Getting started with bento making: Variety and saving money
A main reason many people like to, or want to, make bento lunches is for more variety, to save money, and to have some fun too. In my mind these aspects are quite interconnected.
There are three sources for filling your bento box. One is food that you make specifically for it, usually in the morning or perhaps the night before. The second is leftovers from other meals. The third is with stock or staple items (aka johbisai). The key to keeping a good variety in your bento meals is to use all three sources in in a smart way.
Limit the number of things you have to make from scratch in the morning
Certain foods are just better when they are made fresh. Raw vegetables for example, which need to be crisp. Some protein based foods go bad fairly quickly unless they've been cooked in a way that preserves them, so it's safer to eat them as soon after you've made them as possible. A good example of this is tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette).
Unless you have a lot of time to spare though, you'll probably want to limit the number of things you just have to make fresh in any given bento box. Once you get more experience with bento making, your speed and efficiency will increase. But if you're just starting out, try to plan bentos that may have at most 2 to 3 items in it that have to be made in the morning.
Learn the art of repurposing leftovers
Using up leftovers for bento is a great way to both increase the variety of what goes in there and to save money. You save a lot of money by bringing a bento vs. buying something or eating out anyway, but you can really maximize your savings by using leftovers. The first and easiest step is to just set aside some of your dinner and to put in your bento box the next day (or freeze for later use).
To go a step further, try to think of varying the flavor or texture of the leftovers. I love to think of how to make something 'different' to have in my bento whenever I'm making dinner. Here are some ideas to get you thinking about your own repurposing variations:
- If you've made spaghetti with meatballs, set aside a few of the meatballs after browning them and before putting them in the tomato sauce. Cook them in a little soy sauce, etc. or just use them like mini-hamburgers with a bit of ketchup.
- Bake or boil an extra potato to use sauteed or in a salad in your bento.
- If you've cooked some vegetables in a soup or stew, e.g. carrots and broccolli and so on, take out a few to use in next day's bento. You could lightly stir-fry them with a little sesame oil and red pepper flakes for example, or make a boiled salad out of them by adding dressing.
- Boil an extra egg - boiled eggs are always nice to tuck into the corner of a bento, for color and variety.
- A common way Japanese people re-purpose leftover tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) is to turn it into tonkatsu don. Make some stir-fried onion, add the tonkatsu pieces, add a beaten egg and cook until soft-set. You could use this method with any kind of meat, as well as veggie options like cooked tempeh or tofu.
- Reserve some of the meat from a roast chicken. The breast meat in particular is nice in a salad, and shredded dark meat is great in a stir fry or in fried rice.
Safety note: Always re-heat leftovers before putting them in your bento, or else freeze them and defrost - especially things with protein in it!
See also: Top 7 things to do with leftover food scraps on Lunch In A Box.
Build up your stock of staples or johbisai
The final part of the bento variety puzzle is a good stock of staples. Every Japanese bento maker relies on a stock of johbisai (joubisai) or staple items. These can be homemade or bought. These are items that can be kept for a period of time and pulled out and used on short notice. They can be stocked in the fridge, in the pantry, or in the freezer.
There's a growing list of _johbisai_ recipes here on Just Bento. You don't have to make everything you stock though. Here's a list of some readymade foods that are great to have on hand. (I've classified Japanese staples as ones that you would need to go to a Japanese grocery store for. Things like edamame are now getting stocked at non-Japanese markets like Trader Joe's too, which is great)
- Canned fish - tuna, mackerel, salmon, crab etc. that can be used as-is or turned into something quickly
- Canned meat (corned beef, Spam) - if you like them! (I like corned beef, but Spam...)
- Canned beans of all kinds (I hate canned green beans, but cooked dried bean cans are great)
- Canned corn
- Instant soup packets, stock cubes
- Sauces and preserves - Worcestershire, ketchup, chili sauce...
- Crackers and long-lasting breads like Wasa rye crisps
- Japanese pantry staples include nori seaweed sheets, dried wakame seaweed, kombu seaweed tea (kombu-cha), instant miso soup packs, furikake, gomashio (sesame seeds and salt), ready-to-nuke rice, panko, canned or vacuum packed foods of all kinds.
- Cheeses of all kinds
- Ham and other deli meats
- Vegetables that keep well - carrots, celery, cucumbers, etc.
- Tofu products (if they are vacuum packed they usually keep for a bit - see the expiration dates)
- Japanese refrigerator staples include miso, umeboshi, pickles of all kinds, pickled red ginger (beni-sho-ga)
- Frozen, ready-to-cook vegetables: green beans, corn, carrots, edamame, spinach, mixed vegetables...
- Frozen minute steak and veggie burgers (cut up burgers into small pieces for bento use)
- There are tons of Japanese freezer staples! All kinds of dumplings (gyoza, shumai), fried foods, fish, vegetables (frozen kabocha squash pieces are very handy), etc. It can be quite bewildering looking through the frozen food section of a Japanese supermarket.
One important thing to remember though - don't get carried away with stocking up on staples, especially if you're trying to save money! Even long-keeping foods do go bad eventually.
This wraps up the Getting Started series. I hope it's given you lots of ideas to get going. For even more info, see the Bento Basics series too.
Next week I'll be back posting actual bento step-by-steps and recipes. Enough theory, more action!
If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting this site by becoming my patron via Patreon.