grocery store:
Do you have any suggestions for dorm dwellers? Are you one yourself - and if so, how do you cope? Is thinking about making bento lunches in a dorm too ambitious?
Note: This bento safety article is one of the first ones I posted here on Just Bento, back in November 2007. I’ve edited it and added some more information, especially since more and more new people are coming to the site. Even if you’re a veteran bento maker, it’s good to go over the basics occasionally!
A traditional portable bento box meal is meant to be eaten eaten at room temperature. It’s typically made in the morning, then held for a few hours until lunchtime, also at room temperature. Millions and millions of Japanese people eat bentos like this (as well as an increasing number of people all around the world). There are some basic, time-tested precautions to take to ensure that your bento box meals will be tasty and safe when you tuck into them.
Using leftover and pre-cooked food reduces the time needed to assemble your bento in the morning. But the longer food has been lying around, even in the refrigerator, it gets less fresh and edible. Re-heating cooked food helps to kill off any micro-organisms that may have started to grow.
The best way to re-heat things in my opinion is in a pan, rather than the microwave, because the surface is where the microorganisms are likely to have formed, and the high heat of a pan will kill those off immediately. This is particularly important with meat, fish and even vegetable proteins. Japanese bento books usually recommend this.
In some cases it can be okay to pack food direct from the refrigerator, such as pre-made salads, instant pickles, and so on. Do use common sense though; packing leftovers from the night before is usually okay, but leftovers from 3 days ago get iffy. When in the slightest doubt, heat it through and cool it down.
You’re probably not going to be carrying a steak tartare to work for lunch. But you might think about sushi. Don’t. Raw fish is not safe unless it’s eaten immediately. (I’ve seen a couple of French bento cookbooks that use raw-fish sushi. They made me shudder, thinking of the people who might get sick eating hours-old raw fish.) If you have leftover sushi from the night before, throw it out or cook the fish if you must. (Yes you might have been ok eating leftover sushi, but you were lucky.)
Sushi that uses cooked or preserved foods (egg, boiled shrimp, broiled eel (unagi), vegetables like kanpyou (dried gourd strips), pickles) is ok, though always use caution. Futomaki, the colorful big pinwheel sushi, usually only uses cooked items so is usually ok. There are also special sushi varieties that are meant to be long-keeping, such as saba zushi (marinated horse mackerel that is pressed onto a log of rice), but you rarely see these outside of Japan. Sushi rice itself keeps fairly well, due to the vinegar and salt that flavors it.
Meat that has been cooked on the surface (e.g. roast beef that’s pink on the inside) is usually ok, but when in doubt pack such foods with an ice pack to keep them cool. Certain meats such as pork and chicken always need to be cooked through when used for bentos (and for other purposes too mostly.)
Undercooked meat is not safe, and neither is undercooked or raw fish. But undercooked or moist protein of any kind should be avoided when the weather is hot. Plain tofu, for example, that hasn’t been cooked through thoroughly, can be unsafe, and should be reserved for the cooler months. Or, use an icepack or other cooling device for safety. (Most tofu recipes on Just Bento will be totally cooked through, so are safe. For simple stir-fries and so on, I prefer using fried tofu over plain tofu because of the lower initial moisture content.)
Conversely, - and this may seem like common sense, but needs to be said - don’t use tofu that is bad in the first place. I have tasted so much bad tofu at various restaurants, and even in people’s homes. If the tofu smells or tastes sour or rotten or ‘off’ in any way, it should be tossed. To keep tofu that’s been opened fresh, totally immerse in fresh water and seal completely. Change the water at least once a day.
Tamagoyaki , the slightly sweet Japanese omelette, is a bento staple. But to be really good it has to be slightly moist in the middle. So, be sure to use fresh eggs, and to cool it down completely before packing into the bento box. (I’ve been expermenting a bit with freezing sliced tamagoyaki recently; I’ll report back soon with the results.)
Home made mayonnaise  is delicious, but should be used with caution, in foods like tuna salad. Commercial mayo has all kinds of preservatives in it that we’d rather not think about, but do keep our tummies happy. (See freezing tuna salad .)
Remember the McDLT? The gimmick with that burger was the two-part styrofoam container, with one side for the lettuce and tomato, and the other for the burger and bun. (Here’s an old commercial for the McDLT  featuring Jason Alexander, who played George Costanza on Seinfeld.) There was logic behind this rather environmentally unfriendly packaging. Any foods that should be kept cool, such as raw fruits and vegetables, should be kept in a separate container from the cooked foods, even if the cooked foods have had a chance to cool down. This will keep veggies fresh and crisp.
Unless an ice pack is specifically called for, all the complete bento lunch ideas as well as the individual component recipes are meant to be safe to eat without refrigeration, if the safety precautions on this page are followed.
In hot weather, it’s safer to pack an ice pack with the cool food. One trick is to freeze a juice carton or a small plastic bottle filled with the beverage of your choice, and to freeze it. Pack that with your lunch box, and it acts as an ice pack and will have defrosted enough to drink by lunch time.
If you’re carrying a bento meal that’s meant to be consumed more than a few hours later — e.g., a bento packed in the morning meant to be eaten in the evening for a night class — use an ice pack to be on the safe side, or use the foods that keep food fresher longer listed below. (An umeboshi onigiri (rice ball) will even keep for a couple of days.)
Some people assume that using a thermal lunch container such as Zojirushi’s Mr. Bento  will guarantee food safety. Don’t fall into that trap! Do remember that a thermal lunch container maintains heat at a certain level for longer than a regular lunch or bento box. So, if you pack a lukewarm, moist lunch, your food will become a great cosy breeding ground for the nasties. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for these thermal containers, and pack either piping hot or thoroughly cooled food in them.
Plain rice can actually go bad pretty fast, since it’s so moist. It can also become inedible quite fast if it goes a bit dry and hard, especially in the desert-like atmosphere of a typical refrigerator. This is why a rice cooker with a timer function  is a very useful thing to have.
If you do cook rice the day before, make sure it’s wrapped up completely before storing in the refrigerator. If you want to keep rice longer, it’s best to freeze it . You can carry the frozen rice as-is in a block (especially in hot weather), or heat it through completely in the microwave or by steaming, and cool down completely.
If you live in a very warm and humid climate, you may want to consider carrying rice in the form of sushi rice or as well-salted onigiri only in the summer - or with umeboshi (see below).
Traditionally, umeboshi (pickled plum)  has been used in bentos and as onigiri filling. The traditional hinomaru bento, a bento box filled with white rice sporting one, lone umeboshi in the middle, is a very good keeper. (Incidentally, the logo for Just Bento is inspired by the hinomaru bento.) Umeboshi may have antimicrobial qualities, as do (supposedly) shiso leaves.
Fresh, nontoxic green leaves used as dividers and wrappers are also supposed to have antibacterial qualities. These are not edible. The most popular one is fresh bamboo leaves. (Dried bamboo leaves are also used as as wrappers, but don’t have the same antimicrobial qualties as fresh.) Banana leaves, used in South-East Asian cuisine, may have similar properties.
Wasabi and ginger may also help to keep things fresher. Try using wasabi to flavor vegetables (example: broccoli with wasabi sauce ), or tucking some pickled ginger in the corner of your bento.
Salt is a time tested preserver, so the salt you put on the surface of onigiri  is not just for flavor - it’s to keep the rice fresher longer.
Sugar can also act as a preservative (think of jams and preserves), though you need to use it in some quantity.
Vinegar is also a preserver. Salty or vinegary foods keep longer than foods with little seasoning. Sushi rice keeps better than plain rice because of the vinegar, salt and sugar.
Some bento boxes, such as this one on the J-List/JBox site , have an anti-bacterial silver ion coating, which is supposed to keep your food safer for longer. You can also find antibacterial bento sheets designed to be placed on top of the food. However, using these products doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t follow the safety precautions listed on this page! Personally, I don’t use these products (though I do have the bento box linked to, just because it’s a big black one that’s perfect for The Guy’s bentos) because I have a feeling they just give a false sense of security.
A no brainer perhaps. But don’t try to re-use an unwashed bento box or Mr. Bento dish! Wash and dry everything thoroughly before you use them again. The same goes for any eating utensils, such as chopsticks, forks and spoons, and picks, and all the cooking implements you use to prepare your bento. As pointed out in the comments, don’t forget to wash the gaskets and edges of the lids and so forth too.
Did you know that you can contaminate food by tasting it? Example: if you dip a spoon into a pot of soup, taste from that spoon, then put the spoon back in to the pot, you’ve added whatever germs are in your mouth to the soup. This may not be a big deal if you’re eating the food right away, but if you’re going to be carrying it around for a few hours you want to be extra cautious. If you do need to taste while cooking, don’t use the utensil you put into your mouth back into the food.
Don’t forget about your hands either! Don’t use your fingers to pick up food and put it in your mouth while you’re making onigiri for example. And of course, you should wash your hands thoroughly before handling any food.
If you are a budding cute bento or charaben artist, be careful of over-handling food that you are bringing for bento, especially in hot weather. Try to avoid using your hands as much as possible. If you need to practice your decorative bento skills, you may want to consider eating the results immediately. There’s no rule that says rice shaped like Totoro has to be only be eaten for bento! Skilled charaben artists use chopsticks, toothpicks and tweezers to avoid over-handling the food.
My aim is not to scare you off of making bento lunches by any means. But it’s better to take just a few commonsense precautions. Bentos should make you healthier, not sick!
I’ve noticed that several kyaraben/charaben (cute bento) oriented Japanese bento blogs are scaling back on the intricacy of their bentos recently. It gets very warm and humid in the summer throughout most of Japan, so food safety is a big issue. Complicated charaben require a lot of handling of the food, which should be avoided when the weather is warm.
I have already put together a comprehensive list of bento safety tips , but here are some top summer bento safety tips.
From the archives: This is a foundation post for anyone interested in Japanese style bentos based around rice. Edited and updated to reflect some safety related questions. Be sure to read the linked bento safety posts too. Originally posted in October 2007.
