The Cheap Chick makes a frugal bento

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…

Step One: The ingredients

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.

  • Julienned carrots - $1.50 per bag (okay, normally I get baby carrots, but the julienned ones are the same price.)
  • Cucumber – 50 cents each, on sale
  • Brown rice - $1.25 per bag
  • Canned salmon - $1.50 per can (I buy the cans that are the same size as canned tuna.)
  • Nori seaweed - $3.99 for 10 sheets, located in the Asian food aisle
  • Sriracha - $2.99 for the really big bottle
  • Soy sauce – Approximately $2 for Kikomann’s
  • Rice wine vinegar – Approximately $3
  • Sesame oil – Approximately $3.50 for the bottle

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.)

Step two: Prepping the food

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:

  • Carrot kinpira – using the julienned carrots, sesame oil, soy, rice wine vinegar, sriracha and some powdered ginger (eek!) I had.
  • Brown rice – cooked in plain water, measured and frozen in one cup increments.
  • Peeled cucumber slices – not really cooking, just food prep
  • Salmon furikake – using two cans of salmon, soy, rice wine vinegar, sriracha (I like my food spicy), and the dread powdered ginger.

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.

Step three: Assembling the bento

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!

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Re: The Cheap Chick makes a frugal bento

I'm addicted too Cheap Chick. I can't stop looking at online Bento. I've been making them for my husband for about 2 weeks now and love to just look at the pictures to get ideas but I think it's bordering on addiction.

Re: The Cheap Chick makes a frugal bento

Love your post! Cute! That reminds me I'm out of salmon furikake, going shopping today, yay!

Re: The Cheap Chick makes a frugal bento

hey! a fellow minnesotan! Have you ever been to United noodles? It's in Minneapolis. A bit of a drive but you can find alot of asian ingredients for cheaper than you would get in the regular grocery store(because most grocery stores actually buy their stuff from them i believe). Not everything is cheaper, but say for example your sesame oil. I can get a bottle about double the size they usually sell at the cub near me for the same price. For what it is, the prices are good. I have a family of 9 people and we end up spending about 140.00 for 2 months of meals. I'd say for my fam size that's pretty decent.(we really stock up when we go because of the drive)

Re: The Cheap Chick makes a frugal bento

Is there a functional purpose of the nori in bento lunches?

I know it is healthy because it has lots of minerals, and that it is useful to wrap food with to make for easy eating. So I'm curious if there is a specific purpose for layering it in a bento other than for aesthetic and nutritional reasons.


Re: The Cheap Chick makes a frugal bento

Not really - it's just used for flavor and sometimes looks. Nothing more special than that ^_^ (Of course when used as a wrapper for sushi rolls or onigiri, it helps to keep the rice in place and things.)

Re: The Cheap Chick makes a frugal bento

Possibly silly question, but I was wondering what your approaching to constructing the bento would be if working in an office? If I re-heated the rice in the morning and assembled the bento and left it out, would it be ok out of the fridge for 5 hours? Or should it be assembled and then put in the fridge until lunch? Thanks!

Re: The Cheap Chick makes a frugal bento

A bento lunch is designed to be kept at (reasonable) room temperature for several hours before eating. This is what all Japanese people who bring a bento lunch from home do. All of the recipes you see here on Just Bento, unless specifically stated otherwise, are bento-friendly and should hold up fine under these conditions - I always assume that people don't have access to a refrigerator.

If you are in an overheated office, or it's summer where you are and it's hot and humid, you will want to take some precautions like packing your lunch with an ice pack. You might find these two pages useful: Keeping your bento lunch safe, and Summer bento safety.

Re: The Cheap Chick makes a frugal bento

Thanks! I'm kind of a bento newbie : )

Re: The Cheap Chick makes a frugal bento

that's pretty cool! I'm addicted to looking at bentos online too @_@
and I'm also from MN! :3 I second the recommendation for United Noodles, but a lot of other asian grocery stores have good products and prices. the one my mom usually goes to is 雙河 (I think) Shuang He/Hur? haha I don't actually know how to spell it! but you can get cheaper foods than at Cub or Rainbow etc.

canned salmon: fishy and boney

My experience with canned salmon is that is had bits of bones and skin in it.... and tastes/smells really gross. Is this just the quality of the canned salmon? We have several cans of salmon at home that no one wants to eat and i havent figured out a good use for them.
Please comment.

Re: canned salmon: fishy and boney

There is a difference between brands, but I think most canned salmon does have bones and skin in it. Whether you find that gross or not is a personal preference I guess...(in Japan they actually sell cans of just salmon bones, and it's considered a delicacy! I personally don't like the skin, but the bones I love. Call me weird. ^_^) You can try draining the salmon very well, and getting rid of the skin and bones before proceeding. If that doesn't work though, donate your cans of salmon to a food bank, and switch to fresh salmon and/or canned tuna :)

Re: The Cheap Chick makes a frugal bento

Reading this makes me feel so relieved T-T
I was geting worried because I can`t go two days without looking at bento pictures for ideas! I`ve been bentoing for a month now and I`m hooked I don`t ever want to stop! Too bad that I don`t have acces to asian food items at a low price where I am but I do what I can with what I have on hand. Mostly I adapt local recipes.

Re: The Cheap Chick makes a frugal bento

instead of sprinkling soy, my mother would just dip the nori in soy and layer them on the rice like lasagna noodles.

Re: The Cheap Chick makes a frugal bento

I enjoyed your post, Cheap Chick! Step by step instructions are always great for newbee bento makers, and seeing new food combos is always good. I agree with the earlier comment than canned salmon is not very appetizing... however, with bento there are always substitutes like baked tofu or garbanzo beans as a good protein source. Alternately, if you like smoked salmon you could use that instead of canned...

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