Bento 101: Simple Bento Lunch

Last summer, I discovered the Japanese culinary tradition of “bento.” Bento means “a meal served in a box,” and it is usually associated with a lunchtime meal. In Japan, people eat all kinds of bentos, and they are often prepared by mothers for children to take to school.

Often, bento lunches are works of art, and these types of lunches are most commonly seen online:

hello-kitty-bento

 

01-Bento-Box-Art-lifestyle-1While these kinds of bentos are beautiful to look it, they are not the kind of thing I’m interested in making. Imagine the time and patience they must take! The reasons I love making bentos are much simpler:

  • They are quick and easy to make.
  • They taste delicious.
  • It’s fun to know you have a homemade lunch waiting for you.
  • The possibilities are endless, and they help inspire me to try new foods.
  • It’s fun to try to pack the foods into the box–it’s sort of like a game.
  • It’s easy to make them healthy.

I started making bentos last summer, and ate on for lunch on most weekdays. Sometimes, I would take them to work with me, but often I prepared them in the mornings before I went to my summer class and ate them for lunch when I got home.

Today, I made this bento for myself for lunch:

bento1And it could be done in about 20 minutes! Here’s my step-by-step guide to making a basic bento box lunch:

The Night Before

First things first, let’s back up to the night before. I start my week of bentos by planning out what I want to make during the week. I use this weekly bento planner to help me decide what I need to prep ahead of time.

When I plan my bentos, I usually have 2-3 types of proteins, 3-4 types of veggies, brown rice and white rice on the agenda. My daily bento usually includes 1 cup of rice, 3-4 oz. of protein, 1/2 cup of veggies and some pickles. If there is room, I also add some fruit.

Some of the components of this bento can be prepared ahead of time. One of the things I make at the beginning of the week is quick pickles:

pickles1These are super simple to make. I just shredded a quarter of a head of cabbage and used a mandolin (our box grater has a little blade that works perfectly) to slice half of a cucumber. Then I used 1-2 tsp. of salt and massaged the vegetables with my hand until they started to go limp and give off moisture. They can stay in the fridge all week and be used for bentos!

I also make rice ahead of time, usually for dinner the night before. I make about 3 cups of extra rice, and I use our Food Saver to save it throughout the week. It stays fresh for a few days until I need to make more.

rice1The night before, you can also wash and chop veggies for the week and store them separately so you can grab-and-go in the mornings. I also defrost chicken or fish if it’s frozen so it’s ready for me to cook in the morning.

Finally, if your dishwasher is full, run it the night before, because having an empty dishwasher makes clean-up a lot faster in the morning. It’s a lot nicer to throw dirty dishes in there than having to hand-wash everything.

The Morning Of

Ok, so when I wake up in the morning, I usually prep my bento first-thing. I first gather all of the tools and ingredients I’ll need for my bento:

supplies_edited-1Today, I made a chicken-and-pepper dish that I cooked in a small pot and a tamagoyaki (rolled Japanese omelette) that I prepared in a pan:

pansAnd I also need a cutting board and knife for cutting my veggies and chicken:

knife*Note* If you are cutting raw meat AND vegetables, use two different boards to prevent cross-contamination.

And, of course, I needed my bento box:

box1My box is about 500 mL, which is the size I aim for for my lunches.

box2It has dividers, but I didn’t need them today because nothing I made had a sauce I wanted to keep contained.

insertsI also have a bunch of silicon baking cups that I use in my bento boxes. They are more flexible than the hard plastic dividers in my box and make it a lot easier to pack my lunch:

dividerI also gather all of the ingredients I need before I get started:

ingredientsI start by prepping the ingredients. I chopped the chicken, peppers and scallions and got my eggs ready for my tamagoyaki.

peppers

 

scallions

 

chicken1I used half of a chicken breast and resealed the rest of the chicken for another bento:

chicken2Then I got cooking! I did the chicken first and cooked my eggs simultaneously:

chicken3

 

tamagoyaki1After my chicken had cooked, I took it out of the pot and let it cool:

chicken4I let the scallions heat through for about 30 seconds in the chicken pan (no need to clean it!) and then added the peppers. I finished them with a bit of soy sauce.

While my chicken, eggs and peppers cooked, I cleaned up as I went and put ingredients away after I’d used them. This helps make the bento-making process go much more quickly.

For the rice, I heated 1 cup of my leftover rice in the microwave for about 90 seconds. I spread it out in the box to cool while I cooked everything else.

rice2It may seem silly to heat rice just to cool it, but the texture of the room-temperature rice is much better if it is heated first, then cooled, as opposed to just eaten cold.

I also put my pickles in their little cup:

pickles2After everything was cooked, it has to cool. You don’t want to pack a bento box with hot food because all of the condensation can make things less safe. I let everything cool while I clean up.

tamagoyaki2

 

coolingPacking the bento box is the best part! I start with the rice and pack it as tightly as possible:

rice3Then I add the chicken and peppers and pickles:

peppers and picklesAnd finally pack everything together with two slices of tamagoyaki:

tamagoyaki3If there are extra spaces in your bento, you can use raw veggies to help act as a barrier. Broccoli florets and cherry tomatoes add color and help separate foods and keep things from moving around.

The last thing I added was an umeboshi plum. These little pickled plums are super salty and tart, but they are delicious.

plums1I buy them at my local Asian market. They are in the refrigerated section:

plum2Today I chopped one up (they have pits!) and used it to decorate my bento:

bento2And that’s that! I just put the lid on and I was all done.

closedI enjoyed this bento for lunch, and it was so comforting and delicious. I can’t wait to make more bentos this summer!

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