Share your back-to-school bento strategies!

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While we are still in the dog days of summer (at least here in the northern hemisphere), it’s already time for many of us to start thinking about Back to School!

Whether it’s for yourself, your spouse/partner or kids, you may be thinking about incorporating healthy bento lunches into your everyday routine in the fall/autumn. What’s your plan? What about bentos appeal to you (I’m guessing they must, since you’re here!)? Share your tips, ideas, strategies for great bento-ing, right here in the comments.

And there’s a prize…

The author of the comment that stands out the most to me will receive a US $30 gift certificate, courtesy of our friends at J-List! Not only does J-List carry a big selection of bento boxes and accessories ranging from the cute/kawaii to the elegant and traditional, they also have fun Japanese stationery goods, Japanese study aids, and much more.

The rules and such

  • Please limit yourself to one comment! You can have tons of ideas if you want to in that one comment.
  • Your comment should be in English.
  • In order to be eligible to win the prize, you must live in a country where J-List ships. They do ship worldwide, but if you aren’t sure take a look at their FAQ page.
  • Include a valid email address where you can be reached in the appropriate comment form area if you want to be eligible for the prize.

This contest is now closed to entries. The winner will be announced later this week. Thank you everyone for participating!

For more bento recipes, ideas and tips, subscribe to Just Bento via your newsreader or by email (more about subscriptions).

And visit our sister site, Just Hungry for great Japanese home recipes and more.

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Re: Share your back-to-school bento strategies!

I second that motion!

Re: Share your back-to-school bento strategies!

Last year I lived in an apartment for the first time as a University student. Unfortunately, laziness settled in quickly, and within a few weeks, I went from cooking almost every day to stir frying a bag of frozen broccoli for lunch and consuming large quantities of ready-to-serve yogurt in the fridge as snacks throughout the day. During days when I felt less lazy, I tended to consume the entire pot or wok of whatever I made straight from the pan, intending to reserve the rest in one of my two 1L plastic containers after finishing. Well, I did finish lunch and dinner...the problem was, it was always the entire pan since I was so hungry after waiting for myself to cook the meal. My plan for this year is to both have healthy foods readily available for normal meals and to have my portion sizes sensibly controlled.

Because I don't really have a good-sized potential bento box, nor a lot of money to play with for really nice bentos or bento tools, I am planning on purchasing a few flat-looking 250mL-500mL plastic containers that can double as storage containers in the fridge for bento reserves, and a bunch of plastic ziploc bags that I can put soup in for freezing batches. This semester, my classes take place from 9:30-4 pretty much every day, and I hit the gym right after, so my game plan is to prepare for a cold bento lunch for in between classes, maybe a snack bento before exercising, and a ready-to-heat bento for dinner, all in the morning after breakfast (I'm an early riser). That way, I will be preparing myself fresh food all the time (I'm very picky about my produce not lasting more than several days in the fridge, either cooked or uncooked), and controlling my portions. I've also developed compulsive nighttime eating last year, so I think preparing the food when I am not hungry (in the daytime) is perfect. To keep things fun, I will be making kyaraben on the weekends.

For balanced eating, I am planning on relying on my Chinese background to influence my food, and place one of each color into each bento: green, black/purple/brown, white, yellow, and red/orange. I will be buying four different types of rice: pearl (for rice congee!), black, white jasmine, and brown. My rice cooker can only make 3 cups of rice, so I will probably cook my rice every other day in that, while I am preparing the other parts of my meal. Of course, to every batch of rice I will probably add around a tablespoon of sesame oil to keep it moist and tasty. To keep it from getting boring, I plan on mixing the rice, or supplementing the rice with the following groceries: mung beans, soy beans, azuki beans, and sesame seeds. To cycle through different types and colors of produce, I am planning to visit the grocery store 2-3 times a week (last year it was almost every day) in the morning (like living in China - go out every morning to buy fresh vegetables and fruit!). With preparation ahead of time, I won't end up eating it all at once, and I can buy with more variety because I don't have to worry about consuming it raw if I get too hungry to cook it before eating it. Especially since prices are high, I am planning on buying whatever is in season (it'll taste a lot better too!), and I will end up adhering to http://www.sustainabletable.org/shop/eatseasonal/ for that advice. For protein, I will mostly be buying tofu and meats as they go on sale, dividing the meat into sensible portions in big ziploc bags in the freezer so I don't feel like I have to cook it immediately. And of course, eggs are the cheapest source of protein after that. Yogurt cups will fill in the remaining gaps in nutrition (cheapest source of transportable dairy, since small amounts of cheese tend to be really expensive)

