Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part 1: What can I eat?

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Welcome to the first lesson of Bento 101: Getting Into The Bento Making Habit! As the course name implies, and as I outlined previously, this course is all about incorporating the bento making habit into your daily routine.

A note for latecomers: The ‘live’ version of the course has now concluded. But don’t dismay - you can follow along with it at your own pace, and I’m always happy to answer your questions; just post them in the comments for the corresponding lesson. Start at this page, and follow the posts in sequence.

Important links to note

  • You may want to bookmark this site or subscribe to the news feed of course!
  • You may also want to follow the Facebook page. You can also post your comments and results there instead of on this site if you prefer.
  • You can follow JustBento on Twitter. This is where I post all updates to JustBento as well as JustHungry. In cases where there’s a technical problem with this site like the ones we experienced yesterday, Twitter and the Facebook page are where to get updates.
  • Last but not least, if you’re on Flickr you may want to join the JustBento Flickr group. We’ll be using the group for consolidating photos and such for future assignments, but I highly recommend going through the photos that people post there right now for lots of inspiration. You’ll see all kinds of bentos there, from all types of cuisines, from highly experienced bentoists to people just starting out.

A note for people who have my book

If you have purchased the Just Bento Cookbook, first of all- thank you so much! ^_^ Second, you can think of this course as a preparation course for diving into the book.


So let’s get started! First, a preamble…

Our focus during this course will be on the practical packed lunch bento

It’s been more than 5 years since I started JustBento. In the past few years the term ‘bento’ has become a lot more popular than it used to be. But there is still a lot of confusion out there about what bentos are supposed to be. As I wrote way back in October 2007, in Japan there are several types of meals that are called bento. The one thing they have in common is that they are meals packed into a box type container. Beyond that there are quite a lot of differences, but I think you can divide most bentos into two categories: practical everyday bentos, and special occasion/decorative bentos.

90% of this site is dedicated to practical, everyday bentos that contain tasty, healthy, everyday foods, and this course is 100% focused on that. Over the years that I’ve been writing about bentos, I’ve been alternately amused and frustrated that so many people around the world still think that all Japanese bentos look like this:

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So we won’t be talking about making bentos that look like that, and neither will we be talking about the type of bentos you may encounter in Japanese restaurants, that look like this:

shokadobento.jpg

You can think of these as multi-course meals that just happen to be presented at once in a decorative box. They are not very portable and are made to be eaten immediately in most cases.

What we’re aiming for is something more like this:

bento_81_moyashi_burger_bento.jpg

or this:

gdb2-tacocouscous-stainless.jpg

…a humble yet tasty bento that still looks colorful and appetizing, is reasonably healthy and is quick and easy to assemble.

The 5 basic rules of an everyday bento lunch

An everyday homemade bento lunch should be:

  1. Tasty. That’s a given! Why waste life by eating stuff that you don’t like?
  2. Reasonably healthy and nutritionally balanced. We can indulge ourself with junk food and sweets now and then, but lunch is the fuel for the rest of your day, so it should be pretty healthy and balanced. And if you have any food sensitivities or allergies, or must avoid certain foods due to health concerns, there’s no better way to keep control of what you eat than to pack it yourself.
  3. Look neat and appetizing. One of the fundamental principles of bentos, not to mention Japanese cooking in general, is that how food looks is almost as important as how it tastes. Sure you can just toss last night’s leftovers into any old plastic container, and it will probably still taste good. But it’s even better when your lunch looks like a proper meal rather than just sloppy leftovers.
  4. Be quick and easy to prepare. We’re all busy with work or school or bringing up kids and taking care of our families. We can’t be spending hours laboring over meal prep on a daily basis.
  5. Inexpensive. You save tons of money just by making homecooked meals from fresh ingredients over eating in restaurants or grabbing readymade stuff, but let’s push it a bit further and really save pennies while not compromising on quality.

My 10 bento rules add a few more things, but the 5 above are the most important in my opinion.

It doesn’t have to be Japanese!

I’m guessing that most of the people following this course are not Japanese, and didn’t grow up eating Japanese food. The concept of a bento is Japanese of course, and many Japanese foods are suited to bentos. But as the mix of bento styles listed on this site demonstrate, bentos don’t have to only contain Japanese food. (I also purposefully divided the bentos in my book into 2 sections, “Japanese bentos” containing mostly traditional Japanese foods, and “Not-so-Japanese bentos” with foods from many other cuisines.) Even the bentos that regular Japanese people living in Japan pack for their lunches don’t all contain Japanese food all the time.

