Bento 101

by Megg

If you read my About Page, you’ll see that I’m pretty fond of this whole bento thing.  What is bento, you ask?  Well, simply speaking, bento, or obento, is the Japanese term for a boxed meal.  This can mean a lot of different things, but when I talk about bento, I’m almost always talking about a lunch box.  But even in the realm of lunchtime bento boxes, there are a lot of different interpretations.  I get a lot of questions from my friends and coworkers about the cute little lunches I bring for myself everyday, so I’ll try to explain a bit of it here.

My love affair with bento started as an accident.  When I was still in art school, I’d often have long days of classes and/or work in which I’d be away from home for 10, 12, even 17 hours at a time.  I’d try to bring some breakfast and some filling snacks (not to mention some potent energy drinks), but I’d almost always end up purchasing at least one meal a day.  As anyone who’s ever been a college student knows, this adds up quickly, and it’s not like there’s much money to spare after tuition, fees, books, supplies, transportation, etc etc etc.  So I started looking online to see if I could find a way to bring more meals with me, but without adding a lot of bulk to my already heavy book bag.
I came across cooler bags, recipes for food that didn’t need to be heated or even kept cold during the day, and suggestions for pre-packaged food options that weren’t very expensive, but often rather unhealthy (ramen, anyone?).  Then I came across Ms. Bento.
I’d heard the term bento before, but I didn’t really know what it was.  Actually, the first thing that came to mind was that Sailor Jupiter, from the anime show Sailor Moon, used to make cute little bento boxes, but references to my favorite childhood show can be saved for another time.  Anyway.. Ms. Bento is not your typical bento lunch box, but it is in fact thermal, which is what I was looking for.  It’s a stainless steel lunch jar with three compartments (there’s also a two-level version , as well as the 4-level Mr. Bento).  The jar can keep food hot or cold (but not both at the same time) for several hours.  It’s around 45 bucks, which initially I thought seemed rather steep for a lunch box, but after reading reviews and also figuring I’d be using it almost every day, I decided it was worth it and made the purchase.
Well, long story short, I ended up making huge changes in my career focus, which meant I wasn’t going to school that semester after all.  I started packing lunches for work, but wasn’t very diligent about it.  I used to throw leftovers into a crappy plastic container, and now I was just throwing them into my Ms. Bento.. except now those leftovers would stay cold until lunchtime so I didn’t have to cram them into the mini-fridge at work.
Then in April 2010, about three months after I got my Ms. Bento, I started reading lots of bento blogs and really started to understand what it was all about.  Around this time I started taking photos of my bento lunches every day and posting them online.  I did this more as a personal practice to get myself into the habit of bringing my lunches, but my friends starting taking notice, and I’ve been making bentos religiously ever since.
The thing that’s hardest to explain to people that ask me about bento is that really, it’s just a lunch box.  I currently have three boxes, the Ms. Bento, a three-tiered box called Bento Colors, and a single-level Leaflet box.  All of them are specifically made for bento, but really, you could use any kind of container, and technically, you can fill it with anything you want.  That said, when you hear the term bento outside of Japan, and when I use the term, it’s usually referring to something more specific.
Maki, over at my absolute favorite bento site, Just Bento, has a really great rundown of bento basics, as well as her personal bento philosophy.  Please check out that link for her explanation of the different types of bentos, and check out the rest of her site as well.. it’s fun to read and very thorough!  Of the types she mentions, I make the plain and simple variety, which is also the type that her site focuses on.  Here’s what I think about when making my lunches:

As an artist, I’ve always liked using bright, bold colors, and same goes for the food that I cook. A nice Japanese rule-of-thumb for creating well-rounded meals is to have 5 colors represented by your food. You’ve probably heard the saying that if everything on your plate is the same color it’s probably not all the healthy, and this is the same concept.  I can’t say that I accomplish this in every lunch, but it’s nice to have in mind and really makes me think about variety.  I’ve seen plenty of bentos, especially the cutesy “kawaii” variety, that use food coloring to get colors, but I try to steer clear of artificial colors in my lunches.

