Comparing bento box materials (table)

Are you confused about what material is most appropriate for bento boxes? Plastic is easy available, or maybe you want something greener - but is the extra cost worth it? Here’s a handy comparison chart to help you make the right choices.

This table lists all the materials that are commonly used to make bento boxes, lunch boxes and other containers that are repurposed for carrying bentos. As you can see, there are pros and cons to each type. Take a look and see which criteria matter to you the most. Keep in mind that, whatever type of box you choose, the fact that it’s reusable is a plus for the environment, not to mention your wallet.

Comparison table of materials used to make bento boxes and accessories

Material Pros Cons Examples and notes
Aluminum Very lightweight, plastic-free (if no seal), lasts a long time. Usually dishwasher safe (check instructions). Not microwave safe. Can dent easily, though that doesn’t affect functionality. Uncoated aluminum boxes may get corroded by acidic foods. Questions about possibly harmful effects of aluminum. Not leakproof unless they have silicone/plastic seals around the lids. SIGG Midi box - coated aluminum
Bamboo Lightweight, durable. Sustainable material. Not microwave or dishwasher safe. Needs handling with some care. May stain. Well made bamboo boxes and baskets are expensive to very expensive. Bamboo is most often used for basket-type boxes (used to carry onigiri rice balls and sandwiches, though they can be used with inner containers for other foods); solid bamboo boxes are available too (and very expensive). Dried and fresh bamboo leaves (called sasa no ha) are used as disposable food wrappers and dividers. More here.
Glass and ceramic Not plastic (though usually a plastic lid is included), microwave-safe, dishwasher safe, fairly inexpensive Heavy, breakable Pyrex glass containers with plastic lids.
Melamine A type of resin that is used for kitchenware. Colorful, attractive, feels solid. Heavy. Can be expensive. Not microwave or oven safe. Vivo Kids Bento Box
Paper (coated) Not used for bento boxes, but used for bento cups and dividers. Lightweight, disposable, fairly waterproof. Comes in many cute designs. Not microwave, oven or dishwasher safe. Not reusable (you may get 1-2 more uses out of a paper cup). Expensive when you consider the per-use cost. Paper bento cup
Plastic and styrene - disposable Very cheap to free, lightweight. Disposable plastic and styrene boxes (such as takeout bento boxes) are okay for a single use, but it’s not recommended to re-use them. They may leech or corrode. Clear plastics may contain BPA. See What are Japanese (and other) plastic bento boxes made of. Don’t reuse disposable bento boxes and takeout boxes unless you are really desperate.
Plastic - reusable Practical, economical, lightweight. Prices range from cheap to expensive, depending on design, quality, etc. A huge range of designs and sizes to choose from. Some people are concerned about the safety of certain plastics. May stain. Not all plastic bento boxes are microwave or dishwasher safe. Reputatuble bento makers always include information on what plastics are used, and whether the box is microwave safe or not. See What are Japanese (and other) plastic bento boxes made of.
Silicone Not used for bento boxes but frequently used for bento cups and dividers. Lightweight, durable. Microwave, dishwasher and oven safe. Comes in many colors and shapes. If you are against using plastic, you may also object to silicone. Can get a bit sticky and oily after several uses in the oven or microwave (try washing in very hot soapy water). Silicone cupcake/muffin tin liners
Stainless steel with seal Durable, usually well made, usually dishwashwer safe (check instructions). Thick stainless steel boxes can be heated up on a hot plate (handle with care!) Not microwave safe. Heavier than plastic. Retains fingerprints on the surface (use soft cloth to buff off). Not totally plastic/silicone free because of sealing elements. More expensive than most plastic boxes. Zen 01 stainless steel bento box, tiffin boxes. Also see stainless steel bento boxes.
Stainless steel with no seal Durable, plastic free, usually dishwasher safe (check instructions) Not microwave safe. Rather heavy. Retains fingerprints on the surface (use soft cloth to buff off). May not be suitable for food that might leak because of the lack of sealing elements on/around lid. More expensive than most plastic boxes. LunchBots, Planetbox, New Wave Enviro
Stainless steel and other metals used for bento accessories Durable, plastic free, usually dishwasher safe (check instructions) Cheap metal cutters may discolor or get bent over time. Bento and cookie cutters used to cut out decorative shapes are usually made of stainless steel; some cheap ones may be made of tin. Nori cutters are often made of plastic with zinc cutting parts.
Thermal bento boxes Usually consists of a stainless steel cylinder into which plastic containers fit. The plastic containers are usually microwave and dishwasher safe. Keeps some of the food warm to hot for several hours. Expensive. Can be rather bulky and heavy. Not plastic free. Not all parts may be dishwasher safe. To get the most out of a thermal lunch box, be sure to read the instructions carefully! Mr. Bento line from Zojirushi, similar range from Thermos, Aladdin box. See in-depth look at thermal bentos/lunch jars.
Wood, coated or lacquered Beautiful traditional craftmanship. Less susceptible to staining than uncoated wood. May make rice taste better. A pleasure to handle. May become a treasured heirloom. Not microwave or dishwasher safe. Needs some handling with care. May stain. Well made boxes are expensive to very expensive (a cheap wooden box is not worth buying). Kyo bento box.Besides boxes, chopsticks can also be made of coated wood. See also: the care and watering of wooden and lacquerware bento boxes
Wood, uncoated Beautiful traditional craftmanship. Makes plain rice taste better since it absorbs any excess moisture. A pleasure to handle. May become a treasured heirloom. Not microwave or dishwasher safe. Needs some handling with care. May stain. Well made boxes are very expensive (a cheap wooden box is not worth buying). See Magewappa bento boxes. See also: the care and watering of wooden and lacquerware bento boxes, and see how traditional magewappa boxes are made.

