Periodically we feature articles by guest authors. Here is the master page for all guest posts.
If you’re interested in writing a guest post for Just Bento, please read this page first , then contact us . (Note that we aren’t looking for posters for March anymore, but the requirements still apply.)
In keeping with Frugal Bento Month , this inexpensive yet delicious spicy vegan recipe, which could be a main protein or a combined protein/carb in a bento, is a guest post by Sarah of Get Cooking , where she blogs about her adventures in eclectic home cooking in New York.
When I studied in France on my own during college, I had to re-learn how to cook (and shop!) for one. I didn't have much fridge or freezer space so anything I bought fresh had to be used immediately or it was wasted. For the most part, I lived out of my pantry with the help of my host-mother's amazing spice rack.
One night, a group of students decided to have a little dinner party. The only thing I had at home that I could stretch for five people was a large can of lentils. My host-mother had recently shared with me her recipe for curry risotto, which I'll eventually get around to transcribing, and I had curry on the brain. I substituted the lentils for the rice and that night my curried lentil "risotto" was born. My friends loved it and it has been a pet recipe of mine for the last several years. I've been tweaking it ever since.
When I got back to the States, I found dried lentils much easier to find than canned. (Note that both canned and dried are easy to find in French supermarkets.) Dried lentils actually work a bit better in this recipe, so I'm kind of glad I can't get the canned, wet variety. With dried lentils, however, you need to over-season them a bit because it takes a lot for the flavors of the curry to come through the dense lentil taste. Like rice, dried lentils also soak up a lot of liquid. If you are using dried lentils and would like to use this as part of a bento, definitely make it the night before as I find this recipe far too involved to handle in the morning. Canned lentils will probably cook a bit faster, but it still takes time to get the flavors to peak so unless you really like cooking in the morning, plan this for dinner and save some extra for the next day's lunch.
For packing in a bento, I would cook the lentils down a bit longer to create a thicker pastier consistency (as shown in the photo above). If you are planning to eat it over a light starch such as plain white or brown rice, or couscous, you might make it a bit soupy (as in the photo below) so that the starch can soak up the juices.
Makes 4-6 Servings
Coat the inside of a tall-sided stainless steel soup pot with the olive oil, and bring to a medium heat. Add the lentils. Stir with a wooden spoon to coat with olive oil and allow to roast for a minute.
Pour in 2 cups of water and all of the spices. Gently stir lentils immediately to make sure none have stuck to the bottom of the pot.
Add all of the seasonings except for salt.
Stir gently and constantly. When the lentils begin to dry, add another cup of water. Stir, repeat as necessary, until lentils are soft and fully cooked.
Taste to make sure lentils are cooked and to check the saltiness. If they need more salt, now is a good time to add it. If there is still a lot of liquid but the lentils are cooked, you can serve as is or continue to cook and stir to allow the excess liquid to evaporate.
Remove from heat. Add the raisins.
Serve with couscous, rice, a tofu vegetable stir-fry or alongside non-vegetarian proteins such as chicken, pork, lamb or shrimp (see my pineapple shrimp  recipe as shown above). As with most curry-based dishes, the flavors becomes more pronounced over time, making these lentils a perfect side dish in both warm and cold bentos.
Bentos are getting more and more popular in France it seems, judging from the growing number of bento blogs there. This is a guest post from Fossettes of Bentolunchbox , one of the most popular French bento blogs. She describes the site as “more than a year old, with flexitarian food and a touch of humour”. Even if you don’t speak French you should pay a visit, since her bento ideas are quite unique! Besides, doesn’t food always seem more delicious when it’s in French? :)
If your vision of a French garden is an old visit to Versailles Castle, you may have a shock!
This French garden is a more romantic one: lettuce is covered with cheddar flowers with french beans tails. A parsley grass, a tulip soy sauce and a tekuan sunlight enlight this garden.
The second part of the bento is the water peace of the garden: a few golden fishes are made with rice and furikake. Pieces of tekuan make the eyes of the fishes that are navigating in carrots waves.
At least, the gardener’s pride is the “rose far breton cake”  which is a sweet prune flan, surrounded by mandarine.
For those who think that French cuisine is based on garlic and frogs, this is the 2009 version.
Fossettes (which means dimples), Bentolunchbox 
“Go ahead, bake my quiche.”
Queen Magrat, Lords and Ladies 
As a pescetarian  leaning heavily towards full-time vegetarianism, finding the right protein for my bento is often a strain. I’m not a fan of soy meat replacements to boot, so often I look to eggs as a handy protein packet to put in my bento. Luckily, scientists now say that eggs are good for you again , so I’m not worried about cholesterol.
These mini-quiches are a tasty and healthy freezer staple for those times when boiling an egg or making tamagoyaki  seems like too much effort. Each one of them contains about 1-2 tablespoons of egg-vegetable mixture, equivalent to about half an egg (plus a bit of milk).
Here are a few bentos I have used them in:
Now, how to easily make bento-sized quiches? It’s actually quite simple - I bake them in a silicone muffin tin!
You can technically use any dough for it. I used premade butter dough for a mediterranean flavour (and because you can buy it in handy little rolls that fit 8 muffins).
Preheat the oven to 250°C / 480°F.
Cut the dough of your choice into 6 squares and line the muffin form with the pieces.
Hint: Put some aluminium foil (or, as my old-fashioned cookbook recommends, dried peas) along the edges of the dough to prevent it from shrinking into the moulds.
Put them in the oven to pre-bake and poof up a little for 5-10 minutes. The dough shouldnít get brown yet, just a little poofier!
While the crust is baking, mix together the filling ingredients and stir well. Tae out the baked crusts from the oven, and spoon 1-2 Tsp. of the mixture into each muffin,
Here are some of my favourite filling recipes.
(makes about 12 muffin-sized pies)
(makes 6 muffin-sized pies)
Turn down the oven to 200°C / 400°F for baking the egg mixture. They bake in 10-15 minutes (do a test to see if the egg has solidified completely, by poking in a skewer or the tip of a knife).
Let the quiches cool thoroughly on a wire rack so that no moisture can form underneath and ruin their crispyness.
You can stack them in plastic boxes and freeze them after cooling. They warm in the microwave in just 90 seconds to 2 minutes.
PS: It’s pronounced keesh, not kishay. The quote above always gave me troubles in Lords and Ladies. ;)
When our twins were born, we made all sorts of promises to ourselves about how we’d like to raise them. One of those wishes was to share with them our love and appreciation for good food, as my husband and I both come from a family of chefs and restaurateurs. For example, their first solid foods included miso soup, tofu, edamame and Weißwurst (a mild German veal sausage). To this day, they will choose edamame over chips, and tofu over just about everything.
When they entered preschool, we needed a way to continue feeding them in ways they would enjoy, while still (subtly!) hammering home the concepts of choice - and balance. Bento was the obvious solution. Having to prepare two lunches each weekday while running a business has forced me to be more resourceful, and plan meals more efficiently. But in so doing, I’ve also learned an even greater lesson; that the Bento is far more than a packed lunch. It has become a treasured link between me and my children as well as one of my most rewarding responsibilities as a parent.
