Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit) Part 2a: What do I put it in?

Hi Bento 101 followers! Hopefully you have at least gotten a start on the list of your favorite, bento/packed lunch-friendly foods as described in the first lesson. You may want to keep the list lying around and add to it as inspiration strikes. This approach works pretty well for me, and it’s actually how I think up up the bento-friendly recipes I add to this site.

Let’s move on to the next topic: what to put your bento lunch in. We will get into more detail about this next week, since many people in my experience get stuck on this point. Some people go out and get a bento box and find it too small, or too big, or just not usable for some reason. Others look at the tiny looking boxes pictured online and think, “no way am I going to be full eating just that”. Then there are people who want to lose or maintain their weights with bento lunches and think that getting a tiny one is the answer. In other words, there’s quite a bit of confusion.

So we’re going to work on that container question. To start with, I want to work on that ‘a bento box is too big/too small’ perception for a bit. Most of us are used to seeing food spread out on a flat plate, but not packed in a box. But a plate is basically two-dimensional (diameter or width x length), with no rules or restrictions as to how high you can pile up the food in the 3rd dimension. This applies even to deeper food containers like bowls, except for liquid foods which will spill out once they go over the rim. Here Roy (played by Richard Dreyfuss) exceeds the expected limits of the third dimension of his dinner plate in the classic sci-fi movie Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

A container like a bento box, on the other hand, has 3 clearly defined dimensions - width, length and height. If you spread out your food in a bento box as you might on a plate leaving lots of air space above, your food is going to shift around in there during transit and look messy by the time you open it up at lunchtime. But if you overstuff the box and can’t close the lid, that’s a problem too.

The ideal way to fill a bento box you’ll be porting around in your backpack or briefcase for a while is to pack it as tightly as possible, as high as possible to the rim while still being closeable, so that the food has little chance to shift around and get messy. This means that for most foods a pretty small looking bento box will actually hold quite a lot of food.

Let me show this to you in pictures. Here is an ordinary dinner plate that I’ve loaded up with a typical McDonald’s spread of Chicken McNuggets, potato wedges and a small salad. Note that I’m not suggesting by any means that this is a healthy meal (the tiny salad doesn’t really improve it much), but I decided to use McDonald’s food for this demonstration since I’m assuming most readers worldwide are familiar with them, and how big a Chicken McNugget is. (Also, after shooting the photos I realized that the potato wedges aren’t sold at all McDonald’s, including in the U.S. Here they are on the McDonald’s France site if you’re interested - they’re called “Les Deluxe Potatoes” and are just your normal fried potato wedges, coated with some mildly spicy powder. They’re pretty good actually.)

Anyway, so a McNuggets meal on a plate. The plate is around 28 cm / 11 inches in diameter (it’s a square-ish plate). There are 6 McNuggets, a regular portion of potato wedges, the sauces that came with them, and a small salad still in the plastic container it came in. I’ve added a couple of cherry tomatoes for color. I think many people would feel fairly satisfied after eating all of this.


For this demonstration this plastic container, which can contain up to 630 ml of liquid (see how to determine the holding capacity of a bento box (or any other container)) and measures 12.6 x 5.8 x 18 cm (5” x 2.3” x 7”). It’s a box made by Thermos with a snap-lock lid by the way - plain but practical. Size-wise it would be classified as ‘medium’ in bento box terms.


Even though the box is much smaller than the dinner plate in its width and length, due to its height I could get just about all the food that was spread out on the latter into the box. (I couldn’t get all the salad in there, but it wouldn’t fit without the container’s height on the plate either.)


From the side you can see how this ‘3-dimensional packing’ is done, by lining up the McNuggets soldier-fashion instead of flat. Although you can’t see it here, the mustard sauce packet is stacked under the Creamy Sauce packet.


