How to see if a bento box is really the right size for you before buying

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You’ve browsed the bento blogs and flickr bento groups, and while you know that any appropriate box can be used for bentos, you’re hankering after a ‘real’ bento box. But bento boxes aren’t that cheap, especially if you’re ordering by mail. How do you know you’re getting a box that’s the right size for you?

You may have read what bento box sizes are considered appropriate for kids, women, men and so on. But that’s advice given for traditional-style Japanese bento meals, where about half of the capacity or more is taken up by tightly packed rice. If you’ll only be toting Japanese style lunches those recommendations are fine, but if you plan to mix it up with salad bentos, sandwich bentos and more, then the box-capacity recommendations may not apply to you.

So how can you really tell, before you spend the money for a bento box, if it’s the right size for your specific needs?

Note down the capacity or dimensions of the box

Most bento supply sellers these days will list the capacity of a bento box in ml (mililiters) or the dimensions in centimeters or inches. If the capacity is listed, note that down. If only the dimensions are listed, use a handy calculator such as the one here to figure out what those dimensions translate to, and note that number down.

If you already have at least one bento box

If you already have a bento box, it’s easy to figure out if a potential purchase is right for you. If the box you own is just right, aim for one of a similar size. If not, then go for a larger or smaller one. If you’ve forgotten what the capacity of your existing box is, just fill it up with water, and empty out that water into a measuring cup that has milliliter marks on it (most standard measuring cups have these now, even ones in the U.S.) Some bento boxes have the capacity embossed on the bottom of the box.

If you don’t own a ‘real’ bento box yet

If you don’t own a ‘real’ bento box yet, but you are using an alternative box for bento-ing, it’s just as easy to figure out if a new box will be right. Just measure the capacity of your existing container as detailed above, and compare that to that cute box you’re eyeing.

If you haven’t started bento-ing yet at all - packing a pseudo-bento

If you haven’t embarked on your bento adventures yet, there’s still a way to figure out if a box will be the right size. The biggest concern I see voiced amongst people who have yet to try bentos is that a box will be too small. To see if that is the case, try the following:

  1. Find any old containers that you can measure the inner capacity of. You can use plastic food storage containers, muffin tins, empty margerine tubs, or whatever you have handy. Measure their capacity by filling with water and emptying out into a measuring cup. If the containers are throwaway items, note down their capacity on the bottom with a magic marker.
  2. Put together a regular meal portion on a plate, something you might pack for lunch. (Doing this while you’re actually having lunch makes sense.)
  3. Now try packing that meal into the container or containers you’ve made ready. Pack the container(s) as tightly as you find comfortable. You might be surprised at how compactly you can pack a full meal.
  4. Note down the total capacity of your packed meal. That’s the approximate size of bento box you should aim for.
    At this point you may discover that you (or your kid, spouse, etc) dislike the notion of each item of food being packed tightly against each other, even if you use baking cups and dividers to separate each item. In that case, compact Japanese bento boxes may not be for you, and you may want to look at the larger divided-compartment lunch carriers. If you still yearn for those cute Japanese boxes though, consider getting 2, 3 or more small boxes that can hold a single food item each. One of the more innovative bento carriers I’ve seen was featured in this Japanese book; it was a series of stacking clear plastic jewelry cases with screwtop lids! There really are no set rules for bento boxes.

I hope these steps will help you to find the perfect box for your needs!

This is Tip no. 1 of Back To School Week. Stay tuned for more!

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And visit our sister site, Just Hungry for great Japanese home recipes and more.

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Re: How to see if a bento box is really the right size for ...

thanks! I bought an 800 ml bento box because I don't like to layer my food over each other. does 800 roughly equal 800 calories? I eat roughly 600 calories for lunch. I probably won't fill the rice all the way up, and the divider is adjustable. is there anywhere to buy imitation grass? I see them in sushi all the time.

Re: How to see if a bento box is really the right size for ...

Regarding bento box size and calories, take a look at the articles linked to above under 'related links'. Generally speaking IF you pack a bento box tightly with rice or another small grain as the carb, then the capacity in ml approximates that number of calories you can expect to pack in - but again, look at the linked articles, especially the Skinny Bento vs. Not So Skinny one.

The plastic grass is called baran or balan. You can find it at larger Japanese grocery stores, many Korean or general Asian stores, or most of the online bento sellers that are linked to on the right side of this page, e.g. from J-list.

Re: How to see if a bento box is really the right size for ...

Help please!!!
lol, i feel very silly, but i've been looking into bento boxes for quite awhile, and for some reason, i just can't figure out the conversions! the box i have in mind is 5.5 x 3.4 x 3.1 inches, but when i type that into the calculator link provided, it comes out to about 1000 ml! the box is about the size of a coke can, so i don't think thats right. can someone please help me!!!!!!! i really want to get a bento box!!!!!

Re: How to see if a bento box is really the right size for ...

The conversion actually sounds right, because of the depth. 3.1 inches is pretty deep. Most of my bento boxes are maybe an inch deep (stacking ones are about an inch deep per layer. But that doesn't mean 1000ml is too big to use as a bento box, as long as you pack it some some low-calorie 'filler' food such as vegetables.

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