How can a little plastic box do so much? By its very design, it invites diversity, proportion, and experimentation. Most of the boxes we own are anti-sandwich by design, instead providing Rubik-esque interior sections that seem impossibly small and unworthy. But when I have to think of at least 3 items to fill a bento, the end result is more fun and healthy. The added benefit for me is daily chances to help each of them discover a new food experience - and they get to do it on their own, without pressure from my husband or me, and without any guilt.
Here are a few ways I’ve tried to make Bento both comforting and new for my twins:
Some of the food discoveries Kimi and Sebi have made through Bento include crab sticks and cucumber salads, kamaboko, shumai, and water chestnuts.
And there’s one more thing. Since they entered a Japanese preschool this year, I noticed Bento coming home empty more and more. I finally figured out why. Each day before lunch, the children sing a song, a celebration of “O Bento” and all of the happiness it brings. In this way, they are learning that food - and Bento - is a special gift. After an introduction like that every day, it’s no wonder they enjoy more of what’s inside it!
Linda Rolle is a Japanese American mother of twins, who co-owns True Renu  and Tru Renu International , online purveyors of Japanese bath and beauty products. She grew up with bento, prepares Japanese inspired meals as often as possible. Now that her children are in a Japanese preschool, she enjoys the challenge of putting together two bento lunches each weekday by combining food from both cultures. Kimiko and Sebastian offer her honest feedback, as only children can.
This is a guest post by Smalerie, who blogs about bento making and her other hobbies in her blog Boston Bento . Here she shows us how to make fun sweet dessert bentos to share with friends…or, well, I guess you could reserve one for yourself for a super-indulgent occasion too ^_^; -(maki)
When a friend of mine went on a business trip to Japan, he promised not to return without a brand new bento for me. Days went by as I dreamed about all the kinds of bentos he might return to the states with. Maybe he would get me a bento of one of my favorite animes, maybe a sleek patterned one that I could coordinate with my new shoes…or even better, maybe he could find a bento with Chuck Norris on it. Then for sure my new bento box with beat all other boxes into submission with its awesomeness.
He returned a few days later with my box. It was perfect, it was gorgeous, but there was a small problem. I had never told him that I wanted a lunch bento. Instead he returned with a large one (about 7 inches / 18cm square) that I could only guess was suitable for picnics and potlucks. After scratching my head for a bit, I got down to business and decided to expand my bento making to something I could share with a larger group of my friends.
The solution was pretty obvious; I could use the bento as a display (and protector) for one of my favorite things: dessert.
Contents: 2 chocolate mini cakes, coconut jelly, and milk tea jelly stars.
The mini-cakes are a great alternative to cup cakes in a bento because they can be cut down to the size you need and leftover cake stores well in the freezer.
Here are a few tips for making your own:
Oh, and because I was having such a good time with the cakes and jelly, I whipped up an extra something:
Contents: Marshmallow crispy onigiri, chocolate and peanut butter chips, candy eggs
I like to consider this a shout out to Maki and her onigiri faces. They were made my pushing the warm marshmallow and crispy rice cereal right into my onigiri and sushi molds. If you decide to try this at home make sure you use a little non-stick cooking spray on both your molds and your hands.
To start off the weekend, here is a fun guest post from Jen of Tiny Urban Kitchen , about making sushi that is not exactly what it seems to be!
This is not what you might think it is. Yes, it looks like sushi - almost too similar. But guess what? It’s mochi! It’s mochi with various fruit pieces posing as fish. Mochi is surprisingly easy to make. You can actually make this dessert with kids, it’s so easy and fun. The nigiri are especially easy - just cut up various fruits into squares to put on top. Rolls are a bit trickier, but not impossible. For the rolls, I used soy wrappers (see tutorial below).
[note: Sweet mochi made from mochiko or a combination of mochiko and joushinko (rice flour made from medium grain or regular Japonica rice) and used for sweets, is also called gyuuhi. - maki]
Once you have microwaved the mochi, scoop out a small lump with a spoon (see bottom left picture above) and dump it into a bowl of corn starch. Use your hands to lightly shape the piece of mochi so it looks like an oval, similar the rice shape of a nigiri sushi. Cut pieces of fruit into rectangles about the size of the fish on top of the sushi. You can use any fruit you want. I used mango (for tamago/egg), strawberry (for maguro/tuna), and blackberries (for some sort of caviar I guess!).You could also use cantaloupe for salmon, honeydew for cucumber, and watermelon for tuna. Be creative! Lay the fruit on top of the mochi, and you are done! If you want, you can lightly sprinkle some sugar on top, but this is totally optional. For fun, you can make marzipan wasabi, like I did in this post . Enjoy and serve!
Maki rolls are just a bit trickier. It helps if you have some experience making normal sushi rolls. These maki rolls are made with soy wrappers by the company Yamamotoyama . You can either buy a variety pack with various colors (5 sheets), or buy bulk packs (10 sheets of a single color). All soy wrappers are naturally colored, spinach for green and paprika for orange one (and I think beets for pink, but I did not buy the pink one). The small amounts of coloring agents do not affect the flavor. I bought my soy wrappers online at asianfoodgrocer.com which actually has a pretty good price for the bulk packs (unfortunately they do not carry the variety pack, but you can get that on Amazon.com ). [Note: In the UK/Europe you can order these from Japan Centre . As far as I know though, Yamamotoyama doesn’t sell these in Japan. - maki]
The soy wrappers have a very mild hint of soy flavor. I would recommend using a strongly flavored filling to mask any hint of the soy aroma if it bothers you. The wrappers do lose this aroma over time. I noticed that I did not smell the soy flavor in the rolls the next day. Make mochi according to the microwave recipe above. Now, instead of taking out small chunks like we did for the nigiri, try to lift the entire sheet with a spatula and gently lay it down on a soy wrapper. I divided the sheet I had made into two pieces so I could lay it across the soy wrapper. Fill with your filling of choice. In this case, I used some leftover sweetened mung beans from mung bean soup  I had made. You can also use fruit (see pictures below using mango), red bean paste, black sesame paste, or crushed peanuts. Roll as you would normal sushi. With the soy wrappers, you need to use a bit of water to seal the roll. Slice with a wet knife and serve! I used the end pieces to make the stand up maki pieces with the blackberry on top. These taste the best when they are freshly made. I tried refrigerating them, but they become a bit harder and lose that nice, chewy texture. Enjoy!
Jen, the author of Tiny Urban Kitchen , lives in a tiny urban condo in Cambridge, Massachusetts, right across the river from Boston. A chemist by training, Jen applies her love of experimentation to the kitchen, which she details in her blog. Jen also loves photography, traveling, and eating out. As a result, Jen also writes reviews on restaurants, mostly in the Boston area but also around the world, complete with plenty of colorful photographs!
This is a guest post by Diana, who blogs about her healthy eating ideas at Soap and Chocolate .
