Bento Basics: How to Get Started in Bento

by Megg

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A few days ago, my friend who’s heading back to college asked me what kind of bento box would be good for school.  She also suggested I write a post about getting started with bento, which I thought was a fantastic idea.  I decided to focus on three factors: choosing the right bento box, getting bento supplies, and storing up a bento food stash.  If you want a primer on what bento is and what it’s all about, as well as my personal history with bento and my bento philosophy, check out my Bento 101 post.  In this post, I’m going to assume that you’re already familiar with that and are ready to get started!  I’ve set up an Amazon Store to help with some options, but at the end of this post I’ll also list some other great online bento resources.

Choosing the Right Bento Box

This is probably the most fun AND the most intimidating part.  As I said in Bento 101, my first bento was Ms. Bento, but I wanted it just for the thermal aspect.  I didn’t even know about bento when I bought it, but soon after I’d become absolutely obsessed!  Maybe this is a good time to warn you: bento-making is extremely addictive.  So as long as you’re willing to take that risk, read on!
First you should think about what size your bento box should be.  Lunch in a Box, a great bento resource, has a great guide for choosing a size based on your gender, age and height.  It’s really important to look at the size (usually in ml) of the box you’re considering, especially when ordering online, because looks can be deceiving.  Pictures of bento boxes, including my own, are usually pretty close up, making  them look way bigger than they are.  When I first started out in bento, it took me a while to realize this.  Lots of boxes are made for children, especially the cuter ones, so if you want a more adult-sized box, make sure you understand the capacity.  Also, the capacity in milliliters is usually pretty close to the calorie content of your lunch (assuming you’re not packing it full of deep-fried candy bars or something…), so if you’re trying to eat less, you may want to consider a size that meets your ideal calorie intake.
Next, what kind of material do you want your box to be made of?  Nowadays, with the awareness of the dangers of BPA, there are lots of BPA-free boxes available.  Most boxes are made of some kind of plastic, so do a little research to make sure you know what kind.  There are also an increasing amount of stainless steel boxes available, such as the LunchBots brand.  Another option is wood boxes.  Think about environmental concerns, convenience (Is the box microwave and/or dishwasher safe? Does that matter to you?), durability (especially if this box is for a kid), as well as the weight of the box if you’re carrying with you all day.
Thermal lunch jars are another option, one that I’d particularly recommend for people in college.  When I bought my Ms. Bento, I was attracted to the fact that it can keep food hot or cold for many hours.  That way, if I had multiple classes in a day, I could have food that was ready when I was.  There are lots of different options for thermal bentos, which I’ve included in my Amazon Store. (Note that in the store, there are also some thermal jars that don’t have levels, so they’re better for soups, hot cereal, chili, etc.)
Also, it’s good to remember that some bento boxes, especially the thermal jar types, have many smaller pieces.  You’ll want to consider whether or not small parts such as gaskets and plugs are okay for a child, or whether or not you’ll be able to (or want to) clean them and keep track of them.
Remember, your bento box does not have to be something marketed as such!  Any container will do, but you want to make sure it’s as leak-proof as possible.  Aside from that, bento-making, to me, is more about what you put into it, rather than the box itself.
Bento Supplies

After you’ve bought your bento box, you may not be willing or able to buy a bunch of accessories.  Luckily, while fun and cute, these bento supplies are not always necessary, although there are a few I’d definitely recommend.  Here’s what I have in my bento accessory collection:
Food Cups, Baran, and Bottles

Silicone food cups are the number one supply that I use in my bento boxes.  They’re perfect for diving foods and containing more liquidy foods.  You can get disposable ones made of paper or foil (those paper muffin cups you can find at most supermarkets, for example) but I decided to invest in silicone ones because they’re reusable.  Another advantage of silicone is that it’s safe in the microwave, dishwasher, freezer, and oven!  The red and blue ones I have there are just silicone muffin cups, meant for baking. I got the smaller, pastel ones at a Japanese market, but you can find similar ones online too.  Then I have some handy Lock-Ups jars. I found these at an outlet store for barely any money at all, and I really like them.  They fit in most of my boxes, and they have a tight-locking top.  They’re great for sauces.  There are also a lot of cute food cups with lids that you can find.  Another alternative is to just use the silicone cups and cover them with plastic wrap or foil so they stay covered until you’re ready to eat.
I find bottles to be pretty useful too.  I got all those little ones from Amazon, and they’re perfect for salad dressings, soy sauce, or thin dipping sauces.  The bigger bottles I also got at a Japanese market, and those are better for chunkier sauces, or if you just want a larger capacity.
The last thing in this picture is silicone baran.  If you’ve ever gotten sushi carry-out, there was probably a little plastic strip of “grass” dividing the rolls.  This is a disposable type of baran.  I’ve chosen the silicone ones for the same reasons I listed above.  These are good for keeping foods separate in your bento, as well as adding a bit of charm.
Food Picks

This is the set of food picks I have right now.  Adorable, right?  I got these from J-Box, which I list in my online bento resources below.  In a way I’m surprised that these are all I have, because I’ve come across so many cute ones!  Then again, I don’t use them a whole lot.  When you want to skewer food, though, these guys are perfect.  You can also just stick them into anything to add a bit of cuteness to your lunch, or use them to keep other elements of you bento together.