To keep my lunches safe, I will be using the following, since I have no thermal containers:
- frozen konnyaku jelly (especially to help be a cooling agent in my lunch bentos)
- frozen fruit
- garlic, onions, ginger, wasabi, chili, cilantro, and salt/pepper (good thing i LOVE all these spices)
- dehydrated snacks/side dishes
- pickled condiments

That's pretty much my plan for a healthy college student semester. I hope it works out as well as I have outlined it.

~ daidai ~

Re: Share your back-to-school bento strategies!

If you have access to Pyrex (I know it's available in the US and in Australia) they have one cup and two cup containers (~240 ml and ~473 ml respectively). You can get them very cheaply in Walmart (the one cup containers are four for five dollars in store but they don't seem to have them online) or very expensively on Amazon (where the one cup container is one for ten dollars: http://tinyurl.com/amazonpyrex) I don't have a formal bento box but I love having these containers, they're tempered glass so they are safe for oven, microwave, frig, freezer and dishwasher, as well as completely spill proof and very shatter resistant. You can fill the one cup container with soup or rice or what have you (I try to get a mix of grains and protein in this one) and the other with fruits and veggies. It's very flexible and they stack well. It's easy to make the tops look pretty, even if you can't do very elaborate decorations. The round shapes lend themselves to flowers in terms of decoration. I then wrap the stack in a dish cloth, which can be used as a napkin or placemat (Here's a link to the wrapping diagram Biggie pointed out, I use the first variation, it's easy: http://www.env.go.jp/en/focus/attach/060403-5.html). They also have a three cup (~710 ml) flat container version ($5 in store at Walmart or $7 on Amazon http://tinyurl.com/amazonpyrex3cup) that lends itself to more traditional bento packing. I wish I could get a flat 600 ml container from them since that's the size of a traditional woman's bento box but since I use 4:1:1 ratio of veggies:grains:protein rather than a 3:2:1 grains:protein:veggies I think it's fine (to see what size bento you need check out Biggie's site: http://lunchinabox.net/2007/03/07/guide-to-choosing-the-right-size-bento...). You can check out the whole Pyrex line at http://www.pyrexware.com/index.asp?pageID=14&CatID=380&SubCatID=398. Hope this is helpful!

Re: Share your back-to-school bento strategies!

Here in Florida there's not much of a change in the weather to signify autumn, so the back-to-school frenzy is our notification that it's coming. This has been a hard year for me, having both my mother and husband pass away in this year, and I had lost touch with my love of bento-making. However, as I too work in a university, seeing the new batch of students has spurred me on to take better care of myself - and one way will be to go back to making my bento lunches.

I am always inspired by your website, and look forward to the photos and recipes I receive in my email - and though I don't often enter the contests I wanted you to know how your site has touched my life. Keep up the good work and may you have much joy.

Re: Share your back-to-school bento strategies!

Ah, bento. My lunches are usually of the brown-bag variety, and were that way well before the economic woes hit the US. I'm in grad school, living in an apartment with two roommates, and am constantly trying to save money for future student loan payments. In the past few months, I've begun to slip into the mentality of "I don't have any time to cook, so I guess I'll just have a sandwich for dinner even though that's what I had for lunch, too." This nutritionally unsound practice has gotten quite old, so I have been planning 2-3 dinners during the week that I can then take as leftovers for lunch. Being a New Orleans resident, one of those meals is easy - Monday night is red beans and rice night! I can prep it Sunday evening and then just throw it in the crock pot the next morning to simmer while I'm at lab. Tasty, fairly healthy (better than fast food/TV dinners), and oh so easy!