This is Tip no. 2 of Back To School Week. Stay tuned for more!

jbbento-backtoschool.png

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.

8 comments

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Re: Comparing bento box materials (table)

wow maki thanks for taking the time to make a comparison chart for us. this is pretty useful! ^^

Re: Comparing bento box materials (table)

wow is right, your sum-up is a marvel Maki, thank you so much for it. This post will likely attract a huge readership as the unstoppable bento wave surges toward it. ;->

I just received my first shipments of formal Obento-ware, and there is something I am wondering about. The tops seem to fit quite loosely. Since you have handled fine lacquer and magewappa pieces, could you tell us if their tops fit loosely and require a band to secure the thing at all, or are they (generally) rather fitted to the lower layer(s) of the box?

thanks so much, again -- and if someone else who has the answer can chime in, please do!

Re: Comparing bento box materials (table)

The lids of wooden boxes are not tightly fitting, and they are held securely during transit by a furoshiki cloth tied around it, or an elastic bento band. So you do need to make sure you carry the box the right side up to avoid leaking. Hope that helps!

Re: Comparing bento box materials (table)

Great, yes, it does help. These new acquisitions are all plastic, and even the soup-type 'wan' units seemed quite loose-lidded (except for their small inner snap lid sections, which passed the water upside down test {grin}). It's fun to "learn from my dishes," as their forms instruct me in their use. In other words: soup's meant to come along in a thermos! :-D Since the next order will include magewappa, I was curious as to the fit -- now I understand that this is bento-build standard. :-) thanks again maki!

Re: Comparing bento box materials (table)

Which box did you get btw? (I probably know it, or even have it ^_^;)

Re: Comparing bento box materials (table)

Sure, in fact some of my preliminary impressions are materials-related so I'll run down a quick (for me) list of the first real Bento additions to the family; no links/pix given since they all can be viewed at http://en.bentoandco.com/collections/all/

1. The round boxes I mentioned are the "WanWan" guys, one red ('Sanpo') and one brown ('Mokume'). Upon opening the packages, these gave off a strong whiff of stinky plastic which subsided almost to zero after sponge-washing twice in hot water/Dr Bronner sal-suds (dilute), and a thorough air-drying. After using the red one for some hot fish soup and then washing as above (but once only), it held on to that soup odor; a second wash and air-dry (87F/50%H here today in NYC) brought it back close enough to neutral that my praeternatural sense of smell detected nothing.

