Monday, February 20

Bento Box Basics

Recently Bento Boxes have been on the rise of popularity, but there are a few people who don't actually know what a bento box is. I thought I would spend a few moments answering a few common questions and fixing a few misgivings about a bento box.

To begin with a bento box is really a lunch box, a Japanese lunch box to be exact. Japanese mothers tend to express their love by preparing elaborate lunches full of color and texture. These lunches have a basic food balance which is delivered in a clever little package. Knowing that people, especially children eat with their eyes first, bento boxes are designed to make the meal look like mini works of art. Now, I should probably pause and say that bento boxes are not just for children. Many wives, fiances, and girlfriends also prepare bento boxes for their counterparts. In tradition a bento box is a way of showing how much you care for the person, by expressing it through the care and preparation you put into a box.

Sounds extremely labor intensive, doesn't it. In truth traditional bento boxes can take hours to prepare and those preparing them get up in the early morning hours to start. But, let us be honest, I don't have the energy or time for that, do you? No-well it's okay because bento boxes are actually very easy to make. You can still be extremely creative and artistic by mildly editing what you put in the box. And it can be done in the same time it normally takes to pack a lunch.

Lets start with the box itself. First, traditional bento boxes come in all sorts of fun shapes and sizes. Most are two or three layers high. (the photo at beginning is a traditional box, are sold for around $16-$35). But you don't need a traditional bento box to actually make a bento lunch. Several companies including Ziploc have great reusable plastic food storage containers that work just as good. (photo to left of Ziploc 3 compartment container, sold 2 in a package for approx $5). I actually prefer this box for packing lunches, it slides right into a standard lunch box and still gives you room for notes, water bottles, or random extras.

Now lets talk about the contents of your bento box. It is wise to remember the main factor behind bento boxes. Artistic representation of a well balanced, healthy, portion controlled lunch. With obesity and over eating on the rise these days, looking at this traditional formula will really help fix some diet concerns. Most bentos have a balance formula 4-3-2-1, which means 4 parts vegetables, 3 parts proteins, 2 parts grains, 1 part fruit or dessert. It may seem like a difficult balance but, it really isn't. In fact, once you get the hang of it, it becomes hard to decide what you use and what to save for the next day.

In traditional boxes the top layer is reserved for hot foods, much like a thermos would be. This is usually your rice which is considered the grain part. But, I don't actually like eating rice everyday and some don't like it at all. So here is a great fix, substitute 1/2 cup small pasta. Since bento boxes are colorful, small amounts of food coloring are added to boiling water when cooking the rice, allowing the rice to absorb the color. And guess what, it works with pasta, in fact I use the Quick Cook pasta and food coloring, making this step take less the the time it takes to actually boil the water!

I pair this small amount of pasta with a basic sandwich, such as turkey or ham with cheese. It gives it a great counter balance and allow for the protein to sneak in. Other great ways to get the protein in are hard boiled eggs, you can easily slice them, dye them, or even mold them into different shapes. Just be aware of your spacing when packing the lunch. Leftovers also work great for this, how about a slice of turkey you cut into a fun shape? Or chicken slices that can be rolled with cheese?

Now, on to the next part the vegetables. Unless, your really lucky most people don't like eating straight wedges of vegetables. Grape tomatoes, baby carrots, or pepper slices are about the only vegetable which don't look weird when put in a container. However, if you want to be able to expand the vegetable assortment, this is where traditional boxes have it down. They use cutters to punch out pieces of vegetables and cookie cutters work perfect for this. Different vegetables lend themselves to using cookie cutters. Cucumbers are the easiest. Peppers need a little extra love, use a metal cutter and press hard from the skin side of the pepper.Now, just tuckyour vegetables in along side your protein or sandwich and this is ready to go.

We now have three of the four elements done. The last is the dessert part. I always keep mine in a separate container. You can easily put in a a snack bag of cookies, or chips, or even my favorite, the pudding cup. Remember to look at your overall meal and keep an eye on the balance. Your dessert don't technically have to be super sweet or sugar filled. Based on what you have in the box, your dessert can easily be apple wedges, yogurt or a combination of things. I like to use pudding topped with fresh fruit. Chocolate pudding topped with fresh raspberries, or a sliced strawberry goes along way. Balancing both the healthy and sweet aspects of dessert. Try coconut pudding topped with grapes, blueberries, or little melon balls for a more traditional dessert.

What ever you decided to put in your box, remember it really is that easy. If you can make a sandwich, slice a few vegetables, put leftover in containers, and pack them together you can easily create a well balanced bento. There are several bento blogs, books, and great resources to help guide you through your packing. I hope now that I have shared how easy it is to create you'll give it a try. Remember, nothing is impossible, you just have to get out of your own way. Building a bento can easily be done without investing large amounts of money into fancy cutters, molds, or presses. You can easily use basic garnish techniques to jazz up standard lunch boxes and leftovers, all you have to do it is go for it!

For a few bento ideas or if you want to know how to do what you see in my photos try my beginner bento post:

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