Trying to get into the habit of making banto lunches on a regular basis while learning new recipes using unfamiliar ingredients can be a lot of work. You don’t even have to learn a single Japanese recipe to make tasty bento lunches, as long as you follow the 5 basic rules above - and you get to reap all the benefits of the bento habit anyway! Chances are that you’ll be far more likely to want to pack a lunch full of foods that you know you like rather than something new. And when it comes to packing lunch for your loved ones, especially kids, they’re even more likely to prefer eating foods that they’re familiar with.

Packable vs. unpackable foods

Whatever food you want to pack though, they should still be suitable for the purpose. The basic bento lunch is meant to be eaten several hours after it’s prepared, usually cold or at room temperature. So anything you pack should be safe and tasty to eat under those circumstances. This means things like:

  • Thoroughly cooked through proteins (e.g. hard boiled eggs, deli meats, roast chicken)
  • Cooked and cooled vegetables, or raw vegetables that won’t wilt (e.g. steamed asparagus, cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks)
  • Carbs that are tasty and safe at room temperature (e.g. bread, properly packed rice and other grains, pasta with a non-mayo based sauce or dressing)
  • Dry or prepackaged foods (e.g. nuts, crackers)
  • Preserved foods (using salt, sugar and so on, or fermented foods - e.g. pickles, cheese)

…are ok. In addition, certain other foods are fine if you carry them along in an insulated container and/or with an ice pack, such as:

  • Proteins that need to be kept cool (e.g. fresh milk)
  • Vegetables that need to stay cool to be crisp (e.g. salad greens)
  • Moist cooked foods that need to be kept cool (e.g. a tuna salad with mayonnaise)

Finally, there’s a group of foods that need to either be kept hot or must be heated up - things like soups and stews. To use these for your bento lunch you either need access to a microwave or specialized, insulated containers that are usually called lunch jars. (See Looking at thermal bento sets and lunch jars.) A bonus is that a lot of soups and stews taste better if they’ve been sitting for a while.

That’s quite a lot of foods you can bring for lunch — far more than a simple sandwich!

There are some foods that you should think seriously about not packing in a bento you intend to eat hours after packing it. These include things like raw and undercooked proteins, as well as very moist and perishable foods. Raw fish sushi is not a good idea unless you’ll be eating it within an hour. (And no, dousing it with wasabi will not kill all the nasty microbes.) Uncooked, moist tofu is also very perishable.

See also Keeping Your Bento Lunch Safe for more, including tips about extra precautions to take in hot weather.

Assignment no. 1: So what do you want to eat for lunch?

This leads us to your first assignment. Make a list of all the foods that you like to eat and that are part of your everyday meals, that you think will be great to pack for lunch.

I’ve made a handy form that you can fill out, or you can do this in a notebook or make up a spreadsheet with the same columns. I have labeled it good the next day foods, since cooking planned leftovers at dinnertime is one of the best ways to make packing your lunch as stress-free as possible. Feel free to add other foods that aren’t planned leftovers to the list too. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

"good the next day" favorite foods form

The form is divided into columns by food type - proteins, carbs, vegetables and fruits/treats. (I’ve put fruits and treats in the same column sort of to sneakily encourage you to think of packing fruits as treats, although of course the occasional cookie is all good.) There’s also a column called ‘combo foods’. This is to list things that are a mix of foods, such as a chicken with pasta (protein and carb), or a bean salad (protein, carb and veg).

Try to list at least 3-4 foods for each category, that fit the guidelines for bento-safe foods listed above. Mark the items that need cooling with a C for Cool, and the ones that need to be kept hot or to be reheated with an H for Hot. This helps you to determine what kind of bento box or lunch container is most useful for you - if you find you’re listing a lot of H foods, then you probably want to get a thermal lunch jar, and so on.

For now, don’t go through this site or the book (or other bento sites) to pick up ‘bento-friendly foods’ for your list, unless you’ve already made them several times and they’re part of your regular repertoire.

Also, try not to list any sandwiches. Sandwiches are a great portable lunch of course, but we’re trying to think beyond the sandwich with this exercise, so bear with me.

One more thing: don’t get too hung up on listing compact foods that you think would fit into a typical bento box. The idea is to make the bento box or container fit your food, not your other way around! We’ll be talking about bento boxes and containers that fit your lunch style in future lessons.

(I’ll post my own list later on, so as not to unnecessarily influence your lists to start with.)

Practical details

For this assignment you don’t need to take any photos. The list you make is just for you, but if you want to share what you put on there, especially some unusual takes, please post them in the comments or on the Facebook page. There’s no firm deadline, but to follow along with the course I would recommend that you make your list sometime this week.

