Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

Pink, green and yellow spring bento

To round out Back To School Week, here are my top 10 rules for bento making. They are the rules or philosophies that guide all the content that you see on JustBento. They’ve evolved quite a bit over the years, but they are what I’m happy with at the moment. A version of these rules appear at the top of The Just Bento Cookbook too. They’re the rules I try to live by in my daily bento life.

Sometimes I stray away from them when my life goes haywire - like trying to renovate an old house in a foreign country, and then getting infected by an insect bite which turns into a zombie bite…well you know, things happen. But I when I can return to these rules, I know that life is nice and normal again.

1. My bentos have to be reasonably healthy and balanced.

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I make sure to include protein and carbohydrates in every bento box. I always add vegetables. Besides being nutritious, they are so colorful! In my bentos vegetables are not an afterthought—they take a starring role alongside the other main ingredients. I sometimes add fruit as a dessert, though occasionally I treat myself to a small brownie or something.

I sometimes see bento boxes online that are not quite balanced. One I saw recently (I’m not going to link to it, since it’s not my objective to embarass anyone) had a little bit of chicken and assorted M & Ms, plus one half of the box was filled with Cheese Whiz. Another one had a whole compartment of candy, some Pocky sticks, and a sandwich. Is that a bento, or a just box of snacks? Some commercially available lunch sets (cough Lunchables cough) may look rather like that, but that doesn’t mean you have to follow their example.

I realize that it’s sometimes difficult to pack lunch for picky kids. This is where cute charaben bentos come in - they were originally devised as a means for Japanese moms to get their picky kids to eat healthy food. Why not try some vegetables cut into flowers, or a healthy sandwich with a smiley face, and see how your kids react? Another idea that I talked about previously is to just use stickers.

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2. Keep it simple.

Bento Challenge Week 5, Day 2

I don’t have the time to spend making multiple items for my bentos, unless it’s for a party or something. I stick to a maximum of four or five different items per box for everyday bentos; many of my bentos contain three items or less.

3. Make sure the bento is tasty.

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Any bento I make has to taste so good that I’m drooling in anticipation of opening my box at lunchtime. (Sometimes I can’t resist and have lunch early.) I never pack something just because it’s supposed to be healthy. I also make sure that the food I put in tastes good even when cold or at room temperature. Sometimes I carry along an ice pack, but they do add extra weight, so most of my bentos are meant to be eaten at room temperature.

4. Make the bento, fun, colorful and attractive, but don’t fuss too much.

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We eat with our eyes as well as our mouths and stomachs. A bento box should look colorful and appetizing. I keep elaborate, time-consuming bento decoration attempts for special occasions.

I have a general rule of keeping bento decorating time — the time needed for the addition of things like cutely cut vegetables or decorated rice balls — to a maximum of ten minutes per bento for everyday bentos. Usually it takes me no more than five minutes to add a fun, decorative element.

I think that it would be helpful if bento bloggers who post elaborate charaben photos could include the time it took them to make their amazing creations on occasion. I’m pretty sure it takes them longer than the 20 to 30 minutes maximum I allow myself in the mornings (it rarely goes over 20 minutes for one bento, or 25 for two.) I am not an experienced charaben maker by any means, but I’m a pretty experienced bento maker and cook, and for me whenever I try to make a very decorative bento it takes me ages. There’s a joy in creating something beautiful, even if it’s going to be eaten up in a few hours, but to my mind charabens are more akin to crafts rather than everyday cooking, sort of like creating colorfully decorated cupcakes.

Also keep in mind that a well-balanced, colorful bento can be beautiful on its own without any additional frills.

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5. Use seasonal, locally grown, natural ingredients whenever possible.

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I try to make use of seasonal produce as much as possible. I also try to stay away from pre-made, processed foods. Most of my bentos are made with fresh, natural ingredients - organic and untreated fruits and vegetables, ethically raised meat and poultry, and so on. When I do use processed foods such as canned beans or processed meats, I try to stick to ones that have a minimum of additives.

