Why You Need To Start Making Your Own Bento Lunch

Japanese bento is like Lunchables for the gastronome — think teeny morsels Tetris’d together to create a portable collage of nourishment. And, whether you usually eat out or just brown-bag a soggy sandwich, bento’s got three things on your current lunch.

The first probably isn’t shocking: Bentos are cheap. But, if the knowledge that homemade lunches don’t cost as much as going out every day was all it took to make you bring your own, you wouldn’t have a Rolodex of almost-full punch cards from every restaurant on the block.

So, consider the lunch's second benefit: Bentos are healthy. For one, there’s only so much you can fit into the dimensions of a bento box, making them a total no-brainer for the portion-conscious. Plus, bentos, crafted from brightly colored fresh foods, are visually appealing. Aiming to taste the rainbow every lunchtime means you might actually eat something close to that ombré-arranged variety of fruits and veggies that you Instagrammed at the farmer’s market.

But, even if you’re already bringing a nutritious lunch from home on a daily basis, bentos still have one more advantage — they’re guaranteed to be prettier than what you’re packing. That’s because Japanese cuisine has been nailing the art part of “culinary arts” for centuries.
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While Americans were still schlepping hardtack and salt pork in their doggie bags, the Japanese were toting layered lacquer boxes of almost-too-pretty-to-eat bentos for picnicking beneath cherry blossoms. Today, these to-go meals are ubiquitous at Japanese train stations, and children and salaried men alike dig into homemade versions stuffed with bite-sized bits of Japanese goodies like stir-fried vegetables, tempura, grilled fish, and, of course, rice.

Overachieving moms have even started a mania for kyaraben (“character bento”), where the food is meticulously cut and arranged to look like anime all-stars. Even if you don’t craft the Mona Lisa out of macaroni salad (though someone basically did), bento can be your next artistic outlet — or just a good excuse to play with your food. The care that goes into putting a bento together makes it feel like wrapping up a little present for yourself, and ensures that you’ll look forward to opening up both your lunch and your wallet.

A photo posted by masaki (@mogurapicasso) on

Bento 101
Now that you’re a bento convert, you’re ready for Bento 101. Makiko Itoh’s blog and spinoff cookbook, Just Bento, is an encyclopedia of practical bento knowledge. She’s tweaked the traditional 4:2:1 ratio (rice to protein to veggies) to a more health-conscious one where the vegetables are abundant and the rice is played down.

Those interested in authenticity should dive in with Japanese staples like kinpira carrots and tamagoyaki (rolled omelet), while fusion foodies can fill their lunchboxes with nontraditional nuggets like polenta cakes and pomegranate seeds. The English version of Cookpad, Japan’s biggest online recipe repository, has 700+ user-uploaded recipes tagged “bento,” meaning you’ll never end up in a lunch rut again.

Let’s not gloss over the fact that bringing a bento to work is slightly more demanding than just grabbing your wallet on the way out the door — but bento veterans like Itoh cut down on prep time by doing all the chopping and cooking just once or twice a week, and then hoarding a stash of bento-ready foods (called a joubisai) in the fridge. For visual learners short on time, Nami at Just One Cookbook has created a two-minute crash course in bento making (organized by color) that you’ll want to watch on replay.

Bento InspoCake pops are cute and all, but bento porn is where Pinterest really hits its DIY food stride: Search “kyaraben” to see what you can accomplish with a julienne and way too much time on your hands.

A photo posted by Kanako (@manzakao) on

For more reproducible bento inspiration, though, look no further than Instagram. Of all the Japanese bento whizzes hashtagging お弁当 (pronounced “obentou”), we’ve mined five that you need to follow: @hany73’s clean and simple bento feed includes a behind-the-scenes peek at her weekly joubisai stashes; @nao1223 tucks fiddlehead ferns into her lunchtime bouquets, which always seem fresh from the garden; @mogurapicasso garnishes her meals with heart-shaped egg rolls and carrots cut into butterflies; @kokoronotane injects charm into her lunches with playful nori-and-rice faces; and @manzakao often manages to artfully cram the entire food pyramid into hers.

A quick scroll confirms that even ordinary food undergoes some kind of undeniably appetizing transformation when it’s carefully packaged in a bento box — which brings us to the box itself. Bento Wish List Chopsticks are optional, but if you’re going to become a bento artist, you’ll need a vessel fit to carry your culinary creations. There’s nothing wrong with Tupperware, but for the purist, traditional bent cedar boxes (like this one from Bento and Co.) are the stuff of lunchtime dreams.

But, if going bento is your excuse to let your kawaii flag fly, you’re covered with these Japanese house-shaped or cheeseburger versions. After all that, it would be blasphemous to just toss your bento into a bag: Wrap it up in an eco-friendly furoshiki (a printed, all-purpose Japanese cloth) like this whimsically doodled one by The Link Collective. 'Cause, sometimes, the best way to motivate yourself to start a new habit is with a good, old-fashioned wish list.
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