Saving Money and Food
A lot of people tend to think that making nice meals is intrinsically expensive, and this is absolutely not the case.  Many times, it’s actually way cheaper to make things from scratch than to pay extra for things that are already made for you. Plus, homemade food is almost always tastier.  I do a lot of cooking, not only because I have to, but because I’m really passionate about it.  This results in a lot of delicious leftovers.  Making bento lunches gives me the opportunity to repurpose these leftovers.  I’ve found that since bentos typically have small compartments that are often divided into even smaller sections, I can save and reuse even tiny bits of food that in the past I would have just scraped into the trash at the end of a meal.  Plus, all those extra ingredients left over from the meals we originally bought them for can be used up.  I try to keep a running list of all those half bags, jars, bottles, and cans of food and try my best to use them in my bentos, when in the past they’d much too often end up going bad and being thrown away.  Not only is that a sad waste of food, but it’s not very economical if I paid for a whole bag of spinach but only used a fourth of it.
Exploring New Kinds of Food
Before I got into bento, I rarely attempted Asian cooking of any kind.  It seemed very foreign and difficult to me, but once I got started, I realized it’s not hard at all!  The hardest part, really, is finding ingredients that aren’t too common in average American supermarkets, but I’ve figured out where I can go and now have a crazy amount of Japanese staples in my pantry and fridge.  One thing I should point out here is that bento does not by any means have to be just Japanese food, or even just Asian food.  As I said, I use a lot of leftovers in my lunches, and we certainly don’t cook Japanese food every single day.  I have been introduced to a lot of new Asian ingredients when reading about bento, but also, I notice all sorts of things when I’m grocery shopping that probably wouldn’t have caught my eye in the past.  Some of this is just the foodie in me, but lots of things stand out to me because of how perfect they’d be in a bento box.  Small things, colorful things, and things with cool shapes jump out at me, and usually jump right into my basket too.

Healthy Food
This one is pretty self-explanatory, and is more just a personal goal than something that is specific to my lunches.  I don’t achieve it in every lunch, but I’ve eaten much more healthily since I started making bento lunches.  Plus, the focus on color usually results in me using more fresh produce, which is always good in my opinion!

As much as I enjoy making my lunches, I don’t want to spend forever doing it.  Until recently, I’d try to prep all of my ingredients and have a plan the night before, and then wake up a bit early to assemble everything and take a photo.  However, I’m not too fond of waking up in the morning anyway, and already I tend to start work around 6am, so waking up even earlierwas not easy for me in the least.  I recently started making my lunches the night before, clicking a few photos, and keeping them in the fridge until I leave in the morning. This works wonders for me. I also speed things up by keeping a stash of bento goodies in the freezer.  This includes different kinds of rice, mini biscuits, agar jellies, gyoza, inarizushi, veggies, onigiri and sauces.  This is great when we don’t have a lot of leftovers, when I don’t have the time or energy to cook, or when I have some extra space in my bento to fill.

I could probably talk about bento forever, so I think I’ll wrap it up here.  I hope this is a good intro to those of you who are new the wonderful world of bento-making and answers the questions of those who have been curious about my bento obsession!
Now I have a question for readers who make bento (or are looking to start) and who read other bento blogs:  Should I use PopArtichoke, which is about food outside of the realm of bento as well, for bento info, or do you think it would be better to have a separate sister site dedicated solely to bento?  I really would like to talk in depth about bento tips, bento supplies, specific bento recipes, etc, as well as hopefully doing weekly posts of my bento photos.  My concern is that the bento info, even if I sort it into pages, could get lost among everything else, and might be confusing to those looking for just the bento stuff.  I know a couple of my bento friends follow this blog, so if you guys could chime in with any ideas about this that would be so helpful!  Thank you!!!
  • Bentobird

    What an excellent introduction to the elegant fun of bento! I loved the connections you make here between vibrant color, pleasure and health 😀

  • Megg

    Glad you enjoyed it, Bentobird!

  • Hannah

    That is a fantastic looking bento collage. You are fantastic!

  • Megg

    Awww.. thanks Hannah!

  • Diana

    I love the bird hard boiled eggs….CUTE :)

  • Megg

    Thank you, Diana! I should do a tutorial..soon! Thanks for checking out my blog!

  • David

    I really like the site's name and the "pop" graphics!! I attempted Bento a few years ago, and like you I just threw some stuff into a cute box. I am ready to start again with a new outlook and philosophy. Packing a Bento lunch is a great way for me to eat wholesome, home cooked food and maintain portion control.
    Anyway, great site and thanks for the links to other o-bento sites

  • Megg

    Thanks for reading, David! Good luck on bringing bento back into your life! It sure is fun and a great way to do something for yourself everyday (I was not very good at that before).

  • Silverlyte

    Wow! so glad i stumbled on your blog. i am a foodie and love pretty food! i love the ms. bento box. i need one so bad! it’s great for poeple on restricted diets who have to bring food everywhere they go. thanks!

    • Megg (PopArtichoke)

      Thank you so much for your kind comment, Silverlyte! I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and I hope you get your hands on a Ms. Bento box soon!

  • disqus_17apcwZ5Pr

    I want a site specifically for bento, pretty pleaase :)

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