Selecting the right bento lunch box

bentbox-stack.jpgThere seems to be a common misconception that one needs to go out and purchase a purpose-made lunch box or a bento box from Japan, in order to start making bento box lunches at all. While I do like cute bento goods and boxes, they are certainly not required, or even needed. I think for most people, they would like bento making should be a daily habit, not a time consuming hobby.

Actually any container that meet the following requirements will work work fine. You may already have a suitable container in your kitchen. You could be bringing lunch to work tomorrow!



The requirements for a bento box

  • The container should be as leakproof as possible.
    This is quite important since you don’t want the inside of your carrier bag, whatever it is, to get stained by leaking liquids. Many bento boxes from Japan have leak-resistant rubber seals. For any container you use, do a leak-test by filling it with water and shaking it around a bit. If any moisture leaks out easily, you probably want to try another box. (There are ways of adding leak protection to your box, such as putting it in a waterproof bag or securing it with a wide * rubber band, as well as making the food itself not so leaky.)

  • The container should be easy to wash and take care of.
    This may sound like a no-brainer, but you should consider this especially if you want to use a bento box ordered from Japan. Most Japanese bento boxes are not dishwasher safe, so if you think you won’t remember to (or don’t want to) handwash your bento box, you will want to make sure you get a dishwasher safe container.

  • The container should be microwave safe if you intend to nuke it.
    If you work in office and have access to a microwave oven, you may want to heat up your lunch in it. Most Japanese bento boxes are not microwave safe, since the typical Japanese bento is meant to be eaten at room temperature. So be sure your container is nuke-ready if you want to heat it up.

  • The container should be the right size for your dietary needs. This is especially important if you are watching your calories to any extent. Generally speaking, for a tightly packed Japanese-style bento, the number of milliliters (ml) that a box can hold corresponds roughly to the number of calories it holds. This is why so many Japanese bento boxes, in particular the cute ones with anime characters and things on them, are tiny - they’re meant to be used by kids and young girls on perpetual diets.

To determine the capacity of your intended box: Fill it to the top with water, then pour off the water into a measuring cup that can measure in milliliters.

See also: How to see if a bento box is the right size for you before buying.

Insulated and compartmentalized boxes

Some people don’t like the individual items in their bento boxes to be rubbing against each other. If that sounds like you, then you will need a compartmentalized lunch box, such as the ones offered by Laptop Lunches. Personally I would rather have the compactness of a non-compartmentalized box, supplemented when needed with a separate container for something like fruit.

Insulated bento containers such as the Mr. Bento keep your food hot (or cold). Again, this is a personal preference but I am not a big fan of these. For one thing they are bulky and a bit of a bother to take care of. For another, the fact that the food is kept hot for several hours means that it’s being held in steam table like conditions, rather like at a buffet. This means that while some foods like stews will taste great, others may not. They are nice to have for a chance of pace though. The capacity of the Mr. Bento is quite big, which can be a concern if you’re trying to watch calories.

What I use

(Note: my collection of bento boxes has grown considerably since I wrote this originally back in 2007, and I have new favorites now. One of these days I’ll get around to photographing them perhaps. In any case, the general principles written here still apply.)

I have several bento boxes in my stash, from one shaped like Hello Kitty’s head to a beautiful lacquered box which I keep for special dinners at home. But I mainly use these practical containers for everyday lunch.

whitebox-closed.jpgThe box I use most of the time is not a bento box at all - it’s a plastic lunch box I got from the supermarket. (For Swiss residents, it’s available at Migros.) It has an attached flip-top lid that is fairly leak resistant, and came with a detachable bottom section that holds a cold pack. I rarely use this bottom section but it’s nice to have. It’s dishwasher and microwave safe, though I hand wash it most of the time. The plain white plastic body is very easy to keep clean and stain-free, which is a big plus. Finally, the capacity is about 600 ml, so it’s great for my goal of keeping my lunch calories at or under 600. It’s also rather comforting to know that if it gets damaged or something, I can easily replace it.

bentobox-dandan.jpgSometimes I use this two-section bento box from Japan, a type that is widely available from bento box sellers such as Jlist. The main advantage of this box is that you can keep ingredients totally separate, so it’s good if you have a very strong flavored item that you want to keep apart from other things. The inner rubberized lid is quite tight fitting, reducing the risk of leakage. It’s also taller rather than wider, so it fits well in a bag. The empty containers can be stored nested within each other compactly.