Rice is the base carbohydrate for most Japanese style bento lunches, but the idea of cooking rice fresh every day may be rather daunting. If you have a rice cooker with a timer that can be set so that the rice is ready when you want to make your bento it is easier (and recommended if you make bentos daily). Of course this does mean that you need to rinse the rice the night before.
While I prefer to wash the rice the night before and set the timer on my rice cooker, I often freeze pre-portioned packets of rice to use on extra busy mornings. Rice freezes very well if you make sure that it’s still warm when you wrap up the portions. This retains the necessary moisture inside the plastic. It’s also a good idea to use sturdy, microwaveable wrap such as Saran Wrap.
I pre-portion the brown rice that I cook 5 cups at a time in a pressure cooker into 1 cup and 1/2 cup portions, using scoop-style cup measures. (I usually do this during the weekend.) After wrapping in the plastic wrap (cling film), I leave them until they have cooled down, then then double-bag them in zip bags and put them in the freezer. (For the environmentally conscious, the zip bags can be reused several times provided you don’t puncture them.) This amount lasts the two of us 2 to 3 weeks. To prepare a bento box, I use a 1 cup portion for myself and 2 cups or 1 1/2 cups for the bigger guy, re-heated in the microwave before stuffing into the box. Pre-portioning rice like this really helps to control portion sizes; when you’re in a hurry in the morning and scooping hot rice out of a cooker, portioning into a cup becomes a hassle.
You may choose to bring the frozen packet as-is, especially if you have a microwave at work. I prefer to re-heat the rice in the morning because I often find that the frozen packet is ice cold at lunchtime, which isn’t very pleasant.
If you do re-heat the frozen rice in the morning, be sure to cool it down again before closing up your bento box. Warm rice leads to condensation. Condensation within a closed bento box is the main cause of spoilage. I usually pack the rice in my bento box first, then leave the box open to cool down while I prep the rest of the contents.
If you want to be extra safe, pack the bento box with a small ice pack, and/or put a single umeboshi (salted pickled plum)  in the middle of the rice. The umeboshi in rice is the traditional way of keeping rice fresh. Umeboshi are available at any Japanese grocery store. (You don’t have to eat the umeboshi if you don’t like it - just throw it away.) See also: Keeping your bento lunch safe .
The shorter the grain, the moister the rice is and the better it seems to freeze and recover from freezing. So Japanese style ‘sushi’ rice or medium grain rice, round glutionous rice, other medium grain rices like arborio, vialone and ‘pudding’ rice, freeze well. On the other hand long grain rices such as jasmine rice, Carolina rice and basmati rice tend to get hard and dry. If this happens to your frozen rice, you can make it more edible by turning it into fried rice. See also: Looking at rice .
Pre-made onigiri  (rice balls), without the nori wrapping, can be frozen successfuly using the guidelines above. Just wrap each warm onigiri securely in plastic wrap and freeze. If you use the cling film method  of making onigiri, you can use that to wrap up the onigiri as soon as you make it. Don’t freeze rice balls that have been wrapped in nori seaweed though, unless you like soggy nori!
In Selecting the right bento box , I talked about how important it was to select the right size of box, especially if you are using bento lunches as a tool to lose weight. The other critical factor is to control the amount of rice you put into the box, if you are making Japanese style bentos.
Most regular Japanese bentos have quite a lot of rice in them - typically, at least 2 cups, compressed tightly to make room for the rest of the food (the okazu). 1 cup of medium grain brown rice (240ml, or 1 U.S. cup measure; around 7 oz or 190-200g in weight) is around 220 calories, so if you stuff in the rice following the norm, that’s quite a lot of calories. This is why I like to pre-portion the rice (by freezing  or not) and limit myself to 1 cup per bento. (For my bigger spouse, I put in 1 1/2 to 2 cups, depending on what else is in the bento.)
Another factor to consider is that since typical Japanese bentos have so much plain rice in them, the okazu (the other food) tends to be quite salty. If you have less rice, you will not want as much saltiness because you don’t need it to make the rice “go”. (There’s even a common phrase for this to indicate if something is tasty to have with rice - gohan ga susumu). I try to keep the salt content down in the bentos I post here. Another tactic I use is to add vegetables that are barely seasoned, such as the plain boiled green beans and carrots in Bento no. 1 .
Watch out for the saltiness in things like prepared pickles and furikake powder too.
[Edited to add:]
There is a small caloric difference between different types of rice. And as a commenter pointed out, I forgot to mention that by ‘cup’ I mean 1 U.S. cup, or 240ml. (For the sake of simplicity I just remember the numbers for brown rice, which is a bit more caloric than other types of rice. Overestimating a bit doesn’t hurt!)
Bento contents, 2-tier bento (580ml capacity):
Total calories (approx): 445 (how calories are calculated) 
Bento contents, 1-tier bento (670ml capacity):
Total calories (approx): 515 (how calories are calculated) 
Time needed for both: 10-20 minutes in the morning (depending on your assembly speed and neatness factor)
Type: Japanese, omnivore (salmon, egg)
This is a fairly standard, classic Japanese style bento. I make this type of bento far more than any other. I’ve already given instructions on how to make the individual pieces, but I thought it might be useful to see step-by-step how to pack a bento box properly, with an eye to the following:
I’ve used two standard type bento boxes; a 2-tier model, and a 1-tier model with a divider.
2-tier bento boxes are the most popular type according to a recent poll of Just Bento readers , and they are the type most commonly available from bento box suppliers, at least outside of Japan. They are a bit easier to pack than 1-tier boxes, and fit together in a nice compact way for easy portability. Here I’ve used a 2-tier blue Lube Sheep  box, with capacity of 580ml for both compartments.
Here are the components that will go into the bento box, besides the rice. (Note I usually don’t take the time to lay them out on a plate like this! This is just for show.) As you can see, there’s a nice balance of colors there from greens to reds to yellows. The confit  was made a couple of days before and stocked in the fridge, and the salmon was precooked and stocked in the freezer. (You can pack it frozen if you like, and it will defrost by lunchtime). The broccoli and snow peas cooked together in a small pan of salted water, and the 1-egg tamagoyaki  only took a couple of minutes to cook.
Always start packing a bento box with the rice. I’ve put the rice in the smaller compartment, since I’m watching my calories (normally in Japan the larger compartment is used for rice). I like to make it look neat, so I lightly flatten it out with a moistened spoon. You could also use your fingers for this.
I pack the pepper and onion confit in one corner of the other compartment. I use a silicone cupcake liner  here just to keep it neat, though it’s not totally necessary.
Next, I pack the protein elements: the small salmon piece and the tamagoyaki. They are cut to fit in the compartment more or less neatly.
I fill the gaps left with broccoli florets, as tightly as I can. By packing a bento box tightly, you prevent things from shifting around during transit. The less things move around, the more attractive the bento contents will be when the box is opened at lunchtime.
To finish up, I tuck in the snow peas (mangetout) which are cut on the diagonal wherever there is a little gap. I put a couple of slices on top of the rice, and sprinkle a little yukari (a furikake made from dried umeboshi and red shiso leaves) for added color. This is not necessary, but it does perk up the bento box just that little bit, and takes only seconds.
A one tier bento box is more of an open canvas than a two-tier, but the principles are the same. Here I’ve used a 670 ml capacity stainless steel bento box from Kobo Aizawa .
Again, start with the rice. I use the divider to squeeze the rice to one side to compact it, and flatten out the top with a moistened spoon. There’s 1 cup on rice. (By the way, yes it is white rice, the least healthy kind…but I just got another shipment from Japan of really great tasting rice, so I’m indulging myself here!)
This time, I pack in a bit more of the pepper and onion confit - about 3/4 to 1 cup’s worth. It’s pushed tightly to one side.
Next are the protein elements. I’ve put the salmon in a divider, but this isn’t necessary. It does show how flexible silicon liners are - far more versatile than rigid plastic divider cups.
Then I fill the gaps as tightly as possible with the broccoli, followed by the snow peas and the final decorative touch of the yukari.
It took me about 5 minutes per box to pack them, and I think they look pretty nice and colorful.
You may notice that although the capacity in ml. of the 2-tier bento box is 580ml, the calories I’ve packed in are only 445. And the capacity of the one-tier box is 670ml but the calories therein are just over 500. This goes against the conventional wisdom that the capacity of your bento box equals the number of calories you expect to pack in there (see Selecting the right bento box .) That’s because I packed in less rice than is normally put in (a standard adult-size bento box in Japan has 1 1/2 to 2 cups of rice), used relatively low-fat proteins (no fried chicken and such) More about packing lower-energy bento boxes in Skinny bento vs. not skinny bento .
As I have shown, the more tightly you can pack your bento, the less things will shift around, and the more attractive and appetising the bento will appear when it’s opened at lunchtime. I try to use vegetable-based items as gap fillers whenever possible. Here are some good gap fillers:
If you choose your gap fillers with an eye towards color as well as flavor and nutrition, you’ll end up with a first class bento box!
In my brief absence (I was trotting through parts of Japan, doing serious bento research - honest! ^_^;) I’ve noticed quite a lot of new visitors to the site again. A lot of them are coming from this post on the New York Times Diner’s Journal blog  by Samatha Storey, who wrote an article last year  which helped to bring homemade bentos to the attention of a lot of people. There are also people coming from various forum threads, such as this one on Ravelry .
I could point all the new visitors and potential bento fans to various Getting Started articles here as I periodically do, but I’ve already done that over on the left sidebar (points over there). So instead, I thought I’d turn the microphone over as it were, to all the current JustBento readers and bento veterans. Tell the new people, why do you make bentos? What articles on JustBento do you find particularly useful? Which recipes do you like? What other useful bento sites are out there (self-linking allowed)? Help to evangelize the cult of bento! ^_^ Also, please let them/us know who you are (e.g. graduate student, full time mom, athlete, lawyer, etc), where you’re from (town/state/country etc) and general age, just so people know what kinds of people make bentos. (I know we’ve had posts like this before, but I plan to keep this at the top where new visitors can find it easily.)