So, it seems the bowl sections are made of somewhat permeable material (oil-permeable, I suspect); it's such a nice design, though, that I don't mind the extra washing-up. (On a very personal taste note, I could do without the cute critters decorating these particular cases -- the bowl shape and both colors are really quiet and appealing, while the playful paint-ons seem more designed for children, and/or somehow apologetic that it's woodgrain plastic and not wood... it's not that these decos aren't cute, just that they strike the wrong note on these boxes -- but tant pis truly, it's not a big impediment and besides, I have evil plans to help the critter patterns "fade with use!" ;->).

Do take note that this model has a flattish, black, separate white-snap-lidded and removable interior compartment (imagine a fat disc sliced out of the inside-middle, perhaps an inch (2.5cm) deep) which has no smell whatsoever and seals _really_ well (viz. above "water test"). That is a plus!

2. Since The Blonde loves hard-boiled eggs, I wanted one or two of the Yude boxes for him and bought the Yude Tama to test 'er out. Well, you can't fault these cuties for utility or charm. They present those moody ultra-minimalist stylized faces, are roomy enough for our farmer's jumbo eggs, and they easily but very securely twist/snap closed. The upper cap is slightly tan-toned compared to the whiter base, which color difference may not show clearly in the photographs. I was very surprised to find that the base has an internal flower-shaped silicone (?) "suspension system," lol, to cushion these privileged egglets!

The cap has no odor, but :-((( I inserted my proboscis into the base and DANG that thing smells like a barnyard, and not the clean, well-managed barnyard of my farm-bred youth, either. Phew! What is making that aroma, and Why?!?

It's soaking in a mild sal-suds solution right now; I'll report back as to developments. I'm not going to take it out until tomorrow, because it deserves an overnight chance to lose that odor and frankly I'm afraid to take it out yet because if it still smells I'm going to cry so I'll delay that experience till morning. These petite guys with their face-y attitude and perfect egg-cradling design are SO ideal -- -- So, one way or another :-E I will solve the Problem of the *Pong.* Or... cry!

3. The other boxes are Hakoya. They all came straight out of the plastic wrap absolutely scentless in all their cases and parts and inserts and lids, except for that wee frisson of 'new thing' on them.

3.a. Ojyu Onigiri boxes (both colors): more beautiful than the pix, firmly secured with side-clasps, the smaller, snap-lidded compartment decently tight against leakage.

3.b. the Kaze Set: planned as main box for The Blonde, given his martial arts proclivities; somewhat oversized for his appetite/favored menu combos, but fits precisely in his work bag; a fairly good seal on the inner compartment unit but not leak-proof; actually a bit silly to lay out so much cash for the 'set' as the extras are a thought overpriced, but the bag admittedly will do good service -- it's exactly the right size to hold side-stuff such as a hachibori (not only a very picky eater, but a very fastidious one) while assisting the action of the band by clutching everything firmly together (good tight material will catch any stray leaks without permanent stains), and the bag's texture will keep the lot from shifting about in his bag at all.

Notes on seeing this box (and the chopstick case) in person: the golden character (Kaze, 'wind') is not only gold, but also a light mixed sprinkling of palest green glitter which is visible only at certain angles; it can also appear dull mustard, or light shiny pure gold. It's such a nice touch to make the impressions of the character change with the angle of view -- and then to take the trouble to repeat that effect on the matching chopstick case character-- that I just had to mention it. Someone once declared that 'God is in the details.' Go Hakoya!

