Now that you have your bento equipment ready, how should you go about filling your carefully chosen box? How much rice will you pack? What kinds of vegetables and meats should come together to make your meal? What proportions of meat, vegetables, and carbohydrates is suitable? How does colour come into play when constructing a bento? In what order should a bento be packed? And, what about food safety?
In this post, we’ll be exploring the various factors you will face while going about constructing your bento…. and, while the principles are simple, I hope they will serve as a useful guide as you begin your bento journey.
A bento can be divided into 4 categories of food types: carbohydrates, protein, vegetables, and fruit…. and, like any meal, it’s good to have a good mix of food types, both for a variety of flavours and to help create a balanced meal.
To help ensure your meal is consistently balanced, I recommend using a consistent ratio between the amount of carbohydrates, protein, and vegetables/fruits. In anime, a lot of bento seem to use a ratio of carbohydrates, protein, and vegetables/fruits of 4 : 2 : 2 (4 parts carbohydrates, 2 parts protein, 2 parts vegetables/fruits) or 3 : 2 : 1 (3 parts carbohydrates, 2 parts protein, 1 parts vegetables/fruits).
Of course, the ratios can always be adjusted to suit your dietary needs! I generally like to do a full 2 parts of only vegetables in the bento box, and separate the fruit portion out, either in a container (for cut or loose fruits like berries or fruit salad) or in the form of a whole piece of fruit (like an apple or banana).
Check out the pictures of bento in anime on my Tumblr for visual guidance about food proportions and ratios!
Here’s some examples of the 4 categories of food types that you could include in your bento:
Carbohydrates: Rice, bread, wraps, potatoes, pasta, noodles
Protein: Meats (chicken, pork, beef, etc.), fish and seafood (salmon, talapia, shrimp, etc.), eggs, tofu, beans, sausages
Vegetables: lettuces and other leafy greens (kale, bok choy, spinach, etc.), broccoli, peppers, green beans, squashes (zucchini, pumpkin, butternut squash, etc.)
Fruit: Apples, berries (blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, etc.), grapes, tomatoes, bananas, kiwis, etc.
Bento colour theory
Thinking about colour also helps to create not only a well balanced meal, but also a visually appealing one! Bold and bright colours from fresh vegetables and fruits can add highlights to an otherwise monotone meal in just a few small flourishes. Colour is also a great tool for encouraging picky eaters or children to eat their meal!
Colour also can help to ensure your meal is well proportioned, if only because going through the colour categories can remind you of food types you might be missing in your meal…. For example, if you find your bento is all one colour, this might be an indication that your meal is unbalanced in some way. Scanning the colour categories, in this case, can help fill in any nutritional gaps.
Using colour to organize your bento is more of a guideline than anything else. It’s meant to be used as a tool to help you when you need inspiration for what to add to your bento, or for double checking that your bento is well balanced.
Here’s some examples of the types of foods you might find in each colour category:
White – Rice, potato, daikon, tofu, noodles, pasta, bean sprouts, bread
Black/brown – shiitake mushrooms, seaweed (wakame, hijiki, nori), burdock root, blueberries
Green – lettuce, broccoli, green beans, edamame, leafy green vegetables, peas, zucchini, asparagus, kiwi
Red – tomato, red pepper, strawberries, apples, grapes, raspberries, sausages, ham, bacon, umeboshi
Yellow/orange – egg, corn, carrot, sweet potato, butternut squash, cantaloupe
Garnishes such as sesame seeds (black or white), chopped parsley, cilantro, or green onions, and furikake (a dried seasoning that is sprinkled over rice) can also be easily and quickly used to add visual interest and flavour to a bento.
Packing a bento
In my experience, the easiest way to pack a bento is to start with the bulkiest foods first, which generally the carbohydrates followed by the proteins. Fill in the remaining spaces with the more flexible foods, and then add accent foods for visual appeal.
Make sure to pack your bento tightly, using accent foods such as cherry tomatoes, small fruits, or broccoli to fill in any remaining gaps. Doing so will prevent the contents of your bento from shifting while in transit.
Using the picture above, here’s a simple example of what order to pack a bento:
1. Pack the rice – it’s the bulkiest item that takes up the most space in the bento… fitting it in later on will prove to be difficult.
2. Add some protein – in this case, the tamagoyaki is a bit bulky and is not very flexible, so adding it in later could be problematic.
3. Add in additional proteins and foods that are more flexible – here, the meatballs (upper right) and pasta (lower left) are placed in cups to keep them separated from the other foods, and to keep them from shifting around the bento while in transit. They’re more flexible than the tamagoyaki, but still a little bulky.
4. Vegetables and accent foods – broccoli is pretty flexible and can be easily inserted into the bento between all the other less flexible foods. A cherry tomato adds a nice bit of accent colour, and adds to the vegetable portion.
Like with any food preparation, it’s important to keep in mind food safety while making your bento. Use clean utensils and hands when placing foods into the bento, and make sure your container is clean and dry before filling it.
Since a bento is meant to be eaten at room temperature and is generally not refrigerated, food safety is a very important aspect to keep in mind when packing your meal. Take note of the weather (hot and humid environments promote faster bacteria growth, for example), and plan to carry an icepack or put your bento into a refrigerator when necessary.
Here are a few tips to help you keep your bento safe:
Cool food completely before closing the lid – this minimizes condensation/moisture and heat, which are both favourable environments for bacteria growth.
Keep foods dry – moisture promotes bacteria growth, so minimize the amount of sauce and liquid in your bento as a counter measure. Salad dressings and sauces can be placed into separate containers, and cups and dividers can help keep wetter foods separated from the other parts of your bento.
Avoid raw or undercooked fish or meat – sushi sure is delicious, but you might want to rethink packing it in your bento…. especially when a bento is generally consumed hours after it was initially packed! Meats should be cooked through, though some meats are usually safe if just cooked on the outside (like a beef steak that is still pink in the middle). When in doubt, either omit the food item in question from your bento all together, cook it throughly and completely, or add an icepack to help keep your food as fresh as possible.
Consider an icepack – an icepack isn’t necessary all the time, but is something to consider when the weather is hot, or you want a little added protection. If carrying a dedicated icepack is too cumbersome, try freezing a water bottle or juice box and using it as a makeshift icepack instead.
Keep it clean – clean and dry utensils, bento boxes, hands, and workspaces make it less likely that your food will become contaminated.