I was re-reading novel that used to be a favorite guilty pleasure* the other day. One minor scene in the book recounting the childhood of one of the main protagonists describes her lunch routine when she was a little girl. She would always share a lunch with her mother at her workplace. The emphasis is mine:
There was always something hot, nourishing, and delicious in [her mother’s] covered basket for them to share. Many of the other workers also brought their lunches from home…
I’m sure I didn’t even notice that passage when I read the book originally, but now that I am hyper-attuned to anything related to bringing lunch from home, I found the “hot, nourishing and delicious” part intriguing. First of all, presumably the mother brought the lunch from home in the morning. The time period was the 1950s, so there were no microwave ovens. So how did the mother manage to make the lunch brought in a covered basket hot? Actually I’m sure that the author did not even think this through when she wrote it; she was great at detail in most of her books, but I think she was a lot more interested in things like fashion and sex than food. She probably threw in the phrase “hot, nourishing and delicious” to convey a feeling of a mother’s love for her little daughter.
In many cultures, hot food is associated with those terms ‘nourishing and delicious’, even if the food we actually put in our mouths is not piping hot most of the time. And this insistence on hot food is a psychological barrier for quite a few people regarding bento meals and the fact that they are mainly meant to be eaten cold/at room temperature , judging from the comments and emails I’ve gotten over the years. Quite a few people cannot even conceive of eating a ‘cold’ lunch; to them giving a ‘cold’ lunch to kids seems positively cruel. The comments to my Quora reply about heating up bento boxes  are pretty typical.
To my mind, only a few foods have to be eaten piping hot: soups and stews and curries, hot cooked porridges, hot tea or coffee, bao or steamed buns . Many foods are a lot better when they are hot or at least warm, such as the spring rolls (harumaki)  I posted a recipe for last week - on JustHungry, not JustBento, as you may have noticed. But there are plenty of foods that are delicious, even better, at room temperature - and that’s what most homemade bentos are composed of. (Some, though not all, cheap storebought bentos in Japan are meant to be heated up a bit in the microwave before eating, although they can usually be eaten without heating up too.)
Some Japanese people do like to reheat their bentos - the most frequent complaint is against cold rice - so if they have access to a microwave, they’ll heat up their food there. Some kindergartens have bento heating facilities, where metal bento boxes and be put in en masse and steam-heated. And of course there are thermal lunch jars and bento boxes . But as I’ve stated on these pages before, most bentos are eaten without reheating - and no, it’s not weird at all. I think the prejudice against ‘cold’ food is a cultural and psychological one in the main. Is hot food always more nourishing for you than cold? Are hot Tater Tots** better for a child than a ‘cold’ pasta salad brought from home with lots of vegetables and protein? Obviously not if you think it through, but it’s hard to shake those deeply ingrained beliefs.
So if you’ve been resisting the idea of packing a bento lunch because of the heat issue, try this: make a list of at least 5 foods that you love, that don’t have to be piping hot or even warm to enjoy. Now imagine packing those foods in a portable container. You”ve taken the first steps towards incorporating bentos in your routine! Then, try the recipes  on this site, 99% of are meant to be tasty at room temperature. (For anything that needs to be refrigerator-cold or hot, I say so clearly and suggest appropriate measures, such as using a thermal lunch jar.)
[* In case you’re interested, that old guilty-pleasure book is Scruples  by Judith Krantz. I found it hidden in the drawer of the bedroom was assigned to in the house my parents rented in Port Washington, Long Island, for a month while they were house hunting, after we moved back to the U.S. from Japan. I think the bedroom belonged to a teenaged girl, and the book was dog-eared at all the naughty bits. For 16-year old me, it was quite a revelation. I must have re-read that book 10 times in that month…and it may even have helped to brush up my rusty English. ^^]
[** I love Tater Tots, in moderation.]
It’s that time of year again! Today is December 30th, and this year New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day take place conveniently (or not, depending on your perspective) take place over the weekend. You can give yourself up totally to partying or whatever you usually do on those days, and start the New Year on a day when most of us kick off a new week anyway.
Since I like to get a headstart on a brand new year, I always start thinking about the things I want to accomplish during the year in the waning days of the old one. I made a few resolutions  for 2011 at the end of last year, and well…I didn’t get to do a whole lot of them. My year was dominated by three things: the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, my continuous health problems, and late in the year my sudden though not totally unexpected father’s passing. The first event totally changed my plans for my spring trip to Japan; instead of doing things normal, fun things like the long ekiben  - eating train voyage around the country I was originally intending, I spent a lot of time talking to people about the aftermath of that terrible event (you can see some of the related articles on Just Hungry , as well as on the Japan Times, BlogHer  and so on). And once I got back home in June, my health problems started to take over, and I got the “C” diagnosis . And just when I thought the worst was over, literally as soon as I got home after my hysterectomy surgery, I got the news that my father had died.
2011 was “my” year in a way, as I explained last year  - it was the Year of the Rabbit, and I am a toshi-onna (a woman born in the year of that particular animal sign). There is a superstition that good things tend not to happen in “your” year, and I guess that was kind of the case for me this year! What a bummer. But maybe 2012, the Year of the Dragon, will bring new energy and better karma.
But anyway, back to bentos and resolutions! For 2012 my top priority is getting my body healthy again. And you can be sure that bentos will play a big part in that. I never really thought that I ate unhealthily on a regular basis - I rarely go out to eat a fast-food places and such, and most of our meals are cooked at home. But I can do a lot better, for myself and for The Guy. When you get seriously sick, you really realize just how important, and how fragile, the state of your body is for simple day to day happiness. So more than ever, the bentos around here will have a health focus - with plenty of fun thrown in too of course!
The one great thing that happened this year to me was the success of The Just Bento Cookbook . I thought it might do well, given all the wonderful people (that’s you!) who support this site so enthusiastically, but I didn’t anticipate it doing so well that it’s gone to 5 printings in just one year, despite being out of print briefly due to some shuffling of publishing companies and such. And now I’m thinking out loud, but…is there anything I didn’t manage to cover in that book bento-wise, that needs to be? Hmm…we’ll see. ^_^
So what about you? Are you already thinking ahead to 2012 too? Please share your resolutions, bento related or not! And let’s ring out this year in grace and style.
On Saturday, I had my first book signing event at Kinokuniya  in New York. (See what’s coming up this week , especially if you’re in Seattle!) I was quite nervous since I’ve never done a book signing before, but I think it went pretty well. ^_^; I’ll have more photos up somewhere as soon as I’ve processed them, but here’s just one. I’m the black blob in the right bottom corner!
After I stumbled my way through a short introduction of the “what is bento” subject, with a bit of show-and-tell of various bento boxes, we had a Q & A session. One of the questions asked was, what’s the difference between a regular lunch box a bento box? I had to think a bit about my answer. Essentially there is no difference between a box you pack for lunch, and a bento box, since basically a bento (for lunch) is Japanese for a lunch box!
I guess the main reason why I, and many other people, talk in terms of bento rather than lunch box is that the term ‘bento’ carries with it a whole lot of tradition and useful ideas from which to draw from. Things such as:
A sandwich is fine for lunch, and in Japan a sandwich bento is still a bento. I love sandwiches, but a sandwich every day gets monotonous. I love salad for lunch too, but a bunch of salad just dumped into a container, bumped around for a while in a backpack, can look a bit iffy. So, I turn to the Book of Bento. I don’t mean The Just Bento Cookbook necessarily; I’m referring to the the knowledge that I’ve accumulated, from my mom, my grandmothers, my aunts, my sister-with-two-kids, other bento cookbooks and blogs and web sites, and more.
It may sound corny, but to me a bento box is about giving a bit of love to someone too. That someone can be you, though having someone else make you a bento is that much more special. (I still love it when my mom makes a bento for me, when I’m back in Japan.)
Here’s a Japanese video - actually a commercial for Tokyo Gas (a utility company) - which explains the role of homemade bentos in Japanese life so well, as well as showing some pretty typical homemade bentos. (I love the “Sorry! I overslept! one at 0:26.) The mother narrating the story is reminiscing about how she kept on making bentos for her mostly unresponsive, moody teenage son through 3 years of high school. She thought of them rather like one-way letters or emails to her son; she never got a verbal reply, until the very end, but the box that came back empty every day was reply enough for her. And in the last empty bento box, her son encloses a note, saying “Thanks….sorry I could never say that before”. (I always tear up at that part….)
(I love these sentimental food-and-family-love commercials from Tokyo Gas. This fried rice post over on Just Hungry  has another one.)
In sum, I guess it’s all about treating your lunch with a bit of tender love, and injecting it with some fun and variety. (And you know, you can call it a lunch box instead of a bento too! It’s all about the substance really.)
Anyway, thank you to the lady who asked that question (sorry I didn’t get your name), for making me think! I wish I could have been this articulate on the spot. ^_^;
Happy New Year everyone!
The start of a brand new year is the time for resolutions of course, and many of you reading this may have made bentos part of your plans for 2013. So, if you have any questions or comments about bento-ing - anything at all - this is an open thread post for you to pose them. If you are brand new to bento making, don’t be shy and ask anything you like - I know that going through the hundreds of articles here on JustBento can be a bit intimidating. On the other hand, if you’re a bento veteran you may want to let the newbies know what about bento making has worked, and what hasn’t, for you. And whatever your level of bento-making expertise, if you like let us know what your goals for 2013 are. I’ll be answering the most frequently asked and/or interesting questions together in future posts. (Note: I’ll be reading your comments on Facebook too but it’s best to post your comment here on the site, right below.)
Here’s to a great bento 2013!
Reader Suzi no miko left this great comment :
I am a vegetarian and my husband is not (slight issue…). When I make Bento for the two of us I end up making a bunch of different things because he wants meat in his Bento almost every day. He’s also on the South Beach Diet thing and won’t eat rice, carrots, corn, potatoes, soba, fruit, etc… This page had been very helpful to us (more specifically me) and thanks to our bento boxes making portion control easy and the tips on packing from you we have collectively lost about 50 pounds.