6. Pay attention to safety and hygiene.

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When packing food that may have to sit at room temperature for some time before being eaten, it’s crucial to follow proper, safe, bento-packing practices. Try to handle the food with your bare hands as little as possible - use chopsticks and other utensils to arrange your food, or consider using those disposable gloves that commercial food preparers use. Don’t lick your fingers while you’re arranging your cute little bento-scapes! In warm weather or for food that might spoil easily, be sure to use an ice pack.

7. Plan ahead.

The Weekly Menu Planner With Bento Lunch form - example

The biggest time waster in the morning is peering through the refrigerator and the cupboards, wondering what to make! I try to spend a few minutes every week planning out my bentos. I may not stick to the plan all the time, but it’s so helpful to have some idea of what to pack beforehand. My Weekly Bento Planner and Weekly Meal Planner forms may help.

8. Stock up on homemade and store-bought staples.

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Staples are items that have been fully or half-cooked in advance and that can be packed into a bento box with little or no additional cooking. I try to keep at least a few such items stocked in my freezer, refrigerator, or pantry. Most of my bento staples are homemade—I usually make them when I’m cooking dinner, or when I have some time on the weekends. I have a stock of store bought staples too. See Johbisai: Building Up a Bento Stash.

9. Keep costs down.

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Bringing a bento from home saves a lot of money over buying lunch from a fast food place or eating out. It’s also a great way of using up leftovers which otherwise might go to waste. To help me save even more money, I try to stick to economical cuts of meat and fish, and vegetables that are in season. See also: Bento making: Variety and saving money.

10. Don’t try to replicate Japanese bentos made in Japan, at least not all the time.

Spring pasta salad bento

I love Japanese cuisine above all other cuisines—after all I am Japanese! I don’t try to replicate Japanese bentos that are made in Japan to the letter, however. While the increasing popularity of Japanese food worldwide has meant that staple ingredients such as soy sauce and miso are getting much easier - and economical - to buy, many fresh ingredients that are taken for granted in Japan are hard or impossible to get outside of regions with large Japanese expatriate or immigrant populations. And if you can get hold of them, they may be too expensive for the average household budget.

For my everyday bentos, I alternate traditional, authentic tasting Japanese-style bentos that have been adapted to use ingredients that are widely available, with bentos that combine various non-Japanese dishes and flavors. That’s exactly what I feature on this site.

A couple of rules that didn’t make the top 10

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These rules are more personal rules of mine. They may or may not apply to you.

  • I try to make vegetarian or vegan bentos more than half the time. It just makes me feel healthier. (Recently though, I’ve been exploring low-carb bento options. More about that in future posts.)
  • Since I don’t and can’t spend a lot of time decorating my bento contents, I’ve allowed myself…yes, it’s an excuse…to express myself by my selection of bento boxes and accessories. What that means in plain language is I now have a huge collection of bento boxes and accessories ^_^;. You have only seen a fraction of them on this site so far! In any case, being creative with boxes and accessories is a whole lot of fun, and takes very little time. And overall, I think I’m still saving money over buying lunch all the time. (Of course, you do not need a huge selection of boxes and such make bento meals part of your life. When I started bento-ing again as an adult about 6 years ago, I just had a box that my mother had sent me, plus a couple of plastic food containers, and I used those for more than a year. Maintaining this site has probably fueled my bento-box addiction…)

In conclusion

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I believe a homemade bento lunch is appealing because it is a healthy, attractive, and delicious meal, made with care and attention, that is compact enough to carry easily to work or school. These are the factors that make a bento a bento . A bento doesn’t have to be a work of art using only Japanese recipes, nor should it be simply a thrown-together meal in a plastic container. This is the philosophy that underpins all the recipes, tips and ideas on this site, as well as in my book.

Feel free to chime in with your rules, or tell me if you disagree with anything!

This is Tip no. 3 of Back To School Week. I hope you’ve enjoyed them and found them useful!

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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.

