What is this ‘bento’ thing? Essentially a bento is a packed lunch. What makes a bento different from normal packed lunches are the protective nature of the box and the way that the food is packed. The first prevents the food from being squished and the second keeps the food from shifting around in transit. Both of these contribute to the idea of lunch looking exactly the same when you eat it as when you packed it; which is generally much more appetizing and aesthetically pleasing. Note that this is almost completely unknown in the dash-in, drive-out circles of fast food.
What do you need to get started? Not much, honestly. Even though I enjoy using the gobs of cute accessories, the only essential things are a box and food to put inside it. The box doesn’t even have to be a ‘bento’ box. It can be a Tupperware container of any shape. Though I will say that it helps if the box is airtight!
Do I have to use Japanese food? No, certainly not. You can put whatever types of food you enjoy eating into a bento. I pack Scottish, Italian, Greek, Japanese, Korean, Indian and American food. Sometimes I even mix food from two or more world cuisines in one bento. It makes for more interesting and adventurous eating.
Does it have to be cute? Well…that’s a matter for personal choice. It’s much more difficult for me to make a bento that isn’t cute! Of course, that’s because I’ve been making bentos for a little girl for several years. But humans have eaten food that wasn’t cute for more generations than I can count so… I suppose eating food that’s not cute won’t hurt you.
Can I warm a bento before I eat it? Traditionally bentos are meals meant to be eaten at ‘room’ temperature. One advantage of Tupperware as a bento is that it can generally be microwaved. Some modern bento boxes are safe to microwave but many are not. And even if you have a microwave-safe bento you’ll have to take care that all the food within is best eaten when warmed.
So how do you put it all together? I’ve recently realized that I pack my bentos in an artistic fashion. What I mean is that I consistently look at an empty box as though it were a blank canvas. I choose an angle from which to ‘view’ the bento and then decide on the backdrop. The building blocks of the bento (i.e. the food, lol) go into the box with that angle and backdrop in mind the whole time. There is a background, a foreground and then a highlights layer. The highlights layer is generally where all the cute decorative stuff comes in although some of it, like containers, dividers and picks, go in the other layers. This whole way of thinking about bento packing may be completely foreign to you or it might help you – each bento packer is different!
How do I choose a bento box? Yeeesh, that’s a hard question. All I can do is point out the boxes I like best and the reasons why. The first bento box that you buy will probably be based on one of two things: amount of food that will fit inside OR the absolutely cute thing on the lid that you must have now, now, now. Mine was the cute thing now, now, now – Nyanko bento and Tare Panda bento were my first two! I rarely use the Nyanko bento these days as it is pretty inconvenient. The Tare panda bento gets used when I need lots of food for a picnic or long car drive, but not every day.
When A-chan was a young toddler I used the small aluminum one-tier bentos very often. They packed just the right amount of food for her. Now that she is older I use mostly the one-tier rectangular bentos. Two tier bentos are generally reserved for myself and my husband as a lot more food will fit into these and they are a little more awkward for A-chan to open and close by herself at school.
The bento boxes that I find myself using more often than any others are the ones that have raised lids. They allow for more latitude in decoration where flat lidded boxes tend to smoosh things like eyes and ears and noses, flatten onigiri, etc. Of course this is because I am rather absentminded and forget about the flat lid until it’s too late.
The Bento Anarchist’s Guide to Packing a Bento:
Next put in a divider or a container if you need one.
Fill the container and the space around it, saving fruit for last so that it doesn’t get bruised.
Now find the small gaps that need to be filled and plug in some small items. This is where I find picks to be so useful – not only are they cute but they are a great way of filling in the gaps
Now you can add your décor.
Natakiya’s Rules of Successful Bento Making:
- Be patient with yourself. Your first few bentos don’t have to be masterpieces (Mine certainly weren’t!). Bento making is just like any other skill or art form – practice makes perfect.
- Try to plan ahead. Even a few minutes spent thinking the night before about what you’re going to put in the bento can make a big difference. Having an idea beforehand means that you’re not wasting precious time the next morning trying to figure it out.
- Invest in a few basic accessories or tools. Decide what you need most for your bentos to help make things easier and then just buy those few things to start. For me the essentials were: soy sauce bottles, ketchup/mayo containers and one set of picks. I consistently use all of these almost every day.
- Use lettuce leaves to make things pretty around the edges. They also make it easier to clean the bento box. Lettuce leaves also serve to pack the food tightly and keep it from jiggling around in transit!
- Be careful if you are decorating with things that melt, like cheese! Make sure the bottom of the bento is cool to the touch before closing it up with cheese inside. Otherwise you’ll find melty gooey cheese when you open it up later.