Get Started Bento Challenge: Week 3

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Welcome to Week 3 of the 5 week Getting Started Bento Challenge!

A quick reminder of the outline of this and upcoming Challenge weeks.

  • Each week, we’ll be focusing on a particular aspect of making tasty, healthy and cost conscious bento lunches as efficiently as possible.
  • There will be three task and goal levels: Basic, Going Deeper, and Weight Loss. Basic is what you should try to do at a minimum. Going Deeper is for people who are very motivated and want to take on more. Finally, Weight Loss is specifically for people who want to use the Challenge to kick start, or enhance, a weight loss plan.

(Click here to skip down to the task descriptions, or just the summary.)

Week 3 Focus: Money Saving Bentos

In Week 1 we focused on getting organized for making bentos on a regular basic - the very basics. And in Week 2 the focus was on healthier bentos.

For me, the no. 1 reason I like to make bento lunches is that it allows me to eat healthier. But just behind at no. 2 is to save money, especially in these uncertain economic times. I happen to live in a place where any kind of prepared food is either expensive or unhealthy, and sometimes both. So by the very fact that I do make bentos for myself and The Guy, we are saving a lot on our food expenses, without sacrificing the quality of our food.

For example, last week I made bentos 4 out of 5 days, and ate out on one day. Granted, the restaurant I went to is not that cheap (though not expensive by Zürich standards either), and I wasn’t paying! If I were though, my lunch there, without any starter or dessert, cost more than my 4 other lunches that week combined. (I don’t factor in the entertainment value of eating out here. More on that later.)

Still, there are things you can do to lower the cost of your bentos, not to mention your whole food budget, without compromising on quality.

Plan for leftovers to use in your bento

This is the most obvious money saving tactic of course. If you can set aside a little of your evening meal and add a bit to it, you can basically assemble your lunch for almost no additional cost. If you don’t like eating the same thing two days in a row though, think about ways in which you could use the same ingredients and give them a different flavor. For example if you make a spaghetti bolognese for dinner, you could set aside some of the sautéed meat and onions etc. to make meat soboro. If you make egg salad, you could reserve a couple for soy sauce eggs or easy lazy tea eggs. There are a lot more ideas on re-purposing leftovers on this page.

Plan ahead

I keep on harping on this point, but planning your meals ahead can really help to cut down on one of the biggest money-wasters, buying too much food and seeing it go bad. For instance, last week I bought a head of broccoli. I used the florets for two bentos and the stemps in a kinpira. I used to let broccoli get limp or moldy all the time, but am getting better at using it up! Planning helps me to use up fresh vegetables, fruit and other things before they go bad.

Freeze or preserve

The best way to save your food for later use is to freeze it. You can make things specially for freezing, or just make extra of whatever it is you’re cooking and freeze the surplus in individual portions. You can also freeze leftovers and things to use some time down the line.

You should remember that even in the freezer, things still get bad eventually. If you have little packets of food floating around, they can get lost and forgotten, until you discover them one day, frosty, grey and freezer-burned. So, keep your ‘stash’ all together! Clear out some space in your freezer big enough for a large plastic freezer-saver type box, and keep all your bento ‘stash’ in there so you can get at it easily. (I have a 4-drawer separate freezer unit - my refrigerator has no freezer section - and I reserve one of the drawers for bento stash. If you have the space, an extra freezer unit is a great investment for plan-ahead cooking.)

Preserving is another thing to consider, if you’re up to it. Things like pickles can be very useful bento space fillers. Preserving is a big subject so I’ll leave it at that for the moment.

Take a look at the Johbisai (food stash) section of the site for recipes that are particularly suited to ‘stashing’, in the freezer or in your pantry.

Go easy on the snacks and exotic ingredients

Unfortunately, many Japanese ingredients are pretty expensive outside of Japan. Things like packaged furikake, pickles, snacks and so on are really pricey unless you live in an area with a large Japanese-origin population, like Hawai’i or some parts of California. I try not to over-rely on these ingredients on an everyday basis, and stick mostly to readily available things. (I do, however, splurge on the basics like soy sauce, mirin, miso and good rice. I use a little bit of these things at a time so the overall cost is not too bad. I don’t often buy things like snack foods, mixes, and prepared food.)

Buy fresh produce in season

Stick to vegetables and fruit that are in season, when they are usually the cheapest and the best. Asparagus and strawberries in the dead of winter is a waste in so many ways.

Consider going vegetarian, at least sometimes

Unless you are splurging on expensive Japanese (or other) ingredients, vegetarian ingredients are often cheaper than their meaty counterparts, not to mention healthier. So if you can stand the idea of a meatless meal once or twice a week, see if you can put together a meatless bento that costs less than a meat-loaded one.

It’s not a bad thing to eat out…just not all the time

By no means am I saying that everyone should stop eating out. I love going to good restaurants myself. But my reason for going to a restaurant is not really for sustenance. (When I do the household budget, I categorize restaurant meals under ‘entertainment’, not ‘food’.) It’s to have a good time - to try out new dishes and wines, enjoy the ambience, and of course to have a good chat with my friends. If you have the time and money to do this every day for lunch, you are probably not reading this anyway! I’d rather save up by making bentos most of the time, and splurge (entertainment wise and calorie-wise) once in a while.

That was a long preamble! Here are this week’s tasks.

Your tasks and goals for this week

Whatever level you decide to tackle, you should do the following:

  • Photo. At lunchtime, take a photo of your bento, and upload it either to flickr (and add to the Just Bento pool) or to your preferred photo hosting service. A record of your first bento steps!
  • Report. At the end of the week, report back here in this forum with how it went for you! (Or link to your blog post with your report.)

Basic

If you are finding the challenge is getting a bit overwhelming, slow down! Just concentrate on making a bento at least once or twice a week - more if you can manage it. As you feel comfortable, try the Week 2 ‘healthier bento makeover’ tasks, and continue to try to get organized enough to make bentos part of your everyday routine.

Going Deeper

  • Start or continue planning your bento meals! Not only does it keep you organized, it can help save money be reducing waste.
  • Play a little game with yourself, and see how many bento items you can create by not buying anything extra over what you buy and make for dinner.
  • Check out the prices you pay when buying a normal lunch (sandwiches or takeout salad or hamburgers or whatever). Compare how much you are, or can, save by having a bento lunch instead.

Weight Loss

If losing weight is one of your Challenge goals, continue to work on the tasks laid out in Week 2, especially measuring portions accurately and aiming for good balance. Oh, and keep up the exercise too!

You might also consider putting together at least one vegetarian lunch, relying on vegetable proteins like beans, whole grains, nuts and so on. You might find that it’s lower in calories, more satisfying, and cheaper than a meat or cheese-based bento!

Summary

Basic: Don’t give up! Just concentrate on making at least a couple of bentos this week if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Going Deeper: Try cutting the cost of your bentos without sacrificing quality. Calculate how much money you’re saving just by bringing bentos for lunch!

Weight Loss: Continue on from Week 2; consider vegetarian bentos.

This might be the toughest week to get through. Don’t give up, just do what you can at your own pace!

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.

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