36 comments

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Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

I love thes tips, Maki! I do fairly well at following them, except for the rule about making a plan. I do waste too much time looking at what's in the fridge and scratching my head wondering what to make. But it's good to have goals, so I can work on being a better prepared bento maker. And I am noticing that I lean more toward a simple presentation, except for special days when I want to do something cute. Remembering the rule of 5 colors is really helpful to me when assembling bento. I love your site!

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

Hi Maki my husband brings bento everyday. i always wish I could make him a bento without spending too much time and money.The obento bako itself is so expensive here in US.Do you sell obento bako?

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

these are really useful tips !
ah and i thought im the only one who will munch on a raw carrot !hahaha, using stickers are so...NEW?! (haha) it never occurred to me that way.

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

Thanks for this, Maki!
I always enjoy reading your posts as they are full of useful tips and really funny too!

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

Wonderful post! The rules are quick and easy to follow... more like guidelines that would make my bento packing so much better. I'm about to start university life on my own, and am planning on doing bentos for lunch most of the time. In your post you mentioned bento "staples" you like to keep on hand... is there somewhere on your site where you have a list of these? Apart from rice, vegetables and tamagoyaki, I'm clueless. :S

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

I forgot to add a link to this (now it's added) but I have a whole section of the site dedicated to 'bento staples' or 'johbisai' as they are called in Japanese - starting on this page. There are tons of make-ahead-and-stash recipes linked at the end of the article there!

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

Although you're WAY ahead of me, we do think alike! :) I just find it hard to plan ahead because I still don't seem to be too good in estimating what'll fit and need to add stuff at the last minute, which means peering into the fridge anyway ;)

Going to retweet *now*!

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

Thank you for sharing, this has been a useful reminder of what I've been learning so far!!

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

Thanks for the rules list! Living by myself and trying to eat healthy and balanced meals, I find them universally applicable for whatever I'm cooking, not just for bentos. :)

I only have one request for you. Could you be so kind to update the post and add links to the recipes of all the beautiful goodness featured in the photos? I'd really appreciate that. Just looking at them makes my mouth water, I really want to make them all! :) Thanks!

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

If you click on the photos, you'll get to the posts that describe the bentos pictured ^_^

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

It didn't occur to me that images could be clickable. :) Thanks! :)

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

Thank you for writing this. Your stuff is always good, but this is exceptionally so.

A rule I've added for myself that actually contradicts one of yours is: It's okay NOT to use the cute Japanese box in many circumstances.

Don't get me wrong. I love 'em for myself. But I find that a sturdy, lock-n-lock style 800ml box is far superior for a bento for my husband or teenaged son. They adore getting attractive bentos, and love a compact lunch box, but can do without the cute. I am sure that in Japan, a sturdy container that you can put in the dishwasher isn't too expensive, but for me it's not the just price of the box itself, but the price of shipping and stuff after I've paid for it. That shipping really drives up the real price of the bento box!

Since my guys couldn't care less about the cute and can't be counted on to take good care of the cute bento boxes (the lid of every lube sheep box I've ever bought is cracked through their rough treatment), I find this solution works out better for their lunches. Though you'll pry me away from my pretty sakura bento box with a crowbar :)

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

Yep The Guy is the same. He prefers a plain, black box over any others. I had to get him a replacement though, since he put his foot through the lid of his first plain, black box!

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

And HOW did that happen?? :) I don't think a girl would ever have those kinds of accidents!

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

Thanks for these great tips! Can you suggest a good rice cooker for brown rice? I have one with the glass top right now, but I want to get a better model to cook rice and other food.
Thanks!

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

Thanks so much for this list! Very helpful.

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

Maki, I agree you've surpassed yourself with this post. My gosh! The inclusion of the photos to emphasize each "rule" is a stroke of genius. I've been following you for a long, long time, though only this last year had the courage to start commenting. You, dear, are my hero!

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

Oh, and I meant to add this:

The one and only problem I've faced with JustBento is that it didn't quite match my need for low-carb lunches; I cook for a family which includes two diabetics, so a big percentage of rice or noodles just can't be done. I am excited--nay, ecstatic--that you're moving to address low-carbohydrate meals. This is not to say I'm glad for your current medical situation, but thank heaven you're using it for the greater (my!) good! Again: Maki, you're my hero.