But what about those other days of the week when I'm not enjoying leftovers? For that, bento! We (my roommates and I) just built a small raised garden and are planning on a harvest of cool weather crops in a few months. My diet lately has been lacking on the produce front, so I will devote a larger portion of my bento to fruits and homegrown vegetables. If I get really adventurous, I may even start trying out all of those tofu recipes I've collected! : )

Re: Share your back-to-school bento strategies!

I'm still in the planning stages... My middle son (9y) will be attending a public school for the first time to get a handle on a learning disability. He has specifically requested soy eggs and onigiri for his lunches, but other than that, he's pretty flexable. The challenge for me will be to have something safe for him to eat, quick for me to pull together, and not so cute that he gets teased by the others.

I already have a small freeze-pak (3 actually, because I use them too!) and we've been good about keeping eggs in the house. The problem is keeping fresh vegetables in stock!

Re: Share your back-to-school bento strategies!

I work during the day and go to school a few nights a week, so on those days I will have breakfast, lunch, and dinner bentos. My strategy is to make sure I not only have a good selection of healthy food at home to pack, but that I have some good indulgences too. I find that I totally break my vow to only eat food from home when I am craving something unhealthy. So rather than buying some overpriced processed food in the school vending machines, I will make sure I have some home-made cookies, or organic pita chips packed in my bento.

Re: Share your back-to-school bento strategies!

Being a university student living alone far away from home, the time we have to actually make our own food is rather limited. I live in tropical area (south east asia to be exact) so the range of food here might be differ from most of the readers here. I use rice (white or brown) as staple food, so all the ideas here are condiments to the rice. XD

Fresh vegetables would be an option, like cha (stir fried) baby bokcoy or kangkung (it was called water spinach if I'm not mistaken, not sure you guys have it outside SE Asian or not...), or spinach, since it's easy to get, inexpensive, and easy to be prepared. Or you can just boiled them.
Another easy cooked would be eggs (steamed, fried with sweet soy sauce, sunny side up, you make the choice :)). There are also tofu (I like egg or prawn tofu) that you could cooked into simple dishes. My mom likes to roughly chopped the egg tofu, then cooked them in a wok with a ebi (small dried prawn), bits of chili, fish sauce, garlic, and spring onion, adding a bit of water and maizena (or potato starch if you don't have one) so the sauce will thicken.

Other food that takes to long to cook at morning (like meat dishes, mostly asian styled cooking like chinese, or my native, Indonesian) would be cooked at weekend, at large portion, then divided into 5 days (usually, we eat fresh cooked food for Sunday and Saturday:)) before we freeze them in the freezer. We just need to reheat them on the morning. (I know that some might think it's disgusting, but it's not really a choice for us to cook fresh food in the morning when we barely have time to sleep, not to mention that cooking in large quantity saves time energy, and money). Dishes like sweet and sour fish/chicken/beef/pork, Kung Pao, and others that require you to deep fried the meat before putting the sauce in would be nicer if you just separate the sauce from the beginning, since it would get mushy and really disgusting if you put it together.

My good friend also gave me and idea by bringing broccoli and potato as her lunch in school days. You just need to boil the broccoli with water, adding some salt and sugar inside. After it goes tender, but still green, take it out of the water. Next, boiled the potato. Then packed it in your lunch box. You can add mayonnaise, thousand island, cheese, or whatever sauce you like (I like to add the cheese in the boiled potato with no sauce at all).

For bento boxes, we have limited fund, so mainly we use plastic airtight container that are easy to get around here (I use lock lock brand) rather than those pretty bento boxes.

I hope this (not so) little comment of mine might be useful to you all. Have a nice day. :)

Re: Share your back-to-school bento strategies!

Thank you, Jane! I appreciate hearing how someone in SE Asia is using local foods. I am in Alaska, and only DREAM of eating my first umeboshi!

