[NOTE: scroll down for an explanation about bento and how I got into it, along with my own personal bento philosophy. Yes, I have bento philosophy. I'm a dork and I don't care.]
All the bento lunches that appear on the journal. Pictures are shown oldest to newest, so to see the prettier and better lunches, or the newer boxes, skip to the later photo pages. Read the bento journal entries.
Bento systems currently in use. Read the journal entries where they're featured: ms. bento, laptop lunch, fit 'n fresh, deli club, blue bunny & moons, black strawberry, pink natural lunch, paris slimline, pink strawberry sidecar, cute animals sidecar, other bento gear, lunchbot duo, french bistro, matryoshka, bento colors purple, bento colors mini green, origami squares, syrup o'clock, pink weangreen
what's bento, exactly?
This is a really terrific introduction to bento basics, as well as the different types of bento. In a nutshell, bento is a meal in a box. More precisely, bento is all about providing a nutritious, attractively-presented lunch that's easily portable. A bento box is surprisingly small to most American eyes, but packed well, it's enough for a meal. The size of the box forces you to make your lunch nutritionally dense, which means you can't waste valuable space on empty calories like potato chips that take up a lot of room. And if you follow the traditional Japanese guideline of 3 parts starch, 2 parts veggies/fruit, 1 part protein (3:2:1), then the volume of the box (in mL) will approximately equal the number of calories of the meal. So, for a 600 mL box (a typical woman's size bento), an appropriately packed box will equal 600 calories.
The attractiveness of the meal is also important, since bento follows the philosophy that we eat with our eyes. Diversity of color and texture is important, which again, forces you to use more nutritional choices. Instead of, say, the cookies (brown) and potato chips (pale yellow) you might find in a typical American lunch, green broccoli and red strawberries and yellow bell pepper provide far more visual appeal.
Packing a bento works really well for all kinds of meal situations, whether you have dietary restrictions (veganism, gluten-free, kosher, etc.), are trying to maintain portion control, are dieting, don't have access to a fridge or microwave (bentos are traditionally intended to be eaten at room temperature), or are just trying to entice a picky eater to eat his veggies.
bento 2.0, baby!
I first got interested in bento around 2004/2005 when Sal and I were undergoing our transition to organics-only eating and had committed to a sustainable lifestyle. I was first attracted to bento as a way to minimize wasteful throwaway packaging, but the more I learned, the more it intrigued me. (My mother will tell you that my bento love had its roots in my childhood, when I showed an early predilection for small containers, an affinity for attractive presentation, and an almost savant-like occupation with orderliness. To say that bento was tailor-made for me would be to remark on the unusual style of the pontiff's haberdashery.)
I had been doing lunch bento for a few years, just using plastic food storage containers I had on hand. (You really can use pretty much anything as a bento, there's no need to invest in special gear. Although it sure is a lot of fun!) But I have a demanding, stressful job and because I wasn't very consistent about bringing lunches in, I would often go grab something quick (spendy!), or just as often not eat anything at all. Which is not good, and I knew it wasn't good, but whaddya gonna do, right?
In an effort to make more of an investment in my well-being, I decided to really commit to regularly eating lunch -- and in doing so, try to force myself to take a much-needed break each day by leaving the office for a period of time. And to help myself really be successful at my new goal, I decided to step up my bento game by finally purchasing the two bento systems I'd wanted for a long time, do more cooking for dinner so I'd have leftovers, and to photograph and post my bentos as a way to be accountable to myself to stick with it. Thus, bento 2.0, baby! was born.
Treating myself to the bento systems I'd long wanted flipped a switch. The excitement and challenge of these new boxes that were specifically for my lunches and nothing else reignited that initial interest in bento as a way of eating. Opening this special, attractive, healthy lunch, no matter how stressful the day was at that point, was like a special message to myself, reminding me to put myself first and to take some time for myself. It was like opening a little present to myself every day at a particularly challenging time in my life.