The main disadvantage of this type of box is that it’s not not microwave or dishwasher safe. I also find the multiple parts a bit of a bother to wash up compared to my main white plastic box. (Yes I’m a bit lazy.)



bentobox-ikea.jpgThis is the main ‘man-size’ bento box that I use to make Max’s bentos. It’s a plastic storage container from the Ikea 365+ line. It has a microwave vent in the lid which makes it great for bentos that taste better warm, though the vent does have a tendency to leak a bit if the box is carried upside down or something. The capacity is about 900 ml.

The other one I use is a sleek black bento box from Japan that’s officially designated as being ‘man-size’. It comes with an integrated chopstick container in the lid, and a divider to separate rice from other ingredients inside. The capacity is around 850 ml. As you can see it’s quite understated, though it has a head-scratching Engrish phrase on it (“impressive. My heart cannot stop throbbing. My dream that has begun to move.”).

bentobox-black.jpg

I hope this gives you some ideas as to what kind of bento box to use!

See also

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.

49 comments

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I’m a Mr.Bento user, and

I’m a Mr.Bento user, and it’s mostly because I pack my breakfast, lunch and afternoon (healthy) snack in it. The Mr.Bento can be really helpful for a grazer like myself, I just am sure not to pack it to capacity.

I tend not to keep hot food in there though, I use it as a cooler and re-heat in the microwave :)

Nice site, BTW!

Nicole

I’m a Mr.Bento user too

And I really appreciate the capacity because I like salads and soups. Since the containers are more generous, I can pack a larger serving of these healthy, low-calorie items and use the other for fruit and more vegetables. I pack everything cold and heat up the things that need it in a microwave, though I like many foods at room temperature anyway. No matter how you look at it, that volume of food is going to be bulky, and the Mr. Bento keeps it easier to carry. I agree about the number of pieces being a pain, though.

For more calorie dense foods, I use other smaller containers, including one of the pretty blue butterfly boxes you picture above.

I love the site, and am hoping to get lots of inspiration from it.

Debbie

great use of Mr. Bento

Those are great uses for the Mr. Bento - thanks for sharing! It would make a very nice salad-lunch container indeed.

Urara box - microwave ok except for lids

When I bought mine (exactly the same box), they said the container base is mocrowaveable, but not the lids.

Bento Options

In my opinion, the second most important feature of a bento box, after being waterproof, is to have thermal capacities. It is important to keep some foods warm or cold (as it’s intended to be) for sanitary and taste reasons. In addition to the normal applications, I tend to make a lot of bento box meals for long flights, and it’s not unusual for me to consume a meal 12-15 hours after making it. For these reasons, I’ve become acutely aware of the benefits of proper insulation. Also, for flyers, if you want to have a soup on the flight, you cannot bring the liquid part through security in many countries. I find that thermal containers are essential for making soup on a plane because the plane water is never hot enough and a long steeping time is needed to have the soup be ready to eat - a thermal container preserves the precious little heat in the water while this process goes on. I also use this process to make hot meusli during a flight.

Therefore, I really value the new Zojirushi lunch box that has a self contained thermal unit in it (I’m not referring to Mr/Mrs Bento - see link at end). Thermos Foogo also looks interesting. Also, Zojirushi and Tiger make containers intended for tea that are sealed and thermal which can also work for these applications. I think these are an essential part of any global bento kit!

http://www.amazon.com/Metallic-Stainless-Vacuum-Lunch-Lavender/dp/B000GO4A9C/ref=sr13?ie=UTF8&s=kitchen&qid=1198096317&sr=1-3

Oddly reassuring...

It’s nice to see the box you use for Max being almost exactly the same as the one I use for my husband (Kenji). Only difference is that his has no vent (doesn’t like warming his up). Now it’s got colder he prefers his in another that’s exactly the same but bigger - he does love rice!

Good Ideas!

I like this site, thanks for sharing!