Not everyone eats breakfast as well as lunch at the office, but for those of us who begin work at 9am after a whirlwhind of exercise, showering and primping, it’s convenient to be able to pack a bento-style breakfast the night before in order to cut down on the morning rush time. We all want to preserve those precious minutes of sleep before the alarm goes off! One of my favorite homemade to-go breakfasts is an omelette sandwich and fruit. This can be done with a myriad of mix-ins and spreads, but for the purposes of this post, I’ve gone with a Mexican theme, just to step out of the bento box a bit. For my omelette sandwiches, I like to use this box from Fit & Fresh  (see the same box used for a salad bento  -ed). I also have an adorably tiny flower-shaped egg skillet, which I picked up on a visit to my expat parents in Tokyo last year. The egg flower comes out in a perfectly sized ‘patty’ for my bread. However, you can make a conventional one-egg omelette and just fold as necessary to fit into the container and/or bread that you’re using.
To make the omelette, you will need the following ingredients:
Once cooked, remove the omelette from the heat and allow to cool. Now you can assemble your bento. For mine, I lay two slices of low calorie whole wheat bread in the bottom, along with a packet of E-Z Squeeze Guacamole. I found this in the freezer section of my grocery store, and it’s very convenient at 35 calories for a 1-oz packet. It’s also a great source of healthy fat. If this product is unavailable to you, other options are bringing an ounce of any pre-made guacamole or a quarter of a whole avocado, sliced. If you’re really ambitious, you could even make your own guacamole!
The ice pack rests on top of the bread and guacamole and the two smaller containers fit in the molded grooves on the top side to keep them still. Put your omelette in one and 100g of fruit in the other. For this bento, I chose fresh strawberries. Snap on the top lids and refrigerate. Ready to go whenever you are!
When you’re ready to eat this, just spread the guacamole on your bread and stick your omelette between the slices to make a sandwich. It’s a bonus if there is a microwave available to you in your office/destination so you can reheat the egg for a minute first. I like to warm up the bread for a couple seconds as well.
This bento takes me about 15 minutes to put together and contains 10 grams of fat, 17 grams of protein and 37 grams of carbohydrates, broken down as follows:
Total calories: 261
If you enjoy this kind of breakfast, get creative with other mix-ins for the omelette. I love the spinach and feta cheese combination; or pair a touch of marinara with parmesan. For the spinach-feta omelette, I would bring a tablespoon of hummus to spread on my bread, and for the marinara-parmesan omelette I would bring a teaspoon or two of pesto or other olive oil-based spread. I hope you have a chance to try the breakfast bento! It’s a real time-saver for me, and one less thing to think about in the morning, as I prepare both my breakfast and lunch bentos the night prior. At any rate, it beats the heck out of an Egg McMuffin nutrition-wise. Happy bento-ing!
Diana, Soap and Chocolate 
This is a guest post by Tracy, aka Crazed Veggie, who blogs about bentos, amigurumi and personal rants and raves at CrazedVeggie.com . She’s lost 50 pounds (22.7 kg) so far since June of last year, and uses bentos as part of her successful weight loss program!
The story goes a little something like this. I’ve been overweight all my life. Struggling with the weight had been an everyday thing and I’ve never known anything different. Two years ago I decided to become vegetarian. I did this due to ethical reasons (I just couldn’t go on knowing that an animal had to die for me to shove food in my mouth!). Once I became dedicated and seen how easy it was for me to make such a massive change in my food habits, I decided that I was going to watch everything that I ate and not destroy my body any longer. I joined a calorie counting website and went on a mission to lose weight. That was June of 2008, and so far I’ve lost 50 pounds!
I began incorporating bento box making into my weight loss program in January. As soon as I began researching the history behind them and the many websites and blogs dedicated to them, I knew this was something that I just had to be a part of.
We all know that they make it so much easier to stay in control of portion size which is essential to any diet regimen. For me, it goes so much deeper, almost emotionally. Because I’ve always associated food with happiness, seeing something in front of me that looks appealing, is healthy and colorful, and I know I put time and effort into, makes me feel just as happy as I’d be eating a cupcake or a piece of chocolate. I’m eating more fruits and vegetables than I ever have before, thanks to the little spots in my bentos that need a little splash of color.
Bento making also is allowing me to explore food options that I’d never even think of getting into two years ago. I love finding a book or website on making my own veggie sushi. I love trying out a new recipe on my husband and him looking at me in disbelief that I even knew anything about the ingredients we were eating, but that I actually made it myself! It’s exciting, and very addicting! I read something one time that if you do something 30 days in a row that it then becomes a habit. Well this is my new habit!
I feel so much better in everything I do. I have so much more energy and my entire outlook on life has improved. I’m eating healthy. I’m loving animals. I’m doing a little part to save the environment. Yep, life is good! This just goes to show that you can do anything that you set your mind to and you can not be successful by continuing to feel sorry for yourself and by using words like “I can’t!” when you know full well that “You can!”. If an overweight-meat eating-cupcake lover, who’s idea of a gourmet meal came from a box or the freezer, can make such massive changes in her life - anyone can!
Tracy, CrazedVeggie.com 
This health-conscious guest post is by Debra of the fabulous hapa bento . We are entering the heavy duty feasting season now, so now is a good a time as ever to use nutritional bentos to keep yourself going!
The classic bento box with its proportioned rice, protein and vegetable combination is a balance of taste, harmony of flavors, and prepared to keep spoilage to a minimum. Another dimension of this classic lunch is nutrition. The rice provides carbohydrates, and carbs are arguably the most important source of energy. The protein keeps your muscles in repair, vegetables offer crucial vitamins that nourish your organs, and lastly but just as vital, some fats. More about the value of fats a little later. A bento box lunch is designed to offer sustenance.
But what if you need more? What if you are an active person and need to turn it up a notch? Well, a nutritionally dense bento box may be your answer.
Tweaking your bento box by packing nutritionally intense foods is an important enhancement for people who exercise or train on a regular basis. More “bang for your buck” as the saying goes.
My husband “Saba Man”, nicknamed for his love of mackerel, and I have enjoyed participating in the local events in the past. We took a break but now we’re back in training for a sprint distance triathlon. Needless to say we are always hungry and crave the foods that offer optimal health benefits! Here’s how I boosted our bento box lunches in support of achieving our goals.
The first change for raising the bento box “bar”, was to simply switch from white rice to brown. We like brown rice, but if you don’t, then try mixing half and half at first then slowly eliminate the white grains with each batch. Work your way up to an onigiri that’s 100% brown. Brown rice provides fiber as well as the energy that fuels our muscles. For heavy workout days, 2 onigiri or musubi as I call them, are de rigueur. And by wrapping rice up in a sheet of nori, we’ve enhanced it with essential amino acids and Vitamin C. Never be afraid to eat more seaweed!