I haven't eaten out or skipped a lunch since. I feel better, I eat better, and I don't crash at the end of the day from either not having eaten a good meal or not having eaten at all. It's no exaggeration to say that bento has made a huge difference in my sanity with regard to work, and made all the difference on too many days to count.
my bento philosophy
Although there are no rules when it comes to bento, I have my own bento philosophy.
- pack the night before -- I am not a morning person. It's all I can do to get out of bed in the morning to get ready for work! Packing a lunch in the morning? Not happening.
- don't spend more than 15 minutes packing -- I have WAY too many things I need and want to do in the evenings and as much as I enjoy bento, I don't enjoy it so much that I want to labor over it for an hour. Although I enjoy looking at the pictures posted by those who do, I have no interest in elaborate designs. I will sometimes take a few minutes to cut little shapes out of carrots and cheese, I love molding eggs liek whoa, and will always spend some time on the presentation overall. But time is always of the essence.
- photograph just before I eat -- It's easy to make a bento look pretty before the lid goes on. The real test is what it looks like after it's been in the fridge overnight with the lid on, slung about in a furoshiki and bounced around on the way to the office, and sat unrefrigerated all morning. If it's packed well, everything should stay in place and should look nice by the time you take the lid off. So I snap the pic then, just before I'm about to eat it. Keepin' it real, yo.
- use my cell phone to photograph -- Since I photograph my bento at work, I don't have the time or tools (or inclination, even if I had the other two) to setup a shot like many of the really nice bento blogs do. Their photos are beautiful and I love looking at them, but they involve way more work than I want to put in. (And really, the whole idea behind photographing my lunches is that they should be realistic and spontaneous.)
- everything's organic -- Sal and I eat local (when possible, which is most of the time since we're very fortunate to live where we live), organic, and non-processed food, so my bentos reflect that. Everything in my bento is organic unless specified otherwise.
- no prepackaged food -- With the exception of things like sausage, cheese, and things like that, and the occasional emergency convenience of New Seasons deli (where we can trust what it's made from and how), if I/we didn't make it then it doesn't go in my bento. Prepackaged food generally means things like frozen convenience foods and entrees, and those are not something we eat.
- don't invest in too much gear -- I pretty much have everything I want and need. It's easy (and understandable!) to accumulate all kinds of cute picks, silicone cups in various shapes, onigiri molds, veggie cutters in every shape imaginable, nori punches, and all the rest, but I really don't need a bunch more stuff and I really really don't have the room for it. I love the cute accessories as much as anyone, but what I have works for me. The same is true for bento boxes. I have a good variety without my cupboard overflowing, and though there are a few more boxes I'd like (a metal tiffin-style I've had my eye on for years, a couple of cute plastic boxes), I'm done accumulating. Besides, too many choices has a tendency to become stressful rather than enjoyable.
- no animal-shaped food* -- I have a thing about eating animal-shaped food. (Oh, here's this sugar cookie shaped like a cute little kitty cat! HERE BITE ITS HEAD OFF YUM ISN'T THAT DELICIOUS SRSLY WHAT. ALSO ON THE SUBJECT OF EASTER WHAT HAPPINESS HATING PERSON THOUGHT CHOCOLATE BUNNIES WERE A RESPONSIBLE THING TO GIVE TO A CHILD IS WHAT I WANT TO KNOW. Ahem.) Look, I don't know, okay, it just gives me the wig. Thus, animal-shaped egg molds and veggie cutters, though ubiquitous in the bento world, aren't in my arsenal of cool stuff. Because I'd rather not be freaked out by my lunch, you know? (*Except for, occassionally, animal cookies and animal crackers. What can I say? I contain multitudes.)
- nothing disposable -- Sustainability is what got me started on this bento kick in the first place. I utilize reusable silicon cups and the food itself as dividers and cloth napkins (that double as furoshiki). I have a metal drink container and don't use disposable utensils. The only thing left when I'm finished with my lunch is stuff that goes in the composter.
- no food that's only for decorative purposes -- It's tempting to use lettuce leaves to line a box to make the presentation look especially nice or to add a little sprig of an herb for garnish. But unless it's part of the meal, it doesn't go in the box.