Welcome to Week 2 of the 5 week Getting Started Bento Challenge! Week 2 officially starts on Monday January 19th (Martin Luther King Day for USens, and the day before the Inaugural!), but join in whenever you can!
Here’s a quick reminder of the outline of this and upcoming Challenge weeks.
For Week 1 , the focus was on getting yourself organized for making bentos on a regular basis. That will still be your foundation, so if you had some trouble with that aspect, continue to work on that primarily. As a lot of people who took the Week 1 Challenge found out, things like planning ahead and having your bento making equipment and supplies ready to go are really useful.
If you’re ready to tackle more though, this week’s focus is on making your bentos healthier. Whether you are interested in losing weight or not, a healthy lunch is the fuel that’s going to keep you going for the rest of the day.
The building blocks of any main meal are to have a good balance of carbs, proteins and fruits or vegetables. This is so much easier to focus on within the confines of a bento box. Many Japanese bento books have formulas like 4:2:1:1 (carb:protein:side1:side2) or 3:2:1 (carb:protein:vegetable/side), but the easiest one I have seen was detailed in a book I’ve reviewed earlier, Yaseru Obento Recipe  (Slimming Bento Recipes). I think this formula is useful whether you are dieting or not!
Carbs include rice and other grains, pasta, bread, potatoes and other starchy vegetables, crackers, etc. All of your carbs combined should not take up more than 1/2 of your bento.
Proteins include meat, fish, eggs, cheese, tofu and other vegan/vegetarian proteins.
This is the tricky part. Not all vegetables are that nutritious - for example, most lettuces, especialy light colored ones are basically mostly water with a bit of fiber. For a bento lunch where you have to cram is as much nutrition as you can in a very limited space, go for dark or bright colored veggies. Dark green leafy vegetables (blanched or sautéed if ou want to squeeze a lot into a small space), bright red peppers, carrots, beetroot, broccoli, etc… you get the idea. Brightly colored vegetables make our bento look really nice too! If you do bring a salad for lunch, try to include some dark leafy greens in there like baby spinach leaves, arugula (rocket), mache (lamb’s lettuce), darker lettuce like romaine, and so on.
(An exception to the brightly colored = healthy, pale vegetable = not so much rule is cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower. Pale cabbage is a good healthy vegetable.)
This is an optional step, but it can make the difference between a blah looking bento and one that makes you happy at lunchtime and people around you jealous! I think of things like cherry tomatoes, lettuce leaves,and snow peas (mangetout) as ‘accessory food’. Other accessory food can include things like brightly colored pickles, a few green peas, umeboshi, furikake, and so on. And of course you can add color with non-edible accessories like picks, little flags, or what have you.
Don’t worry too much about this though this week - focus on the health aspect rather than looks!
If a little bit of fruit is part of the bento box, I usually treat fruit as an ‘accessory’ or part of the vegetable section. Otherwise, if it’s packed separate it’s well, ‘fruit.’. Keep in mind that some fruit, like bananas for instance, are more carb-like in terms of their nutrition profile, a concern if you’re trying to lose weight.
I try to follow these principles with all the bentos I post here, especially the ‘formal bentos’ that get a number and are listed on the Bento archive lists , but in Bento no. 39  I show this in step-by-step detail.
This principle doesn’t just apply to traditional bentos either. Let’s take a look at this traditional brownbag lunch for example:
Do you see the problem? It has way too many carbs (bread, brownie, potato chips, not to mention the sugar in the brownie, jelly and peanut butter). Let’s see what we can do about it…
Whatever level you decide to tackle, you should do the following:
In addition to the Basic tasks:
If your goal is to use bentos for weight loss for the long term, you should by now know how many calories you want to allocate to lunch. You will need to work within that figure to create a balanced bento.
Let’s say your goal is to make bentos that are under 500 calories. If you are using rice as your main carb, you should not use more than 1 cup, which, depending on the type of rice, is around 200-250 calories. (The same goes for most grains.) Using brown rice or zakkokumai ups the nutrient value of your rice. So, with the rest of your bento you need 1 or 2 proteins, which will come to around 150-200 calories. Vegetables barely count for any calories, but you do need to count the oil and things you use to cook them.
So your task for this week is basically the same as the Going Deeper task. You do need to add up your calories, but if you are too busy for that, you can:
(A note about onigiri. You can get a fairly accurate measure of their caloric value if you use the put-in-a-cup method  of making them. Figure out the capacity of the cup you are using. 1/2 US. cup of white rice (110ml) is about 120 calories, so if you make 2 1/2-cup onigiris that’s 240 calories. You don’ really need to fuss about the innards of the onigiri since the amount is so small, unless you are making big onigiri with fried chicken filler or something!