I will be uploading another lesson later this week, so stay tuned!

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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Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

Very excited to begin with my list - thank you again for this course!

Maybe if I receive "full marks" I could do the animated bento course one day!!

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

So glad for this 101 class. I am excited and fits my needs perfectly - very basic and encouraging! I even found a few Bento friendly containers, and cups at a great discount at TJMaxx when I was recently there. Thanks!

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

TJ Maxx is surprisingly good for bentos--I found a cute sandwich pack and a divided 1-tier pack, both with locking silicone lids, based on a tip from commenters on another Bento community. In fact, it took me a while to decide which colors I wanted. :)

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

I have been finding bento boxes at TJMaxx, Marshall's & Home Goods a lot lately. Home Goods had a whole end cap of 1 & 2 tier bento boxes the other day.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

I'm so glad that you have resolved that technical issues. I could not wait for course to start. I have been reading articles and recepies posted here and on Just Hungry and I really like concept of bento but I need a little "push" to start making them on my own. So, this course will be perfect for me.
I already have some unusual food to suggest (very non-Japanese). One is polenta ( corn grits)- when it is cooked, put it in shallow dish or some molds. Next day you can eat it either cold or grilled in morning in frying pan and then kept on room temperature or you can reheat it in microwave right before meal.It goes well with fish, meat, cheese, vegetables...
Other great thing is phyllo (filo ) pastry ( thin sheets of pastry for strudel or baklava). You can make savoury filling ( ground meat,cottage cheese,vegetables like spinach, mushrooms ) or sweet ( fruits like apples or cherries or sweet cheess) and bake it in advance . You can also eat it either cold or reheated. It can even be frozen and defrosted in the morning.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

Inspiring ideas! I make a baked polenta dish that is somewhat like lasagna with 1 layer between layers of polenta - or maybe it is more like a sandwich, grilled cheese for instance - that is also good cold. I also love room temperature leftover pizza.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

OHHHH I love the Polenta idea. I grew up eating it but have only just started eating it again

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

I'm still looking for good vegan protein recipes, but I like this form, it will keep me from making the same food everyday.

Also just today I received the bento box and onigiri molds I ordered, so I'm really excited to start making lunches!

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

You can substitute almost any recipe for black bean or portabella veggie burgers for most beef. (I like this one (http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Best-of-Everything-Veggie-Burgers/Detail.as...) replacing vegan cheese (http://www.vegangela.com/2011/10/15/homemade-vegan-cheese/) for the mozzarella. There are even some recipes for veggie burgers with a milder flavor (those based in chickpeas especially) that make a good substitute in chicken recipes.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

I'm a long time vegetarian recently turned vegan, to and I too struggle with protein sources. For some reason I really have a lot of protein cravings right now. Here's what I use: marinated baked tofu (I bake it myself), edemame that I buy shelled and frozen and steam the last 5 minutes in the rice cooker, cooked nuts, nut butters, bean salads (today it's lentil salad), some imitation meats like fake meat balls and fake sausages. I also buy frozen ready-made vegetable potstickers that have soy in them.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

One really easy vegan protein source is frozen cooked edamame (soy) beans. Just put them in frozen and they will defrost by lunch. We get them already shelled at Trader Joes.

I also like the vegieburger cookbook by Lukas Volger, but my son doesn't so I don't make stuff from it much. There are both Vegan and vegetarian burgers. Its falafel burger is easy, and I think it is one of the egg free ones.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

I'm a long time vegetarian recently turned vegan, to and I too struggle with protein sources. For some reason I really have a lot of protein cravings right now. Here's what I use: marinated baked tofu (I bake it myself), edemame that I buy shelled and frozen and steam the last 5 minutes in the rice cooker, cooked nuts, nut butters, bean salads (today it's lentil salad), some imitation meats like fake meat balls and fake sausages. I also buy frozen ready-made vegetable potstickers that have soy in them.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

This is a great way to organize my very unorganized head when it comes to food, thanks for this. I have packed a couple of bentos before, but I always end up with an under filled bento box and a still hungry stomach after lunch. BTW if anyone has a World Market near them, that's where I got a really well priced two tiered bento box. Thanks so much for doing this, I am excited about this 101 course.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

I lkie these lessons. I just started thinking about all the foods I like or dont like. I already made some bentos for half a year for uni but I almost made the same everytime, because I had no idea what else to make. Now that I m thinking of food I like I see how many diffrent things i could make with those already. I m really excited about this course. My mother wanted to start making bento for my sister so I will translate those lessons in german for her and hope she will follow them as I will try to do.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

"Everyday meals", is it... I cook different food nearly every time I cook! I get bored eating the same thing frequently.
But I'm vegan, too, so I will probably not be able to follow the course.
Congratulations, though, it is a great idea!

