In my previous post, we learned the basics of bento, getting to know a little more about its history and the different types that exist… and now, it’s time to go about making your own. But, where to start?
Even before diving into recipes for items to fill your bento with, or decorating your meal with heart-shaped tamagoyaki and carrots cut like flowers, it’s important to gather the equipment necessary to make your bento a success. A container is a must, and cutlery seems like a natural fit, but what about all the other extras that help organize your meal and take your bento to the next level?
While you won’t need every item in this post to create a delicious, health bento, it’s always nice to know all the possibilities you have when constructing your bento. I recommend starting with the bare minimum (a container and cutlery; sauce container and cup if need be) before expanding out to all the other extras.
Boxes and Containers: the first thing you need to make a bento is some sort of container in which to place your meal. This can be anything from standard plastic tupperware to a fancy multi-layered lacquer box. Obviously, you want to find something that suits your needs… but what does that mean exactly? Well, let’s break it down a bit with a few things to consider:
The size and shape of your box will depend on several factors, including how much food you wish to carry, how you like to organize or fill your bento, and what kinds of foods you’re eating (wet, dry, saucy, soup, etc.). Square, rectangular, round, multi layered, segmented, triangular for onigiri, basket like for sandwiches… there are so many different boxes you can buy! To start off, I recommend choosing something versatile that won’t constrain your food choices too much. That means, avoid buying that triangular onigiri box for now…
Materials – traditional bento are eaten at room temperature, but since the microwave exists as a convenient tool to reheat food, why constrain yourself to a cold lunch everyday? Just make sure you check whether your container is microwave safe. Insulated bento boxes also exist, but tend to be a bit bulky. One last tip: check the lid to make sure it’s secure (or make sure to use a band)! There’s nothing worse than finding your lunch spilled everywhere…
What I personally use is a slim rectangular box with 2 layers (like the green one below) as my main container, mostly because it holds just enough food for me, it’s compact, and when I’m finished eating, I can fit one layer inside the other, making it even smaller! This shape is perfect for an assortment of small dishes paired with rice since the space is not very large.
I also like to have a single layer square or rectangular box (some even come with a removable wall for segmenting the box!) for when I have a meal comprised of less compact foods (such as pasta) or I’ve prepared a donburi-style meal (like soboro bento) where the meat goes on top of the rice instead of next to it.
Dividers and Cups: these are useful for helping to keep items in your bento separated properly and efficiently. They are really great when trying to keep particular items from interacting with each other, such as sweet fruits from savoury meat dishes, or to keep something wet and saucy from leaking into the other foods in your box. In addition, compared to using a pre-segmented bento box, cups and dividers allow you to customize the appearance and food amounts of your bento.
Dividers might be a piece of decorative plastic that looks like spiky grass, but can also be something edible and creative like a piece of lettuce or shiso, or even a row of cherry tomatoes that form a “wall” between two foods.
Cups are generally something like a cupcake liner made of either paper/foil (good for dryer foods like a handful of grapes) or silicone/plastic (perfect for wetter foods like potato salad or a little bit of pasta).
Picks and sauce containers: picks are used as decorative ways to hold small foods together to prevent them from moving around too much in your bento, while sauce containers allow you to carry liquid like soy sauce with ease.
Picks can be anything from a simple toothpick to a fancy and colourful plastic prong with an adorable figure on top. They’re especially great for encouraging children to eat their meal! Try using picks to hold things like meatballs together, or keep small items like edamame or blueberries organized.
Sauce containers are useful for anything from soy sauce to salad dressing. They are generally used for liquids that you don’t want interacting with the rest of your food. A commonly seen sauce container is one of those small plastic fish that hold soy sauce when you get take out. They can be washed out and reused for small amounts of sauce. For other sauce containers, remember to double check that they are secure by filling it with some water and giving it a few shakes over the sink.
Utensils: Depending on what you’re eating, you will probably want some utensils… Chopsticks are a great option for most bento, but forks, knives, spoons, and “sporks” also have their place, depending on the dishes you’re eating. Lots of bento boxes have a special place for cutlery (usually in a special compartment in the lid).
Cutlery is going to made of plastic or metal, and both have their pros and cons. Plastic is light to pack and won’t poke into anything else in your bag… but might not be as durable as metal. Look for cutlery that comes in a case if you want to be really organized and clean. Some options for cutlery could be camping utensils (often durable and compact), or collapsible or mini cutlery.
Chopsticks are another very popular utensil. You can buy chopsticks that come in a little plastic case to keep them clean and together at some shops. Oftentimes, bento boxes come with a set of small chopsticks, so that’s an option too. Another one I really like (and like to use myself) is a pair of collapsible chopsticks that are made of stainless steel but have a wooden tip.
Securing your bento with bags, bands, and furoshiki: Transporting your bento can inadvertently cause spills and leaks… so how can you mitigate a potential disaster?
Bags are great if you carry your bento separately from your other things, or you want to prevent any possible leaks from staining your possessions. Depending on your needs, a bag could be anything from a nice paper or plastic carry bag given at a store, a simple cloth bag, or a waterproof bag (ziplock or otherwise).
Bands are for securing the lid of your bento and giving added protection against spills and leaks while in transit. You can buy silicone bands made especially for bento, but a wide rubber band will do just as well. Highly recommended, especially if your bento lid is not completely secure.
Furoshiki is a sort of traditional Japanese cloth meant for wrapping and transporting gifts, clothes, food, and other such items. While originally used to keep bather’s clothes secure while at an onsen, furoshiki are most commonly used for wrapping and transporting bento. The cloth helps keep the bento secure, while also serving as a table mat when unwrapped.
Where to purchase bento supplies: My absolute favourite place that I recommend is Daiso, a Japanese dollar store that has just about everything (Japanese and otherwise) you could ever need. They sell all sorts of cute and colourful bento boxes, dividers, silicone cups, sauce containers in varying sizes, plenty of bento-appropriate utensils, lunch bags, and more. If there’s a Daiso near you, I highly recommend you go check it out! It’s a great place to pick up almost everything, from cheap kitchen supplies and inexpensive Japanese ceramics, to toys and house slippers.
If you don’t have a Daiso in your city, I have found that large Japanese or Asian grocery stores often carry a small selection of bento supplies. I have found such items at places like Mitsuwa and Super H Mart.
But, what if you don’t have access to the stores mentioned above? There’s always online shopping to help out, and while I’ve never bought any bento supplies over the internet, I have seen bento boxes and other equipment on sites such as Amazon and Bento & Co.
Kitchen supply stores, some local grocery stores, or dollar stores also tend to carry many bento items such as silicone baking cups (like cupcake liners), decorative picks, dividers, and sauce containers.