Kaze's the box which mystified me upon first handling; the big top lid literally rattles from side to side and end to end, and I thought this can't be right...? Then I found the same loose fit in the WanWan which I'd imagined was intended for *carrying* soup, and so on. Thanks again Maki for bringing me up to speed on Oboxes! :-)

3.c. Fukuro Dark Bento: this one's mine, all mine. ~:-D

I chose the WanWans after much squirming and grimacing. Although their ingenious design was an exact fit for the varied menus and combinations of full meals/salads/soups/snacks/colors for the folks in my plans, I just had the hardest, nose-wrinklingest time surmounting my own aesthetic objections to the faux-wood patterned material contrasted with eye-rolling meadowlife prancing about the margins. "Oh, PLEEZE, with the BUNNIES!" kept me looking elsewhere and delaying the order, but in the end the design won.

The Fukuro box put me through a similar albeit reversed fidget. That little owl with his saucer eyes is the spittin' image of me during my long-night work schedules, and the moment I saw him I grinned. Hold up here. No way would I pay goodish Yankee dollars for this thing just because that owl makes me happy every time I look at it. 'This is another plastic woodgrain dealio (for your sins!) and who knows how it smells, are you kidding me? Why are you still gazing at that sweet little... at that painted owl who's gazing up at the crescent moon & stars... and will wear right off that PLASTIC box after three uses and then where will you be?' And then it was, 'OK, so now I smile every time I *think* of OwlPerson. Good, I can think of it without buying it! Get Real, ditch the infatuation and save yer salt for the good stuff! You gotta draw the line somewhere! Oh, and it's HUGE. You can't eat a quarter of what it holds; heck, YOU could fit into it! ' and similar sensible sentiments.

... which all lost out completely to my bond with that owl.

Now that he's come along home to me, I like him even better. I keep wandering into the kitchen to see and grin at him; he is happy to be here where he is so admired, and occasionally grins back. The color is great with the brown Wan box, by the way, so as soon as those bunnies fade....

Fukuro-san (same loose top thanng) has a typical Hakoya two-tier design, with a separate black upper tier whose lid is so airtight that if you don't 'burp' it as you close it, it'll pooch out and stay that way. He... er, It came with a black bento band, as did the brown WanWan, both of which will be replaced with matching brown or gold bands befitting their honored status in our household, ASAP. Like all the other Hakoya offerings I luckily stumbled upon, this box is scentless. The upper tier, if turned over, fits right down into the lower one and makes the toting-back of empties a space-saving pleasure (the Kaze box works the same way). It's a whopping 900ml, but since I want it primarily for bulky raw salads augmented by small containers of toppings, condiments, pickles, dressings and such, and can fit a slender icepack under the lid if traveling, it's endlessly adaptable.

And here would end the endless tale of just this one purchase, except.... LOL, yup, there's more... I wanted to let folks know about the Ojyu Bottles. They're made in China, featuring the same beautiful chrysanthemum pattern as the boxes; their steel lining holds a hint over one cup (8 oz./245ml) of liquid. Nice for miso soup or green tea. The black bottle is just as it's pictured, but the red one isn't the same red as the onigiri box and probably doesn't quite match the other boxes in this set either. The color is more a light peachish tomato, while the onigiri box is blood red. If you suffer from aesthetic OCD (lol) as I seem to do, take note. Any road, take a big breath and relax cuz that's it... for now... ;-D

Re: Comparing bento box materials (table)

Wow, you really got a lot! Thanks for all the detailed reviews :)

Re: Comparing bento box materials (table)

:-) my pleasure! It does look like a lot, but I may be doing bentos for four people for a while, so all the boxes will be getting a workout. huge fun!

Oh, and:

Update on Yude Tama, the little hard-boiled eggbox:

{drumroll}

The smell is gone! YAY. It was replaced by the precise smell of the washing-up liquid (Sal-Suds, a nice light pine smell ) -- modified Yay... Guess that silicone insert really picks up odors, but not to worry -- we won't be packing spaghetti & meatballs in it! :->

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.