Food Cutters

Food cutters are by no means necessary, but are definitely an easy way to make your lunch more attractive.  I have smaller ones that I got at a Japanese store, alphabet cutters that I got from a craft store, and some cookie cutters.  If you’re making bentos for kids, food cutters are a sneaky way of making veggies look cute and friendly.  In America, I’ve noticed that fun shapes are usually reserved for foods that are not-so-good-for-you.. such as candies, sugary cereals, and fried snacks.  I’m an adult, and cute-shaped veggies even tricks me into wanting to eat them more!  I’m not a fan of raw carrots, but raw carrot flowers?  Hmm.. I just might have a couple of those!

Bento Box Bags, Bands and Furoshiki
Many bento boxes come with a bag or furoshiki (wrapping cloth) of some sort, but if yours didn’t or if you want a different one there’s a lot available to you.  There are lots of different designs, thermal options, even USB-powered warming bags!  Also, bentos that have multiple levels often have a stretchy band to keep the tiers together.  I’ve found that usually, if the bento requires one of the above, it usually includes it, but it’s something to be aware of when looking around.
Other supplies include egg molds (that shape hard-boiled eggs into cute motifs), furikake (rice seasoning) holders, onigiri (rice ball) holders/boxes, sausage cutters (to make hot dog octopi or crabs, for instance), nori punchers… this list could go on and on!  But for me, the things I listed above are the most essential, and since I’m trying to keep this guide rather basic, I’ll stop here.
Building Up A Bento Food Stash

A big factor of bento-making is speed, especially if you or your kids have to get to school/work.  I’ve started making my bentos the night before, which helps a lot, but I still don’t have tons of time to make them.  Lots of the food that goes into my lunches are leftovers, and since we enjoy cooking in my household, we have a lot.  But even I have times when my fridge is pretty barren, believe it or not.  Plus, it’s good to pack bentos tightly, so the food doesn’t shift around when you’re transporting your bento, so it’s helpful to have some fillers around.
Once I got into bento-ing, I started seeking out little foods.  Little fruits, baby vegetables, small cookies and snacks… all of these are perfect for bento boxes.  But I also have a lot of things that I make in bulk and keep frozen.  Sometimes on my days off I’ll make things just for my bento stash, but you can also make extra when you’re cooking for a regular meal.  I make tons of rice, wrap single portions in plastic wrap, and freeze.  I’ll make other rice-based bento classics, like onigiri, inarizushi, and sekihan rice and freeze a bunch of those as well.  In the future I’ll post recipes for all of these bento fillers, but for now, here’s a list of the things I personally like to have around for my bento-making:
  • canned fruit
  • canned beans
  • frozen vegetables and fruit
  • frozen onigiri
  • frozen single rice portions (plain, brown rice, seasoned rice, and sekihan rice)
  • frozen inarizushi
  • dried fruit
  • nuts
  • frozen fish cakes
  • furikake (homemade and store-bought)
  • frozen sauces (pasta sauces, chimichuri, pesto)
  • frozen mini biscuits
  • frozen agar jellies
  • little cookies or fruit snacks
  • canned fish and octopus
  • canned soups and chili
  • miso paste + instant dashi granules (for quick miso soup)
  • umeboshi and other pickled veggies
These are the things I almost always have on hand.  Weekly, I try to stock up on lots of fresh, preferably local produce too, as well as eggs (quail eggs are especially bento-friendly) and meat/seafood.  Fresh is best in my mind, but the longer-lasting stash is really a life-saver, or should I say.. lunch-saver?
Online Bento Stores/Resources