That is really great - congratulations to Suzu no miko and her husband! Bentos are a great weight loss aid, as I’ve written before , because portion control is much easier than with large or more open containers.
One point that Suzu no miko brought up is something I have to deal with too: how to make a vegetarian-based bento that an omnivore, or a bigger eater, would feel satisfied with. I often show the bigger-portion version of each complete  bento , but here are some general tips:
What do you do to deal with a bigger eater or an omnivore’s bento needs?
2010 was pretty event-filled for me. I went to Japan twice, after many years away, for a total of nearly 5 months, re-acquainting myself with my roots. Both my parents went through serious illnesses and operations. I moved into a new (old) house in a French village , then promptly got a serious infection and was hospitalized for weeks . And last but certainly not least, I finished a little book  that so far has been way more popular than anyone anticipated.
2011 is the Year of the Hare or Rabbit (usagi) according to what’s commonly called the Chinese Zodiac in the west (in Japan, the 12 animals symbolizing the years are called eto 干支). That will make me a toshi onna, or woman who was born during the year of the bunny. (If you’ll be 12, 24, 36, 48, 60, 72, etc. next year, you too will be a toshi onna during the Bunny Year, or a toshi otoko if you’re a guy. And of course, babies born next year will be Bunny Year Babies.) Being a toshi onna (or otoko) is not necessarily considered to be all good; you may have good luck, but you may be in danger of running into bad luck too. Either way, if I am to believe such things, it may turn out to be an even more interesting year than 2010.
I know that we can make resolutions at any time of the year, but New Years Day is really the perfect time to shake off the past and make a promise to oneself to start something new, or continue a good thing. I’d certainly like to shake off the bad things about 2010, and arm myself with some good intentions and plans for 2011.
Bento-wise, I’m interested a accomplishing number of things: exploring some traditional Japanese foods more deeply, researching the world of ekiben  further, using bentos as a continuing tool towards keeping my blood sugar in check (it’s working well so far in that respect, barring some lapses such as extended mochi testing sessions ) and improving my decorative food cutting skills. But above all, I want to continue spreading the word of bento around the world, and introducing people to the fun and versatility of the portable meal in a box.
So, how about you? Do you have any bento-related resolutions for 2011? Share them with the world right here!
One of the people who share their bento related resolution in the comments here will get one precious advanced copy of the 2nd printing of The Just Bento Cookbook, signed of course. The book is sold out on Amazon.com  right now, and getting scarce in other places until they can receive new shipments, so if you didn’t get one in your Christmas stocking, now’s your chance. Your resolution/comment must be posted here (and it must be a comment, not an email reply if you’re reading this by email) by the end of 2010 - that is, until 11:59:59pm of December 31st CET (Central European Time). Good luck, and let’s ring out the old year with a bang!
(Comments are now closed. The winner of the book will be announced soon! Happy New Year!)
One barrier to bentos for a lot of people might be the whole idea of eating cooked food that’s cold, or at room temperature. The basic bento in Japan is meant to be eaten at room temperature, and is still very tasty (insulated/keep-hot bento containers are not that widespread in use, despite the efforts of manufacturers). Aside from some food that’s designated otherwise, we are geared to thinking that food that’s cooked should be hot. It’s true that food that’s meant to be eaten hot can taste blah when cold. There are some tricks to use when making food that you intend to eat in a non-heated bento though.
[Edit, added later at my mom’s suggestion]
Onigiri (rice balls) are a staple bento ingredient, and can be made in all kinds of shapes with all kinds of fillings . As I’ve covered this past week or so, you can even get bento boxes designed specifically for carrying onigiri . Previously on Just Bento and Just Hungry, I’ve covered how to make them the traditional way by hand , and using plastic wrap and a cup .
Reader Samantha (aka Koorogi) sent in this great way to make onigiri that cleverly uses the corner of a plastic bag, to make these perfectly triangular or cone-shaped rice balls, as well as other shapes. It’s definitely a method worth adding to your repertoire. (All the photos in this entry are taken by Samantha.)
The basic tools she uses are: a plastic bag, a bowl or container containing salted water, and a rice paddle. She recommends starting the process by cooking the rice first, cooking the filling if you are using one, and getting everything together while the rice finishes cooking. (She uses Calrose brand rice: See this all-encompassing article about onigiri  for what kind of rice to use that sticks well together!)
Here’s how she forms a basic unfilled onigiri, in her own words:
Samantha says that you can form the onigiri into other shapes while it’s still in the bag - her kids like kitty shaped onigiri!
Making filled onigiri is just as easy, with a little adjustment. At step 4, put in 2/3rds of the total amount of rice for the onigiri in the bag. Then:
Once the onigiri are formed, you can add nori seaweed, sesame seeds, more salt if needed, and so on. She says that using this method, it only takes about “20-25 seconds to prepare an individual non filled onigiri and about 35-40 seconds per filled onigiri” - and it’s only her second try!
For the tasting looking filling the onigiri shown here, Samantha used frozen tilapia that she gets in big bags from Sam’s Club (she says Albertson’s carries them as well). Here’s her recipe:
“To prepare the Tilapia filling, place a single piece of frozen Tilapia (one individual pack, plastic removed) in a non stick skillet. No oil or anything should be needed. You can spray the skillet with a light spray of Pam if you would like. Once it starts turning white (instead of translucent) flip it over. Once it starts to brown, salt. I use freshly ground sea salt that you can pick up at most stores, but you can use table salt as well. Break it up gently as you continue flipping it. It should begin to start flaking. Once it’s completely broken up and starting to get crunchy, sprinkle some sesame seeds and then pour a little bit of soy sauce on it (to taste), cook it a few minutes longer until the fish is not so wet because of the soy sauce. Once your filling is done, go ahead and set it aside.”
Samantha says: “Even my husband (who can’t stand white rice) fell in love with them and is now asking me to start making him full on bentos as long as they include onigiri.”
A big thanks to Samantha for sharing her great method!
[Update:] Also check out the Onigiri (omusubi) FAQ! 
Onigiri (or omusubi, the other name for the same thing), the cute little rice ball, has really become popular outside of Japan in the last few years, in large part it seems due to its iconic status in anime and manga. While the onigiri is not limited in Japanese food culture to just bento use, it’s an indispensable part of the bento maker’s repertoire.
Previously on Just Hungry, I’ve explained how to make onigiri twice: the traditional, hot salty palms way , and an easier method using plastic wrap and a cup . And you can always use a plastic onigiri mold  if neither method appeals. However, I have never really gone into depth about the different shapes and kinds of onigiri. So, here it is - a parade of different kinds of onigiri: shapes, coverings, fillings, and more.
Onigiri must be made with sticky, short- or medium-grain rice, ideally steam-cooked japonica type rice . If you can’t get a hold of Japanese rice (also commonly sold as ‘susi rice’), Italian medium-grain rices uses for risotto like vialone (which is the most like Japanese urichi-mai), arborio and so on can be used. Long grain type rice just will not stick together sufficiently. See the Looking at Rice  article for an in-depth explanation of different types of rice, and what can and cannot be used successfully for onigiri.
(Note that I’ve used white rice for illustration purposes for this article, but properly cooked brown rice can be used in most cases too.)
As stated above, an onigiri does not have to be triangular. As long as it holds together, it can be any shape possible.
Above are the the traditional hand-formed onigiri shapes: triangle, flattened round, and cylinder or tawara. Tawara is the shape of the traditional straw bale that was for storing and transporting rice.
This is a plain ball of rice, lightly salted on the outside. There is no filling, nor any cover. If one has excellent quality rice, such as top class shinmai (new rice from the current harvest) and wants to savor the pure flavor of the rice, this is the one to have.
A plain onigiri like this is the essence of Japanese food to me: rice, and salt. Rice was so important that the wealth of lords used to be measured in how much rice their lands produced, and salt is used extensively in Shinto rituals even now, to purify and sanctify. The onigiri as religious icon? Why not?
This is the most popular kind of onigiri, with a small amount of salty filling in the inside covered with plain rice, which is covered partly or fully with nori. Depending on if you like your nori crispy or a bit soft and moist, you either carry the nori separately and wrap it around the rice when eating, or put it on the rice when making (and when the rice is still warm). Since it’s like thin paper, it can be cut easily with scissors, and is used quite a lot for decorative ‘cute’ bento.
This is a filled or unfilled onigiri that is sprinkled on the outside with something. Sesame seeds, gomashio (sesame seeds mixed with salt), or furikake (mixed savory sprinkles - there are many various flavors) are commonly used. The one on the left is sprinkled with gomashio, and the one on the right with two colors of yukari (dried shiso leaf powder).
For this type of onigiri, the rice is first mixed with something, then formed into a ball. The example above on the left is mixed with green peas, and the one on the right is mixed with homemade furikake made from radish leaves and bonito flakes (recipe ). Since the rice is flavored, this type usually doesn’t have a filling, and is often not covered to show the rice off (or just has a minimal nori strip). Anything can be mixed into the rice like this as long as it’s not too moist or oily, which will make the rice grains fall apart.
This type of onigiri shows off the inside and is only wrapped around the sides, rather than all around the ball. This one is rather more difficult to make than other types.
Nori is the most common onigiri wrapping, but there are other wrappings. Here is one wrapped in salted green shiso leaves .
Other wrappings include nozawana zuke (pickled green leaves) and hakusai zuke (pickled nappa cabbage), thin dried kombu seaweed called tororo, and so on. I’ve even seen salted lettuce leaves and kimchee used as wrappers. Onigiri wrapped with alternate wrappers can be filled or unfilled, depending on how salty the wrapping is.
Onigiri that is grilled on a wire grill until crispy, then brushed with soy sauce or miso. Yaki onigiri are best served hot, though they can be chewy yet tasty bento additions. Yaki onigiri usually do not have fillings, though some people like to put a little umeboshi or okaka inside (see the Filling section below).
