Comparing bento box materials (table)

Are you confused about what material is most appropriate for bento boxes? Plastic is easy available, or maybe you want something greener - but is the extra cost worth it? Here's a handy comparison chart to help you make the right choices.

This table lists all the materials that are commonly used to make bento boxes, lunch boxes and other containers that are repurposed for carrying bentos. As you can see, there are pros and cons to each type. Take a look and see which criteria matter to you the most. Keep in mind that, whatever type of box you choose, the fact that it's reusable is a plus for the environment, not to mention your wallet.

Comparison table of materials used to make bento boxes and accessories

Material Pros Cons Examples and notes
Aluminum Very lightweight, plastic-free (if no seal), lasts a long time. Usually dishwasher safe (check instructions). Not microwave safe. Can dent easily, though that doesn't affect functionality. Uncoated aluminum boxes may get corroded by acidic foods. Questions about possibly harmful effects of aluminum. Not leakproof unless they have silicone/plastic seals around the lids. SIGG Midi box - coated aluminum
Bamboo Lightweight, durable. Sustainable material. Not microwave or dishwasher safe. Needs handling with some care. May stain. Well made bamboo boxes and baskets are expensive to very expensive. Bamboo is most often used for basket-type boxes (used to carry onigiri rice balls and sandwiches, though they can be used with inner containers for other foods); solid bamboo boxes are available too (and very expensive). Dried and fresh bamboo leaves (called sasa no ha) are used as disposable food wrappers and dividers. More here.
Glass and ceramic Not plastic (though usually a plastic lid is included), microwave-safe, dishwasher safe, fairly inexpensive Heavy, breakable Pyrex glass containers with plastic lids.
Melamine A type of resin that is used for kitchenware. Colorful, attractive, feels solid. Heavy. Can be expensive. Not microwave or oven safe. Vivo Kids Bento Box
Paper (coated) Not used for bento boxes, but used for bento cups and dividers. Lightweight, disposable, fairly waterproof. Comes in many cute designs. Not microwave, oven or dishwasher safe. Not reusable (you may get 1-2 more uses out of a paper cup). Expensive when you consider the per-use cost. Paper bento cup
Plastic and styrene - disposable Very cheap to free, lightweight. Disposable plastic and styrene boxes (such as takeout bento boxes) are okay for a single use, but it's not recommended to re-use them. They may leech or corrode. Clear plastics may contain BPA. See What are Japanese (and other) plastic bento boxes made of. Don't reuse disposable bento boxes and takeout boxes unless you are really desperate.
Plastic - reusable Practical, economical, lightweight. Prices range from cheap to expensive, depending on design, quality, etc. A huge range of designs and sizes to choose from. Some people are concerned about the safety of certain plastics. May stain. Not all plastic bento boxes are microwave or dishwasher safe. Reputatuble bento makers always include information on what plastics are used, and whether the box is microwave safe or not. See What are Japanese (and other) plastic bento boxes made of.
Silicone Not used for bento boxes but frequently used for bento cups and dividers. Lightweight, durable. Microwave, dishwasher and oven safe. Comes in many colors and shapes. If you are against using plastic, you may also object to silicone. Can get a bit sticky and oily after several uses in the oven or microwave (try washing in very hot soapy water). Silicone cupcake/muffin tin liners
Stainless steel with seal Durable, usually well made, usually dishwashwer safe (check instructions). Thick stainless steel boxes can be heated up on a hot plate (handle with care!) Not microwave safe. Heavier than plastic. Retains fingerprints on the surface (use soft cloth to buff off). Not totally plastic/silicone free because of sealing elements. More expensive than most plastic boxes. Zen 01 stainless steel bento box, tiffin boxes. Also see stainless steel bento boxes.
Stainless steel with no seal Durable, plastic free, usually dishwasher safe (check instructions) Not microwave safe. Rather heavy. Retains fingerprints on the surface (use soft cloth to buff off). May not be suitable for food that might leak because of the lack of sealing elements on/around lid. More expensive than most plastic boxes. LunchBots, Planetbox, New Wave Enviro
Stainless steel and other metals used for bento accessories Durable, plastic free, usually dishwasher safe (check instructions) Cheap metal cutters may discolor or get bent over time. Bento and cookie cutters used to cut out decorative shapes are usually made of stainless steel; some cheap ones may be made of tin. Nori cutters are often made of plastic with zinc cutting parts.
Thermal bento boxes Usually consists of a stainless steel cylinder into which plastic containers fit. The plastic containers are usually microwave and dishwasher safe. Keeps some of the food warm to hot for several hours. Expensive. Can be rather bulky and heavy. Not plastic free. Not all parts may be dishwasher safe. To get the most out of a thermal lunch box, be sure to read the instructions carefully! Mr. Bento line from Zojirushi, similar range from Thermos, Aladdin box. See in-depth look at thermal bentos/lunch jars.
Wood, coated or lacquered Beautiful traditional craftmanship. Less susceptible to staining than uncoated wood. May make rice taste better. A pleasure to handle. May become a treasured heirloom. Not microwave or dishwasher safe. Needs some handling with care. May stain. Well made boxes are expensive to very expensive (a cheap wooden box is not worth buying). Kyo bento box.Besides boxes, chopsticks can also be made of coated wood. See also: the care and watering of wooden and lacquerware bento boxes
Wood, uncoated Beautiful traditional craftmanship. Makes plain rice taste better since it absorbs any excess moisture. A pleasure to handle. May become a treasured heirloom. Not microwave or dishwasher safe. Needs some handling with care. May stain. Well made boxes are very expensive (a cheap wooden box is not worth buying). See Magewappa bento boxes. See also: the care and watering of wooden and lacquerware bento boxes, and see how traditional magewappa boxes are made.

This is Tip no. 2 of Back To School Week. Stay tuned for more!

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