This is the start page for the Getting Started With Making Bento series for bento beginners.
[Note: This is my New Year’s message from 2008, but it’s just as applicable this year. I’ll be posting a brand new New Year’s post tomorrow later on, but in the meantime, if you are thinking of making bentos part of your routine this year, this is worth a read I think!]
If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to incorporate bento lunches into your life, this is the first part of a mini-series on how to get going.
I know that a lot of people get seduced by the idea of jewel-like little boxes of food greeting them for lunch. But before you embark on the bento route and start collecting bento boxes and cute supplies and so on, ask yourself these questions:
If you answered yes to the questions above, let’s look at the main reasons for making bento lunches:
The bottom line is: committing to making bento lunches regularly does mean you will have to invest some time. But the payoffs are worth it!
Incidentally, the main goals I have for my own bento making are the above, in the order they are listed. So chances are that this site will suit you fine if they are your goals too.
One of the best reasons to make bento lunches is that you can eat a lot healthier than eating fast food or restaurant food. However, it doesn’t happen by magic. It’s just as easy, or even easier, to make a cute box full of unhealthy food.
The main thing to keep in mind that you should always aim for a good balance between the main food groups: carbs or starches, protein, and vegetables and fruit. I always try for a 1:1:1 ratio between carbs, protein and vegetables - if there are more vegetables, all the better, but never too much carbs or protein.
Let’s look at this in practice. Here is the first bento featured on Just Bento .
It’s quite easy to see the balance here. The brown rice takes up about a third of the box. The protein components, the quail egg and the fried tofu, take up another third or so, and the rest of the box is filled up with vegetables.
In Bento no. 6  the balance is a little harder to see, but it’s still there.
The carb component is the pita breads. The proteins are the mini bean burgers and the yogurt. The veg/fruit are the salad and the mixed apple and pear chunks. (Note that I try not to use fruit instead of vegetables most of thee time, since fruit does contain sugars, though it’s still good for you!)
If you’re not ready to try making a full-on rice based bento yet, you can still ease into it by balancing your brown bag sandwich lunch. Let’s say you have a peanut butter and jelly (jam) sandwich. If your usual accompaniments to that are an apple and a brownie, that’s not very balanced since it’s too carb-heavy. The sandwich has bread (carb), peanut butter (protein and fat) and jelly (sugar, which is a carb). It’s quite carb-heavy still, so you need to balance it out. For example -
Adding these extra things doesn’t take that much effort (the roasted chickpeas do take a little effort, but they can be made in advance). And the health and satiety factors for your lunch are given a bit boost. Taking it a step further, if you make the sandwich from whole wheat bread, it becomes even more nutritious with no extra effort on your part. Changing the innards of the sandwich also takes no extra effort, beyond having to buy the ingredients.
So, try practicing balance with your usual bag lunch first, and see how it goes!
Don’t forget to cast your vote in the poll !
Bento box lunches are a great tool to use within an overall weight loss program. Just the fact that the box is quite compact makes portion control a lot easier. However, just packing your lunch in a cute box doesn’t automatically make it ‘diet food’ either. Here are some simple rules to follow to maximise the weight-loss benefits of your bento lunches.
There are several sites out there where you can calculate the total amount of calories you need to consume in a day based on your age, height, current weight and activity level (here is a handy one ). My base rate is around 1800 calories, so I usually aim for a bento lunch that is around 500-600 calories. Sometimes I add some treats, especially on my more active days, and occasionally (i.e. ‘The day after’) I make something that is even lower in calories.
See also: Selecting the right bento box .
I do not follow a low-carb diet (my body just doesn’t react well to it) - I go for a balanced eating approach. All bentos start with the kind and quantity of the carb component. For most of my bentos, the carb component makes up 1/3rd, or about 200 calories, of the total. That’s about a cup of rice, a bit less than a cup of pasta, or 2 to 3 slices of bread. I add to that protein foods that do not exceed the carb calories if at all possible. The rest is made up of vegetables, fruit and oils.
There are other formulas out there for ‘bento dieting’, but I find this one to be the easiest to remember by far.
If you’ve been following the Getting Started series, you’ll notice that this principle is really Aim for Balance  with a little bit of calorie restriction. Balance really is the key!
Most Japanese bento okazu (the foods other than the rice/carb) recipes tend to be on the salty side, because they are meant to be eaten with a lot of plain, white rice. Since your diet-bento will have less rice, you will want to reduce the salt in your okazu or you’ll crave more rice. What I often do is to make the protein component the usual way, but make vegetables with little or no added salt, so that it all balances out.
This might go without saying, but try to keep the amount of fat in the bento fairly low. You don’t need to eliminate it entirely, but don’t have a liberal hand with it either. Use cooking methods that don’t se a lot of fat. One of my favorite methods is ‘water sautéing’ - where I stir-fry things in a non-stick pan, adding a little water to prevent it from sticking if necessary. I use oil as a flavoring ingredient, and so I use the types of oils that do have a lot of flavor - sesame oil, extra virgin olive oil, pumpkin seed oil, argan oil, and various flavored infused oils.