Re: Share your back-to-school bento strategies!

Yes, we do have water spinach here. My Filipina grandmother makes it all the time and it was my favorite green growing up! And I'm a big believer in cooking on weekends -- I don't that much time in the morning to cook, so I usually warm up something that I had stored in the fridge (like the baked eggplant stuffing I have today) or the freezer (like rice or soboro).

I've never thought about bringing a boiled potato with broccoli for lunch, but it's such a great and simple idea I think I'll try it next week. Thanks!

Re: Share your back-to-school bento strategies!

This year I'm really getting interested in Furikake and other Japanese pantry staples. Like many of you our family has two working parents plus busy kids, so anything that I can do to streamlime my bento prep for four people is a good thing! Fortunately my children are adventurous eaters and not fussy - they will try anything - so I can even go for more unusual things like Green Tea Furikake. I love Just Bento and Maki you are a terrific photographer!

Re: Share your back-to-school bento strategies!

I'm actually just starting to plan out everything for this year ^_^

I start out by compiling a list of my favorite bento recipes (e.g. Sesame Fried Tofu, Lemon Scallion Onigiri, Curried Rice, etc...). I have all the dietary info calculated for my recipes ahead of time, so I just select a recipe and decide what would go best with it. I also tend to plan out suppers where I can use leftover veggies and rice the next day.

Then comes one of my favorite parts: Shopping! I take a trip to my asian grocery, bodega, supermarket, and organic grocery stores of choice to compare prices on the ingredients I'll be needing and see how I can fit everything into my budget. I make up a week's meal plan based on this information. The Just Bento weekly meal planner had been something of a saving grace for me. I usually plan out a month's worth of bentos ahead of time, because my schedule as a student is nothing if not hectic.

Re: Share your back-to-school bento strategies!

My son will start his second year of preschool this fall and he'll be getting a bento at least once per week. Bentos have been a great way to begin teaching him basic cooking, food safety, as well as nutrition and the importance of a balanced diet. Since he gets bentos mostly for field trips and during parent education meetings, I plan to:

1) Plan (some) menus with him in advance. This is so we can incorporate tried-and-true favorites as well as new tastes. And we can learn more about the seasons through seasonal foods, farmers' markets, etc...

2) Since he enjoys fruit/veggie/cheese cutouts and such, I plan to have him help me prep (cookie cutters are wonderful for little hands) and bag them ahead of time. Heck, he already loves to make onigiri and sushi with me - we'll make a stash of those for the freezer as well. Other tasks like washing produce and putting away silverware he often helps with already.

3) He also has a piggy bank and I plan to work with him in using some of his savings to buy treats/accessories for his lunchbox. This way he can learn about budgeting on a small scale.

4) I also want to avoid "picky eater syndrome," and it has been my experience that he's more likely to eat it if he had a hand in making it. Granted, he does have his likes and dislikes - but I don't want him eating pizza, hot dogs, mac'n'cheese...and nothing else for the rest of his school career. So helping with prep and the occasional surprise charaben bento will help keep him excited about lunches.

Yes, these ideas will take time and planning but I try to see everything around me as "teachable moments" as it were and it is amazing how making bentos touches on so many different areas.

Re: Share your back-to-school bento strategies!

Since all my money is going towards my books for classes I'm going to be using a Ziplock food container as a bento box. I will be using grilled strips of tofu or egg to separate the food, and I will be using my mini muffin tin to set up food and what not that fits in the container. The container is not as big as an actual Bento box but is small enough to fit in my case with my books so that I can get it into the library.

bentos for attention

I don't have children and am not currently in school, but I have a great love for my super cute lunches that I feel it is a waste that other people can't see them. So I'll admit something kind of silly.
I plan on going to the common/cafeteria are of my local college and eating my bento there so other people can see my lunch. I'm looking forward to the start of this school season for no other reason. :D
I delight in the adorable shapes and petite portions and get a little rush whenever someone notices as I first pull out my DaNPa (reverse panda) bento box. I take my time so that others might notice. then as I open it and nibble on a hello kitty shaped ( and nori decorated) musubi, I eat and hope someone will be bold enough to come over later to ask me about my lunch. This happens more often than you might think because I live in a very culturally isolated region. So star shaped eggs and, cute little dividers/cup & general bento art are completely foreign.
I've been so secretly excited over this idea that on a recent trip to Hawaii, I raided a dollar store for bento supplies that I normally have to order online. That's right, my souvenirs from Hawaii were bento supplies, not macadamia nuts!