Assignment no. 2: Packing in the third dimension

This leads us to your 2nd assignment. Sometime in the next few days, take a meal - lunch or dinner - that you have arranged on a plate. Pick a meal that has mostly stuff that you might pack for lunch (as per your Assignment 1 list), that isn’t very liquid like soup or stew for this purpose. Take any empty food container you have and measure its capacity by filling it with water and emptying the water into a measuring cup (see how to determine the holding capacity of a bento box again). Now try packing your mealinto the container, as compactly as possible, using the third dimension or height. If your chosen container was too small, just leave the food that didn’t fit on the plate. If your container was too big though, pack the food compactly anyway to see how much space is left over. (And of course you should eat the meal after you’re done playing with it.)

This exercise should give you a fairly good idea of what size of container you need for your favorite kinds of meals. There are different kinds of meals you can pack for bento of course, but for now the main objective is to get a general idea of what a box can hold as compared to a plate.

Sharing your results

If you like (this is not mandatory) take a photo of your packing experiment results and post them to the Facebook page, to the JustBento Twitter account using the hashtag #bento101, or to the Flickr group. Please add somewhere in your description that the pic is for Assignment no. 2. Or, post a link to where you’ve uploaded it on your blog, Tumblr, Instagram page, etc. in the comments!

So that’s it. I hope you’ll have fun with this assignment, and I’ll see you next week!

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Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

Looking good! You're already at a more advanced stage too, using the cups! ^_^

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

Maki, you're amazing! You can make even a McDonald's meal look good.

Stacking items vertically, instead of horizontally, is a basic tip - exactly the kind I need. Keep up the great ideas! Thanks.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

do you follow back on twitter? my account is protected...

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

Cryptomon wrote:

do you follow back on twitter? my account is protected...

I'd like to know this too, as I also have a protected account.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

If you need a follow back just tweet @justbento and I will.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

the problem is: you can't read the mention as long as you're not following ;)

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

Just leave your Twitter account here in a comment (it will not get public unless I approve it, which I won't!) and I'll follow you.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

Great idea! I finally started taking my lunch to work consistently since New Year's, and would love to have some guidance about doing bento - I have several boxes, along with your book, and can't wait to start. I just made my food list, and will try packing a container at lunch tomorrow (Sunday). Thanks!

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

What a great (and simple!) technique for understanding volume and packing! BTW, I made the pickles from page 15 of your book last week, I've often marinated veg overnight in lemon juice for my lunch, but massaging salt into them first made a lovely difference!

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

Did it in reverse, because I've been bentoing for about half a year now, but I'm always surprised by how much food actually goes into my box (it's 600ml, but it looks huge on a plate).

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

I have been struggling with how to pack a stainless steel bowl, which is much higher than my plastic bentos so this was a good chance to practice.

not sure if the html will work for pictures here:
2/11 bento - Just Bento exercise

if not, direct link:

It is still really awkward but this is the first time I've fit multiple things into the silver container, with the help of a cut-out flexi cutting board to be the bento divider.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

I'm trying to be satisfied with getting a better handle on what's wrong with my bento making rather than doing everything perfectly, but the perfectionist in me is still unhappy.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

I have struggled before with the go-vertical concept. In fact, after taking my pictures I realized I should have put some carrots under my salmon to make it more vertical. When I pack a bento box right, it doesn't shift around as much during my commute.

I made salmon stuffed with crab, eggplant fries (a few tater tots in there too), and a cucumber salad (in yogurt, with dill). This would not be my ideal choice for a bento box. If I were really packing this to go to work, I probably would have flaked the salmon and put it in a muffin cup rather than plop the whole rolled up filet in there.

I used my Lunchbots Uno, which is 600ml. When I first got it, I thought it was way too small for hold enough for my appetite, but I've since learned that if I pack it right it is more than adequate. I think that's the American portion distortion phenomena catching up to me!

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

I posted a lunch I made earlier this week. I have made bento a few times before I guess, but I still feel like I don't really know what I am doing! So, I am looking forward to participating in this course.

The Bento 101 information starts about halfway through the post, if you want to skip the rest. Thank you!

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

My second set of attempts felt much better. Apparently multitudes of containers is rather an issue for me.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

Really enjoying seeing all your photos and blog posts!

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