I’m also one of those that use generic divided plastic containers as “bento”. I just purchased “a real one” from j-list. I guess to be used for cold lunches. I use a BYO lunch bag with the divided plastic container. That’s what I got today.

I’m from Puerto Rico, which also has a long history of carrying on lunches. In the island we used multi level containers called “fiambreras” and they are mostly a spanish tradition that got carried over in the island. My dad used to have a nice ceramic with metal one (the same materials used spit collectors on the old days). I never found it again, I guess that mom threw it away. I found a cheap one on my last trip to Puerto Rico, it price was 4 USD at a local discount store. For those who want to have a clue, the following is the picture from a store in spain. http://www.decoralis.com/fiambrera-de-diseno/

For those who like Mr. Bento and live in the United States, there’s a Colombian company called Polimes that also sell multi stackable containers in an insulated container. Their products are sold mostly in hispanic groceries but they’ve been finding their way to Wal*Mart. Their company website is www.polimes.com. I have two of them and their quality is quite good. My only complaint in the small one is that it is too small and does not have a plate to mix all your meals. The larger one is better, so get one that suit your needs.

Last but not least, I love the Corelle white containers with lid that are meant for carry out. Being that they’re ceramic, they do a fantastic job transmitting heat while in the microwave. The lid is microwavable, but it recommends not to be used while heating tomato based food (spaghetti sauce and their brethren). A word of caution, they also tend to get really hot, so be careful while taking them out of the microwave.

I never though about Ikea. There’s one near where I live. I should go there and check it out. :).

Cheers!

Puerto Rico

Luis, it’s great to hear about takealong lunch traditions in Puerto Rico. It’s really interesting to hear about things like that. Thanks for sharing!

cold bento/hot bento

I see above that you mentioned most bentos are made to be eaten at room temperature(cold). So does that mean the bentos featured here are all/mostly cold bentos? It’s just that I see a lot of cooked food involved… meats, chicken etc. I might start looking around for a good lunch container.

yes, most of the bentos

yes, most of the bentos featured here are meant to be eaten at room temperature, and still taste good (and be safe to eat too). That’s how most Japanese bentos are, and even when the ingredients and cooking methods are not necessarily Japanese, that’s what I try to stick to. Cooked food can still taste good when it’s cold!

Hi again Maki-san! I know

Hi again Maki-san!

I know the blue bento you posted there is not dishwasher safe, i own the same in red (the one with bunnies that look like aliens with buns n_n).

As i work everyday until 8 p.m. and then i have art class until 10 p.m., i have a girl that comes to my house to clean it up a little twice a week. She one day put my red bento box in the dishwasher (even the black rubber thing) and it came out like new. Actualy, it came out even better than if she had washed it herself, because i found that the scourer scratched the bento a little in the inside. (and it is a plastic scourer, as i always cook with non-sticky pans).

The diswasher program temperature was 50ºC, which is quite hot!.

I thought you’d want to know it :) Now i always wash my bento in the diswasher and it works allright.

I own another box but never tried it so i can’t tell about it.

The black man-sized bento

The black man-sized bento box on the bottom—did you buy that in Japan, or is it available online somewhere? I’d love to get that for my friend. I tried doing a search for it, but didn’t find anything like it.

Thanks!

I did get it in Japan years

I did get it in Japan years ago, but I am fairly sure I’ve seen similar ones around. This one for example is about the same size and shape, different color. Try also searching for ‘men’s lunch box’ on eBay.

Oo, thanks for the link.

Oo, thanks for the link. That could work nicely (although I did like the name of the bento “Impressive” with its weird Engrish comment.)

useful and interesting

Hey !

I would like to thank you as I am willing to buy a bento and was really really confused, but when I read ur artical it was really good information that most of them were new.

thanks again =)

Bento box requirements...

Great info, I love reading more stuff on Bento products available! I would like to suggest another requirement for a good bento: the use of safe plastics. There has been some recent controversy over the safety of certain plastics, particularly those containing Bisphenol A (BPA). Personally, I would avoid containers using these plastics. There are a few Lock n Lock containers with dividers that I love, and they are a good start for someone who doesn’t want to spend a lot of money on lunch box stuff.

