Lunches have come a long way since the sad bagged PB&J sandwich of your youth. Enter the handy (and trendy) bento box: A grab-and-go solution that strikes the perfect balance between artful meal creation and practical desk dining. Originated in Japan, bento boxes gained popularity in the 17th century, becoming a staple in Japanese cuisine as the simply packed containers were sold to commuters in train stations, and later, served in ornately decorated wooden boxes at tea parties and social events. Traditional bentos could contain rice balls, grilled fish, pickled vegetables, mushrooms and tamagoyaki—a popular Japanese sweet omelette.
They’ve evolved a lot from their humble beginnings. As bento boxes exploded in popularity across North America, these segmented containers have grown to include all kinds of Western fare. They offer a creative outlet for foodies who enjoy artistic food assembly and serve as a health-conscious approach to portion control and meal prep. Bentos can be as cute or unfussy as you’d like, and they’re an easy way to shake up lunches for kids and adults alike.
So, what goes in a bento box?
Typically comprised of numerous small portions of meals and snacks, bento boxes allow you to divide up recipes and food groups within one container. To ensure your food stays fresh, you can even separate liquids and sauces from the rest of your lunch until you’re ready to eat.
The sky’s the limit when deciding which dishes to include. Western iterations often stray from the original Japanese combos to include everything from sandwiches, pasta or salad, to oatmeal and fruit. No matter the cuisine, the key to a good bento is a healthy balance of whole grains like rice or quinoa as a base, protein like chicken, fish or eggs, veggies and fruit, and a small serving of dairy.
Balance the colour, texture and nutrition
Authentic bentos historically include five different colours in each meal, which promotes a solid variety of fruits and vegetables. Plus, colourful, neatly arranged boxes add visual satisfaction to your lunch, so be prepared to be the food envy of your office desk mates.
Healthy balance is at the heart of bento boxes: The colourful range and predetermined serving sizes in each compartment ensure a nutritious meal. Try playing with texture, including both cooked and raw recipes (think tender, saucy stir-fry on rice paired with crisp, raw veggies) along with a balance of creamy liquids and crunch (like smoothie bowls or yogurt paired with nuts or granola).
Get inspired with these tasty combos
If breakfast is your favourite meal of the day, jazz up your morning menu with these breakfast bento ideas.
- Pack two grab ‘n go egg and cheese breakfast muffins along with a serving of fresh berries and orange slices, and a hearty blueberry granola breakfast cookie.
- Fill one compartment with this delicious overnight chia oatmeal, paired with a cup of yogurt and a serving of sliced apples with almond butter.
Get excited for lunch at the office or on the go with these super satisfying combos.
- Prep this nutritious mushroom grain bowl for dinner the night before, and pack the leftovers for lunch along with fresh cut carrots, celery and cucumber, and a serving of Sabra Hummus. Finish it off with a savoury zucchini muffin.
- For a fast and easy lunch, pack these shrimp and cucumber salad rolls along with toasted pita chips to dip with a serving of Sabra Hummus. Complete your bento with some steamed edamame and these cherry-almond energy balls for a sweet snack!
Good things come in small packages
You can fit a surprising amount of food in a compact bento box, and the packaging makes all the difference when it comes to function and aesthetic. Be sure to look for a BPA-free container that is microwave-, freezer- and dishwasher-safe, with a secure lid. Removable sections can also allow for easy cleaning and customization when you’re packing your food.
Most bentos include dividers and flatware, like Amazon’s sleek two tier bamboo box that comes with dividable sections, a silicone sealed lid and a ventilation plug, or this practical, colourful container with three compartments and a leak-proof snap lid. But, if you’re in the need of some hacks, try using items like baking cups (paper or decorative silicone) or aluminum foil to act as dividers, or toothpicks in place of a fork (or for the aesthetics). Some bentos, like this one, even come with a base compartment where you can add ice or hot water to cool or heat your meal.
If you start to feel overwhelmed when packing your lunch, keep it simple! The beauty of the bento is that there are no hard and fast rules, so just have fun with it.