Back to School Bento, Bento Back to Basics

These bento boxes were the family lunches yesterday, as my son went back to school for his senior year.

The rolls weren’t really sushi, but tiny onigiri rolls. Tasty as onigiri always are, but bite-sized. I suppose at some point this year, I’ll make a bento-friendly maki roll, but this wasn’t it.

The yellow box has hot dog octopi as the meat, per my son’s request. The other boxes have chicken bits cooked in garlic and wine.

Then, I filled in the corners with various raw veggies and fruits I knew the family would like.

Is this a particularly special bento? Nope. Just lunch, though hopefully moderately attractive and appetizing when one opens the box.

And that’s the point.

A friend of mine bought his daughter a bento box recently. His wife (also a friend, though we’ve not met in RL yet) was looking for bento recipes, which kind of prompted this post.

Bento recipes are fine, but to make bento, you don’t really need recipes so much as you need to have a bit of a philosophy about how to make the food.

So, here my personal bento principles. (If you like them, awesome. If not… I’m not cooking for you, and you’re dealing with your food, not mine).

  1. 4:3:2:1

    Like everything else, this is a basic guideline. My usual bento meal is about four parts carb (rice, bread or pasta), three parts protein (most often meat or eggs, but sometimes beans), three parts veggies (usually raw, unless I’m making a leftover bento) and one part sweet (this means fruit).

  2. Fresh is best

    Most of my bento use fresh veggies, preferably in season. Yes, I know apple season hasn’t started yet. But fresh veggies taste so very good, don’t they?

  3. Lots of color from the food, itself.

    I like a colorful bento, but I like the colors to come from the food. Bright red peppers, sweet yellow tomatoes, lush green broccoli… I’ve heard it said the more colorful your meal the more nutritionally balanced. I have no idea, but bright color contrasts make it easier to do the next step.

  4. Arrange it to look nice.

    Yes, the elaborate bento that are animals and rock stars and video game characters are awesome. I don’t generally go further than octopus hot dogs and apple bunnies, myself. But I do give a little (very little) thought to presentation. It doesn’t have to be much. Just try to think a little about symmetry, color contrast, and shape. If you do this, usually something will suggest itself to you as you arrange your food.

  5. It must taste good at room temperature.

    Ideally, one does not refrigerate or reheat bento. It behoves one, then, to go heavy on the salt and spices. There’s a reason traditionally-made Japanese bento are very salty! Salt is a natural preservative. However, cold chicken is tasty, especially if strongly flavored. Onigiri (rice balls) tend to be an acquired taste, but are all the better for a strongly-flavored bit of tasty morsel at the center. Pasta? You’ll want to use a little oil and flavoring to make something pasta salad-ish. You can’t go wrong with raw fruits and veggies. If you’re worried about food safety, Maki over at Just Bento has a great article about bento food safety.

  6. It should be food you like.

    I love onigiri and lots of other Japanese food. You may not. In that case, just don’t make bento with rice balls. It’s no big deal. Do you like burritos? A burrito is a great basis for a bento, and a big family favorite at my house. What about wrap sandwiches? If you make a wrap rolled tightly enough, you can cut it into slices kind of like maki sushi rolls, which fit great into any box you’d use for a bento box. (And no, you don’t have to get the Japanese boxes!) Any casserole type dish you’re fond of can be baked in a muffin tin, which also fit well in most bento-sized boxes – meatloaf, mini quiche, or a mini shepherd’s pie, they all do well in bento.


The point is, though, that making miniature lunch boxes, which by the way, if packed right really are filling, don’t have to be complex. Nevertheless, they can be a lot of fun!

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