School's In Session: Bento Basics 101

School's In Session: Bento Basics 101

As summer winds down, and the familiar scent of sharpened pencils and freshly printed textbooks fills the air, it's time for that exciting yet slightly nerve-wracking season: back to school! Alongside the flurry of new schedules, early morning alarms, and rekindled friendships comes the age-old challenge for parents: what to pack for lunch? While it can be all too tempting to just send the kids off with a Lunchable, or fork over the money for a lackluster school lunch, we’re here to show you it can be just as easy to make healthy bentos your kids will love. Let’s jump in!

Chalkboard comparing lunchable, bento, and school lunch

Bento Boxes vs Western-style Lunchboxes: Unpacking the Differences

Compared to a Western-style lunchbox, Japanese bento boxes tend to be more compact and come in a variety of materials ranging from wood, metal, and BPA-free plastic. Where the differences really begin to show, however, is how they’re used! While a typical zipper-top lunchbox often holds packaged foods, like a sandwich in a plastic bag, a snack pack, or a tupperware of last night’s leftovers, a bento contains unpackaged foods that are packed neatly together.

With the plethora of guides, tips, and accessories from Japanese bento culture, there is a lot of creative freedom to make healthy, balanced, and aesthetically pleasing lunches with your bento box! Also, unlike one-use bags, or pre-packaged lunch sets that produce a lot of plastic waste, bento boxes are washable and reusable, while still keeping your food neat with dividers and sauce cups.

The whole thing starts with a box

All you need to get started for back-to-school meals is a kid-friendly bento box and a little planning.

When it comes to choosing a bento, there are plenty of kid-friendly bentos to choose from, such as boxes featuring their favorite characters like Pokemon. There’s also practical bento options, like the Gel-Cool series, which features built in ice-packs so your kid’s lunches stay nice and cold all the way to lunchtime! Don’t forget to find a set of cutlery that works with your bento of choice as well. Chopsticks are a great choice if your kids are comfortable with them, but there are plenty of portable and reusable cutlery sets that work great with bento as well.

Once you’ve decided on a bento box, it’s time to figure out what to put in it!

Bento Anatomy 101:

Traditional Japanese Bento Box with Chicken, Rice, and Tako Wieners

A typical bento is made up of 3-5 dishes (okazu in Japanese) that can be broken down into these simple categories:

Carbs: While most Japanese bentos default to rice, there’s plenty of other options as well, such as pasta, bread, and potatoes. If you do stick with the classic white sticky rice, there’s plenty of options to make it extra interesting, such as seasoning it with furikake, or making fun mini onigiri (rice balls) that can be eaten by hand.

Main dish: This is typically some kind of protein, like meat, tofu, beans, or seafood. It can be as fancy or as simple as you like—last night’s leftovers work great! Some of the more popular options for kids in Japan include Karaage (Japanese fried chicken), sausages, or meatballs.

Side dish(es): This can include seasonal veggies, the quintessential Japanese rolled egg omelet (tamagoyaki), or small servings of egg, potato, or seaweed salad. Use separator cups to keep things tidy and picky eaters happy!

Gap fillers: Much like the name suggests, you can use small veggies like cherry tomatoes or broccoli, cheese bites, and even sliced boiled eggs to fill in any open spaces or gaps in your bento. These are important as they prevent your food from moving around, mixing together and getting messy during transit.

Fresh Fruits: Seasonal fruits make a perfect dessert, and are a great was to add a splash of color, and a little something sweet to your bento. Most Japanese bentos keep these in a side container, so there isn’t fruit juice spilling all over the rest of your lovingly made lunch.

Putting it all together

Finally, we come to the most important part; putting it all together! While it’s natural to want to emulate beautiful handmade bentos photographed with professional equipment for social media, school lunches usually need to be made quickly, often while trying to make sure everyone is out of bed, fed, and dressed for school. Thankfully, not every bento needs to be a work of art, and even in Japan, plenty of bentos are put together in less than 5 minutes, using either leftovers or easy side dishes, some of which don’t need any prep at all! Even simple bentos can look delicious, which can make all the difference, especially if your kid is a picky eater who might not always finish their food.

First, you’ll want to fill approximately half of your bento with your main carb. If you’re using rice, a good rule of thumb is to fill 1/2 of your bento with rice. If you find it’s too much (or too little!) you can always adjust your ratios to fit your child’s needs. You can position your rice using dividers or your rice scoop to make extra space for your sides.

Next, add your side dishes, using either cups or if your bento includes a divider to keep your carbs and sides separate. You might be wondering why we put in the sides before the main dish, but don’t worry! It’ll all make sense.

Now, it’s finally time to add your main dish. Using your side dish cups, dividers, or carb, you can easily prop up your main dish in a way that’s both aesthetically pleasing, and easy to eat!

Finally, use your gap fillers to fill in any left over spaces.

One very important thing to keep in mind when making a bento is that they’re primarily eaten at room temperature, making food safety a top priority. You want to avoid foods prone to bacteria like raw fish, or soupy dishes, and make sure your food has a chance to properly cool down before packing your bento to prevent condensation! For more bento-centric food safety tips, check out our blog post: 7 Japanese Food Safety Tips for Bento Lunches in the Summer.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “But what if I just want to make it a little fancier, or cuter? I have the time!” Well, even if you don’t have much time, here’s a few rapid-fire tips to add just a touch of pizazz to your kid’s bentos.

Speed round: Quick Tips to Add a Little Lunchtime Flair

Blackboard that says "Quick Bento Tips" with various pictures of bentos
  1. Small Shapes: Use shape cutters for cute shapes from eggs, cheese, and fruits.
  2. Color Combos: Pack a rainbow of veggies and fruits for visual appeal and nutrition.
  3. Finger Foods: Go for bite-sized items like cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks, and mini meatballs.
  4. Dip Delight: Include a small container of dip, like hummus or peanut butter for dipping veggies.
  5. Protein Packing: Add more protein with cheese cubes, hard-boiled eggs, or rolled turkey slices.
  6. Playful Picks: Thread small pieces of fruit and cheese onto food picks for mini kabobs.
  7. Ritzy Rice: Shape rice into animals, hearts, or stars for a playful touch.
  8. Sweet Surprises: Slip in a small treat like a piece of chocolate or a homemade cookie.
  9. Kawaii Kyaraben: If you’re feeling really ambitious, check out character bento guides (kyaraben in Japanese.) These adorable bentos are a work of art, and kids absolutely love them. Check out our post, Bento Recipes: How to Make a Simple “Charaben” Kid’s Bento, for an easy to follow guide to get started!
  10. Stable Staples: Having a stash of readily available staples in your freezer, fridge, and pantry is a huge help for those hectic mornings. You can always cook a little extra in the evenings to add to your stash as well. An extra serving of pasta here, some meatballs on the side on burger night, freezing cooked rice, these can all help quite a bit.

Hopping on the Bento Bus

School bus with child boarding

So there you have it! Hopefully this little guide has inspired you to give bento a spin for school lunches this year, or if you’re already on the bento bus, given you some new ideas to try out. The start of a new school year, while always a bit hectic, is a great opportunity to try new things, and bentos are a great way to make sure the kids are eating healthily and happily. Make sure to swing by our special Back to School page for more in-depth recommendations to kick-start your school year!

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