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Bento boxes: How to pack a healthy lunchbox for adults

Wednesday 1 February 2017

A Japanese lunch box called a bento box.
Make healthy lunches fun with by creating your own bento box.

If you've ever wandered past your local sushi place at lunch, you're probably familiar with the concept of bento boxes.

For those who aren't, they're single-portion take-away or brought-from-home lunches that usually combine rice, meat or fish, and vegetables into a single convenient and tasty package.

Each part of the meal is neatly arranged in its own section of the box, creating a visually interesting mix of colours, textures, and flavours as you flip open the lid.

Even if the traditional contents and flavours of a bento box are not for you, the concept is an easy way to pack healthier lunches for work.

Using the theory behind a bento box gives you a flexible and easy approach to creating tasty, healthy lunches week after week after week.

To replicate the basic bento box formula, your lunch should break down into five separate components. These are:

  • 1 serve of carbohydrates - traditionally this means rice, but you can substitute pasta, potato, crackers, or other forms of carbohydrate that fits with the rest of your meal.
  • 1 serve of protein - traditionally fish or meat, but you may wish to consider using eggs, tofu, cheese, or nuts instead.
  • 2-3 serves of vegetables - traditionally these are cooked or pickled, but there's nothing stopping you going with raw, stir-fried, or roasted if that's your thing.

Visual contrast is a key part of making the bento box appealing, so the vegetable serves are an opportunity to use different parts of the colour wheel to get a pleasing mix of colours and textures. This approach gives you a nice balance between the food groups, with the bulk of your box getting occupied by healthy vegetables.

The bento approach is also highly flexible, allowing you to mix up a handful of core ingredients in new ways. This allows you to pre-prepare a handful of staples like sliced carrots, cherry tomatoes, brown rice, pita bread, or grilled corn that can be mixed and matched with other elements to create new combinations.

7 bento techniques

Embrace the presentation

The way food tastes is important, but the visual aesthetics and scent are almost as important when it comes to our enjoyment. Professional chefs have built up a range of tricks to make their meals look particularly mouth-watering, and a lot of those techniques come into play when you look at traditional bento boxes. Don't disregard the importance of mixing colour and texture as part of your philosophy - embrace it, and make appealing to all the senses part of your commitment to eating healthier.

Pack your food tight

Bento boxes pack food in tightly so that it doesn't move around after it's been tossed into a backpack or briefcase. This keeps your food looking neat and appetising by the time you make it to lunch.

Think in 3D

When we serve food on a plate, there's a natural tendency to spread it out and fill the empty space. If your plate is all about filling width, your lunchbox gives you the opportunity to think in a third dimension - height - and it's a key part of achieving an economically packed and aesthetically pleasing bento-style lunch.

Fold or roll flat foods

If you're for a neat way to pack together sliced meats like ham or chicken, pita bread, or cheese, look at rolling or folding your food. If you want to get fancy, you can roll two or more ingredients together to make scrolls. This makes it easier to stack upright, or arrange side-by-side, and make use of height

Stock up on baking cups or small plastic containers

Some food holds its shape really well in a lunch box; others, not so much. When it comes to loose nuts or vegetables, you can achieve that sense of height in a lunch box by using cupcake liners, lettuce leaves, or small plastic containers to corral things together. Alternatively, you can use elements that do hold together well, like rice or a stacked sandwich, to create a corral with the other contents of your lunchbox.

Let food cool to room temperature before packing

Tightly packing warm food in an enclosed space means condensation is going to form, and condensation means part of your lunch is going to go soggy. Let your food cool to room temperature before you pack your box, even if you're going to refrigerate it afterwards.

Keep it cool

Make sure your lunch stays out of the ‘temperature danger zone’ by keeping it cool while travelling to work and once you arrive. Place an ice brick or frozen drink in or beneath your bento lunch box during your commute and put your box in the fridge when you arrive.

Track the components that work for you and stock up

We all like a little variety in our life, but one of the nice things about the bento box approach is where that variety comes from. The mix-and-match of textures and colours means you can get very different meals by combining leftovers from the night before with a handful of staples that can be prepared in advance.

Identify the stuff that works well for you and stash it at the start of the week - doing a bulk lot of pasta, chopping a few days worth carrot sticks, or steaming a whole bag of beans means you'll always have something to throw into your box on short notice. If you want to get a little fancier, stashing bento-sized serves of your favourite cooked components in the freezer can also speed up your preparation time.

Last updated: 1 February 2018