Re: Share your back-to-school bento strategies!

I‘m going back for my second year at uni and I‘m determined to get into bentoing this year. I had decided this last year as well, but non-planning and tiredness in the morning led to me making a bento, oh, about maybe 4 times out of the whole year. ;P Which of course led to me spending money I couldn‘t afford on food from the cafe or from the local shop. Also the fact that I‘m at a dance school means I eat a lot, especially when things are hectic, so I need to get my food in gear.

I‘ve printed out enough meal planners (thank you maki!) to last me until December, and am going to plan out my meals during the weekend, and do most of my shopping then. I have also gone round all my favorite bento sites (justbento/hungry, cookingcute, lunchinabox etc.) and general recipe sites and copy/pasted all the recipes I like to word. I am going to print these out, put them in a binder and add those little notes at the edge, not sure what you call them, so that I can see without having to flip through the whole thing what recipes I have. I’m hoping that if I have them physically there in front of me, I will be more likely to use them. I find that I tend to favorite these recipes on my browser and then forget about them and I also get very easily distracted and if I have to go online to find them, I tend to wander off site when I see something interesting. I’m doing this for my dinner’s as well, have gone round for example Rachael Ray’s site and found tons of recipes I can use. I had a tendency, especially towards the end of term, when things were hectic, to not be able to come up with anything for dinner and ending ordering take out, of which there is way too much in London, which is both too expensive and not good for me.

I really liked something that was already mentioned here on this list, which I am definitely going to use, and that is to pre cut vegetables and fruits and have them ready in a few big containers in the fridge. Anything that will speed up morning time helps me, as I am really not a morning person :P
I’ve also made myself a list of things to do when I get back to London before school starts, as I’m actually Icelandic and am in Iceland for the summer, but live in London to study. Therefore, I need to keep track of what to prepare and go shopping for, as I will only have a few days before school starts to get my stash up to speed. The list is as follows, though not nearly so tidy:

• Make, proportion and freeze rice
• Make and freeze Onigiri with Ginger marinated beef filling (from cookingcute.com)
• Make furikake: Spicy Curry Peanut
• Make meat Soboro and freeze
• Make gyoza’s (so yummy :D)
• Make and freeze vegatble soup balls
• Make mini calzone pies (Rachael Ray)
• Make Curry Laksa (Cookingcute), portion it out and freeze, and portion out shrimp to go with it and freeze
• Make Shrimp-burgers (cookingcute, tried these last year, very good :D)
• Make Pork with garlic & pepper (cookingcute)
• Note for dinners: Philly Cheese Steak is yummy!
• See if they have ready fried garlic in Wing Yip, for Pork w/garlic and pepper

Obviously I won’t be able to make all of these and freeze them before school starts, but it will give me a starting point and this way I won’t forget all the ideas I had browsing recipe sites while stuck in Iceland :P
I’ve also go myself some lock&lock boxes, as I had some problems with leakage last year, though mostly from some cheap stuff bought in Ikea. My mom got me the cutest little lock & lock box, which will be good for dipping sauces and such, as I don’t have any cute cups or anything, though I may sort that out in the coming years :P

So this is my plan, I hope it works for myself as I need to get a hold on what I’m eating :P

Re: Share your back-to-school bento strategies!

