Bento Lunch Box Ideas: Step-by-Step Guide with Tons of Pictures & Recipe Ideas!
If your child is anything like how I was when I was a kid, then you must really dread meal times. My poor mother had to chase me around the kitchen, spoon in hand, to make sure I ate something. And then I would dash into the bedroom, lock the door, and start jumping on the bed to annoy her further. Mother had to scream, negotiate, threaten all sorts of punishments, and basically coax me to come out so she could feed me.
Good times, good times.
So, if you've got extremely picky eaters who hate everything you put out, you might want to try enticing them with bento meals. Creating bento box lunches are fun. They're also the perfect way to hide a variety of "disgusting" vegetables in meals.
If you're up for it, bentos can also serve as an outlet for your creative pursuits as well. Bentos don’t have to be complicated. Add a little green here, some red there, sprinkle seaweed around for much needed magnesium in your growing child's body, and you'll be good to go.
You could also get your child to pick and choose the items that goes into the box. For the little ones, you need to minimize injuries in the kitchen by pre-cutting the ingredients. But for the older kids, there won't be any problems getting them to put together their meals from scratch.
No matter what you decide, one thing's guaranteed: all kids love bentos.
I know I did. Mother's nightmares ended the day she made me a bento meal that looked exactly like Princess Ariel from Disney’s Little Mermaid.
Anyway, this super long blog post will provide you with everything you need to know about creating bento meals that shine. I'll show you the right tools to use, teach you how to pack your containers safely, and include plenty of food ideas that go well with bentos.
There are also 10 kid-approved bento recipes right at the bottom of this guide, so be sure to check those out.
I hope you'll enjoy reading this. From my kitchen to yours… enjoy!
Some Beautiful Bento Lunch Box Ideas
In Japan, it's common to pack single-portion home cooked meals in cute little boxed containers. Typical Japanese bento boxes have a starch, a protein, pickled item, or a cooked vegetable. In Western Culture, though, the contents of a bento box can include just about anything you want. You can make them as fancy or as simple as you like.
If you want to see a growing list of creative and amazing ideas, be sure to follow my Bento Lunch Box Ideas on Pinterest. Of course, many of those ideas take a lot of time, effort and skill. So, if you're a beginner, please don't feel pressured into thinking bento meals have to be difficult. Like I said, they can be as fancy or simple as you want.
Benefits of Using Bento Boxes (As Opposed to Normal Disposable Boxes)
- You'll Be Helping to Save the Environment (Let Your Child Know That!)
You'll not be adding plastic, paper, or other waste to the landfills. Everything your child brings to school will be brought home to be washed and reused again.
- The Portions Will Be Just Right
Eating the right amount of each food group can be difficult with a regular lunch box. But with a bento box, it's easy to portion out food to include vegetables, meat, rice, and a snack – without getting food all mushy.
- Solves Your Picky Eater Woes
Children, lovable as they are, are notorious for being picky eaters. With a bento meal, you can use a cookie cutter to make a star-shaped sandwich or a letter-shaping tool to cut words out that your child will gobble up with glee.
- Easy On the Pocket
School lunches are just not value for money. First, the dollar amount for what you get is ridiculous. Secondly, the lunches served are mostly made up of processed food. This can cause your child to gain weight and fall sick more often than not.
- Offers So Much Fun!
Children will love the colorful boxes, interesting shapes of their food, and the variety they can get inside their lunches. They'll be so excited to open up their box each day as if it’s a precious gift from mom (or dad).
- Encourages Healthier Meals
Bentos are usually colorful… and fruits and vegetables are what bring out such colors.
- Bonding Time With Your Child
Once your child has a bento box, they might be more interested in preparing their own lunches than running away during meal times. As your children go about cutting and decorating food, you'll be there next to them, chatting and supervising as they go along. How fun is that?
Need Some Tools for Your Bento Box Meals? Here Are Some Ideas
With so many cheap containers in all sorts of shapes and sizes these days, I guess it wouldn't hurt purchasing any that catches your eye.
You can find bento boxes at stores such as Easy Lunch boxes, Bento & Co. and Amazon. And besides the actual boxes, there are also other interestingly-shaped boxes like bears and rabbits for you to choose from.
If you're not looking to purchase bento boxes, you may still want to consider getting a few extra tools to help make your bento creations prettier. Although buying such tools aren't necessary, they do allow you to go the extra mile.
With a letter-shaping tool, for example, you'll be able to cut letters out of fruits, carrots, or cheese. Imagine how excited your children will be when they open up their lunch boxes to see their name spelled out in front of them.
Or if your child is having difficulty learning a new word for his spelling test, then go ahead and cut the letters out to place it in his lunch box. The more exposure he has to the word, the higher the chances of him learning how it’s spelled!
Here are some good bento making tools I've tried.
Food Ideas: What to Pack Into Bento Box Meals
When coming up with a list of bento lunch box ideas, you should first take into account the environment your child will be eating in. So, cold food should stay cold and hot should remain hot. But if there is the ability to heat up food, then you can always keep the food cold so that it can be re-heated.
Later on, I'll show you how you can go about packing food safely depending on whether it needs to be heated up or not. For now, let's take a look at some food ideas that go well with bento meals.