In response to my previous onigiri posts on Just Hungry, the question asked the most is about fillings. I have already written about this before, but it bears repeating here. Basically, anything that fits with rice and is not too greasy or watery can be used as filling. So, if the traditional fillings don’t appeal to you, try things that you like and see how they taste!
If you are a traditionalist as I tend to be, here are the most popular fillings.
From the top, clockwise:
Rather less traditional but widely popular:
If you use molds you can make other shapes too, such as these above. Why not a bunny or cat onigiri? Personally I don’t use molds much since I can make them by hand a lot faster, but they can be fun if you have the time, or are making them for a party or something like that. (I actually used egg molds to make the ones in the photo.) Faces can be made with cut nori or anything you can imagine. It should all be edible though!
You can also play around with the size of the onigiri. Here’s a ‘jumbo onigiri’ side by side with a regular sized onigiri. The Jumbo has three kinds of fillings inside,has about 2 1/2 cups of rice, and comes in at around 600 calories. It’s a two-fisted onigiri!
A small to average sized onigiri has around 1/3 to 1/2 cup of rice, which is 80-110 calories. Depending on how big you make them they could be even more. If you are doing portion control, it’s best to pre-measure the amount of rice as in this method .
Onigiri can be frozen, well wrapped and filled (except for tempura and chicken karaage type fried fillings, which can get soggy or tough if you microwave them later). I would not make onigiri with frozen rice however - it’s best to form the onigiri an then freeze it. You can then de-frost them, still wrapped, at room temperature, in the fridge or gently defrosted in the microwave. See also: Keeping onigiri fresh and more .
Combined with the previous onigiri articles linked to here, I hope that this answers most, if not all, of the onigiri questions you may have. (Except for the famous Hawaiian Spam Musubi. I still haven’t tried it. Anyone want to invite me to Hawaii? ^_^) (Since this article was originally posted, I’ve been to Hawaii, and tried spam musubi several times. I found them edible but do not love them. Sorry, spam musubi fans!)
Before asking a general question about onigiri, please check out the Onigiri FAQ page . Chances are your answer is already there!
Here’s an ultra-quick tip from a Japanese magazine. Sometimes I make a lot of onigiri, for a picnic or a party for example. I usually like to stick to the basics and wrap them in nori seaweed. The problem with that is that they all look the same from the outside, so the only way to identify what a particular onigiri’s filling is to crack it open slightly! That can get a bit messy.
The ‘why didn’t I think of that’ simple solution: Just put a tiny amount of the filling on top of the onigiri, as I’ve done in the photo. Not only does it show what’s inside, it makes the first bite into the onigiri that much more tasty. I think it also looks rather cute!
For these onigiri, I used brown rice, and my mother’s homemade umeboshi, which she brought along all the way from Japan. Beautiful, aren’t they?
Check out her recipe for making umeboshi  over on Just Hungry!
I have written quite exhaustively about onigiri, or rice balls, here on Just Bento as well as on Just Hungry . Many people have asked similar questions about onigiri, which seem to just be gaining and gaining in popularity these days. So I’ve assembled a list of Onigiri FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions). I’ll update this list when I see (or remember) other questions periodically.
As I touched upon briefly in Bento Basics , there are different kinds of bento box meals, and this site is primarily concerned with bento lunch boxes. Even these come in different varieties.
There are three main types of homemade bento lunches that are popular in Japan at the moment. Here I’ll try to describe them, with example blogs and books from Japan. (Please note that all book links are Amazon or other associate links, which help to support Just Bento and Just Hungry.)
This is a homey bento with no particular aim or philosophy behind it beyond being tasty, filling, reasonably nutritious and attractive. They use meat, fish, and prepared foods that have been used in bento lunches for decades: fried korokke, frozen shumai, the ubiquitous wiener sausage , and so on.
Example Japanese bento blog: Bento . This has helpful ingredient listings in English, though it’s mostly in Japanese.
A great book of this type is Kihon no Obento , a “mook” (magazine-format book) published by Orange Page, a popular magazine. It’s in large format with gorgeous closeups of all the bentos and recipes, so even if you don’t understand Japanese you should be able to get a lot out of it.
Also known as “cute bento”, “character bento (kyaraben)”, “entertaining bento (entaatein-bento), etc. This type of bento has garnered the most interest outside of Japan on the web, because they are so visual. This is really more of a hobby rather than an everyday thing that most Japanese mothers do, contrary to some misconceptions out there.
Example Japanese bento site: the famous e-obento  - not a blog, but updated frequently.
This site , by a mother of a kindergarten age child is a slightly less extreme example. She decorates a bit, but not always, and all the bentos are quite pretty even without smiley faces.
Example book: Miyazawa Mari no waku waku oekaki bento , by the owner of the e-obento site. (This is another “mook”, and has beautiful large photos.) She has several other books out on the same subject. The bentos she makes are quite mind-boggling. I can barely imagine actually eating them because they are so pretty.
Health-conscious bentos have been around for a long time, but in the last decade or so there has been a lot more attention being paid to bentos made with soshoku in mind. Soshoku means plain, simple food that is respects the ingredients. Much, though not all, of the focus is on traditional Japanese foods. Organic food, fresh vegetables, and whole grains are emphasized. Not all of it is vegetarian, since fish is used sometimes. There are offshoots of this category that are vegan or vegetarian: some go back to traditional sho-jin cooking, vegan cooking developed by Zen Buddhist monks. Macrobiotic  bentos are quite popular too. While they appeal more to adults, some health-conscious mothers focus on this for their kids’ bento lunches too. It’s interesting that even e-obento  is focusing on things like sprouting brown rice these days.
Example Japanese bento blog: C’s Blog , a mostly macrobiotic bento blog.
Example book: Soshoku no susume: Obento recipe . This is one of my favorite bento books, and it was a real eye opener for me when I first read it. It advocates simple, seasonal bentos, emphasizing brown rice or half-hulled brown rice (which is unfortunately not very available outside of Japan) and vegetables.
My all time favorite bento book, Watashi tachi no Obento (Our Obento, links on the left sidebar), which features bento lunches from regular people, has quite a lot of bentos that could be considered to be in the soshoku type.
I tend to make bentos of this last type, with some forays into the first type, the basic bento. Simple soshoku bento really keep me grounded health-wise, as well as being tasty and beautiful to look at without too much fiddling around. (I have nothing against bento artists who have the time and enthusiasm to make art bento, but I’d rather admire them rather than make them. I do make amigurumi and things though. Maybe that’s another blog.)
During the week I often get so rushed and busy with everyday life that I barely have time to stop and think about anything, including making bento lunches. So I try to do a little prepping over the weekend, when I have some extra time. I’m not really talking about spending hours in the kitchen, but easy things that can be done either in a few minutes, or unattended while I do the laundry or just take a long nap.
I do most of my grocery shopping on the weekend though I do buy veggies and things on other days. (Our local supermarkets tend to start their sales on Wednesdays or Thursdays, so that affects the shopping pattern too.)
I don’t do all of these things every weekend, but I do often do one or two of them. I think the key to keeping habits going is to not try to do everything.
Even if you can manage to do one or two things to be ready, your bento making will go a lot quicker and smoother, and you won’t be as liable to giving up and grabbing a Big Mac Meal!
A few weeks ago, there was an article in the Food section of the New York Times about cooking pasta in a reduced amount of water  (registration required), written by Harold McGee aka The Curious Cook. (In case you don’t know, Harold McGee is a very interesting food writer, who approaches cooking from a scientific angle. If you are of a geeky bent or love reading about the hows and whys of food in general, I highly recommend his book On Food and Cooking .) The gist of the article is that it’s possible to cook pasta in far less water than is usually recommended, and that you can even start from cold water!
While the rationale in the article for reducing the amount of cooking water is to save energy, I was intrigued by the possible time saving benefits, especially when making bentos. Up until now I’ve tried to save as much time as possible by boiling water in an electric kettle (which is high on my list of essential bento making equipment ), then pouring it into a pot to cook pasta. But I was still using plenty of water in relation to the amount of pasta (around 6 cups for a cup of dry pasta). I’d often re-boil another potful of water for cooking other things, like vegetables.
In the New York Times article, Mr. McGee uses about 1 to 1.5 quarts (about 1 to 1.5 litres) of cold or boiling water and 2 teaspoons of salt for a pound (450g) of dry pasta. Since I usually only cook about 1 to 1.5 cups of dry pasta (around 100g to 150g) for bentos, that’s the amount I started with. I put 1 cup of macaroni into a fairly small saucepan, added about 2 cups of cold water (just enough to cover completely) plus about a teaspoon of salt, and started cooking at high heat.
I needed to stir it around a bit to keep the pasta from sticking to itself and the bottom of the pan, but the water came to the boil in about 3 minutes. I then lowered the heat a bit to a fast-bubbling simmer and let it cook, stirring occasionally, and it took the normal amount of cooking time, about 9 minutes (your time may vary according to the pasta).
In the meantime, I chopped up and sautéed some vegetables and chicken in a frying pan on another burner. Once the pasta was drained, I tossed it into the frying pan for a few minutes. Including the cooling time of about 5 minutes and the time it took me to pack it into a box and so on, I had a all-in-one pasta dish ready to go in under 20 minutes. Not bad! A few hours later (i.e. lunchtime) the flavor of the pasta was not noticeably different from pasta cooked in the regular way for me, and I didn’t notice any gumminess or excess starchiness. It certainly had a much better texture than pasta made the night before and re-heated in the morning - which, as you all probably know already, is the other time-saving method for pasta bentos.
I did another pasta boiling experiment, but this time to try to get the water to come to a boil even faster, I put a lid on the pan. Umm, big mistake. The water combined with the starch of the pasta to boil up and out of the pan, flooding the rangetop. I’m sure there is a scientific explanation for why this happens if you put a lid on the pan, but my copy of On Food and Cooking is still in storage so I can’t look it up now.
