I just got a wonderful e-mail from a lovely bunny who, like myself, has a soft-spot in her heart for Japanese bento lunches. She asks...
“I impulsively bought a really cute bento box off Ebay a few days ago and then realized that I had no idea how to pack one! I saw on your Flickr that you’ve packed some really adorable bentos before…can you help a novice out?”
Bento boxes are the ultimate conversation starter during your lunch break. They’re a rarity in Western countries, which makes them all the more interesting for creative souls who just so happen to be hungry for a yummy lunch. There are so many different things you can pack and so many different ways to pack them that the specifics really come down to your culinary tastes, but packing a great lunch is almost as easy as eating one!
Pick a Theme
It’s not absolutely necessary to figure out a theme for your box, but I find that it usually makes the process of selecting specific foods & cookie cutters all the easier. Your theme can be anything - circuses, summer days, the night sky - whatever you can think of! Get as creative as you possibly can!
Pick Your Food
Once you’ve figured out what theme you want to use, try to match all the flavors and shapes in your box to it. What kind of tea can you imagine sipping while strolling around the French countryside? What treat would you want to enjoy after spending a topsy-turvy day spinning round and round on a carousel?
If you’re not going the themed route and just want something snazzy for lunch, then simply pick your favorite food or raid your fridge for leftovers. Believe it or not, you can put pretty much anything into a bento box. (It is, after all, your lunch!) The best place to start is with what you already have. Sushi rice and hard-boiled eggs are usually staples, but try making up some macaroni and cheese or a small garden salad to nestle inside your new bento. Dig through your recipe box or cooking websites for some bright ideas if you’re still stuck – just make sure that you actually like what you plan on making!
Arrange Your Proportions
The whole idea of packing a bento is to keep your lunch light and healthy. Read: everything is in miniature. Use cookie cutters to cut shapes out of sandwiches and divide pasta up into baking cups – make sure that everything is small enough to fit in the box but not small enough to leave huge gaps.
When preparing your meal, you may think that such tiny portions will leave your stomach growling, but the truth of the matter is that bento boxes are actually quite filling. They leave you comfortably full but not over-stuffed and sluggish like most other “normal-sized” meals do. If you do have a bigger appetite than a regular bento can satisfy, though, “adult” bento boxes are available with way more room for more food (only without all the cute characters and prints).
The general rule of thumb is that a bento should contain two parts protein, two parts grain, and one part sweets (which can be anything from mini-cupcakes to fruit), but this is really just a rough outline and is in no way carved in stone. Simply try not to let one part of your meal overwhelm the others – it’s all about balance.
Now it’s time for the fun part - decorate your food in any way that you can think of! Cut out Nori eyes and smiley-faces for your hard-boiled egg, make your sandwich on fairy bread instead of regular toast, place fresh cherries and fondant flowers in the gaps between your food. Do everything you can to make your bento box all about you and let your creativity run wild!
Once you’re done, pack it up, throw it in the fridge, and save it for work/school – or maybe you’re so enthralled by your magnificent handiwork that you just want to enjoy it right now?
I know it may sound like a daunting task to start packing such intricate lunches, especially with the availability of bento supplies being what it is. If you don’t live in a big city with its own Asian district, finding all of the neat tools that most bento websites talk about can be a run-around. Sure, eBay and various Livejournal communities sell all the necessary accouterments, but usually with a huge markup. If you don’t live somewhere where bento boxes are readily available, the truth of the matter is that you’ll have to pay the price.
But sometimes improvising can give you the best results if you find yourself in this situation - decorate an old Tupperware container and use it as a bento box. Look for kids lunch box sets and utensils at your local surplus store. Make your own bento picks out of toothpicks and printed images. Creativity is the key when it comes to packing a fabulous lunch, so let your imagination run wild! I promise that before the day is out you’ll have great food, great fun, and an even better conversation starter for over the lunch table.
A Little Something Extra
The best way to learn is by example, and JustBento offers great recipes and pictures for those looking for a little inspiration.
For fellow Livejournal fanatics, Bento Lunch is the perfect community to congregate and share bentos, ask questions, or even just lurk and admire the stunning pictures!