Just as you thought you’ve done it all, a hundred sandwich fillings, sandwich-less lunches, lunch in a thermos, and Mexican sushi, along comes the bento lunch. By definition, a bento is simply a home-packed meal in a box, but Japanese presentation makes it so much more fun.
The basic rules of a bento are: compact, nutritionally balanced, visually appealing. Think variety and small portions. A bento lunchbox doesn’t have to contain Japanese food: even the humble cheese sandwich can be dressed up to be a bento, as long as it’s cute and colourful and fun to eat.
To prepare a bento, you will need a set of small boxes (with or without lids), or silicon baking cups, all fitting tightly into the lunchbox. The idea is to keep wet things away from dry things, to prevent leakage, and to add an additional splash of colour. Experienced bento makers sometimes use edible separators like lettuce, baby carrots, cucumber slices, tightly packed grapes, etc.
Plan the meal. Include an array of different types of foods: carbohydrates, protein, fruits, and vegetables. The traditional Japanese bento ratio of rice, protein and vegetables is 4 parts rice to 2 parts protein to 1 part vegetable. Current Western health guidelines favour a lot more fruit and veg in your meal, probably 2 parts carbohydrate to 2 parts protein to 4 parts fruit and vegetable.
Pay attention to the equilibrium of colours, flavours, textures, and nutrients. Consider which foods will be touching, and which flavours will clash if they mix.
Plan the look. The key components here are neatness, order, arrangement. You can use cookie cutters to cut bread, slices of cheese, and slices of cold meats into smaller and smaller discs (or star shapes), then stack them up from biggest to smallest – this looks amazing if you use two types of cheese (yellow and orange). Or you can cut cold meat and cheese slices into wide strips, roll them up and secure with a toothpick.
Another easy bento is a peeled banana rolled up in a wholewheat wrap spread with peanut butter. As the end result is not that colourful, pack it with cherry tomatoes, strawberries or lettuce leaves.
Speaking of wraps, it’s easy to make sushi sandwiches. Spread the wrap with mashed avocado, add long carrot and cucumber sticks, smoked salmon, roll, then cut into discs. And there you have it: your main bento dish.
Feeling more creative? Make a bunny face out of a crumpet, fold cheese-and-ham strips for ears (the ham forms the inner pink part of the ear), carve the mouth and eyes from carrot slivers, and set it all against a background of a lettuce-cucumber-tomato meadow. Or fashion a bird’s nest of lettuce leaves and carrot shavings, and fill it with hard-boiled eggs. Or how about a caterpillar made of three rice wheels for body and cucumber sticks for legs, packed tights with cherry tomatoes? Or a rainbow of tomatoes, carrot discs, grilled corn, peas, purple grapes, and blueberries?
Overwhelmed? Relax: dinner leftovers make the perfect bento main dish. Simply put the leftovers (lasagne, stir-fry, meatloaf, roast veg with cheese) in the biggest bento box and arrange colourful additions in the smaller boxes around it.
Still too much trouble? Make your usual sandwich (cheese or peanut or jam). Use a small cookie cutter to cut through the top slice of bread (only) to reveal the filling. That’s it. The main dish done.
Plan the side dishes. Some fun ideas include fruit kebabs, yoghurt with a granola bar, fresh berries with mint leaves, hard-boiled eggs, bunches of narrow asparagus, slices of apple to dip in peanut butter, vegetable sticks with a tuna spread dip, dried meat, almonds, crackers, cold meats cut into shapes, cheese cut into shapes, veg slices made into towers, stoned apricots filled with nuts, large strawberries filled with blueberries.
Remember: the lunchbox will shake during transport, so pack everything very tightly. Fill any gaps with raisins, grapes, cherry tomatoes, berries, nuts. Fill the boxes all the way to the rim, or use a napkin on top to help hold the food in place.
Secure wraps with big cutesy plastic toothpicks or small plastic forks. Glue the designs to the box with honey, peanut butter or sticky soy sauce.
Be careful not to include anything that might leak. Pack your bento in a bag that keeps the container upright. Brush cut apple and avocado slices with lemon juice to prevent browning.
Bento lunchboxes reduce rubbish and minimise food waste. The children, even picky eaters, will be tempted by the attractive presentation and the variety of foods. And once you get the hang of it, a bento box is as quick to make as a peanut butter sandwich with banana slices.
Did you know?
- A popular bento style, oekakiben, is where food is arranged to form a picture of people, animals, or scenery.
- Kyaraben bentos look like characters from Japanese cartoons, comic books, or video games.
- There are similar forms of boxed lunches in the Philippines, Korea, Taiwan, India, and Hawaii.
- The longer food has been stored in the fridge, the less fresh it gets. Reheat cooked food to kill off any bacteria that may have started to grow.
- Oregano and coriander leaves have antibacterial qualities that help keep food fresh. They also look great as a decoration.
- Add ice packs in warm weather to keep the food from spoiling.
Edible ice packs
Items you can freeze to keep your lunch box cold:
- Yogurt tubes
- Guacamole packets
- Juice boxes
- Mini quiches
- Pizza slices
- Cooked mini-pies
- Containers of canned fruit
Utilise the off-cuts
Naturally, all the cutting and shaping and chiselling will leave you with off-cuts. Use the meat, cheese and veg scraps in stir-fries, pikelets, savoury muffins, quiches, omelettes, salads, soups, and pasta bakes. Use left-over fruit bits in smoothies. Soak bread crusts and bread off-cuts in milk, add an egg and spices, zap in the blender, mix in a bit of grated cheese and fry as you would pikelets.
By Yvonne Eve Walus