Moving on, I tried cooking the pasta in a similar amount of boiling water. I boiled the water in the electric kettle, then poured about 2 - 2.5 cups (enough to cover completely) over the 1 cup of dry pasta with a teaspoon of salt. Now, I don’t think my experimentation methods were quite stringent enough for comparison purposes, since I boiled a whole kettleful of water (1.8l) as opposed to boiling just 2 cups or so of water. Anyway, the kettle water boiled up in around 3 minutes, so the final cooking time of the pasta was similar to starting from cold water, for this small amount of pasta. The result taste- and texture-wise was quite similar too. So, I think if you’re just cooking pasta, you can use the cold water method, but if you need more boiling water for cooking something else (e.g. vegetables) then boil up a kettleful of water first and proceed from there.
My conclusion is that this is a great method for cooking the types of pasta that are most suited to bentos - the short kinds like macaroni, penne, orecchiette, fusilli, farfalle and so on. I’m not sure about long pasta, besides the fact that long spaghetti and so on won’t fit in a small saucepan without (gasp!) breaking it. Mr. McGee recommends pre-wetting long pasta to prevent it from sticking, but that defeats the objective of saving time and effort for bento making purposes.
I have not tried the less-water method with Japanese noodles like soba and udon yet. My instinct tells me it won’t work, since these noodles tend to have a lot more surface starch (which has to be washed off later) compared to dried Italian pasta, but I’ll try to give it a go sometime and report back.
In any case, next time you’re cooking pasta, for a bento or a quick dinner, give this method a try!
In a recent Japanese magazine article (more about the magazine below), there was a tip to put crisscross lines on top of the rice packed into a bento box, to not only make the rice look a bit prettier, but to make it easier to pick up with chopsticks.
The article didn’t say how to form the lines, so I tried a couple of implements including chopsticks and a silicone spatula. In the end I found that a moistened table knife (with a rounded tip) works the best. Also, for maximum effect I ‘cut’ the rice to the bottom of the box, to form little cubes. This makes it a lot easier to pick up each section of rice. We field-tested it in the last couple of bentos, and it gets our stamp of approval.
You can use the rice-grid as a guide to decorating the top of the rice as I’ve done here—I just sprinkled every other square with a bit of furikake.
So if you or the person you’re making bentos for has some trouble picking up rice neatly with chopsticks, try this out! It will only work with Japanese style or sticky rice however - other types of rice, or fried rice, won’t retain the cubes.
The magazine I saw this tip in is called Tsucione, and it’s issued by a cooperative called Daichi o mamoru kai  (Association To Protect The Earth) which connects small scale organic farmers and fishermen to consumers, mainly by home delivery of what they produce. It’s a bit like a CSA (you have to become a member to take advantage of the home delivery and so on), but with much more variety—you get to choose from what a variety of producers produce, instead of just one farm or so. Daichi o mamoru kai also engages in various activities to support organic/sustainable farming and fishing, and small scale producers. If you live in Japan you may want to give them a look (though their site is only in Japanese unfortunately).
Tofu is a great protein, especially useful for vegan or vegetarian, but also useful for lightening up meat based recipes. I use tofu in a number of recipes here , but I thought it would be useful to address how to deal with tofu when you’re using it for bento recipes.
If you go to an Asian/Chinese or Japanese store, you might be confused by the variety of tofus on sale. For bentos you will want to stick to either the fried tofus and tofu products, which have a light brown exterior, or firm, extra firm or momen (momen means cotton) tofus. Tofus that are labeled silken, soft or hiyayakko, have far too much moisture content, and are suited for soups and for eating as-is with condiments. (Also see: Looking at tofu .)
While fried tofu is lower in moisture content and can be used as-is, when you are using plain tofu for further cooking, you often need to drain off some of the moisture from it. This is particularly important when tofu is being used as a base for burgers and ‘meatballs’, such as in the green vegan burgers  or tuna tofu miso burgers . Simply draining off the water the tofu block comes packed in is not enough. Here are three ways to drain off tofu moisture:
By using one of these draining methods you can avoid soggy-burger syndrome!
From the food safety point of view, you should really treat tofu as if it were raw fish, If you are packing tofu-based products into your bento, be sure that it is cooked through thoroughly. In addition, some Japanese bento cookbooks recommend avoiding tofu block + meat type dishes if the weather is very hot.
Finally, be absolutely sure you are getting fresh tofu! Tofu should never, ever smell funny or taste ‘off’ or sour.
I’m always looking for ways to shave a few minutes off bento prep time. One way to do this is to look at the containers the condiments, sauces and other ingredients that you use frequently come in.
I use honey quite a lot as a sweetener. Measuring it out of a glass jar is a sticky, messy business, that more often than not requires washing of a spoon, wiping drips around the lid and jar, and other little things that add up in terms of wasted time. So, for morning preperations I rely on the neat runny honey in a squeeze bottle. It’s not rare gourmet honey gathered from bees who suckle on rare alpine flora (I save that kind for leisurely cups of lemon-honey-water), but it sure cuts down on bento making time in the morning.
Other things I have in squeeze bottles include ketchup (store it upside down, and shake before squeezing out), mustard, and mayonnaise. I also like things in tubes. A lot of Japanese condiments like wasabi paste and pre-grated ginger comes in tubes (though I can’t stand pre-grated ginger. Wasabi paste is better.) Around this part of the world we also get things like mustard, mayonnaise, Cenovis (the Swiss equivalent of Marmite ), tomato paste, tapenade (olive paste) and mystery sandwich spreads in toothpaste tube-like tubes. Take a look around the supermarket or your favorite Asian grocery store to see if your favorite condiments come in neat squeeze bottles or tubes!
As you read about making bento, you might wonder how this is all possible to do in the busy morning. It is possible, since millions of Japanese people do it every day - and no, not all of them are stay-at-home mothers (and who is busier and more time-constrained more than a mom anyway?) Practice makes perfect, so the more you make bento the faster you get. But a little bit of preparation and forethought goes a long way towards streamlining your bento making.
Mise en place  is a French term that means “setting in place”. In professional kitchens, mise en place is essential to fast and efficient food preparation. In a home kitchen, you might not need to bother with this that much, but for bento making it’s quite useful.
I don’t go as far as to lay out all of my tools in the kitchen before going to bed since I’m not that organized, but I do have everything that I will need stored where I can easily get them out. The pots and pans I use all the time, especially the small frying pans, are where I can pull them out right away, the bento boxes and other accoutrements are in one section of my kitchen cupboards, and the electric water kettle is always on the countertop. Nothing slows you down more than having to get to your pans where they are stacked under a pile of other things, or having to search for your bento box behind a lot of other junk.
Another thing I do is to stay away from any equipment that is a bother to clean - things like graters (except for a Microplane - see essential equipment page ), whisks and so on. I mostly use a pair of long chopsticks called saibashi for mixing tasks.
You don’t have to do a lot of elaborate pre-planning, but just knowing what you intend to make will stop you from wasting time. I pre-plan in two stages; first when I am doing the grocery shopping, and second on the night before, when I put together a short list of what I intend to put in the bento boxes, written out on a Post-It note and stuck to the edge of the range hood. This is rather similar to the order slips that come into a restaurant. [Edit: Now I use this handy weekly bento planner sheet  which makes things a lot easier!] List in hand, you can start cooking right away.
I don’t have a dishwasher (I also need a new kitchen!) and I hate to come home to a sinkful of dirty pots and bowls. So, I wash everything up before I’m done with the bentos - usually in the last 5 minutes while the bentos are cooling down (see a bento making timeline ). It’s not as much of a pain as it might sound, because I mostly use non-stick pans or coated enamel pans, I don’t use that many pans, and I only use a little oil in anything I make. (Oily mess is the most bothersome to wash up.) I use only a smidgen of dishwashing liquid, and just rinse most things with the hottest water that will come out of the tap.
The one pan that can be a bit sticky to clean up is the grill pan (which I use maybe once a week at most), but I’ve found that pouring in some of the hot water from the trusty electric water kettle while the pan is hot will loosen anything stuck to the grill, which can then be just brushed and rinsed off.
Don’t forget to at least rinse off the empty bento box when you get home!
There are lots of bento-related books published every year in Japan. While most of them have plenty of colorful pictures, some are too wordy to be really useful for people who don’t read Japanese. Here is a list of books that I have in my collection that I think would be very useful even if you don’t read the text. Most of these books reflect my preference for books about healthy, vegetable-centric bento, mainly aimed at adults.
I’ll be updating this page from time to time, so please check back occasionally. You can also see other, less annotated book recommendations in the Amazon Japan aStore .
Incidentally, if you do get one of these books and have a question about something specific, like “What the heck is that thing in the bento on page 94 of XYZ?”, ask away in the comments. I won’t have time to do full translations (or the rights to post them here) but I’ll try my best to help out.
You may also be interested in the Ordering Japanese books and media online  post on Just Hungry.
Watashitachi no Obento (Our Obento) is published by a great lifestyle magazine called ku:nel (I think the name is derived from kuu (eat) neru (sleep)). It shows the everyday bento lunches of regular Japanese people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, mostly who work outside the home. I love this book because it shows how real people make and use bento. There is not a single octopus wiener in sight…not that I am dead set against pink meat cephalopods, but they are extra frills for special occasions or to coax a young child to eat, not really for busy adult people to be making in the morning for their own lunches. The ‘regular people’ bentos in this book are still attractive and colorful, and look delicious. This is one book I look at regularly when I want a boost of inspiration for my own bentos.
Mooks are magazine-format books; they are bound like magazines, so are not as durable as book-bound books, but are still usually printed on high quality paper with topnotch pictures. The Kihon no… (Basic…) series from Orange Page, another magazine publisher, are really terrific large-format mooks that show the basics of various types of cuisine and cooking. Kihon no Obento (Basic Obento) is the bento entry in the series. The photos of bentos are life-size in many cases, and the recipes have step-by-step illustrations, so you can get a lot out of it even if you don’t read the text. If you want to see how everyday, basic bento ingredients are prepared, this mook is one to get. Available from Amazon Japan . It’s not carried by JList or YesAsia unfortunately.