When I’m not in the mood for rice, I like packing sweet potatoes which are also high on the nourishment scale. Better than regular potatoes, some sources rank it as number one! The wonderful sweet potato — they taste fantastic. I keep their skins on whenever possible for additional vitamins. It’s important to mention that I usually roast the potato. Roasting or baking lessens the leaching of vitamins and nutrients.
Do you like tamagoyaki ? Perfect. Eggs are filled with healthy goodness, high quality protein without the high calories. Convenient too. When time is a factor, I can cook a batch of tamagoyaki or hard boil a dozen eggs and save them for couple of days. Maki has a wonderful recipe for making miso marinated boiled eggs . The miso not only adds a delicious touch of savory flavor but again, more nutrients. Saba Man’s bento box lunches almost always feature both an egg along and another protein such as salmon or tuna mini burgers.
We opt for salmon because of the Omega 3 oils that other animal meats do not provide. And the salmon skin furnishes more of the essential fats. If fish is not your thing, then substitute with homemade chicken or turkey burgers and add flax seeds. I sometimes go ahead and add flax seeds to the tuna burgers too. It’s a good thing.
Being that I am vegetarian, my bento box contains neither fish nor chicken. My lunches are filled with chick peas (garbanzo beans), falafel or “wheat meat” (seitan) along with eggs. My intake of Omega 3 is via steel cut oatmeal cooked with ground flax seeds. This is the standard in my breakfast bento box; a very healthy start to the day and it keeps me going until lunch.
Both of us love our veggies and the “go to” greenery is broccoli. Hands down, it’s the most versatile, delicious and highly nutritious vegetable. Again, roasting is preferable with olive oil and seasonings. Broccoli is ranked very high on the “wholesome scale” and I recommend them not only for their health values but for ease in preparation and packing. I also suggest the very healthy brussel sprout. And as we recently discovered, roasted brussel sprouts taste pretty good.
I want to stress that vegetables are essential but do not take up the majority of space inside our box. This is because they are low in calories. Nutritious calories are needed to fuel our workout, but a disproportionate amount of veggies with their lowered energy value, will not sustain us through the day and especially not when training. We have noticed that when I pack too many vegetables and fruits, our workouts lack quality and endurance.
Speaking of fruits — they offer valuable benefits too and do occasionally appear in some of our bento boxes. However, leaving out the bits of fruit and instead filing the void with more protein works better for us. I now stuff a whole fruit in our bags for any emergency ìpick me upî instead. With each bento that I pack, I am learning about what works, and what doesn’t. Our bento boxes are evolving, especially now that we are exercising more than usual.
Let’s talk about fats. The fats and oils are naturally included in our bento ingredients. The fish, eggs, and beans contain all the “good” fats which are important for providing the main fuel source during the long, and low to moderate intensity exercise. Vegetables also contain their own fats. Olive oil, with it’s monounsaturated fats, is used for roasting our vegetables. It’s also good for additional flavoring, but don’t over do it.
Fats and oils are calorie dense; too much fat will, well, make you fat. I do consume extra fats by eating nuts and occasionally tuck in some raw almonds. Eating them raw is far healthier than eating them cooked and they are an essential part of our daily fat intake. Saba Man and I are not athletes, not by the farthest stretch of the imagination, and cannot afford the consumption of vast amounts of calories like marathoners, Iron Man participants or Michael Phelps. So we keep additional fats low.
The rest of the bento lunch are the fillers and these come in all shapes, flavors and forms. I like red and orange foods such as cherry tomatoes and carrot sticks, not only because of their excellent health benefits, but like all the before mentioned foods, you can enjoy eating without the fuss of utensils. It’s not a crucial factor, but it is (pardon the pun), handy when we are in a rush. No need for chopsticks, forks or picks.
A daily bento box or two, filled with yummy, energy packed items is crucial as we juggle our jobs, training and other daily tasks! Saba Man and I dine “on the go” constantly and a pre-packed healthy meal allows us the freedom to eat when ever and where ever. Sometimes in the car while commuting between work and the workout!
As you can see, my nutritious bento boxes do not stray too far from the traditional concept. A classic bento does lend itself to eating for fitness — all that’s needed for optimization is to choose brown rice over white, roast your veggies and sweet potatoes instead of boiling. Add flax seeds when you can. Use olive oil, but sparingly. And keep all other fats and oils to a minimum. Fruits can be completely eliminated from the bento box. Eggs provide essential nutrients and protein. If you are a vegetarian, the egg is important as well as garbanzo, ìwheat meatî and soy.
Whether you are a weekend warrior, a dedicated marathon runner, or just working out to maintain your fitness, eating a healthy bento box, packed with nutritiously dense foods not only plays a major role in your body’s well being, but also with your own athletic goals.
As a reminder, this article is about my personal needs and habits, and like any other physical program, please consult your physician for guidance before starting your own regimen.
Debra, author of hapa bento , and her husband currently live outside of Seattle, Washington with their two cats, suitably named Mochi and Musubi. They enjoy traveling, dining out and dancing more than working out, but they somehow squeeze trips to the gym within their busy schedule. Commuting separately because of opposite work schedules is very challenging and having a packed bento box lunch curbs any spontaneous food spending and hunger pangs.
They both grew up in Hawaii and enjoyed a culturally diverse diet where bento boxes were the norm, so it was a natural step to start making them for their daily lunches. With Debra’s renewed sense of a healthy lifestyle, sending her husband off to work with a bento box full of nutritious foods coupled with a variety of ethnic flavors, gives her great satisfaction. Her bento boxes are not only healthy and tasty, but also express and celebrate their combined Hawaiian, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, African American and European heritages!
This is a guest post from Sarah of Get Cooking , who’s back to share another great frugal recipe with us.
I know this might be looking a bit too decadent to any lover of authentic Mabo Dofu, but, well, no Japanese dish stays very authentic in my hands for too long. Mabo Dofu , an originally Chinese dish popular in Japan, is meat (beef in this case) and tofu simmered in a red miso-ginger-garlic-chili sauce. Over the years, it has become a staple in my household. Like everything else I make regularly, the recipe changes slightly each time depending on what ingredients and condiments we have around.
The more I make and eat mabo dofu, the more I love it. I used to use sauce packets that you can find in many Asian groceries, but then I realized how much more easy, cheap, and tasty it was to make the sauce myself. While the list of ingredients looks long, it’s a very simple dish to prepare. After you have it once, you may even start adding some of the main ingredients to your fridge and pantry staples. Before this dish entered my life, I had an aversion to tofu. Having tofu in a dish where it is not meant as a substitute for something else changed my perspective on the protein completely. This is my favorite use for tofu.
Even though I did not grow up eating Japanese food, this dish tastes like home to me. The suppleness of the tofu, the chewy meatiness of the beef, the silky, salty, tanginess of the sauce that permeates all the other elements, coupled with the firm stickiness of the rice, and the cool crisp of the pickles I tuck in along side make this an adventure for the taste buds.
