Bento boxes are creeping into all kinds of places: pre-schoolers carry them, trendy young things in the media swipe noodles from them with flying chopsticks and those with long-term health conditions use them to ensure a balanced diet.
What is bento?
Basically a bento is a cold lunchbox, Japanese style. Usually made of wood or plastic, the box will have several compartments and traditionally contains sushi, vegetables and rice. Bento boxes have featured in many anime and manga books, causing a surge of interest in the West. Charaben are bento lunches made in the shape of anime or other characters – they are fiendishly hard to produce and those who make them are highly competitive about their art. Most bento boxes have two tiers, one of which is wholly, or largely, filled with rice or some other grain.
Bento for health
Because Japanese food, by and large, is a healthier diet than a European or American one, the importation of Japanese style lunches can only be a good thing, but allied to the aesthetic ideas of making food beautiful, and finding room in every box for as many colours as possible, as well as the high-cereal, low-meat tradition of Japanese food, a bento box can move you towards a healthier diet and a healthier budget, as you’ll do less lunch-buying.
The real advantage of a bento box is that it’s filled with small amounts of a wide range of foods, so that you can snack at your leisure, whereas with a brown-bag sandwich, when it’s gone, it’s gone, and you’re inclined to run out and buy something else to eat. There is a secondary advantage – while the boxes look tiny and seem unlikely to fill you up, a really well-packed 600 ml box is enough to keep an active male happily fed until dinnertime.
And if you are one of those people who find it difficult to eat, and lose your appetite swiftly, a small bite of half a dozen foods is much better than a large amount of one, because you don’t get bored so easily and have the opportunity to expand your taste horizons.
There are many good guides to packing bento boxes online, and several communities where the artistically inclined show off the beauty of their lunches, but for most of us, preparing a bento requires only a simple set of rules:
• one tier of cereals
• another tier contain something from each of these food groups – fruits, vegetables, dairy or meats
• focus on getting as many different colours into your bento as possible and packing it as tightly as you can.