Essential equipment and supplies for making bento lunches
This is a list of kitchen equipment that I find useful in prepping my bento lunches as fast and as efficiently as possible. This is not about bento accessories such as cute picks and sauce bottles, which are nice to have but not essential.
For information about how to select a bento box that’s right for you, see Selecting the right bento lunch box .
Basic cooking equipment
- Two small non-stick frying pans
- One large (28cm diameter or about 11 inches) non-stick frying pan
- One or two small to mid-size saucepans
I use the small frying pans for quick frying, sautéing, and more. I use the large frying pan for boiling and steaming tasks as well as sautéing.
How many minutes do you waste waiting for a pot of water to come to a boil? An electric water kettle does this essential task in the shortest time possible. One of the first things I do when making bento in the morning is to fill up my electric kettle and switch it on. If you are in the market for one, get the largest capacity model you can find.
A grill pan is one of the best ways to quickly cook a piece of fish or meat, but it can be used for vegetables, tofu and more too. (I actually use a Le Creuset grill pan , which is enamel coated on the outside and uncoated on the inside.)
Use a salad spinner to wash all the leafy vegetables you get and try to get into the habit of washing them as soon as you get them home. If you can’t manage that, at least try to wash them the night before you need them.
- Rice cooker with timer function
A rice cooker is the best tool for cooking white rice. The ‘set-it-and-forget-it’ convenience of a rice cooker with a timer function just can’t be beat. Many modern rice cookers can handle brown rice as well as white rice, and can cook other kinds of whole grains as well. People even make soups and breads in a rice cooker! See Answering some rice cooker questions for more.
If you are a vegan or vegetarian, or interested in introducing more whole grains and pulses (dried beans and legumes) to your diet, a pressure cooker is a must. A pressure cooker is great for brown rice, whole grains that need longer cooking (like barley), and dried beans. Dried beans are so much cheaper and better tasting than canned, and cook up in a short time in a pressure cooker. I often make a batch of beans, portion them and freeze them. See Pressure Cooker Love .
The rest of the items should be self-explanatory.
- Plastic zip bags
- Bowls and plates for laying out ingredients
- Sharp knives (a general purpose chopping knife and a small peeling knife)
- Microwave safe plastic wrap (saran wrap)
- Sealable, freezer safe glass or plastic containers for storing bits and pieces of food
Three tools that make cutting tasks easier
- Vegetable peeler
- Vegetable slicer or mandoline. I use a cheap “cassette” type from Japan, rather than my big, scary French mandoline, especially in the morning when I’m not too sharp but the mandoline blade is.
- A Microplane grater . I use this when I need to grate something because it’s dead easy to clean up. It’s the perfect tool for finely grating ginger, or zest, or something (not that I grate zest that much when I’m making bento.)
- Food processor - if you’re in the market for a new one, try to get one that has a small ‘baby food’ bowl in addition to the regular big bowl. You’ll use the small bowl a lot more for small chopping tasks.
For packing bento boxes:
- Long chopsticks (saibashi)
Saibashi are long, uncoated chopsticks (usually made of bamboo) meant for cooking. Often they are attached together with a string, which I just cut off. They are great for mixing things up, stir-frying, and so on, as well as for putting food in the bento box. 2 or 3 pairs (or 4 to 6 individual) saibashi held together act sort of like a whisk for rapidly stirring things, but are much easier to clean. Regular chopsticks will do fine too, though be careful not to use the lacquered kind in hot pans.
And finally, a couple of larger appliances that are nice to have:
- microwave oven
- toaster oven - A conventional oven takes far long to heat up, but a toaster oven is up in a jiffy.
Cute bento accessories are nice to have, but not essential
Essential bento making equipment to me is not about cute little egg formers or colorful plastic picks. It’s about tools that make bento assembly fast and easy. Using egg formers and the like is optional, not mandatory. There are several reviews of bento boxes and accessories on this site however - see the equipment and supplies category, as well as the kyaraben category for decorative bento supplies and ideas.
Making bento lunches in a dorm room
[It’s back-to-school time! This article was originally posted in September 2008, and revised several times since. There are lots of great ideas in the comments, so be sure to check them out! ]
Here’s a great question from reader Jan:
I live in a college dorm, and I only have a microwave, water kettle and George Foreman-style grill (we aren’t allowed to have hotplates in here). Is it an option to grill tofu? And do you have any other suggestions for cooking with my limited resources?
Eating healthy in a dorm room can be a challenge indeed, especially without a fully equipped kitchen. I actually lived in a dorm-like setting (it was off-campus housing but set up like a dorm) for a few months during my early days in college. We had access to an ancient refrigerator, which was compartmentalized inside into lockable litle safe-like boxes with nameplates and keys (!). Each box was about the size of a hotel room safe, so there was barely enough space there for each person to store an apple and a can of soda. We could have a water heater in our rooms, but that was about it (though there were suspiciousl smells periodically wafting about the place from various rooms). I did move to a better place as soon as I could, but here’s what I remember doing from those days, plus some ideas about using those luxury items, a grill and a microwave!