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

I also cook a different meal almost everyday. (I'm an avid cookbook collector and follower). I have also packed bento lunches for just over 2 years now.

I think what Maki is doing here is a very great way to start. I started off cooking from this blog and Maki's book, instead of using leftovers or cooking double from my own meals. (It helps that I'm Chinese, grew up eating a lot of Japanese food, so most recipes here are like comfort food anyway).

But now when I meal plan, I make sure I have some dinners that are packable. I then cook double the amount, and use the extra for lunches. I also think about freeezable food. I also have a repetoire of some freezer and fridge staples, and also a handful of very quick 5 min meals.

By the way, I'm a meat eater, but I tend to only pack vegetarian bentos. I like to use beans in my packed lunch. There are lots of vegan recipes on this website.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

"How do you know if someone is a vegan? Don't worry they will tell you. "

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

Tasty. That is the same answer to the what-for-question: you want to be happy: you want to have fun. That is a fundamental question: will it be tasty?

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

So on the list, where would cheese fall? Proteins or carbs?
The latter, right?

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

Cheese would go under 'protein'.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

Thank you Maki! I've been looking forward to this class all week!

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

Another tip for newbies!

Bento sets that come with thermal lunch jars tend to be more expensive than using the bento you already own in conjunction with a store-bought Thermos or lunch jar. I often bring my I-Can't-Believe-It's-Lentil-Soup in a 250 mL Thermos, in conjunction with a 350 mL bento box and a 100 mL cup of plain yogurt. It fills me up as nicely as a regular 500-mL bento does, but has the added benefit of being nice and hot without a need for reheating. :)

Thermal jars tend to go on clearance in late September/early October, after the back-to-school season starts to die down. This is also when the weather starts to cool in a lot of places, so it works out pretty nicely--you can avoid the crowded aisles of parents and kids, and still get a cute lunch jar or Thermos, PLUS they can be marked down to 1/2 price! The selections tend not to be as wide-ranging as during back-to-school season, though.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

The timing of this post couldn't have been better for me. I found this site over the weekend and decided to order your book and a bento box (they both arrive today) and get started with bento for a healthier and cheaper lunch lifestyle. I can't wait to get started and look forward to the future episodes.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

Just saw this looking for more ideas and also excited to see how the course goes.

As most New Years go, I decided to start bringing my lunch more to work. I haven't missed a weekday yet since the beginning of the year. Saves money anyway. I have had pretty good luck sticking with it. The main thing is just give yourself that 20min or so to pack your lunch. Also, washing out the bento containers every night.

I thought I would give my two cents on a few things I've learned.

-I'm sure you can use any Bento box. I decided to go all in and use
http://www.amazon.com/Zojirushi-Classic-Bento-Vacuum-Lunch/dp/B0016S11VC...

Although a little expensive, I think it works very well. I am a pretty big guy at 6'4" and 275 lbs and if I fill all of the compartments up, it fills me up most everyday.

-I did buy the Just Bento book with my Bento and I would recommend it. The instructions are very clear and there are lots of pictures.
http://www.amazon.com/The-Just-Bento-Cookbook-Everyday/dp/1568363931/ref...

I also bought this book
http://www.amazon.com/Ten-Minute-Bento-Megumi-Fujii/dp/1935654411/ref=pd...

but I didn't like that as much. I would say not worth it as its shorter and a little more technical. Just didn't like it as much.

-One other thing I bought was
http://www.amazon.com/Soy-Sauce-Container-15-Bag/dp/B001AJ8HOG/ref=pd_si...

I filled them up with soy sauce and rice wine vinegar and so when I want a little extra, I bring them along. Keeps the food from getting soggy.

-one other tip, buy your supplies at an asian/international store. I mean rice wine vinegar, mirin, sriracha, dark soy sauce, etc. They tend to be cheaper around where I live rather than at the supermarket or walmart per say.

Again my two cents. I don't work for amazon, but I do tend to buy a bunch of stuff off there, so sorry if it seems like I'm advertising for them.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

It would be much easier to make a list of what I DON'T like to eat for lunch :) I also generally pack snacks, and a breakfast because I don't have time to eat before I leave in the morning. One of the biggest reasons I love making bentos is to include small portions of a variety of foods, and the compartmentalized containers make it very easy. I prefer to eat several small meals and snacks throughout the day and bento makes this very easy. I've just fallen off the wagon lately and have taken to throwing leftovers in tupperware and snacks into sandwich bags. I need to get my bento groove back!

