Hikari's Food/Japanophile and Other Interesting Stuff blog

Building the American Bento (Part 1)

on August 16, 2012

To the Japanese who read my blog: Apologies if I mangle your culture! I am attempting to make the idea simple to understand to Westerners. Let me know in comments if I get anything wrong.


First of all, what is a bento? The answer is both simple and complex. Wikipedia’s (partial) definition: Bento (弁当 bentō) is a single-portion takeout or home-packed meal common in Japanese cuisine.

The term can refer to the meal or the box itself. What the bento (or bentou as some spell it) has actually come to mean in recent years is different from person to person. To a Japanese wife/mother, it is a way to make sure her family members have a healthy and filling home-cooked meal while at work or school. Japanese bento meals can be found in almost every store that serves food, even train stations. Many restaurants offer a bento type meal served in a lacquered box with multiple compartments. In Japan, the meal typically consists of rice, vegetables and some form of protein (egg, meat, tofu).

Sometimes bento can refer to the box that contains the meal. From wood to metal to plastic, there is a variety of bento-type boxes on the market. Going to Amazon.com gives a random selection of what is available on the American market. (The link also includes various accessories.)

Did you have one?

So, with this basic understanding of the bento, does this mean if we want the bento experience we need to buy a Japanese bento box and invest in authentic accessories? Not necessarily. As a kid, did you ever take a bagged lunch to school? Did you have the vibrantly colored character lunchbox with thermos? As an adult, did you ever pack a lunch to take to work? If so, you have already participated in the Western “bento” culture.


Because regardless of culture, “bento” means: Boxed Lunch.

With the worldwide economy (still) declining, saving money includes cutting back on food expenses. Why pay for that deli sandwich every day when you can pack your own? Want a hot meal? As long as there is a microwave available, you can turn leftovers into lunch! With a little planning and some smart shopping, healthy, delicious and even beautiful meals can save your wallet and your waist. Yes, eating a boxed lunch can help you lose weight! I’s the ultimate in portion control when portion sizes have increased in restaurants.

Ready to start on your boxed lunch journey? Let’s start with the container. What do you want to take for lunch? Are you a salad muncher, a sandwich nibbler, a hot meal consumer? Do you want to repurpose leftovers or make lunch from scratch? Once you define what you like, go container shopping. I admit I’m a plastic user. I love the colors, the microwavability, the durability. Look at the food container section of your favorite store, browse the aisles of a kitchen store. Most of the work has already been done for you! A variety of pre-compartmentalized containers already exist.

However, if you’re feeling adventurous, creativity can help you tailor a food container system to meet your needs. I would show you my pantry and my collection of plastic containers, but… it’s scary in there! One week after reorganizing my shelf of foodware, it’s all helter-skelter again. Round, square, rectangular, all shapes and sizes are found in there. Many serve dual purpose of lunch container and leftover duty.

Let’s take a trip to the local dollar store to see what’s available for super cheap. (Sorry, most of these images are from my phone, and it’s not smart.)

Drink Bottles: I usually avoid dollar store bottles because they have a tendency to leak. But these are small bottles that can fit in a lunch pack.

Drink Bottles

Food Containers: From segmented to snap-lock lids to disposable, there is a variety of styles for a dollar.

Segmented container

This picture shows a container that features a segmented container and includes a fork and knife.

Locking lids

Click-lock lids help prevent spills.


Colorful boxes are fun and insulated jars are perfect for soups/stews/chili.


Disposable containers are also an option, such as the traditional Styrofoam take-out or an aluminum container if you’re okay with not microwaving.

Once you have your container, filling it up is all up to you.

To Be Continued.

Next Time: Small Containers, Accessories, Bags and wrappings.


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