:D wow, I have that same

:D wow, I have that same firefly two tiered blue one… is it a good one if you’re using bento for diet purpose?

educational

I actually just ordered my first bento box today after looking at your site…thanks for all the tips! I was on the fence seeing as how I am on a budget but, I figured having an actual box would be a lot more fun to use (as I usually skip lunch but want to motivate myself to stop doing that) than a tupperware from Wal-Mart.

I also read somewhere that most plastic boxes themselves are microwave-dishwasher safe but >all< lids must be hand-washed. I am a little afraid to try on my red rabbit jubako when it comes though, without people telling me it’s safe. The seller I got it from doesn’t seem able to tell me either yes OR no…so I guess I’m stuck doing it by hand.

Thanks for all the tips!

microwave safe for lube sheep?

i have just brought a two sectioned bento box exactly like yours, it’s from lube sheep. i want to ask if it is really not microwave safe because i saw a label with a microwaveoven and a word that saids “OK!”. Well i don’t read japanese, i just thought that it means microwave safe

Re: microwave safe for lube sheep?

Oops sorry, forgot to answer this one. It seems that lube sheep bento boxes are ok to microwave, but you need to take the lids (inner and outer) first, especially the inner one with the rubber gasket which may get damaged.

Japanese lunch box

Hi!I’m Nintakun from Japan. Do you have a "Mage-wappa"?
It's traditional Japanese lunch box. Why don't you use it?

Re: Japanese lunch box

I do have a mage wappa, but I haven't used it for demo bentos on the site yet. I may do so eventually. (It's rather big, which is the main reason I don't use it much.)

Re: Selecting the right bento lunch box

Hi! I have a question;
I`m curious and want to try making bentos for myself, I`m 15 years old, female, and am 5 ft` 3 in. What sort of box should i use to get the right amount of calories i need? just trying to eat healthier!
thanks in advance =)

Re: Selecting the right bento lunch box

i have a question!!
I want to buy a bento box (I'm a guy)- I saw some 2 tier bentos and I was wondering with the boxes that a rubber band is it possible to only use 1 tier? the rubber band looks kind of loose.. I'm just asking because I think the 2 tiers are a little big, but I don't really want to buy a box that is too small;; thanks

Re: Selecting the right bento lunch box

Most 2-tier boxes are on the small side, with each tier containing about 250-300ml. So if you are a guy (unless you have a small appetite) you'll probably use both tiers. Actually, most 'guy' boxes are large one-tiers. The band usually fits cross-wise over two boxes, though you can try fitting it lengthwise over one box too (though it may slip off that way).

Re: Selecting the right bento lunch box

Ugh.. my message did not send out..
I have a question, can the two tier boxes be used separately? the kinds that has a large rubber band ( they look kind of too big for just one tier-_-) thanks

purchasing bento box pieces

I love my bento box and so does my sister, unfortunately she packed some curry in the second level of my bento and the lid is stained. Does anyone know of a site where I can purchase only the small interior compartment for my bento?

Re: purchasing bento box pieces

Hmm I dont think any non-Japanese sites sell parts. I have seen some makers that sell parts like Hakoya (Tatsumiya Shikki). Maybe ask the seller where you purchased the bento box from if you can buy parts?

Re: Selecting the right bento lunch box

I want to buy my daughter a bento. Can 1 tier be cold while the other is kept warm? She does not have access to a microwave at school. Recommendations appreciated!

Re: Selecting the right bento lunch box

One bento box can't keep things hot and actually *cold* at the same time, but some thermal lunch jars like the Zojirushi Mr. Bento have one compartment that keeps the food within reasonably hot until lunchtime, and side compartments where the food is at room temperature. If you need food to be kept actually cold, you'd need to pack the box with a small ice pack, or use a box with a built-in ice pack - but keep in mind that most bento foods are meant to be safe to eat at room temperature at lunchtime. Hope that helps!

small appetite

hey, i want to bring a bento to school with me for lunch,and i have a pretty small appetite (but only at lunch time, i usually eat a lot at dinner XD) so i was thinking of getting one of those one tier square-ish ones that have those little flaps that snap onto each side--- and i've been trying to find a really cute one, you'd think it wouldn't be that difficult because as you mentioned in the article, the small ones have the cute designs on them because their intended for little girls and stuff. i honestly cannot find one that i like!!! help meeee!!!