If you use onigiri molds (moulds), you should measure their capacity also to see how much rice they hold.)
There are tons of sites where you can input your food and figure out the calories, and a lot more, but here are a few:
If you can’t be bothered to use a particular site though, you can also just type in ‘calories in 1 cup of brown rice’ in Google search and come up with a reasonable answer fairly quickly.
If you are really serious about losing weight, whatever program you are following it is really helpful to have these tools. They also make you a better cook!
Cup and spoon measures are cheap, even if you get fancy stainless steel ones or something. (I do have a set of fancy stainless steel ones that I got ages ago - they last forever.) A good digital kitchen scale is not that expensive either (you can get one for around $20-30 in the US) and is a very worthwhile investment. If you have been guesstimating how much food you’ve been eating so far, you might be surprised…most people tend to underestimate.
(On a practical note, I do not measure things all the time by any means! Who has that kind of time in the morning? But, through lots of repetition I know how 1 cup of rice etc. look in my bento boxes.)
Basic: 1 more bento than last week, start planning, mise en place.
Going Deeper: Basic + Analyze your past bentos, improve 1-2 aspects of it.
Weight Loss: Basic + Going Deeper, concentrating on veggies and carb amount. Optional: gather your online and physical measuring tools.
Just tackle the level you feel capable of. And I’ll see you at the end of week! (I’ll be around during the week too, doing the challenge along with you and hanging out of course.)
My Week 2 in a nutshell: I was fairly happy with my bentos. I’m progressing at bit on my fitness goals - at least I did some exercise! And on the one day when I didn’t have bento, I really felt it.
I think I am really back in a nice bento-making groove now. Except for Friday, when I had to go to a restaurant for lunch, I made bentos every day for The Guy as well as myself.
I finally did get in some some exercise (3 WiiFit sessions). But, I realize now that I really don’t enjoy exercising indoors very much, even though WiiFit does make the time pass faster. (I’m partial to the boxing.) As has been suggested by several people in the Couch Potatoes Unite  discussion, exercise is great if it’s fun, as in sports or other activities, or you do it incidentally, such as walking or bicycling to commute, go to the shops, and so on. It’s only about a 5 minute walk for me to go to the bus stop, so that’s not much exercise. Plus, I don’t commute every day - there are days when I never leave the house. I’m looking forward to warmer weather when walking outside will become a pleasure. (And, I’m really thinking about where to move to (I have som leeway due to the nature of my job)…a place where I could go outdoors all year round without freezing would be really nice. OK, I am quite a chilly type person - I’m usually complaining about being too cold for about 60% of the year.)
I think that I was already making some fairly healthy bentos, but this week I really tried to get in as much vegetables as possible. Next week I might try making all, or most, of the bentos vegetarian or vegan…just to see if I can do it.
Click on the images to get to the flickr page where there are notes.
Day 1: This bento is described in detail here . I made enough extra of the chicken tenders that I have enough for 2-3 more bento rounds, or 4 to 6 bentos. Total calories: about 390.
Day 2: This is a vegan, rather macrobiotic bento (again, see the notes on the flickr image). I made a new batch of gomashio  (sesame salt), using white (brown) sesame seeds. It is so good! Of all the furikake recipes  I’ve posted here so far, this is my favorite one, and I make it more than all the other recipes combined because it’s so versatile and tasty! Total calories of this bento are about 550.
Day 3: Another vegan bento, trying to take advantage of the nutrition-richness of épeautre (spelt in English, dinkel in German; whole-wheat grains, similar to farro). I cooked the épeautre in a pressure cooker the night before, sautéed them with the vegetables, and added the canned borlotti beans at the end. I wish I hadn’t used the canned beans though - they were very mushy, and made the dish rather pasty. Next time I’ll use home cooked or frozen beans. Total calories: about 450.
Day 4: Back to being an omnivore. This bento was really tasty I must say, and almost all the components are from my freezer stash or leftovers. The only thing I made fresh was the tamagoyaki, but the stewed hijiki I mixed in (about 1 Tbs. of hijiki per egg) was from a freezer stash. Total calories: about 520.
On Friday as I mentioned earlier I went to a restaurant for lunch. While it was great, I felt very bloated and sleepy in the afternoon - probably because of all the salt in the sausages I had! (This is Zürich after all, where the sausages are really good.) It really made me realize anew how good a healthy bento makes me feel.
(I know I should have chosen something a bit healthier…but hey, I rarely eat sausages any more, and the ones at the Zeughauskeller are so good. And I was so healthy the rest of the week! I don’t dare to think of the calories though…)
How was your week? Share with us on the forum !