This is one of my absolute favorite bentos to take because it tastes even better the next day. I make it for dinner and pack up the “leftovers” right after I make it by filling my lunch container with the desired amount of rice topped with a few scoops of mabo dofu. I garnish with pickles, allow it to cool, close the container and pop it in the fridge. By lunch time the next day, the sauce has wonderfully permeated the rice and the little rice bowl bento is ready to eat. While it is tasty at room temperature, I like to heat it up just a little if possible so that I can enjoy the aroma and loosen up the rice again.
Makes 4 hearty servings.
I usually have this as a donburi (rice bowl) type of dish (food heaped over a bed of plain rice), but mabo dofu can be used in many other ways. A half cup of the beef-tofu-sauce mixture can be added to a bowl of ramen (or udon) and hot water for a dish I’ve seen referred to as “mabo men”. Other meats can be substituted, or left out entirely (though this may change the consistency if not adjusted for).
While I do occasionally experiment with new ways to enjoy mabo dofu, my favorite is eating it atop a bowl of nutty brown rice with bright red pickled ginger, yellow pickled daikon, and pickled cucumbers (not quite pictured above), savoring each bite with a little of everything. Let me tell you, I feel like the luckiest person in the world when I open up my lunch at work and remember what I get to eat that day.
Sarah, who blogs at Get Cooking , is a born and bred New Yorker who loves to cook and recreate dishes from all around the world. Indeed, that’s probably how she can afford to live in New York. Her mission is to demystify tasks of the kitchen, encourage trial and error with food, and to show that it is possible to cook lavish meals without spending a ton of money, being a trained chef, or having a perfect kitchen. Previously on Just Bento she shared her curried lentil risotto recipe  with us.
This is a guest post by Amy Vander Vorste of Avlor’s Imprints .
Bentos are “the in thing” in lunches right now and for good reason! They provide a great way to pack a nutritious meal while providing reasonable portions.
As an American mom, I was frustrated at what our school was providing as a “healthy” lunch. I love our elementary school, but I don’t have an ounce of affection for the lunch program. I’ll spare you the details - but lunches are 9 times out of 10 full of highly processed food. Milk is also pushed - but not just plain milk. There’s strawberry, chocolate, and cookies-and-cream sweetened versions. Yipes! I hope you find it as humorously ironic as I did that the school district sent home reminders that a pop, chips and a cookie don’t constitute a good lunch.
I want better for my children who need to learn and pay attention in school. Last year my son’s teacher mentioned to me that my son was having troubles paying attention in class. After I started packing nutritious lunches, my son’s attention problems virtually disappeared. Quality food may not be the answer for all attention problems, but it’s helped us tremendously! Squeezing time in to make a lunch is essential for my family.
I wondered how my son would handle taking lunches that are different from the ones his friends have. But he’s enjoying it and even asks to take chopsticks. His quote, “It’s awesome!” There’s positive attention over his lunches (and the chopsticks) from his classmates, and not much of the negative “Eww is that broccoli?” He’s becoming very conscious of what is good for him and what is not. Could a mom be more proud?
Now that school is in session, life is speeding up for many parents. I’m now having to transport my two kids to preschool and elementary. This takes an extra two hours out of my day. Parents like me must be extremely efficient in order to get anything done!
One of the smartest things I did this fall was to make a reusable list of a month’s worth of lunch plans for my son. I always have the option to change the list. But there’s also a plan for good lunches ready to go everyday!
Each week I print one week from my premade list and compare it to my week’s evening meal plan. If there are leftovers suitable for bento lunches or I know I’ll have time to cook something special, I’ll add those to the lunch plan.
I use the Excel spreadsheet version of Maki’s Weekly Bento Planner . The main sheet is copied 4 times with different plans on each page. For inspiration I used recipes here on Just Bento and a version of Quick-Reference Lunch Ideas  at Laptop Lunches that I modified for my family’s tastes.
My bentos are pretty Americanized, simply because I buy what I can find here in a small town in the Midwest. Over the last few years the variety has been improving and I can find things like sticky rice in the local grocery stores. I stock up on cool stuff like miso paste when we visit relatives in Seattle or I buy it online.
We like to try new things though and have been slowly easing into trying more Japanese foods. Both of my children like sushi and my parents are convinced we’re crazy for liking anything with raw fish!
My favorite Just Bento recipe for tucking into lunches is Potato Oyaki .
Now lunch planning and making the grocery list for lunches takes me 5 minutes a week. It’s that simple and the original plan took me about 45 minutes.
Need to keep a 2 tier bento cold and your box isn’t one of those fancy ones that can be frozen? Put your must stay cold items in the top compartment (if there is more than one layer to your box). If there is more than one lid, leave the very top lid off the box and use a bento band to strap a reusable icepack to the top. (True confessions: I just broke down and bought one of the Gel-Cool boxes with the spiffy freezable lid the other day. Because it’s deeper, I found it easier to pack than my other boxes.)
Ice packs making your lunch bags or backpacks wet? I put the frozen icepacks in unfrozen plastic bags. It helps keep the moisture that condenses on the icepack off other things. It’s not perfect, but it does pretty well.
Buy in “Bulk” or save leftovers and freeze portions so they are ready to defrost when you need them. Very small Rubbermaid and Lock-N-Lock containers are perfect for this.
Amy Vander Vorste is a stay at home mom and Japan-o-phile, who enjoys writing her blog Avlor’s Imprints . The blog is focused on tutorials for Etsy shop owners. She’s also the owner of the Etsy stores Ojami , which features Japanese inspired designs including bento bags and bands, and Avlor’s Imprints  where she sells gift tags, sew-in labels, and stationery.
This is a guest post by Nicole of Discojing . She tells us how she taught her sister to make bento lunches for herself to help to cope with hypoglycemia. What a great sister!
Diseases that involve blood sugar often creep up on you. It wasn’t until my mother was older and my younger sister and I were well into our teens that we were exposed to hypoglycemia and Type II Diabetes. Type II Diabetes is a growing epidemic in the world, and most people don’t know that it’s actually preventable. My mother’s poor diet habits led her hypoglycemia to develop into Type II Diabetes. My sister and I both have hypoglycemia and are in trying to keep Diabetes at bay. Unfortunately, in a culture that advertises unhealthy and fast food at the same time as a thin=attractive mentality, it is hard to win this war.
By eating a well-balanced diet and eating when your body tells you to (whether this is three, four, or five times a day), great strides can be taken to eliminate the risk of developing Diabetes. I am currently in the process of helping my sister understand not only her disease and its risks, but also valuable life skills such as cooking and budgeting. My sister is just starting college and she needs to be able to budget the adequate time and money needed to planning her meals, as well as understanding what types of food she should and shouldn’t eat. I think bento does a great job of meeting all these requirements because it’s fun, transportable, environmentally friendly, economical, and is a medium for learning.
The first step for my sister was to acknowledge that she needs to start taking better care of herself. We set in place some emergency foods that she should have on hand at all times (mini-energy bars, ginger candies, glucose tablets, etc). The amount and type of “emergency” foods will vary for everyone depending on the severity of their blood sugar issues.