My unusual take (at least for most Americans, I don't know how the rest of the world views this) is that I have no boundaries as to what a "breakfast" food or a "lunch" food is. Sometimes I have chicken soup or a salad for breakfast. Sometimes I have a veggie omelette and bacon for lunch, or dinner. (And takoyaki is just good at any time of day :D ) It opens up your options a little more if you don't relegate foods to specific meals.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

I'm much the same way - bentos appeal to me because of the lots of little things in one, and then I eat throughout the day. I bought the Mr. Bento Lunch Jar set percisely because all the comments said it was huge! I can put breakfast, lunch, and snacks in that baby.

My favorite thing to pack for lunch and eat at room temp are beans. Used to be beans and rice, but I'm trying to cut back on the high GI carbs. There's so many different types of beans, and you can flavor them with spices from any cuisine. I'm particularly partial to Tex-Mex flavors, but I love others too. I can even pack a bit of tabasco in one of those little soy sauce fish-shaped squeeze bottles.

Beans have the advantage of being dirt cheap, flavorful, can be easily cooked, can be easily transported without a cooling pack, and are tasty cold or room temperature.

And if you can have the rice, it just soaks up the bean juice so wonderfully.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

Not only is the post great so are the comments. I learned a lot and expect to learn much more. A few suggestions (even some that don't work for me): dried meat/fish, marinated fish/vegetables (drained, if necessary), stuffed grape leaves and savoury scones or muffins.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

This is great! I've been following your site for a while now, but I've gotten out of the habit of making bentos. I need help with organization and getting back into the habit, so these classes are going to be a HUGE help! I really like the polenta idea Irena, I love polenta but never thought of that, thanks!

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

My Just Bento Cookbook just arrived in the mail. Together with this online course, I am so excited, I can't even think of questions to ask. :-) I am sooo looking forward to starting a new lunch chapter with you and all your followers. Hope to find some great Bento accessories in the Montreal Chinatown next week. Cheers!

Assignment Complete!

Here's mine! http://tinyurl.com/b9souy4
I'm not sure if I was specific enough but I think I have a better understanding of my repertoire now.
Now I'm hungry. :)

excited for the basics

I often scribble bento designs and notes in the margin of my work notebooks, especially if I'm going grocery shopping afterwards. I have so many menus tucked in random places, so I really like the printable! :) One of my favorite non-Japanese menus:
Proteins: chicken salad, hummus (w/ olive oil and paprika)
Carbs: halved mini pitas
Veggies: carrot sticks
Fruits: grapes

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

At the Elf House, we cook about 3-4 times a week and rely on leftovers/pre-made items/takeout for the rest of it. We should cook more, but sometimes my already long work day runs even longer and I just don't want to spend the time. My husband, who also cooks, sometimes has to work late too. If it's only one of us, the other will cook, but it's amazing how often we both have to work late on the same day.

There's lots of pre-made foods out there that not only work great for dinner or snacks but can be portioned out easily for lunch. Steamed dumplings, stuffed grape leaves, pre-made tabboule and hummus, meatballs (or veggie versions) that you can just sauce up, sausage, soups of all varieties, deli salads and meats, etc. Not to mention the usual snack culprits: cheese and crackers, cut up fruit and veggies, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, etc. I'm not crazy about sandwiches, but that goes in the category too. Buying things pre-made or pre-cut is expensive, but so is time. It depends, sometimes, on which you have more of that week. Most of those things are generally served cold or room temp anyway.

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

Great idea. I've been making a bento for my hubby every morning for the last three years and have recently decided to revamp them with more variety and use more freezer cooking to save time and money. I hope you include tips on how to make these bentos and save time maybe by preparing things in advance. I often make salmon fried rice for the bento but wondering if it freezes well? I was also thinking of make a bunch of yaki onigiri and freezing them...any idea of they freeze well?

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

My sister and I have decided to get together and do all the course! like our own little class room!! I'm pretty excited about this!

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

Maybe a bit late, but I've been filling this in (doing so unofficially and building up a collection of posts for future reference): http://onebentowonder.blogspot.com/2013/02/bento-101-what-can-i-eat.html

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

Last week I was out of town for work and not able to start on my list. Taking the time tonight and realized, this list is going to be good for recording the carb count of foods. Since I am on a low fiber, low carb diet, this list will be great! BTW, I took the PDF and made it into a form for ease of use. Thanks for starting the lessons!

Re: Bento 101 (Getting Into the Bento Making Habit): Part ...

So excited to get started! I am just getting to my list tonight as I have been out all week - but I am super excited. Thank you!

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