I tend to be a bit skeptical about macrobiotics , but there’s no denying that macrobiotic cookbooks in Japan have some great vegan and vegetarian recipes.
Makurobiochikku no Obento (Macrobiotic Obento) is another mook from Orange Page. It has big, beautiful photos of bentos close up, step by step instructions for many items, and more. If you’re interested in vegan/vegetarian bentos this is a very good one to get. Some of the ingredients may be puzzling, so come here and ask what it is! Available from Amazon Japan .
Onnanoko no Daisuki na Obento (Obento that Girls Love) is a beautiful book. Aimed mainly at mothers with daughters who are in school (I think probably girls of mid-elementary school age and higher), the style is quite different from many other bento books aimed at the moms-with-kids market. The bento contents are simple yet beautifully arranged and easy to prepare, and quite inspirational.
A bonus is that this book also has some crafty ideas for cute or elegant bento wrapper cloths and bags and so on, to make lunchtime that much nicer. This one is available from YesAsia  as well as Amazon Japan .
Ekiben_ are bento boxes sold at train stations (there’s also an equivalent that’s sold at airports, kuuben). The best ekiben are the pinnacle of portable bento, culinarically and artistically. Regional ekiben makers take great pride in their seasonal bento featuring local products. Shun no Ekiben Meikan 800 (800 Seasonal Station Bentos) is one of many books that lovingly catalog the variety of ekiben sold around Japan. The pictures are inspirational, and will whet yor appetite for travelling to Japan and doing an ekiben trip for sure. If you read Japanese the book also has detail travel information so you can really use it to plan a trip. (I intend to do an ekiben trip as soon as I can afford it myself.) This book is available at Jlist/JBox , YesAsia  and Amazon Japan .
Manga fans may want to check out a whole manga series dedicated to ekiben love. Ekiben Hitoritabi (Ekiben Lone Travel) is about the owner of a bento shop (!) who receives a 10th wedding anniversary gift from his wife - a rail pass and ‘orders’ to fulfill his lifelong dream of exploring the ekiben of Japan. The detailed drawings of both ekiben and trains make this series nirvana for any bento or train nut. There are four so far in the series, which are listed on this Amazon astore page . YesAsia also carries volumes 1 , 2  and 3 .
(Disclaimer: JustBento is affiliated with Amazon Japan, Jlist/JBox and YesAsia, and links are affiliate links that help to support the site.)
There are several books dedicated to using bentos for weight loss. I have quite a few of them, and most have a lot of good ideas. I only got Yaseru Obento Recipe recently, but it’s already become my favorite bento-for-weight-loss book and one of my favorite bento books of any kind. It is in Japanese only, as are all good bento books unfortunately. But it’s so full of great photos and illustrations that I think you could get a lot out of it even if you don’t read Japanese.
Yaseru Obento Recipe just means “slimming bento recipes”. The subtitle is kirei de oishii baransu bento ga atto iu ma ni dekiagari! dakara nagatsuzuki shite reboundo nashi! That’s a bit long, but it means generally “beautiful and delicious balanced bentos that are made in a jiffy! So you can keep (making them) for a long time, and won’t have a relapse!” That sounds good to me, and the book does deliver on that promise.
Not only does it have a lot of delicious and great looking recipes, it has a lot of helpful ideas, from how to balance flavors, colors and nutrition in your bento to how to keep your bento safe to eat. The calorie target for each bento presented is 500 calories - the target for my bentos is 500-600 calories, so that fits me perfectly. Their formula to come up with the 500 calorie is broken down like this:
Although the school year starts in April in Japan, September still means back-to-school time after the summer school holidays, so there are a slew of new bento books and such coming out. Two of top Japanese charaben/kyaraben (character bento) artists and bento bloggers have published things in print this month, which you might be interested in taking a look at if you are into this genre of bentos. (Yes they are all in Japanese, but they both are guaranteed to have big beautiful full color photos!)
First up is a mook (large magazine format book) from the lady who blogs under the nickname akinoichigo , titled akinoichigo’s Fun Fun! Character Bento  （akinoichigoのわくわく！ キャラクターのお弁当). Her work featured prominently in the Face Food  book. I’ve always admired her elaborate, very cute yet refined bentos, especially her wonderful sense of color, which really sets her apart. Being a mook, it’s not that expensive either - only 980yen base price from Amazon Japan . Ms. akinoichigo also conducts bento seminars, so I’m assuming she’s a good teacher too!
The other publication is a supplement to the October 2008 issue of Ohayo Okusan (おはよう奥さん, which translates to Good Morning Mrs. Housewife), a women’s magazine aimed at well, housewives. (It’s sort of like Good Housekeeping in the U.S.) Anyway, the supplement, titled Asa tsukuranai! obentou (Bentos not made in the morning!) is all about bento lunches that are composed of make-ahead components that are just assembled in the morning. It’s authored by the bento artist asami122 (her blog post about it is here , where she has a photo of the supplement too), and includes some quick tips for charaben/kyaraben too. Ms. asami122 is the creator of the traditional kimono-clad Hello Kitty bento mentioned here . The attention to detail in her bentos is simply mind boggling. She too teaches charaben bento skills in small classes. The October issue of Ohayo Okusan isn’t available directly from Amazon Japan at the moment, but most Japanese bookstores such as Kinokuniya should carry it. One issue of Ohayo Okusan is only 540 yen, so it’s a bargain if you can find it!
As you may know already if you’ve been following Just Bento for a while, cute, highly decorated bentos known as kyaraben (or charaben, short for character bento), or oekaki bento (picture-drawing bento) are not my style, or what this site is largely about. But I am drawn to the sheer work and creativity that goes into those bentos, most of which are made for little kids, as I’ve noted before .
Now there is a new book in English about this type of bento. Face Food: The Visual Creativity of Japanese Bento Boxes  by Christopher D. Salyers is a compact hardcover book with page after page of full color photos of kyaraben, mostly made by Japanese mothers (and one Japanese father) for their little children. Avid bento fans may have already seen some of the bentos included, such as the famous three little pink pigs bento pictured on the cover. There are also works from two American bento artists, including Spa Woman  from Sakurako Kitsa, but the focus is on the Japanese creators.
The book is not really a how-to book, but rather a sort of pocket sized coffee table book (it’s from an art and design book publisher). There are a couple of how-to pages, but the most interesting text is the introduction and the too-short questionnaires with a few of the bento creators. It’s a nice intro to kyaraben . (My one hope though is that it doesn’t further perpetuate the misconception that every Japanese mother makes such elaborate bentos for their children, which I like to repeat a lot is definitely not the case.)
Face Food: The Visual Creativity of Japanese Bento Boxes will be available on March 10th on Amazon.com . I have the advance copy I received for review to give away, with the publisher’s blessing. If you’d like to get this book, leave a comment to this post, being sure to put your email address in the ‘email’ field (don’t worry, it isn’t exposed to spammers) and stating you’d like the book, before the end of Tuesday, February 19th wherever you happen to be. One winner will be selected at random.
[Update:] The drawing is now closed. The lucky winner is Hope, who blogs at The Sinister Scribe . Congratulations Hope!
Bento Boxes: Japanese Meals On the Go  is, I believe, the only book available in English at the moment that is wholly dedicated to Japanese bento box lunches. I didn’t have much incentive to get this for myself, but someone kindly sent me a copy to take a look at recently, so I can finally review it properly.
This slim softcover book (64 pages) is published by a Japanese publishing company. It’s quite obviously a translation from a Japanese book, one I am guessing published about 10 years ago (the publication date of this English version is 2001). I’m not familiar with the author, Naomi Kijima, though that doesn’t mean much. The bentos are very attractive, if a bit old-fashioned in feeling, and the photographs are beautiful.
However there are a few problems with this book. As I said, it’s a translation of a Japanese book and seems to be aimed at a Japanese audience of fairly experienced home cooks. Many of the bentos feature ingredients that are not that easy to get outside of Japan. This would put off most people from trying out the recipes I think, unless they were really determined. A few of the recipes even intimidated me a bit - even though I do have big stock of Japanese staples, some of the fresh ingredients are hard if not impossible for me to get my hands on.
Of course you do need Japanese ingredients to make Japanese food, but one of the major aims of both this site and Just Hungry  is to try to gently incorporate these Japanese ingredients with more widely available ingredients, for people who aren’t Japanese or don’t live in Japan. With a directly-translated-from-Japanese cookbook, that kind of thing isn’t taken into consideration.
The other problem with the book is that the recipes are quite abbreviated, so that a Japanese cooking beginner would be left with many questions.
All in all I’m not sure I’d recommend this book wholeheartedly, unless you live in Japan or in an area with easy accessibility to Japanese ingredients. It’s a bit in-between…too advanced for a Japanese cooking beginner, yet lacking detailed instructions. On the other hand it’s not expensive, so if you want an inspirational book to get your bento-creating juices going, or a good visual guide to traditional style Japanese bento lunches, it might be worth adding to your collection. (The bento styling looks a tad old-fashioned and stuffy to me though. The Japanese bento books I recommended earlier  are much fresher and modern to my eyes. This is a matter of personal taste of course.)
I would definitely supplement it with a basic Japanese cooking book in any case. In that category there are more choices in English, such as the one I reviewed some time ago  (by one of my favorite Japanese cooking gurus).
I’ve mentioned quite a few times  both here on Just Bento and on Just Hungry about my admiration for the work of Yumiko Kano (or Yumiko Kanoh), who has written several vegan cookbooks. When I found out that she was coming out with a new book in her “Saisai” series dedicated to bentos and one-dish lunches, I knew I had to get it. The book, titled Saisai Lunch: Quick bentos and at-home lunches made with vegetables （菜菜ランチ 野菜でつくるクィック弁当＆おうちごはん）  came out on Monday and I received it yesterday, and it looks very good.