The second step is to make it as easy as possible. My sister knew what bento was long before she started making it herself since made them for her and my brother during middle and high school. She was familiar with the portions and equipment, but had no idea how to plan meals. I took her to the local Asian super market and walked her through the aisles, seeing if she could pick some things out on her own. We left with some simple and filling dishes, including curry, okonomiyaki mix, noodles, and furikake.
Before teaching her how to make dishes, I opened the refrigerator and showed her how there were leftovers that could be reused into bento. It was important to let her know that bento can be comprised of leftovers from the night before or recreated as ingredients. This was key to making bento seem less over-whelming. We scrounged through the refrigerator and found vegetables for okonomiyaki and leftover chicken cutlets to dress some restaurant-bought salad. I watched as my sister made the pancakes and then quizzed her on what she thought should go into the bento to make it more balanced. So far we had some fresh light vegetables, protein, and hearty pancakes. We agreed that something to snack on that wasn’t too un-healthy was needed and decided on some fruit cereal, chocolate candies, and a ginger candy.
My sister only requires bento two to three times a week because of her current class schedule. I took this opportunity to show her that you can make bento whenever you have free time, not only the night or morning before classes. I had done most of the work in the first bento (above), but I made it my sister’s job to execute the second one as independently as possible. She decided on sesame noodles topped with some of the same chicken in the other bento and some furikake. Even though these are packaged noodles, I told my sister she could drain almost all the broth to make them healthier. After the noodles, my sister was stumped as to what to put in. I asked if she had any fruit and we cut up some oranges. While I placed the oranges into a foil cup, she remembered that some black and white animal crackers would go well with the bento—noting the color contrast. I smiled as she gently layered the crackers into another foil cup.
My sister had never had these particular noodles before, and she loved them. Bento is another way to try great foods, since half of the battle is presentation.
I periodically check up on my sister to see how things are doing in school, including how her bento-ing is going. She often asks me questions about what things go together, or how to transport a particular dish. I keep reminding myself that a few months ago my sister never packed her lunch and only knew how to make grilled cheese. She’s come a long way in such a short amount of time. I’d like to believe that bento has made her more conscious of money, time, and her health. Most importantly, she hasn’t gotten sick since school started and she’s feeling more comfortable in the kitchen.
Even though these bento might not be the most beautiful, colorful, or well put together, I try to stress a balance that is obtainable by those that are starting out in the kitchen.
Nicole is the writer for a food-centric blog titled Discojing . On her site, she chronicles her experiments with recipes and restaurants as well as bento. This all stems from her family who is ethnically Chinese and Cherokee, but culturally Hawai’ian.
This is a guest post by Erin, who writes a frugal lifestyle blog in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, called The Cheap Chick .
My name is The Cheap Chick, and I have a confession to make: I’m addicted to online bento. It’s shocking, but true. Every day, sometimes two or three times a day, I log on to my favorite site and look at what other people packed that week for their lunches.
However, if there’s a 12-step program to help me stop, I don’t want it. Because not only did Just Bento (and its sister site, Just Hungry ,) help change the way I cook and eat for the better, bento fits in perfectly with the ‘be cheap and fabulous’ gospel I’m trying to spread across the globe. What could be thriftier than packing your lunch and using the pantry items and leftovers you already have, rather than buying your lunch every day at a restaurant or fast food joint?
When Maki asked for guest writers for Just Bento, I knew it was time for me to join the world of bento makers. And I promised her I could make a bento that would be frugal, use many of the ingredients I already own or buy on a regular basis, and would look and taste delicious. Here’s how it turned out…
I wanted to make a bento that incorporated some of the recipes from Just Bento. My two favorites are Maki’s carrot kinpira  and salmon furikake  – but please note, I have tweaked them to suit my own tastes.
So, off to the grocery store I went, to pick up my inexpensive bento foodstuffs. The following prices are based on what I spent at the Cub Foods grocery store in Arden Hills, Minnesota.
Total bill: $22.23. And as groceries are not taxed in Minnesota, I incurred no additional costs. (Please bear in mind, the soy, rice wine vinegar, sriracha, and sesame oil are all pantry items that will last a month or longer, so I won’t have to buy them every shopping trip.)
One of the things Maki talks about is building up a stash of bento staples, or johbisai . In order to have these staples, you have to do some cooking and prepping first. Once I got my ingredients together, I made the following:
All this was made the night before I created my first bento. The only time-consuming part was drying out the salmon and waiting for the brown rice to cook, which took about an hour.
First, I found an appropriate plastic food container. This one is made by Rubbermaid, and they cost $2.99 for three containers at the Target in Arden Hills. Mine, however, was free, because I stole it from a friend of mine, when she used it to transport crudités to my house for a party. Sorry!
Next, I measured out my rice. I ended up using 1 ½ cups of brown rice, because I had a bit leftover after divvying it up into those 1 cup increments.
Then, I placed half the rice in the container, topped it with half a sheet of nori, and covered the nori with the rest of the rice. On the side, I put half a cup of the carrot kinpira. Looks good so far, no?
I nuked the works for about 2 minutes. Yes, my microwave needs cleaning. Moving on.
Once it was all heated up, I sprinkled soy sauce, fresh-ground black pepper, and 2 tablespoons of the salmon furikake over the rice.
Then I smooshed the kinpira over to one side, and filled in the empty spot with sliced cucumbers. Last, I topped the rice and furikake with the other half of the nori.
I popped the top on the container, set it aside on the counter, and waited 2 hours before I allowed myself to devour the contents. While eating, I visited my favorite (addiction) web site.
The whole assembly process took around fifteen minutes – including taking all those pictures! – very doable for me (time-wise) in the morning. And with the stash I made, I was able to get 5 bento meals, with enough furikake for 8 meals and enough nori for 10 meals.
Total cost per meal – around $4.45. But remember, I have those leftover pantry items to use in future bento. So if you take out the soy, etc, the total cost per meal is $1.80. And THAT, my friends, is frugal living at its best!
This is a guest post by Iliana (aka Mosaica), who blogs about her daily life at The Daily Mosaica .
In life I often find myself embracing contradictions, and with regard to planning and preparing bento lunches, it appears that I am, at least, consistent. At times I am purely focused on taking a given recipe, often a Japanese recipe, and rendering it as authentically as possible given the constraints of my semi-rural existence in Vermont, a small state in the northeast of the US. For instance the bento from last week where I made inarizushi — this meal nourished me on a number of levels: it was completely delicious, it tied into a fascinating bit of cultural history , and it expanded my culinary repertoire. While I do miss the days when I was more of a globe-trotter, I’ve come to really appreciate how traveling via recipes from far, far away can give real pleasure —to my nose and eyes and tastebuds, as well as to my intellectual bits.
