Bento Basics

What is bento?

Bento (written 弁当), or obento (お弁当) to use the honorific term, is the Japanese word for a meal served in a box. Beyond that basic definition though, just about anything goes as to what kind of box or container is used, as well as what is put inside that box,.

Different types of bento

(See also: Types of homemade bento.)

There are several different kinds of bento, with different purposes. Makunouchi bento are elaborate bento meals presented at formal meals, meant to be eaten at table. This is the type you will see served in restaurants, arranged in elegant lacquered boxes. Kouraku bento are picnic bento, to be shared by a group of people enjoying themselves outdoors - the most popular settings is while enjoying the cherry blossoms in spring ((o)hahanami). Ekiben (a shortened form of eki bento) are boxed meals sold at train stations for travellers (though nowadays you can buy ekiben at many other places, such as department store food halls or convenience stores).

The kind of bento that have garnered the most attention recently, especially outside of Japan are what are called kyaraben or charaben, ‘cute bento’ ‘art bento’ or ‘entertaining bento’ (entertain-bento), extremely elaborately decorated small works of art, as exemplified by the work presented on sites like e-obento (Japanese). These are usually made by mothers for their small children. There can be a high level of competitiveness in this arena - there are tons of contests and such that feature these bentos.

Finally, there’s the plain simple bento that most people bring to work or school for lunch. It’s important to note that most Japanese people do not spend their time making elaborate charaben or ‘cute bento’ - that’s more in the realm of a hobby and craft rather than practical everyday living. The type of bento that JustBento concentrates on for the most part are practical, tasty, healthy everyday bento lunches.

My bento inspiration

As with a lot of things, my first inspiration for making bento lunches is my mother. Even with three kids and a full time job, my mother always managed to make delicious lunches for us to bring to school. They weren’t always the very prettiest, but they were tasty, filling and healthy. I also take inspiration from other members of my family - my sisters and aunts and my late grandmothers. Finally, I also refer to a number of Japanese bento books.

My bento philosophy

Here is the basic bento philosophy that’s behind the bento examples presented on this site.

  • I use bentos to incorporate some healthy food into my daily eating. Therefore I use as much vegetables and vegetable products as possible, watch the amount of oil and fat, and try to stay away from processed foods. (An sausage cut to look like a tiny octopus, aka an “octodog” or “octopus wiener”, may be cute, and I include such things on occasions, but they aren’t the most healthy food.)
  • Along the healthy-eating lines, I try to keep the total caloric value of my bento lunches under 600 calories. This works out well within an 1800-2200 calorie daily allowance, which is what’s recommended for a female of my height and activity level. It’s quite easy to increase or decrease the amount though according to how much you want to eat. (See how to select the right bento box link below.)
  • The maximum time I want to spend on assembling my obento is 30 minutes. Most of the time I want it done under 20 minutes. (The approximate time taken for each bento is always indicated for the Complete Bentos featured.)
  • It has to be tasty and safe to eat at room temperature, (with a few exceptions), leak- and spoil-resistant, and filling.
  • They should look appetizing, but I don’t spend that much time making them really pretty and fancy. I like to keep things simple.
  • Since I want to save money by bringing my bento rather than eating out, I try to keep the cost down as much as possible.

Please also keep in mind that most of my bento are made with adult eaters in mind, rather than kids. They can be adapted for kids of course by perhaps reducing the quantities, or just used as-is for teenagers.

About 80% vegetarian/vegan

Since one of my main objectives is to make my bentos healthy, many are totally vegetarian or vegan, while all rely heavily on vegetable products. Meat is not used often as a main ingredient. However, some dishes do use non-vegetarian flavoring or texturizing ingredients, such as oyster sauce, fish sauce, dried bonito flakes or dried shrimp, and eggs. I’ve indicated when an obento is 100% vegetarian/vegan or not. Many bentos that are not vegetarian can be adapted to become so if needed. (I also use things like a little bit of sugar, tomato ketchup and so on as flavoring on occasion.)

Incorporating brown rice and alternative whole grains

Rice is the base for Japanese style bentos, and I have chosen to use brown rice (genmai) in most cases, since it’s nutritionally superior to white rice. White can be used instead. About half of the bentos presented here have Japanese flavors, but there are also plenty of not-Japanese bentos.

1:1:2 (or more) carb:protein:vegetable ratio

The traditional Japanese bento ratio of rice or carb (shushoku), protein and other (usually vegetables) components is 4:2:1, or 4 parts rice to 2 parts protein to 1 part other ingredients. The recommended ratio, advocated by various nutritionists, for people trying to lose weight or eat healthily is 3:2:1. I aim more for a 1:1 ratio in terms of volume between rice and protein, with the rest taken up by lots of vegetables. In other words I try to have a bit less rice or other carb, and a lot more veggies. There is usually 3/4 to 1 cup of rice, which is about 160 to 220 calories, in each ~600 calorie bento box.

More in Bento Basics

Below are links to more pages in the Bento Basics handbook.

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.

20 comments

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obento

Thanks for the site. your meals look great! I’d like to try some and lose some weight too!

fredo

Your Site is AWESOME

I have just discovered your site and I am amazed. I am now trying to convince my husband to let me change over our entire diet and kitchen to Japanese and other Asian cooking. I figure all these years of eating American has made us fat and unhealthy, so why not try something completely different? Bento seems to be perfect too for portion control.

losing weight

Bento lunches can indeed help you lose weight via portion control. (Another reader and her husband (who are American) have lost 50 lbs so far together using bento! They don’t have to be packed with just Japanese or Asian food either.

