I lived in Japan for four years and one of my many happy discoveries (and there were many!) was a delicious box of goodness called obento 弁当. An obento box is a single serving, home-prepared or take-out meal usually served at lunch time. Beyond being delicious and healthy, home prepared obento boxes are waste-free and a wonderful example of sustainable living.
Where western culture picnic or lunch boxes might include food wrapped in plastic bags, plastic wrap or foil, food in obento boxes is placed in the box without any additional wrapping. This waste-free approach is one of the important reasons I am drawn to obento boxes. Read more here about why limiting plastic in our daily lives is so important.
An obento box often has two or more compartments, either in one large container or with two or three layers stacked on top of each other. The main ingredient used in an obento is rice accompanied by a protein such as tofu, meat or beans; cooked and pickled vegetables and fruit. Rolled omelet is another popular option. As you can see from the photos, presentation is always important in an obento! Food is freshly made each day with presentation being a high priority. If you’ve ever spent time in Japan, you’ll know that presentation is considered valuable and meaningful, even in the basic aspects of life (another thing I love about Japan!).
Obento boxes are carried by children to school and often by adults to work. During sakura season, when the cherry trees blossom, entire communities pack beautiful obento boxes and picnic under the blossoming trees known as an hanami party.
Back in the 16th century, obentos were often made of exquisite wooden lacquered boxes and used at hanami parties and other special events. Other versions were simpler bamboo boxes used by travelers and carried on a belt. It is thought the first commercial bento box was sold at a train station – ekibentō 駅弁当 – in the late 1880’s. The first time my daughter and I took the Shinkansen train to Tokyo, I remember an attendant coming down the aisles selling obento boxes to the passengers. This is when I discovered that ‘fast food’ doesn’t have to be highly processed and full of fat and salt.
Today, bento boxes can be purchased in all types of materials ranging in price from inexpensive plastic to metal, lacquered wood or hand carved antique wooden boxes costing thousands of dollars. The vast amount of bento boxes range in the $10-$40 range depending on size and quality. I recommend skipping the plastic options. Not purchasing plastic encourages companies to look for alternative materials that are more sustainable. Net Zero Company has some great metal options for everyday use that are guaranteed to be leak-proof. (affiliate link)
Obento boxes are prepared fresh each morning. This does require scheduling time in the morning to prep and pack the boxes. I’m not a morning person, so adding anything else to my morning is painful! But with a little planning and bulk cooking on the weekends, packing your bento box doesn’t need to be overly time consuming.
How to Pack the Box
A traditional bento contains carbs, protein, vegetables and fruit.
- Pack rice or preferred carb first in approximately 50% of the box.
- Pack 25% of the box with protein
- Pack the remaining 25% of the box with veggies and fruit
Depending on your preferences, or foods available, switch to all vegetables or all fruits for 25% of the box. Most importantly, pack the box to fit your needs.
Variety is important in Japanese cuisine. The Japanese value several small dishes, rather than a large quantity of one or two foods.
Therefore, bento’s might contain several edamame, one broccoli and one cauliflower for vegetables and two strawberries and several blueberries for the fruit. Variety adds far more nutritional value and the colors awaken the palate. Japanese dishes are designed to be both visually appealing as well as delicious in taste.
The trick to a successful bento is to pack it tightly so the food doesn’t move around. To keep wet foods separate from dry foods, food cups are used. There are also food ‘walls’ or dividers to separate foods from each other. These cups and walls are often silicone, but lettuce or kale leaves can also be used to keep foods separate.
Bento boxes aren’t designed to be reheated. Food is prepared fresh in the morning and then eaten at room temperature at lunch time. Many modern boxes, however, now come with ice packs built into a top layer to keep your box chilled during the day. This can be helpful if you’ll be outdoors or it will be several hours before eating the meal. Japanese chef, Namiko Hirasawa Chen, has a great post on her blog, Just One Cookbook, giving step-by-step instructions on creating bento lunches based on her childhood in Yokohama.
In Japan, children are enticed to eat their healthy meal by presenting the food is a fun and whimsical manner. Although these presentations look time consuming and complicated, with a few inexpensive and easy to use bento tools, you too can be surprising your children with delightful meals.
One of the most helpful gadgets is the rice mold. Simply add rice, close and press, and your rice transforms into an adorable animal! Likewise, there are a variety of molds for making hard boiled eggs into all sorts of shapes and creatures not even the pickiest of eaters will be able to resist. Another option is small food cutters that turn slices of carrots or radishes into flowers and simple sandwiches into star wars characters.
Wrap your bento box in a large cloth, furoshiki style 風呂敷, and you have a built in table cloth or napkin for your meal. No waste eating at its best! The furoshiki knot at the top also provides a great handle if you’ll be carrying your box to a favorite picnic spot.
Ditch the plastic bags, foil and other disposables and adopt the time-honored approach of packing an obento box for lunch or your next picnic. This no waste approach to eating will make your meal taste even more delicious.