On the other hand, I’m also a bit of a fiesty girl, and I like to kick up my heels, as it were, in the kitchen, and for me this manifests itself as a willingness to play with food, to be led by my nose, or intuition, or a gut feeling that mixing this with that might just be yummy. That’s what this post is about: Taking ingredients which are traditional in Japanese cuisine and dressing them up in flavors from around the globe: Tibet, Denmark, Africa, India, and beyond. In addition, if you start from a perspective of your own preferred ratio of carb to protein to veggies and fruit, I encourage you to include entirely new ingredients to add fresh flavor and interest to your bento meal. During the five weeks of the Bento Challenge , I was inspired to see how many of us were using foods and flavors from our own backyards to create delicious new twists on the bento theme.
Eggplant (aubergine) is certainly a beloved food in Japan, and is indeed popular the world over. It shows up in many bento meals either as a main vegetable component, and sometimes in the form of delicious-looking pickles.
A few weeks ago I was inspired by a fellow Bento Challenger when she shared a beautiful eggplant dish in her bento. I looked for the recipe for her dish, but she hadn’t posted it yet, so I took a look at my own cookbook shelf. I went first to the most recent cookbook by my favorites Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, Beyond The Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China . A little page flipping and I was sold on their recipe for Tibetan Ratatouille, and I set about making it. It turned out great, and was visible in nearly a week’s worth of bento lunches.
Here’s the recipe, liberally adapted and warmly shared with the permission of Naomi:
Makes approximately six cups of ratatouille. I kept half of it in the fridge and ate it in bentos and for dinner within a week, and I still have six half-cup portions in the freezer as a tasty addition to my johbisai.
Trim eggplant and cut into 1.5 inch or bite-sized pieces, and set aside. Put the whole tomatoes into a large bowl and use scissors to chop into bite-sized pieces, an inch or so. Drain the extra juice that will have spilled out of the tomatoes and add the juices to the other juices you drained away. Trim the scallions and set aside the green parts. Cut the white parts into 1.5 to 2 inch lengths, and then lengthwise into ribbons, and set aside. Mince the scallion greens fine, and set aside.
Place a large wok or heavy skillet over high heat. I use a well-seasoned cast-iron wok, and I find this works well with a reasonable amount of oil, and I imagine that a large cast-iron skillet would work equally well. Eggplant can have a tendency to stick, but with vigorous stir-frying using a wok paddle and high heat, I never have problems.
Swirl oil to coat the surface of the pan and add the eggplant. Toss and stir so the oil is evenly distributed, and press the eggplant against the pan to scorch all the surfaces. After 3 or 4 minutes add the minced garlic and ginger. The original recipe calls for adding the garlic and ginger first, but I find it can burn too quickly, before the eggplant is sufficiently browned, so this switch works well for me.
Add 1 teaspoon of the salt and stir-fry for another minute or two, and then add the chopped tomatoes. Stir-fry for a minute or two, until the tomatoes are warmed and soft. Add the scallion ribbons and stir-fry to mix. Add the Sichuan pepper and the remaining teaspoon of salt, and stir-fry for another minute. Add the broth and stir-fry until it comes to a boil. Cover and boil hard for for 3 or 4 minutes. Uncover, stir, and taste the eggplant for doneness. I cooked it a little longer because I wanted a less saucy final dish. When the eggplant is tender to your taste, add the soy sauce and the minced scallion greens, stir, and taste for seasoning. I know I added an additional few splashes of soy sauce, and a pinch more of salt.
This is delicious hot or cold, and it goes particularly well with the nutty goodness of brown rice. I also enjoyed this in a bento lunch alongside spicy coleslaw, a few potato/sweet potato oyaki, and good mom bread.
As a note, I kept all that good tomato juice and used it in a vegetable stew a few nights later. It freezes well.
Chicken is another favorite the world over. Maki recently published a tasty recipe for chicken skewers , and I had a whole small chicken to use. I had planned to cut off skewerable pieces from the breast and then boil the rest for soup, but I got busy, and when I looked into the fridge a few nights ago, I saw that I needed to use that chicken right then! It was late, and I was tired, so went with an old favorite: simple roast chicken, sprinkled with salt and served with no more than fresh butter, a little mound of mustard, and some of mom’s crusty bread. That was good, and I had left over chicken! I picked the good bits of chicken off, and gently boiled the carcass for soup broth, cooled it, and into the freezer it went.
The next day I came up with a delicious way to use the cooked chicken in my bento: a curried chicken salad. I was inspired by an amazing documentary series about the history of India, and this salad is fragrant, lush, and golden.
This recipe makes around 2 cups of salad, enough for a couple of bento lunches and leftovers for a quick & easy dinner for two.
Chop chicken into 1/2 inch pices and place in a bowl. Add the mayo, the celery, the relish or chopped pickles, the sweet curry powder, turmeric, salt, and pepper. I happen to really love peppery chicken salad, so I added an additional big pinch of ground pepper. Mix well, and enjoy with bread, crackers, or atop a green salad or even a simple carrot salad. Add a touch of contrasting colour with a sprinkle of chives or scallion greens.
I made a delicious bento lunch based on this chicken salad with two small plain onigiri, some sunomono salad, a small carrot cut into rounds, a few cashews, and a delicious pumpkin and coconut milk panna cotta, set with agar agar, which I learned over at Chez Pim . Not pictured were the 10 Wheat Thins (crackers) I ate with the chicken salad.
This kitchen-travel style of cooking adds adventure to my life, and it’s wonderfully adaptable to each of our own particular set of food enthusiasms. It allows you to take inspiration from afar and apply it to your locally available food, or vice versa —try adapting some of your favorite family recipes to one of the new strange foods you find at your market; the possibilities are literally endless. I hope you enjoy these recipes, and I look forward to seeing how you might hack them to reflect your own culinary travel dreams via bento lunches. I’m off to try a Senagalese recipe  that I heard about on The Splendid Table , a cooking program on public radio here in the US. It utilizes a grain little-known outside of Africa called Fonio, and I think it will make an excellent new carb in an African-inspired bento!
This is a guest post by niceties of Main-Main Masak-Masak , where she blogs about how she deals with her food intolerences and dietary preferences. I’ve been an admirer of her calm, elegant and very informative essays for quite a long time, so I’m really happy to have her on board as a guest blogger!
Many thanks to Maki for inviting me to write this guest post for Just Bento. I’m particularly honoured as Maki’s Just Hungry  site taught me a lot about Japanese food when I began to take cooking more seriously and was also the main inspiration for my own foray into food blogging.
It was because of increasingly complex food sensitivities that I was motivated to learn more about cooking and bento culture, so as to be able to adapt recipes and to make my packed meals from home more appetising. The principles of bento culture go a long way in making our food-intolerance-friendly lunchboxes more tasty and attractive. Learning to be creative in those two areas is particularly important when one is faced with the limitations of food restrictions. Here is a quick guide to my approach to bento for special diets, summarising the key ideas I’ve mentioned across many different postings on my blog .
Food intolerances and special diets (including vegetarian, vegan, halal, kosher etc.) vary greatly from individual to individual, so only you know best what you can or can’t eat. Even if you do not have food sensitivities, one of the great advantages of making your own bento meals is having the opportunity to provide yourself with healthy, nutritious, fresh food that is free of processed products, preservatives and artificial additives.
