How to Make Bento Boxes for School or Work (With Starter Ideas)
Hugely popular in its native country and steadily catching on over here, the bento box is a Japanese favourite beloved by school kids, commuters and workers alike. Offering both versatile convenience and delicious, fresh flavours in a visually appealing package, the bento box is something of an art form in Japan.
Handy and tasty as they are, bento boxes also tend to be packed with nutritious, feel-good fare, so they're a great way of introducing healthier options to your children's lunches and excellent for upping your own midday meal game too.
If you're looking to give your own bento a go, then we've got your next meal ideas boxed off whoever you're feeding. Here, we'll show you how to make bento boxes for you or your family, along with some great little ideas to get you started.
What you'll need
- Any kind of lunch box will work, but if you're going for authenticity, then it might be worth tracking down a Japanese bento box. Attach an ice pack to the box lid to keep food safe when you take it to work or school.
- As well as making things look great on the presentation side, silicone baking cups and dividers help to keep dry food away from other items, and keep loose items which would usually roll around in one place. Go for bright, colourful dividers if you're preparing boxes for the kids; you can even use things like lettuce leaves and cucumber slices to make your separators edible.
- Endlessly helpful to keep your food together, you'll need some picks, skewers and sauce containers for that authentic bento look. Skewers ensure any rolls or wraps stay in place, while sauce containers mean nothing spills.
The rule of the bento
Rule 1: Divide the meal proportionally
Not just an aesthetically pleasing look, dividing your meal up proportionally helps to build a nutritionally-balanced meal. The typical arrangement to go for is four food groups: carbohydrates, protein, vegetables and fruits, with a ratio of 4:2:1:1 respectively. Alternatively, an extra serving of veg, with a separate container for your fruit, is a good idea.
Rule 2: Keep things colourful
All good bento boxes have a bold colour palette that makes an instant impact at the table. Arty and appealing, the benefit of adding colourful fruit and veg is that you can reap the rewards of their healthy nutritional value.
Rule 3: Pack your food tightly
When it's time to tuck into your bento, you don't want to open the box to find that everything has moved around in transit. Use the real estate on offer and pack food as tightly as possible in this order:
- Pack your biggest, bulkiest food first.
- Anything that's comparatively more flexible should go in the remaining space.
- Finish with smaller 'accent' foods like cherry tomatoes or steam veg to fill in the gaps – that way you'll prevent things from shifting around.
Making a bento box is a nice, easy process, but give these tips a try if you want to make things even simpler when it's time to prepare them.
Use pre-cooked meals instead
To save time during the week, use your leftovers or frozen pre-cooked meals rather than single-serving bento. The good news is a lot of bento foods, like veg or fried proteins and rice, are freezer friendly, so it's super easy to prepare a batch of delicious food to store for later in the week. This way, all you need to do is re-heat the pre-made food and pack your bento as normal.
Keep dry foods dry
It sounds like a no-brainer but, get this, dry foods should be kept dry. Soggy, limp items are unappetising, and can take away from the clean, fresh experience of eating bento. If you're adding sauces or dressing, drain any excess or use a sauce container to pour it on when it's time to eat.
Use texture and flavour wisely
You want some variety to your box, so a nice balance of texture and flavour is important. If the main component of the box is flavoured with soy sauce, avoid seasoning your other items with the same thing. Mix it up with fresh vegetables for some texture and flavour variety, and be sure to eat at room temperature; these ideal conditions keep food at its most flavoursome and fresh.
Reheat and cool
It's important to maintain food safety when preparing bento. If you've made things ahead of time, then be sure to reheat the food before packing, and allow it to fully cool before you close the box and store it away. Don't box-seal hot food that's come straight from the pan, as this creates a breeding ground for all sorts of bad stuff. Move hot food onto a plate or tray and pack it once cooled.
If you're cooking meat, it's imperative that you never cook it rare in order to avoid potential food poisoning if it comes into contact with anything else in the box.
If making up bento boxes sounds like your kind of thing, it's a good idea to get into the habit of preparing your meals ahead of time. It might take some getting used to, but it's a real time-saver if you're busy throughout the week. Batch preparing doesn't take much time at all, and is a great way to avoid having to think about what you want to eat for lunch the next day.
Bento for beginners: Starter item ideas
By now, your stomach may well be rumbling at the thought of these tasty box-based treats. Here are some excellent ideas to get you started. Remember, there's really no hard and fast rules for what you put in your bento box. Use these as a guide to get you started, mix and match what you like the sound of, and go from there.
Carbs: Rice is the classic foundation for a lot of bento boxes; go for the sticky or brown variety for a hearty starting point, and sprinkle with sesame seeds or furikake, a dried mixture of fish, seaweed, sugar and salt, for an extra authentic touch.
Crunchy veg: Things like cucumber, celery, radish, and cherry tomatoes will do the trick here. Experiment with flavours or make a salad by grating up carrot and chopping iceberg lettuce, and flavouring with fresh ginger and a squeeze of lime.
Protein: Keep it classic with a Japanese omelette. Whisk 2 eggs with a glug of soy sauce and some chopped chives, pour into a heated pan, and fold one half over the other when it's flexible. Fold in half again and remove it from the heat before slicing into strips. Elsewhere, boiled eggs marinated in rice vinegar and soy sauce work well, as do chicken and tofu fried in panko breadcrumbs.
Tasty additions: Smoked salmon or mackerel adds superb variety in terms of flavour, while roast aubergine, miso-roasted carrots and artichoke hearts ensure plenty of choice if you skip on the fruit portion.
Dressing and sauces: Katsu sauce is a great go-to and an absolute classic. If you can take the heat, yoghurt or creme fraiche with wasabi paste and rice vinegar adds a nice kick. If that's too strong, lime and soy sauce is an easy alternative.
To help these recipes last a little longer, don't forget they can all be stored using the FoodSaver vacuum sealing system to help you save money and reduce food waste. For more information about our innovative vacuum sealers, visit our homepage.