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

This has been a fun Back To Schol week - thanks so much for all the wonderful info and tips and products to keep an eye on!

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

Great advice! It's so nice to get a refresher (and inspiration) on making this year's lunches a bit more fun and healthy.

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

I really loved this post. For me it really brought all the concepts of bento-making together. Thank you for posting all your work. You and the other regular bento-makers are really an inspiration to me. Keep it up!

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

Great list! Kudos to you Maki. I plan my dinners, but not my bentos. I am lucky enough to have leftovers usually and just add a bunch of veggies. Oh, and to Fat Lady...I changed the "rules" which I saw on other sites and half my box is filled with veggies, rather than rice or noodles, so rice is 2/3 of the other half and meat 1/3 of other half. Thank you Maki for the list of "stash" items, I am going to check that out as that is one thing I don't have. And yes, I will be excited to see the new low-carb ideas too :)

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

Thanks for the great tips. I love your site! Another "guideline" in my house is to make leftovers with our evening meal - not nessarily for a bento stash. If I can get them put away before my husband goes back for seconds, we have our lunch ready to go! He has even started helping pack our lunch for the next day!

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

Awesome post Maki! Thanks for sharing this!

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

Maki, will you one day post a picture of all of the bento's you have? I would just love to see your collection xD

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

I've been bento-ing for a year now, and your site and rules have made it so that I still love my bentos and that I'm able to make them pretty fast (I think!) and safe. Luckily school and work start again this Monday, so I can start showing off my lunches again! Thank you very much!

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

I love the tips. It will help me when I resume bento making after my vacation; actually, I think with these tips my lunches will improve a lot more; merci!

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

of course i love kitty chan, but astro boy has a special place in my heart

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

my 1st-grader is really into Geronimo Stilton, right now :)

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

To be honest, I can't help with agreeing with those tips. I follow them since the very beginning of the "Bento Adventure". And even if your blog is in english (I'm French ^_^), it is always a pleasure to read it. Now, I've ordered your book to Bento&Co... just to drool somewhere else that upon my keyboard ^o^ !

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

Absolutely agree with the rules. Like other users, I also cut the carb portion down and tend to substitute more vegetables. :)

The number one thing for me is to keep my Bentos balanced and healthy. But I also don't often plan in advance so making even an everyday Bento takes a bit more time than I like. I'm learning though!

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

I've recently decided to make bentos as a healthier lunch choice as well as a way to cut down on my calorie intake, so these rules and this site is perfect! Thank you very much for sharing; I think these tips will come in handy :)

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

Hi, I'm going to be starting uni soon and am thinking of making bento lunches to take with me :D The top 10 rules you picked were really helpful, straight to the point and are sure to result in great bentos! Only problem is persuading mum, who thinks it involves extra cooking and ingredients... do you think making bentos will save more time than making sandwiches?? How can you persuade someone that the benefits are worth the effort? thanks.

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

I rarely make my bentos with traditional Japanese or other Asian dishes. While I'm making dinner, I toss whatever goes into dinner into the bento box. Let it cool if it needs to; otherwise pop the top on the box and put it in the fridge. I have spent a bit of money on cute dishes and picks (got to have some accessories), but other than that, bentoing has saved me a lot of money. I can even put sandwiches and a variety of raw veggie sides into the box if I'm feeling less than inspired. Part of bento-ing is creating a visual feast for your eyes, and setting aside time at lunch for yourself.

Just jump right in - and notice how full of mental acuity you are once you have a good lunch in you. Bye bye afternoon sleepy slump!

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

@Samm, no need to persuade your mum. Surprise her and make your own bento!

Re: Maki's Top 10 Bento Rules

OMG!! This is a master site!!! Lovely! I have tried for so long to get some sort of habbit into making bentous, as its a good and cheap alternative to buying lunch every day. Not to mention you get to use leftovers. But I have had a hard time composing them. Then I find this site and its like a door opened. Thank you so much for all the advices and tips!!

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