Bento no. 39: The basics of how to fill a classic bento box


Bento contents, 2-tier bento (580ml capacity):

  • 1 cup (1 cup=220ml) white rice, 240 cal
  • 1 small piece salted salmon, 50 cal
  • 1-egg tamagoyaki, 100 cal
  • Approx. 1/2 cup sweet pepper and onion confit, 40 calories
  • Blanched broccoli flowerets, 10 cal
  • Blanched snow peas (mangetout) 5 cal
  • Yukari (furikake made from umeboshi and red shiso leaves)

Total calories (approx): 445 (how calories are calculated)


Bento contents, 1-tier bento (670ml capacity):

  • 1 cup (1 cup=220ml) white rice, 240 cal
  • 2 small pieces salted salmon, 100 cal
  • 1-egg tamagoyaki, 100 cal
  • Approx. 3/4 cup sweet pepper and onion confit, 60 calories
  • Blanched broccoli flowerets, 10 cal
  • Blanched snow peas (mangetout) 5 cal
  • Yukari (furikake made from umeboshi and red shiso leaves)

Total calories (approx): 515 (how calories are calculated)

Time needed for both: 10-20 minutes in the morning (depending on your assembly speed and neatness factor)

Type: Japanese, omnivore (salmon, egg)

This is a fairly standard, classic Japanese style bento. I make this type of bento far more than any other. I've already given instructions on how to make the individual pieces, but I thought it might be useful to see step-by-step how to pack a bento box properly, with an eye to the following:

  • Presentation and attractiveness
  • Calorie content
  • Speed and ease

I've used two standard type bento boxes; a 2-tier model, and a 1-tier model with a divider.

How to fill a 2-tier bento box

2-tier bento boxes are the most popular type according to a recent poll of Just Bento readers, and they are the type most commonly available from bento box suppliers, at least outside of Japan. They are a bit easier to pack than 1-tier boxes, and fit together in a nice compact way for easy portability. Here I've used a 2-tier blue Lube Sheep box, with capacity of 580ml for both compartments.

Here are the components that will go into the bento box, besides the rice. (Note I usually don't take the time to lay them out on a plate like this! This is just for show.) As you can see, there's a nice balance of colors there from greens to reds to yellows. The confit was made a couple of days before and stocked in the fridge, and the salmon was precooked and stocked in the freezer. (You can pack it frozen if you like, and it will defrost by lunchtime). The broccoli and snow peas cooked together in a small pan of salted water, and the 1-egg tamagoyaki only took a couple of minutes to cook.


Always start packing a bento box with the rice. I've put the rice in the smaller compartment, since I'm watching my calories (normally in Japan the larger compartment is used for rice). I like to make it look neat, so I lightly flatten it out with a moistened spoon. You could also use your fingers for this.


I pack the pepper and onion confit in one corner of the other compartment. I use a silicone cupcake liner here just to keep it neat, though it's not totally necessary.


Next, I pack the protein elements: the small salmon piece and the tamagoyaki. They are cut to fit in the compartment more or less neatly.


I fill the gaps left with broccoli florets, as tightly as I can. By packing a bento box tightly, you prevent things from shifting around during transit. The less things move around, the more attractive the bento contents will be when the box is opened at lunchtime.


To finish up, I tuck in the snow peas (mangetout) which are cut on the diagonal wherever there is a little gap. I put a couple of slices on top of the rice, and sprinkle a little yukari (a furikake made from dried umeboshi and red shiso leaves) for added color. This is not necessary, but it does perk up the bento box just that little bit, and takes only seconds.


How to fill a 1-tier bento box

A one tier bento box is more of an open canvas than a two-tier, but the principles are the same. Here I've used a 670 ml capacity stainless steel bento box from Kobo Aizawa.


Again, start with the rice. I use the divider to squeeze the rice to one side to compact it, and flatten out the top with a moistened spoon. There's 1 cup on rice. (By the way, yes it is white rice, the least healthy kind...but I just got another shipment from Japan of really great tasting rice, so I'm indulging myself here!)


This time, I pack in a bit more of the pepper and onion confit - about 3/4 to 1 cup's worth. It's pushed tightly to one side.


Next are the protein elements. I've put the salmon in a divider, but this isn't necessary. It does show how flexible silicon liners are - far more versatile than rigid plastic divider cups.


Then I fill the gaps as tightly as possible with the broccoli, followed by the snow peas and the final decorative touch of the yukari.


It took me about 5 minutes per box to pack them, and I think they look pretty nice and colorful.

Packed tight, but with less calories

You may notice that although the capacity in ml. of the 2-tier bento box is 580ml, the calories I've packed in are only 445. And the capacity of the one-tier box is 670ml but the calories therein are just over 500. This goes against the conventional wisdom that the capacity of your bento box equals the number of calories you expect to pack in there (see Selecting the right bento box.) That's because I packed in less rice than is normally put in (a standard adult-size bento box in Japan has 1 1/2 to 2 cups of rice), used relatively low-fat proteins (no fried chicken and such) More about packing lower-energy bento boxes in Skinny bento vs. not skinny bento.

Handy gap fillers

As I have shown, the more tightly you can pack your bento, the less things will shift around, and the more attractive and appetising the bento will appear when it's opened at lunchtime. I try to use vegetable-based items as gap fillers whenever possible. Here are some good gap fillers:

  • Anything I have premade and stocked, like carrot kinpira. See the Side dishes and space fillers section for more ideas.
  • Plain boiled or blanched broccoli, broccoli rabe or cauliflower florets
  • Blanched snow peas, green beans
  • Cherry or grape tomatoes
  • Parsley leaves
  • Bright green lettuce leaves (though don't use them around warm food or they go limp and soggy)
  • Small pieces of pickled vegetables (but watch out for the salt content)
  • Shredded cabbage
  • Firm grapes, if you don't mind mixing savory and sweet

If you choose your gap fillers with an eye towards color as well as flavor and nutrition, you'll end up with a first class bento box!

Last modified: 
11 Jun 2019 - 06:22

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