- Rely on pre-cut/pre-washed veggies. Access to a proper sink is probaby limited, and let’s face it, washing vegetables in a bathroom sink is sort of not nice. Pre-cut vegetables are more expensive, but very convenient and cheaper and healthier than eating out. I don’t know what I would have done during my time in that no-cooking place without pre-bagged salads!
- Think about a microwave rice cooker, or a plug-in electric rice cooker. This is one situation where a microwave rice cooker would be very handy to have. Rice, even expensive Japanese rice, is only pennies per serving. You can get basic rice cookers for around US$10 . You could even think about investing in a microwave cooking set . If your budget and space allow though, think about getting a plug-in electric rice cooker with a timer function (see the big rice cooker article ) - if your dorm allows hot water heaters and grills, a rice cooker should be fine. You can even use it to cook things other than rice!
- Cup-a-soup and other “just add hot water” foods are your friend. Do look at labels though since some are healthier than others. And, try not to rely too much on cup noodles (known in the UK as pot noodles) - I know they have become the preferred hot snack for gamers, coders and college kids, but nutritionally speaking they are about on the same level, or worse, as potato chips .
- Look into packaged foods and things that don’t need refrigeration. Canned and jar-packed goods are obvious, but if you go to a Japanese grocery store you will find quite a lot of no-refrigeration-needed foods, like boil in the bag (or take out of the bag and microwave) curry, microwaveable rice and so on. (They can be a bit expensive though unless you live in an area with a large Asian/Japanese population. These things are dirt cheap and therefore popular with students in Japan.)
- If you share a refrigerator with others, invest in a a couple of tightly closing plastic storage boxes to protect your food. You can control your own refrigerator habits, but you can’t be sure of others….
- Using the grill, especially for vegetarians. (For non-Americans, a George Foreman Grill is a very handy electric tabletop grill that is shaped like a waffle maker or pressed sandwich maker. It quickly cooks steaks and stuff from both sides.) Grilling burgers, sausages and (if your budget allows for it) steaks and chops on this is quite an obvious thing to do. Veggies can grill things like veggie burgers and hot dogs. Thick fried tofu (atsuage) can be grilled ‘dry’, then eaten with a dash of soy sauce. (For bento, carry the grilled atsuage along with a small soy sauce bottle. You can use barbeque sauce or whatever sauce you prefer instead.) You can try grilling plain tofu too: use a firm or extra firm (or ‘pressed’) tofu, not silken tofu, oil it well on both sides and press away. Try grilling slices of eggplants, peppers, and so on, brushed with some oil. Steam-cooking veggies in the microwave before finishing them in the grill might work well.
- If all else fails, at least try to eat a fresh fruit every day. And maybe think about a vitamin supplement?
Some bento/lunch ideas using the above ideas and more:
- Microwave-cooked rice, microwave-steamed veggies, grilled sausages or hot dogs (veggie hot dogs even) or even Spam!
- Just-add-water quickcook grains, instant curry, pre-cut salad
- Storebought bread, storebought hummus, fruit, cucumber slices and cherry tomatoes, apple
- Grilled vegetable slices on a George Forman Grill on a crusty roll with some cheese
- Nothing wrong with a good old peanut butter and jam sandwich. Go for whole wheat bread instead of white bread for a bit more nutrition.
Some ideas for foods to stock that don’t need refrigeration
From a regular (Western) grocery store:
- Crackers and Swedish ‘crispbread’ (those little crispy rolls that you can get at Ikea), rye crackers
- Canned soup, canned fish and meat, canned vegetables…explore the world of cans!
- Packaged soup - watch for salt/fat content though
- Pickles in a jar (may need refrigeration after opening)
- Peanut butter and other nut butters
- Condiments. A little bottle of good soy sauce, siracha sauce, etc. can do wonders
- Instant noodles - in moderation though. See Instant ramen and cup noodles are bad for you (they really are!)
From a Japanese grocery store:
- Instant curry and stew in a pouch (you boil the bag or empty it out and microwave it), for example this set
- Ready to microwave rice (see above) - e.g. this 3-pack
- Pouches of readymade sesame salt or gomashio and furikake (homemade furikake recipes for the more adventurous)
- Pre-cut sheets of nori seaweed. Korean nori is flavored and roasted with some oil, and makes a very tasty snack.
- Ready-to-eat canned foods. There’s too much of these things to list here but you can find things like clams, mackerel, eel, sardines and so on - all pre-flavored (somewhat strongly) and ready to open up and eat.
- Just-add-water instant miso soup and other soups
- Rice crackers and other snack foods
Do you have any suggestions for dorm dwellers? Are you one yourself - and if so, how do you cope? Is thinking about making bento lunches in a dorm too ambitious?