For Japanese food fans, a typical Japanese grocery store can be hard to resist. The foods are so cute, and colorful, and exotic - you want to try everything. But just because it’s Japanese and cute doesn’t mean it’s really good for you either.
If you look back at the virtual bento shopping trip  where we cruised around the prepared-bento departments of various stores, you’ll see that many of them feature deep fried and breaded foods. These are quite common in Japan. Room temperature fried and battered or breaded foods are surprisingly tasty, but aren’t too good for your waistline. If you must, include them in your bento as occasional treats.
(One of my weaknesses when it comes to deep fried breaded food is kureemu korokke, croquettes made with bechamel sauce, usually mixed with crabmeat or shrimp. Mmm, fried creamy sauce. I have them maybe once a year.)
Another more insiduous high calorie food category is dumplings and dumpling-like foods, the kind you encounter at a dim sum. Gyoza dumplings  for instance, another one of my favorites, when steam-fried in ‘potsticker’ fashion, are about 100 calories apiece. Can you be happy with just one gyoza? Not me. So again, these are treats that I have occasionally.
Steamed shumai dumplings have a bit less calories, but still, use them sparingly.
You should also watch out for the salt content in prepared foods like pickles and furikake. Salt doesn’t make you ‘fat’ per se, but high salt items in your bento will make you want more rice. In fact, things like pickles are intended to make you consume more rice (the phrase used is gohan ga susumu, “rice goes more”). My homemade furikake  are lower in salt content than commercial kinds.
These are the basic tenets to follow for a balanced diet bento. They shouldn’t be hard to stick to, and are pretty easy to remember. And, the very fact that you need to put everything into a compact container makes it more difficult to ‘cheat’!
The following points take a bit more effort, time or change in habits, but if you can incorporate them, all the better.
Use whole rice or grains instead of white. When it comes to grains, white is bad and brown is good. They have more nutrients and belly-satiating fiber. Cooking brown (or whole) grains takes more time, but you can pre-cook and freeze it .
Beans beans beans. Japanese people generally love beans, which are usually cooked so that they are a little sweet. Incorporating small quantities into the corner of a bento. Even scattering a few pre-cooked frozen beans into your bento is not bad - it adds color, protein and fiber. If you can’t give up the flavor or white rice or white bread, one way to compensate for the loss of fiber and nutrients is to add a small amount of beans or other legumes. Example: I mixed some leftover firm lentils into fried rice .
Make your vegetables colorful. I always try to use at least two kinds of vegetables in my bento. The more colorful the vegetables, the better - the darker the green, the better. Bright red/orange vegetables (carrots, peppers) are good too. I also like to cook the vegetables - a brief blanching or stir-frying reduces their bulk while losing little of the nutrition. Raw salads may taste healthy, but a big bowl of pale lettuce has little nutrition, while a small handful of blanched spinach has plenty.
Use ‘no calorie’ foods. Many vegetables have virtually no calories worth counting. There are also some foods with almost no calories, such as konnyaku and shirataki  (see this beef bowl bento with konnyaku , or spicy shirataki noodle bento ).
Bento ‘dieting’ is not magic, but it’s fun and it does work! (You do have to watch your intake for the rest of the day too of course…)
See also: How it’s worked for me so far . (I’ve fallen off the wagon a bit over the holidays, but I’ve gotten back to balanced-bento making this week, and already feel a lot better!)
UPDATE: Details of the Challenge are now up here ! We’ll start on January 13th.
There was an interesting article in The Washington Post on Sunday, titled Portion Distortion . The gist of is it that Americans (but I think this is a growing problem worldwide) have become so used to Supersize meals and Big Gulp beverages that their sense of what is a ‘proper’ portion of food has gotten totally distorted.
One method for weight control suggested by experts quoted in the article is to use a small salad plate all the time. This is a good idea on principle, but really, a plate is just a flat thing with no limit vertically. I’ve seen some very creative, even architectural, piles of food at a local restaurant, where the salad bar is priced by the plate size!
On the other hand, a bento box gives you a hard limit in all three dimensions. If you fill up a bento box over the rim, you can’t close the lid! So, you are forced to stay within that limit. Of course you do still have to make healthy choices for what to put in your bento box (see Skinny vs. Not-so Skinny Bento ) and select the right size bento box for you (see Selecting the right bento box ). But I do think that, for at least one meal a day, it can be a powerful tool for weight loss, or at least for weight gain prevention!