Re: small appetite

All of the bento sellers that advertise on this site (see their ads in the right sidebar) carry a wide variety of bento boxes, but Japanistic and From Japan With Love in particular carry the small clip-on lid type I think. Take a look at their sites!

Re: Selecting the right bento lunch box

ugh, i should have read this BEFORE i bought my bento box. so helpful!! thanks!!

http://cgi.ebay.com/Japanese-Irodori-Gozen-Large-Food-Bento-Lunch-Box-67...

i bought that in pink.

it's nice and big (holds up to a whopping 1.1L, with the lid being higher, so that food can go above the inner containers. it's cute in pink. the inner containers are microwaveable and dishwasher safe. the outside containers not so much. the whole thing is fridge and freezer safe. (unless you keep your freezer below -20C or your microwave goes above 140C.

no seal!!! dry foods only. :( this could be a problem. doesn't that make fruit out of the question? on the plus side, i did get the cutest fork, spoon, and chopstick holder. (i don't use chopsticks, can't seem to learn).

http://www.from-japan-with-love.com/natural-lunch-time-set--spoon-fork-a...

at the moment i'm at jbox/jlist looking at large bento boxes. i'm a healthy eater. need more food than the avg japanese woman.

http://www.jbox.com/PRODUCT/TPP044

i'm almost decided on this one.

Re: Selecting the right bento lunch box

I personally use a glass freezer container for storage. It's leak safe nuke proof and it's a way to avoid plastic boxes. it's also easy to wash. The drawbacks are its weight, its glass and that it has no dividers.

Re: Selecting the right bento lunch box

Hallo!
Love your site, you've put a lot of hard work into it and its the most informative lunch box site on the web xD
I have a question for you though. I wanted to pack salads for lunch but I am not sure how to pack the salad dressing separately. Is there any container that is specifically used to pack salad dressing for lunch boxes?
Thanks so much!

Re: Selecting the right bento lunch box

There are cute dedicated dressing bottles, and larger 'sauce' bottles meant for soy sauce and such could be used too. E.g. here's a dedicated dressing bottle on the Bento&co site. Try searching for 'sauce bottle' on all the major bento seller websites. You can also use little plastic containers with snap-on leakproof lids instead, or tiny jam jars, and so on.

Re: Selecting the right bento lunch box

Maki-san, do you know how to make the bento strap?? It's hard to get in my country.. T.T (I've just bought natural lunch time double decker bento box)

Re: Selecting the right bento lunch box

Bronwyn (one of our great forum moderators) posted these great instructions for making a furoshiki and matching bento belt - hope that helps!

Re: Selecting the right bento lunch box

Awesome tips! I bought a lunchbox yesterday at Walmart for about $6 and it looks a lot like the ones in Jlist, which is perfect for me. It has 3 compartments; 2 small ones and a third large one. The top is not microwave or dishwasher safe, but the bottom is microwavable, which is also fine for me. I'm so excited to start using my "bento" box!

Re: Selecting the right bento lunch box

I have a small, square plastic container with a locking lid that are so easy to find these days. If I need to separate something, I use a silicon muffin cup. I have a few little containers that I tuck into corners for condiments.

It can be microwaved, but since it isn't a good idea to microwave food in plastic, I don't bother. I don't eat between meals - so my lunches are substantial and nutrient dense to keep me going for five or six hours - or longer. In other words pretty high calorie and high in healthy, natural fats :). The container I have, though it's fairly small and compact, is easily large enough.

Re: My daughter's chicken and rice was all sweaty...

How can I keep my daughter's lunch from getting all soggy from the sweat? I heat the containers with hot water and then nuked the food. She complained that it tasted gross because it was sweaty ;(

Any suggestion? She's 9 and has to pack lunch, gluten and dairy free, without access to microwave.
I was hoping I could pack homemade chicken nuggets, fries and the like but it sounds like they will just get soggy.
Help ;)

Re: My daughter's chicken and rice was all sweaty...