Yumiko Kano specializes in “no meat, no eggs, no dairy products, no sugar” vegan cooking. (‘No sugar’ means no added white sugar; she does use maple syrup quite a lot, especially in her dessert recipes. She also has a disclaimer that sugar may be present in some flavoring ingredients. Otherwise, she uses the natural sweetness of vegetables, dried fruits, sweet wine and so on.) She uses vegan konbu seaweed based dashi stock  (though she uses commercial granules or concentrate) instead of the more usual bonito flake based stock. And unlike most other Japanese cooks, she doesn’t put mirin or sake in every single dish. Most of her recipes are very easy to make, since she only uses a few ingredients.
The bentos in Saisai Lunch have one or maybe two okazu (side dishes) besides the main carb (mostly rice, but she sometimes uses noodles or pasta, and there are a few sandwiches). This keeps things very simple and quick, and it’s the approach I take with my bentos too most of the time. The presentation of each bento is beautiful yet simple - no trace of kyaraben-style cuteness here! And most of all, everything looks so delicious that even the resident diehard omnivore (or as he calls himself, the “bovo-vegetarian”) around here is drooling over each page.
The catch? Well, it’s in Japanese. Also - and this holds true for all of Yumiko Kano’s books - she does rely on many ingredients that are easy to get in Japan but not so much outside of Japan, though that situation is slowly changing for the better. I do find that I need to adapt her recipes to suit the ingredients I can easily get a hold of quite a lot - and the adaptations are what appear on this site or Just Hungry eventually. If you do read any Japanese and are interested in vegan/vegetarian or just healthy bento recipes though, and you have access to Japanese ingredients like kouya dofu and yuba, you can’t miss this. Even if you don’t read Japanese, the beautiful photos alone might inspire you.
Saisai Lunch is only available online outside of Japan from Amazon Japan  at the moment. The base cost is 1995 yen.
All of Yumiko Kano’s cookbooks are vegan. The interesting thing is that Ms. Kano herself, according to interviews, is not a vegetarian. She just enjoys making delicious vegetable based dishes, and she certainly succeeds as this.
(Note: This is in part a belated response to the New York Times blog post about bento boxes that appeared in September. I had started it some weeks ago but didn’t have the time to finish, until now. Please also read the very thoughtful forum discussion  about the post.)
The New York Times blog post about Beauty and the Bento Box  was, after the recent balanced article about bento boxes  that appeared in the same publication, was rather disappointing. To see yet another piece in the mainstream media focusing just on the aesthetics of bentos, and specifically on charaben, gives me a “What, again?” sort of resigned feeling. The question that they posed to a group of experts (only one of whom is Japanese…I wonder how many have even had a homemade bento for lunch?) was a leading question if there ever was one: “What does the care devoted to the visual details in a packed lunch suggest about the culture? Why is such value placed on aesthetics in everyday life in Japan?”.
I’ve repeated this many times on this site already, but the basic definition of a bento box is “a meal in a box”, as the subtitle of this site says. Bentos can be for any meal. They can be made by and for anyone. They are often portable, but not always (as for bento box lunches served at sit-down restaurants). In short, bentos are just part of everyday life for most Japanese people. Charaben are just one category of bentos.
In Japan, cute charaben are ostensibly made to overcome the eating habits of small preschool or kindergarten aged children. At least, that is the reason given by many charaben bloggers and book authors as to why they started making charaben.
However, charaben has evolved to the point where it is now a hobby and an industry. I liken it to any other creative hobby, like knitting or crochet or painting. It may be food for kids, but it exists just as much, if not more, as a creative outlet for their moms (and the occasional dad). Kids are not the ones buying up nori punches and egg molds and Rirakkuma shaped onigiri shapers; it’s their moms. There are charaben contests on a national scale, often sponsored by makers of charaben goods (such as Sanyo) or bento-related foods (such as Ajinomoto, who also pay well known charaben bloggers to come up with cute bentos featuring their frozen shuumai dumplings and such).
The daily opening of the bento box at kindergarten has come to be regarded as a sort of local competition between charaben-creating moms. Recently there’s been a backlash against this - some mothers are complaining that they don’t have the time to make such elaborate cute bentos, and that their kids are made to feel inferior, or teased and even bullied, because of this. As a result, some preschools and kindergartens have started to ban charaben. Some Japanese charaben bloggers have written about how they have had to restrict their creative efforts to lunches served at home.
Since most elementary/primary schools serve school lunches, mothers are relieved of their bento making duties once their kids are older. Even if the kids still need bentos, as they get older they - especially boys - start to reject charaben, as being childish (kodomoppoi) and embarassing (hazukashii).
My sister Mayumi, who lives in the Tokyo area, is the mother of two kids. They are both in elementary school now, but when they were in kindergarten she made bentos for them every day. She said that she just avoided the charaben ‘senso’ (wars) by not making charabens at all, since she didn’t have the time or inclination. Her children fortunately didn’t get teased or anything for their not-cute ‘plain’ bentos. But she says it was a relief in many ways when her youngest graduated from kindergarten. She, and the kids, love school lunch.
Mayumi also related the competitiveness of charaben to the peculiar Japanese social phenomenon called “Playground Debut”. When you are in a new neighborhood, your child’s first appearance at the local playground (or debut) is a very big deal. If you as the parent, and your kids, do not get accepted by the existing clique there, you are doomed to playing on your own, or seeking out another playground. Japanese society can be very stressful and competitive for kids and their mothers. (I found this article on Salon from 1999  that conveys this kind of competitive and stressful situation quite well, from an expatriate American mother’s point of view.)
A breakdown of the of the 50 bestselling bento books on Amazon Japan  as of this writing, might provide a snapshot of the state of the interest in bentos in Japan:
Unfortunately, since charaben are so visually striking, most of the attention paid to bentos from outside Japan focuses on this small segment, and, like the New York Times blog post, tries to draw some conclusions about Japanese society in general from that.
It’s understandable that this happens. It’s still rather frustrating though, and it’s not really the whole picture at all.
It’s interesting to see that books extolling the virtues of homemade bentos are amongst the top sellers in this category. As in most societies, more and more people in Japan are eating fast food, especially from the ubiquitous konbini or convenience stores, which stock every kind of grab-and-eat food that you can think of, including readymade bentos. Those readymade bentos are often not that healthy, filled with lots of cheap carbohydrates and deep fried food.
I admire the creativity of skilled charaben artists. I am not that skilled, but I dabble a little in decorated bentos myself. However, I don’t think that charaben are something anyone can make every day. Even the most dedicated charaben-oriented mothers in Japan don’t.
I do believe that a little time taken to make sure a bento box is attractively presented is a great thing. What can be possibly wrong about food that looks as appetizing as it tastes, that is pretty as well as being nutritious. Whenever there’s some mainstream media thing about bentos, you can be sure there will be a few snarky comments along the lines of “a peanut butter sandwich was good enough for my parents and good enough for me, and it’s good enough for my kids” or “spending so much time on food is unnatural/sacriligeous/spoiling your kids/un-American” et al. As much as I think charaben all the time is unrealistic, I don’t get this ‘food must look plain’ thing either. (I wonder if those people who object to pretty lunches also reject decorated birthday cakes, and cupcakes with colored icing?)
There is a long tradition in Japanese cuisine of making food that looks beautiful. The highest form of Japanese cuisine is so beautifully presented that it has inspired chefs around the world. That sense of aesthetics does trickle down to everyday home cooking. But most people don’t make it into a hobby.
I’d like to close with a translated quote from a bento book written back in 1998, by one of my favorite food writers, Katsuyo Kobayashi  (see footnote). The book is called Katsuyo Kobayashi’s “Obento’s Decided!” . (kobayashi katsuyo no obento kimatta!), a book that is still in print 11 years later, and in the top 50 bestselling bento book list mentioned above. (My copy is from the 22nd printing in 2006.) Here is what she writes in the foreword:
I am really not fond of obentos that are overly decorated. An obento is one of the three daily meals. It’s just an everyday lunch on the go. In other words, instead of eating lunch at home, we bring it to school, to work, or on an outing. Rather than sausages cut to look like an octopus, or onigiri made to look like people’s faces, I want to honor the beauty and deliciousness of food that Nature has given us - the yellow of tamagoyaki, the green of spinach, pink salmon, the earth tones of gobo [burdock root], the pure white of rice.
While I’m not totally adverse to purposely made bento decorations as Mrs. Kobayashi is (I do have a soft spot for the occasional sausage decoration  or cutely cut out sandwich), I do agree with her general philosophy. While Just Bento is about many kinds of bentos, including charaben, my main focus is always on bentos that taste good and are on the healthy side, and look naturally appetizing. If I add extra decorations to my bentos, I don’t spend more than 5 minutes, 10 at the most, on them, unless it’s for a special occasion. It’s striking a middle ground between a plain sandwich thrown into a brown paper bag, and an astonishing charaben creation that takes hours to assemble.
Or in other words, I’m just trying to spread the good word about everyday bentos.
I’ve read that Mrs. Kobayashi (who in her heyday was everywhere in the food world - on TV, in magazines, churning out several books a year) is not that well anymore, which is a real shame. However, her son Kentaro has been a TV, magazine and cookbook star for some years now too. Some of his books have appeared in translated English this year, including one about bentos called Bento Love . I haven’t had a chance to look at this book yet, mainly because it sounds suspiciously like a book of his that I have already, but I did notice that Pikko of Adventures in Bentomaking recently made a boiled salmon recipe  from it. Boiled salmon sounded rather familiar - and it’s not a usual way to cook salmon in Japan. Sure enough, there’s a recipe for Boiled Salmon in his mother’s bento book! Not only that, she has a recipe for fried chicken in there called Kentaro Fried Chicken (KFC!). I love this mother-son connection.
(Incidentally, Pikko mentioned that her salmon was rather bland. If you do have that book, do check for me to see if Kentaro specifies the use of salted salmon. His mom’s recipe does, and I think it would make all the difference. Salted salmon is a very common ingredient in Japan, but outside of it it’s expensive if you can find it. Here’s my method for making your own .)