Bento don’t have to be filled with Japanese food, as Lunch In A Box  demonstrates (as does Just Bento! -ed). My main suggestion to managing food intolerances would be to seek out ingredients and cooking methods from a broad range of food cultures. For example, many gluten-free flours are commonplace in Indian cooking , so I head to an Indian supermarket to stock up on flours for western-style gluten-free baking, and also have the option of making Indian snacks from these same ingredients. Trying new foods and new tastes may take some getting used to but the more cosmopolitan your palate is, the wider your options for finding foods within your restrictions.
When it comes to unfamiliar cuisines, it’s worthwhile doing some background reading on the properties of ingredients and how to handle them, the principles of cooking methods, as well as to understand how tastes & textures are combined. For example, you might want to find out which dishes taste good at room temperature if you don’t have the opportunity to heat up your bento. Also, don’t forget that some ingredients turn rancid quickly, especially in hot weather, including coconut milk.
Once you understand the fundamental principles of cooking across different food cultures, it will open up many possibilities for almost limitless experimentation. I’m not a purist when it comes to cuisines and tastes — one can’t afford to be when faced with wide-ranging food sensitivities — I’m only interested in creating a dish that is palatable to myself.
The five principles of traditional Japanese cooking , which are also applied to bento, are extremely useful in putting together a meal that has a variety of colours (visual stimulation) and textures (sensory stimulation in your mouth); different nutrients (which foods of different colours are an indication of); a range of cooking styles; and the five tastes classified in Traditional Chinese Medicine (salty, sweet, sour, bitter and spicy/pungent) which help to ensure a meal balanced in yin/yang as well as other as oriental medicine concepts. Although it may not always be possible to fulfil these criteria, paying some attention to them will certainly pay off. Again, the wider your repertoire of ingredients, cooking methods and flavours, the more likely you will be able to come up with a combination that comes close to creating the variety of colours, textures and tastes that make an appealing bento.
Perhaps the first thing many people associate with bento culture are the elaborate kyaraben or charaben (character bento) , but as Maki has demonstrated on Just Bento, everyday bento don’t have to be that difficult. However, the fundamental ideas of packing bento can take your lunchbox from unappetising mess to something to look forward to. It feels really good when instead of being pitied for one’s food intolerances, people think your food looks better than theirs!
You don’t need to do cutesy or complicated, but it helps to have some aesthetic sense to guide you in composition, arrangement and the juxtaposition of colours and shapes. Frank Tastes  provides some excellent examples of simple, almost Zen-like bento arrangments. As with developing any kind of artistic sensibility, exposure to as many examples as possible will build up your visual ‘vocabulary’ to facilitate creativity. Apart from the plethora of bento websites , if you have access to a Japanese bookstore, do browse through Japanese-language books on bento  for inspiration — the bento examples and the overall art direction are usually absolutely excellent.
It’s also important to choose a box of the correct shape and size. A shallow box is better as it allows you to lay out the foods horizontally, almost like a painting. Also, if the foods come up to the lid when the box is sealed, they won’t move around during transportation and your bento will still be intact when you come to eating it.
Maki has often discussed the usefulness of bento in controlling portion sizes , and Japanese guidelines  on the optimal size for men, women and children are very useful. However, I have also discovered that the volume I can finish in one meal differs according to the type of food. The type of rice makes a huge difference, not so much in terms of managing the caloric value as Maki mentioned , but in terms of how much is enough to make me feel full. With brown rice, I eat much less than the half-box portion of sticky, short-grain Japanese white rice recommended for standard Japanese bento , and it’s likely you’ll find that with long-grain white rice typical of Southeast Asia and in southern Chinese cuisines, you’ll need quite a bit more than that. Any kind of glutinous (aka sticky or sweet) rice would be the most filling of all.
Noodle dishes are a different ball game because not only do I consume a larger volume than if I had a meal of brown rice and side dishes, you need some empty space in your bento box to allow you to loosen the noodles and pick up the strands, or to toss the noodles with the topping ingredients (in terms of presentation, noodles look much nicer with the toppings heaped on top than ready mixed).
It might seem indulgent to buy lots of different plastic boxes, but given the importance of choosing the right box, it is worthwhile to do so. Daiso  and Lock n Lock  provide good selections at affordable prices. Wherever possible, choose airtight boxes as they will prevent spillage of any sauce or liquid contents (I’ve packed soups and yoghurt before), while also keeping dry foods like biscuits crisp in humid weather.
Beside the main lunchbox, I also have a selection of other plastic boxes: smaller ones for pieces of cut fruit (which accompany every meal bento I have), a round box for a single muffin, a deep, rectangular box for two muffins, and shallow rectangular boxes for angular snacks like pieces of cake. Most of my plastic boxes are not reserved for bento use only as we use them for storing all sorts of foods at home, such as dried goods removed from plastic packaging or leftovers in the fridge/freezer. With a large variety of plastic boxes on hand, I can easily find one to suit anything I want to pack into my bento bag. Aside from boxes, I regularly carry a small insulated mug/flask , and always have a wet towel (oshibori) and plastic cutlery — either a fork and spoon in a ziploc bag or foldable chopsticks  which come in their own case.
You’ll need a bag to hold all these things. Again, it’s good to have bags in different sizes to accommodate the amount of food you’ll need. The bags I use  most of the time hold my lunch, fruit and a snack. I also have one larger bag, which can also fit a one litre water bottle, and several smaller zipper or drawstring bags from Daiso which hold a single plastic box and cutlery and sometimes also an oshibori. Usually, the small zipper/drawstring bag will go inside my main holdall or backpack, where it helps to keep the food items together and hopefully, prevent the food boxes from being knocked open as well. If you do mostly rice bento rather than sandwiches, it’s much better to find a bag that will allow you to hold the bento boxes horizontally. Briefcase-style lunchbags tilt your boxes on their side and may disturb the arrangement of food or increase the chance of spillage. It’s not necessary to go hunting for dedicated lunch bags; any small tote bag with a large enough flat base  will do, although I am very partial to two-layer bags  that enable easy access to the main lunchbox itself.
When I first started making bento, I would spend ages planning the combination of foods and how to pack them. Now, I don’t bother much with the intensive planning, I use the same foods from regular meals served at home and just try to pack them with a little bit of thought to presentation. After a while, you will develop better instincts at quickly sizing up the right box to choose and the best way to pack the food into the box.
Part of managing food sensitivities is also about developing a routine to make sure that you always have home-prepared food with you. This involves setting aside the time to cook and bake in large quantities, freeze them in individual portions which can then be quickly reheated and packed to go, as well as setting aside time before leaving the house to get it all together. Ever since I made the extra effort to always have food on me, even a small snack so that I’m never caught out, I hardly ever suffer unpleasant food reactions from eating something I wasn’t supposed to anymore. Feeling well makes the effort all worthwhile.
On that note, I wish all of you happy, healthy bento-ing.