I hope you find the site useful! :)

Wrote about you!

Hey there, just wanted to let you know that I featured your site on a women’s blog I write for (under a pseudonym). Also, thanks for the permission to feature you in the first place :) Hope the link works, if it doesn’t, please email me.

http://www.notesfromvenus.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&...

Re: Bento Basics

this is an amazing site..i spent over an hour on here just looking through everything to catch up! thank you! it reminds me of when my mom used to make me bento everyday for school as a child..i will be making them now!
=)

Re: Bento Basics

Excellent ideas and loved your writing style!

Re: Bento Basics

I noticed so far that none of the bento boxes have a drink listed. So what would you drink if you were to create a bento box?

Re: Bento Basics

I usually just drink water, hot or cold tea, or diet soda (can do without extra calories in my drink!). I've been trying to avoid getting bottled water or tea and using thermal mugs lately...I guess I should do a post about that soon ^_^

Re: Bento Basics

I think I love you. =)

Re: Bento Basics

This is awesome...i can think of an alternative lunch for my daughter since she only eats japanese food....she loves onigiri

Re: Bento Basics

I absolutely love your site. I want to thank you for sharing all your recipes and tips with everyone, it's so helpful. The past year I have been trying to eat healthier and exercise, and most of the time I'm good, but occasionally I slip like a lot of people do. Making bentos is something I've always wanted to do, but was a little too intimidated to actually try, but you really helped me out. I'm an aspiring 5K/half-marathon runner, college student, and lacrosse player/equestrian, so I need balanced meals, but I also need portion control and this has been perfect. I've made some of your recipes already and so far have loved them all. They are so healthy and yet so delicious. Thank you again!

Re: Bento Basics

Hey! As a university student, I wanted to thank you for this website. Not only has it helped me combat the temptation to live on fast food or pizza alone, but I've learned a ton recipes and cooking techniques from it. I once brought some tea eggs and fried rice with a pear to work, and got to explain about bento to my coworkers. Thanks again!

Re: Bento Basics

Makiko-san,
Thank you very much for your inspiration.
I have been overweight for a very long time and find it difficult to have proper healthy meal while working in a Japanese factory. Instead i have been consuming over-calorie and high-fat canteen food.
Without being able to find alternative food, i first saw your book in Kinokuniya and fell in love with your simple method and time management in preparing O-bento.
I always love the cute bentos picture but constantly intimidate to attempt making one myself.
Thank goodness that your instructions are easy to understand for someone who hardly know how to cook.
I also find out about your websites from the book; I have to say that you have truly given me something to look forward to during lunch time.
Domo arigatou gozaimasu!

Re: Bento Basics

Thank you so much for your lovely site!! I'll try my first bento this weekend. Wish me luck!!!

Re: Bento Basics

Thank you for shining light on Bento. I have learn so much bout Bento. Hope to start my own Bento soon.

Japanese food and cooking lexicon

I've tried several times to access the food and cooking lexicon but failed each time. I assume it is not yet up and running - when will it be (it sounds as though it could be very interesting as well as useful)?

I only discovered your site today - it is marvellous. But are you really one person doing all this or are you really a company lurking behind the names Just Hungry and Just Bento? In any case keep up the good work and let's have a picture of you

Re: Bento Basics

Hello,
Thank you for this amazing site which helps me with some basics. To tell you honestly, I am not very good at cooking, having also the cognitive impairment brought from ADHD : planning bentos are not something easy for me. Especially when I have to spend the 90% of my energy in fighting to make a law change in my country : my brain is washed out after that.

But since GP and pdoc are very strict about the not-losing-weight songsheet with my ADHD med, I keep an eye to eat enough (surprisingly for even my pdoc, stress suppresses me appetite more than any ADHD med. Incredible but true).
Bento is a good idea for it, it forces me to think about taking something to eat when I have long days filled with searching info, appointments, phone calls and so on.... (fighting to make a law change is not a holiday at all, it traps all the energy I have inside, making even forget myself sometimes. Like I forget to eat, and GP is quite strict about the "I forget to eat"...).

I just want to quibble on the fact that if you want to avoid weight loss when you are prone for weight loss, I notice that putting on the same meal whole grains and 2 portions of vegetables is a no no, otherwise, you feel full so quickly that you don't eat enough.
And the more I have in my bento (or plate) to eat on a meal, the more I feel overwhelmed.

Fruits like applesauce (or pearsauce....) can also be a good option.

Don't forget to take care of yourself, otherwise you don't manage to do a thing

Re: Bento Basics

This is the most complete site I've seen yet with information on Bento. I love it! I made a Bento for my daughter recently and she loved it.

Re: Bento Basics

You could make caulliflower rice to substitute for any rice you enjoy. It has tons of fiber (excellent for weight loss!), fewer calories and is just as good. Super simple with a food processor. ;-)

Re: Bento Basics

Dear Maki,

many thanks for all the information on bento and Japanese food! Over the past year your blog and book became my major inspiration for cooking, it helped me so much preparing Japanese dishes in a better way.

I found (like many others) that eating bento is not just practical and fun, but also very helpful and motivating for keeping a diet. I linked your page from my blog, which is usually on Zen, but talking about diet this time http://dorakuan.blogspot.de/2012/08/zen-diet.html

I wish you all the best, and lots of strength to recover soon!

joerg (Doraku-An Zen-Dojo)

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