You probably closed the box before the food could cool down completely, which caused condensation. Condensation is not good in bento boxes because not only does the food get soggy and gross, it creates a perfect moist, warm environment for nasty things to grow. Try letting the food __cool down completely__ (should not be 'warm' to the touch) before closing the lid. If you don't have enough time, pack the box with an ice pack so it can cool down more during transit (though that would make the food cold). BTW...fries for bentos? Hmm...(sold fries aren't that good, no? ^_^;)

Re: Selecting the right bento lunch box

I use my glass pyrex containers with plastic lids for my bento. It makes so much sense because glass is microwave safe, dishwasher safe, and never discolors. I don't know why more people don't just use pyrex/anchor containers. A 5-piece set costs as much as just as much a plastic bento.

Re: Selecting the right bento lunch box

Hello

I am heavy overweight und would like to lose weight. IN fact I am starting to lose weight. I choose to calculate calories I eat. I lose til now 2-3 Kilos. in 2 Weeks around which I think is a good amount wihout to hurt my body. Unfortunately I work in a fast food restaurant (Mcdonalds) which is hard to keep my calories in Control. Well we do have salad and low fat wrap. But is really limited since I like bentos. I want to finally to do few times a week. I have to say I was overweight before i started to work in fast food industry :p

I want to keep my calories at lunch so around 300-450 calories.

My day plan for calories goes like that :

Morning rougly 200 calories

Lunch rougly 300-450 Calories (most of the time 400)

Eveing rougly 300-500 calories

I do understand morning is important but I just cant eat much in the morning.

So Do i need to buy a container around 300 ml only? or can I see I can buy a 500 ml container and can still keep my calories around 300-400?

I live in germany and my town is not big. Ingredients choose is limited even tho we have asian shops around here.

thanks a lot ^^

Re: Selecting the right bento lunch box

I live in a small town in Canada. I can get to a good Asian supermarket only about twice a year. I make a bento every day, and I can tell you that I don't use Asian foods very often. If you're interested, look for my lunches on the Just Bento flickr pool. I'm vegetarian, but that doesn't mean you can't substitute my bean and egg foods for some meat if you prefer.

I would buy a box that contains around 450 calories. That way, if you have something that can't be packed super-tight, it won't get too squished. And well done for avoiding the McDonald's food! It may be low in fat but it's high in salt and sugar and low on nutrients.

For the breakfast thing, I can't eat first thing in the morning, but I can eat after I have liquid in my tummy. Coffee, tea, or milk are liquids I can tolerate nicely. So I grab a coffee then I can eat about 1/2 hour after that. Hope that helps get a few more calories in at breakfast.

Re: Selecting the right bento lunch box

Hi Alou, just to add a bit to CJ's Mum's great reply: a little bigger bento box is fine, just as long as you watch the amount of high-calorie food you put in there. The assumption with Japanese bento box sizes is that at least half to 2/3rds of it is filled with cooked rice. If you can cut down on the amount of rice or other grains, and fill up the extra space left with vegetables and so on, you should be fine (and if you carry a very 'loose' food like salad you may even need a bigger container to have enough food).

Re: Selecting the right bento lunch box

Regarding that "impressive" black box at the bottom, does the bottom of that box have shiny specks throughout the plastic? I have a 900ml box that has a very similar lid, the chopstick compartment lid on mine says "Silver Mode" instead of "impressive". It has shiny specks in the bottom section, as well as in the divider. Since I cannot (yet) read the Japanese text on the bottom of the box, would you know if it's microwave/dishwasher safe? I purchased it some years ago from J-List, but they no longer carry it, and I cannot find it elsewhere on the 'net.

Re: Selecting the right bento lunch box

I know the one you are talking about, and it's not the Impressive box. I don't believe it's dishwasher or microwave safe. The silver bits are silver ions, which are supposed to help keep your food fresher longer (though you should still follow basic bento safety rules).

Re: Selecting the right bento lunch box

I was able to find the J-List page for my box using archive.org's Wayback machine. It says the box is microwave safe, but it doesn't mention anything about the dishwasher, safe or not.

http://web.archive.org/web/20081228024416/http://www.jbox.com/PRODUCT/BE...

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