This article, and the several pounds I seem to have gained while I was away last month (grr), have me thinking. I know that for the rest of this month, it’s going to be an effort just to stop my pants from getting even tighter. But come January, I’m planning to re-focus on losing some weight and getting back on the healthy-eating bandwagon with both feet, and bento boxes are going to be a main tool in that effort. Would anyone like to follow this kind of plan along with me? I haven’t thought through all of the details of how it would work yet, but if you’re interested, just let me know in the comments.
(Comments have been closed for this post. Go here for the Bento Challenge details !)
One of the great points made in the Yaseru Obento Recipe  book is that just because your bento box is small and fits the guidelines for selecting the right size bento box , it doesn’t mean you can fill it with anything. I thought I’d illustrate that with two bentos which use chicken as the main protein. In the photo above, the two leftside containers make up one bento, and the two rightside ones another. They are both Lube Sheep brand two-tier bento boxes, which I think a lot of people have since they are nice and compactand quite inexpensive. The nominal capacity for the two compartments combined is about 500ml.
The two bentos may look pretty comparable, but calorie wise there’s a big difference. Let’s see how I filled the right side bento first.
Total: 940 calories
How did I manage to pack in so many calories in such a small space? First of all, I used oil for all four elements - deep-frying the chicken with the skin on, and sautéing and frying the bean sprouts and rice. I was fairly liberal, but not as liberal as a typical takeout restaurant might be, with the oil. I also packed the rice into the slightly larger compartment as tightly as I could.
Now let’s look at the other bento.
Total: 445 calories
What did I do differently? The chicken is cooked, with the skin still on, in a non-stick frying pan with no added oil. (You could save more calories by taking the skin off, but I do like that crispy caramelized skin.) The rice is plain, which is fine since the chicken and tamagoyaki are well seasoned. I also packed it into the slightly smaller compartment, and left space to put in the tamagoyaki (which is the one element that is identical between the two bentos). And the vegetables are blanched, so no oil is added.
Which tasted better? To me, the lower-calorie version had much more contrast and variety. The high calorie one was tasty, but rather greasy. (I admit I fed it to the Guy for his bento…he liked it but did agree it was a bit too greasy even for him.)
I do see quite a lot of bentos around the interweb that are in cute little bento boxes but are quite high in calories. Here are some things to watch out for:
These points are important to remember if you are using bento lunches to aid in weight loss, but even if you aren’t they should be kept in mind if you want your carefully prepared lunch to have the maximum health benefits.
I’ll do a step-by-step of the lower-calorie bento in another post. I think I’ll skip the high-calorie one though!
A main reason many people like to, or want to, make bento lunches is for more variety, to save money, and to have some fun too. In my mind these aspects are quite interconnected.
There are three sources for filling your bento box. One is food that you make specifically for it, usually in the morning or perhaps the night before. The second is leftovers from other meals. The third is with stock or staple items (aka johbisai). The key to keeping a good variety in your bento meals is to use all three sources in in a smart way.
Certain foods are just better when they are made fresh. Raw vegetables for example, which need to be crisp. Some protein based foods go bad fairly quickly unless they’ve been cooked in a way that preserves them, so it’s safer to eat them as soon after you’ve made them as possible. A good example of this is tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette) .
Unless you have a lot of time to spare though, you’ll probably want to limit the number of things you just have to make fresh in any given bento box. Once you get more experience with bento making, your speed and efficiency will increase. But if you’re just starting out, try to plan bentos that may have at most 2 to 3 items in it that have to be made in the morning.
Using up leftovers for bento is a great way to both increase the variety of what goes in there and to save money. You save a lot of money by bringing a bento vs. buying something or eating out anyway, but you can really maximize your savings by using leftovers. The first and easiest step is to just set aside some of your dinner and to put in your bento box the next day (or freeze for later use).
To go a step further, try to think of varying the flavor or texture of the leftovers. I love to think of how to make something ‘different’ to have in my bento whenever I’m making dinner. Here are some ideas to get you thinking about your own repurposing variations:
Safety note: Always re-heat leftovers before putting them in your bento, or else freeze them and defrost - especially things with protein in it!
See also: Top 7 things to do with leftover food scraps  on Lunch In A Box.
The final part of the bento variety puzzle is a good stock of staples. Every Japanese bento maker relies on a stock of johbisai (joubisai) or staple items. These can be homemade or bought. These are items that can be kept for a period of time and pulled out and used on short notice. They can be stocked in the fridge, in the pantry, or in the freezer.
There’s a growing list of johbisai recipes here on Just Bento . You don’t have to make everything you stock though. Here’s a list of some readymade foods that are great to have on hand. (I’ve classified Japanese staples as ones that you would need to go to a Japanese grocery store for. Things like edamame are now getting stocked at non-Japanese markets like Trader Joe’s too, which is great)
One important thing to remember though - don’t get carried away with stocking up on staples, especially if you’re trying to save money! Even long-keeping foods do go bad eventually.
Next week I’ll be back posting actual bento step-by-steps and recipes. Enough theory, more action!