I usually do my shopping on Saturdays for fresh fruits and vegetables. As I don't have a freezer, I have to work on a (half-)weekly basis. On Sunday, I usually bake a lot, at least enough to have little cooking to do before Wednesday which is the second baking evening and, as I'm vegetarian, I would cook some pulses so they would be ready to use in the next following days. I would bake cupcakes size vegetable or pulses cakes and sweet treats which are perfect items for bentos.
In every bento I would put:
1) fresh vegetables in sticks or as a salad. I do like to try many different salads so that our bentos are not similar from one day to the other.
2) cooked vegetables with seasoning
3) one fried item: seitan (I'm a vegetarian), vegetable tempura, tofu,...
4) some starch: usually rice, bread or pasta or quinoa. I sometimes become a bit more fancy from time to time.
5) some pulse either as a cupcake, sauce, in a salad, home-made pâté, or mixed with some other item
6) one treat: cupcake, fruit jelly, fruits, nuts or dried fruits. (I believe no diet should avoid completely sweet treats, it's good for the smile!)
Because I have to rely on the shopping we did on Saturdays, the fresh ingredients will be quite the same. Therefore I try to be creative and present the same ingredients in many different ways. For example for aubergine (eggplants): as caviar for vegan pâté, fresh marinated aubergine salad, cooked diced spicy aubergine.
Cucumber could be eaten in sushi, as a plain salad with French vinaigrette, miseria (Polish salad), as a soup, or jelly...Courgette can be eaten raw as spaghettis, too!
Then, the idea is to change the spices of the meal, and the type of starch (rice sandwich or onigri, bread sandwiches, cold pasta salad). We do not have any way to reheat our bentos so, we test a lot of leftovers in our bentos. Some dishes can't be eaten cold, they lose all there flavours. One of the main tip is to put much more spices, as the flavour fades away, in the batch of leftovers.
Moreover I love cooking, so each week there would be at least one new recipe.
The last thing is just to present things neatly (not necessarly kawai as it can be embarrassing at work in front of your colleagues to have some little hearts and butterfly in cheese or nori all over your bento) so that it is a treat to eat the bento (and it sometimes makes me forget that I would like sometimes to eat a little more than a bento...). One thing is sure I love bentoing.
I've realised that some bentos are better than other. Lock and locks are the most reliable if you take some liquid stamples as fruits, or fruit salads; the metal bentos are the only which can be reheaten on a cooker; the glass boxes are my favourite for the see-through and their shiny side; the wooden bentos are good at home or to show off but a real trouble on the go as they are not leek proof; and a simple tup can do the job of some bento box!

Re: Share your back-to-school bento strategies!

If you have tempered glass boxes you can reheat them in a cooker or in a microwave.

Re: Share your back-to-school bento strategies!

For me, it's taking advantage of extra time on the weekends to prepare for the coming week.

Is there a new recipe that you're looking at trying? - Cook it on a Sunday where time isn't as short as on a weekday morning. Leftovers can be used the next day in your lunch!

If you tend to use a lot of rice in your lunches, I've had good success with cooking it up ahead of time. About half of the batch gets mixed with some furikake, molded up into nice little rice balls (unstuffed), individually wrapped in saran wrap, and then put in a giant freezer bag and frozen. The second half of the rice gets portioned out and then wrapped and frozen. THis way I have flexibility for making lunches throughout the week - both decorative and utilitarian (for making larger stuffed rice balls, a quick sushi-type roll, or to use in another way) rice is ready. If you freeze the hot rice as soon as you take it out of the cooker, it works best. Then, when you're ready to pack it, just put the individually wrapped package in the microwave for about a minute, and it is hot, moist, and ready to pack/eat!

Re: Share your back-to-school bento strategies!

I am starting to pack bento lunches for both my kids an my hubby! Last year the kids' lunch boxes would come home barely even half eaten and the kids were ravenous by the time they got home. I explored the idea of bentos last year, but wasn't brave enough to try it yet. This week I've been practicing and the pickiest eater nearly cleaned out his box two days in a row. He even asked for bento dinner, too!

As we're juuust starting out right now all the stratedy I have is keep it colorful and start with things I know they love, slooooowly adding in new and tasty things.

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