Streamlining the bento making process: Preparation and washing up
As you read about making bento, you might wonder how this is all possible to do in the busy morning. It is possible, since millions of Japanese people do it every day - and no, not all of them are stay-at-home mothers (and who is busier and more time-constrained more than a mom anyway?) Practice makes perfect, so the more you make bento the faster you get. But a little bit of preparation and forethought goes a long way towards streamlining your bento making.
Mise en place
_Mise en place_ is a French term that means "setting in place". In professional kitchens, mise en place is essential to fast and efficient food preparation. In a home kitchen, you might not need to bother with this that much, but for bento making it's quite useful.
I don't go as far as to lay out all of my tools in the kitchen before going to bed since I'm not that organized, but I do have everything that I will need stored where I can easily get them out. The pots and pans I use all the time, especially the small frying pans, are where I can pull them out right away, the bento boxes and other accoutrements are in one section of my kitchen cupboards, and the electric water kettle is always on the countertop. Nothing slows you down more than having to get to your pans where they are stacked under a pile of other things, or having to search for your bento box behind a lot of other junk.
Another thing I do is to stay away from any equipment that is a bother to clean - things like graters (except for a Microplane - see essential equipment page), whisks and so on. I mostly use a pair of long chopsticks called saibashi for mixing tasks.
A little pre-planning
You don't have to do a lot of elaborate pre-planning, but just knowing what you intend to make will stop you from wasting time. I pre-plan in two stages; first when I am doing the grocery shopping, and second on the night before, when I put together a short list of what I intend to put in the bento boxes, written out on a Post-It note and stuck to the edge of the range hood. This is rather similar to the order slips that come into a restaurant. [Edit: Now I use this handy weekly bento planner sheet which makes things a lot easier!] List in hand, you can start cooking right away.
I don't have a dishwasher (I also need a new kitchen!) and I hate to come home to a sinkful of dirty pots and bowls. So, I wash everything up before I'm done with the bentos - usually in the last 5 minutes while the bentos are cooling down (see a bento making timeline). It's not as much of a pain as it might sound, because I mostly use non-stick pans or coated enamel pans, I don't use that many pans, and I only use a little oil in anything I make. (Oily mess is the most bothersome to wash up.) I use only a smidgen of dishwashing liquid, and just rinse most things with the hottest water that will come out of the tap.
The one pan that can be a bit sticky to clean up is the grill pan (which I use maybe once a week at most), but I've found that pouring in some of the hot water from the trusty electric water kettle while the pan is hot will loosen anything stuck to the grill, which can then be just brushed and rinsed off.
Don't forget to at least rinse off the empty bento box when you get home!