Okay, so where does one find all of this stuff?  I encourage you to see if there are any Asian markets in your area that carry bento goods, because discovering them in person is always so much fun.  Plus, if you’re buying a bento box, you can see for yourself what size it is and decide right then and there if it’ll work for you.  Also, you can find tons of things at craft stores, home goods stores, even regular grocery stores, so just keep your eyes open!  But I know that in many places there is only so much available to you, so here’s a list of some online bento resources that should really help you out.
  • J-Box - This site supplies tons of Japanese stuff, and bento boxes and supplies are no exception. You may have heard of J-List, which is the same site, but with adult products.  The link I have here is the safe-for-all-ages one.  Most of their stuff ships from Japan so it can take a while to get to you.  Plus, when you order things from overseas, it’s usually not trackable.  I’ve ordered from them a couple times, and it’s taken a few weeks to a couple months for my package to arrive, but it was always within the ETA they provided, so I knew what I was getting into.  Some items sell out pretty fast, so if there’s something you really love, you should go for it while you have the chance!
  • Bento and Co. - I got my “Bento Colors” box (the one pictured in the banner on the right) from Bento and Co. and it’s one of my favs.  (By the way, although I have ads for them on my site, they are in no way sponsoring my mentioning them here.)  They have lots of boxes in a lot of different sizes, as well as unique bento accessories.  The site is in English and French.  They are based in Japan, so if you’re in the States there may be a bit of a wait, although my most recent order arrived in just a week (my first order took a month, I think)!
  • From Japan With Love - This store has lots of bentos and accessories, as well as bento books and a whole realm of other Japanese stuff.  A great place for cute supplies of all sorts.
  • Casa Bento - Another French bento store that calls itself “The Biggest Bento Shop!”  While I don’t know if that’s true or not, they sure provide a lot of bento products.  Check out their large selection of thermal bento options if you’re looking to get one of those.  Also, they have monthly specials that you can check in on.
  • Amazon - (Again, happy to have Amazon ads on my site, but I’m mentioning them because I use them as a bento resource!) Amazon has a good selection of bento boxes and supplies, as well as books.  Almost all of these are from other vendors selling through Amazon, so you’ll want to double check shipping costs and times before you order, as well as shop around to make sure you’re getting a good price.
For this post, I made a custom Amazon shop that includes a lot of things I mentioned here.  Just clicking on it supports my site too, so if you take a look at it, thanks!  You can also support my blog by buying something on Amazon through my links, or from Bento and Co. through the banner add on the side.   In included lots of different kinds and sizes of bentos (with a sub-category for thermal lunch jars), bento gear and English-language bento books.  So here it is: The PopArtichoke Bento Store.  I’ll also always have a link on the sidebar so you can check it out anytime and see if there’s anything new!
I hope that gives any bento newbies out there a good run-down of what you need to get started.  Of course, it’s very basic, but in the future I will expand on lots of stuff. I’m also going to start posting reviews of bento gear and books.
In the comments, please let me know if there are particular aspects of bento-making you’d like me to write about!
Have a great weekend everyone…
Now go off and go bento-crazy!!! ^_^
  • Hannah

    Gonna get the Ms. Bento I think! Thank you so much Megg :)

  • Megg

    You're welcome, Hannah! ^_^ I'm sure you'll love the Ms. Bento.. it's really awesome!

  • Bentobird

    A super guide to bento, this was fun to read…am in fervent agreement about looking for mini foods, esp fruits and veggies! When I'm in a new or especially large and diverse market, it can feel like a treasure hunt for the small and cute!

  • Megg

    Glad you liked it, Jenn! Lately I see so many of those cute little squash at the farmers market… it makes me sad I'm not really a fan of squash!

  • ramenryuu

    I think a lot of people are intimidated by the complexity of bento making on an expert level, and then drop the art. I constantly see blogs with these gorgeous masterpieces, but not many that will post about the nitty gritty in bento making. Thank you for taking the time to explain for us newbies! ^.^

  • Megg

    You're so very welcome, Ramenryuu! I'm so glad to hear you enjoyed it! Let me know if there are specific bento aspects you'd like me to blog about! Thanks for your comment!

  • Sofia

    Hi!! Please check out my bento shop!!

  • Madeline

    I've recently have gotten into bento making myself! I couldn't help but laugh out loud about the part of bento-making becoming addictive; it is so true! Lately it has consumed my life, it's all I think of! who knew these quick, cute, and tasty lunches could be so popular?

  • Megg

    Hi Madeline! It really is amazing, isn't it? If you had told me a year ago that I'd spend sooo much of my time think about, making, and eating bento boxes, I wouldn't have believed you. Thanks for your comment; glad you enjoyed the post! ^_^

  • Anonymous

    bento & co is based in japan, not in France.

  • Megg

    Ah! My mistake.. I fixed it in the post. Thank you for pointing that out to me!

  • bento bonanza

    These are some great ideas and sites. I am a bento addict as well! with 2 small kids they are a life saver.

    I have a small bento store on ecrater - i'm still stocking up, i have lots of stuff that isn't listed yet.

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