- Black Bean Burgers
If you decide to make black bean burgers, you don't have to make them the traditional "burger" shape. You can instead crumble the bean burger into a rolled tortilla that can be eaten easily using fingers. At the same time, add some shredded carrots for color, sweetness, and some vitamin A.
- Chicken Quesadillas
Any type of Quesadilla can be made and then cut with a cookie cutter to make bite-sized pieces that are easy to pick up with small fingers.
- Ham Sandwiches
You can use crackers or Melba toast to make a couple of small sandwiches, or skip the bread and use lettuce to wrap the ingredients.
Anything can be put in a wrap and then sliced to look like small sushi rolls. With wraps, you get to make everything from tacos to veggie rollups to pizza. The possibilities are endless.
Whether it's cooked meats, veggies, fruits or even sweet treats, there are so many ways to make kebabs that fit perfectly into a bento box.
You can put noodles and various sauces in different partitions of your bento box without worrying about the noodles becoming all mushed up by lunchtime. (I'll show you which box to use below.)
- Finger Veggies
Remember to pack some finger veggie sticks with every lunch. Veggies are great for energy, good carbs and they're loaded with essential vitamins. While carrots, celery, and cucumbers are all good choices, almost any veggie can also be eaten raw.
- Dipping Sauces
Always include some dipping sauces since children love to dip things (especially veggies). You can make healthy dipping sauces by combining fruit with seeds and spices in your blender.
- Rice or Quinoa
This is a great addition to any lunch and will look great inside the bento box, especially with some shredded veggies stirred in. You can even get tools to mold your rice into fun and creative shapes.
- Salad Bar
By making use of different containers in your bento box, you could create a mini salad bar for your child with the ingredients they love. The salad can contain fruit, beans, grains, and veggies – so don't just stick to iceberg lettuce, okay?
- Yogurt and Fruit Chunks
Yogurt and fruit chunks always make a yummy combination. They can also serve as dessert at the end of lunch.
- Something Special
Always put something special inside your child's meal. A nice dark chocolate is always appreciated.
How to Pack a Bento Box Meal Without Sauce Dripping All Over
The best way to pack a bento box is to first look at the type of box you have. Some boxes are partitioned while others are not. Some have smaller containers that go inside the main bento box while others are stackable.
Here's a run-down of the different types of boxes available. Knowing your options is important as that will help you make the best choice when packing leak-proof lunches for your children.
- Partitioned Boxes
Partitioned boxes are excellent for a mini salad bar as they keep the ingredients from mashing together. This keeps the veggies crisp, the food presentable, and allows your child to build their lunch as they eat.
- Plain Boxes
Plain boxes are what you should use if you need to keep food hot or cold. Such boxes will allow your child to reheat food all at once and they're also a convenient way to keep food from touching something that would ruin the flavor.
- Little Containers
Some bento boxes have one main box with many smaller containers to put inside the main box. This is very convenient as your child can remove and heat up what needs to be heated, and keep cold what needs to be kept cold. These containers are a step up from the normal plain boxes mentioned above.
- Stackable Boxes
Some stackable bento boxes include partitioned boxes as well as plain boxes and even little containers. It's the best of all 3 worlds.
Here's a simple yet sturdy lunch box from Komax that's leak-proof, and kid-friendly. You can put liquids inside without worrying about anything spilling out.
- Use Lemon Juice
You may want to try drizzling a bit of lemon juice on banana slices, avocados, or apple slices if you don't want them to turn brown.
- Watch For Mixing Liquids
Not all bento boxes are leak-proof, so keep that in mind while packing your kid's lunches. Always go with a sturdy bento box whenever possible as that will give you more food options.
Safely Packing Your Child's Bento Boxes: Foods to Avoid
Not everything can be eaten at room temperature as some food are best kept hot, while others are best kept cold. You'll also need to know if your child has access to a microwave or fridge in school. Some schools have rules about not bringing peanut products to school too since people actually die if they have a peanut allergy, and accidentally eat some.
With all that in mind, here are some tips to take note of when packing a bento box meal.
- Leave Out Raw Meat or Fish
It's too risky to include raw foods in your child's lunches no matter how cold you keep them. If you're looking to pack sushi, try using smoked salmon in place of any other fish.
- No Undercooked Meat
It's easy to accidentally undercook meat or fish, so it's best to just leave these out. Another option is to use a cooking thermometer to test for doneness before packing such foods for lunch.
- No Undercooked Tofu
Moist non-animal proteins can pose a danger when they're undercooked, especially when they're kept in a tight space where bacteria can grow.
- No Undercooked Beans
Just like undercooked tofu, beans are full of protein and therefore pose the risk of becoming full of bacteria when not cooked properly.
- Leftover Rice Can Be Dangerous
Always use freshly prepared rice instead of rice that's been left too long in the fridge. Leftover rice can become bacteria-filled quickly if not handled properly.
- Select Your Condiments Carefully
For hygiene's sake, it's best to pack condiments that are already pre-packaged like what you'd find at a fast food restaurant.
- Use Ice Packs When Appropriate
If there are any foods that have to be kept cool, you should put ice packs in and around the bento box.
- Divide Different Foods With Green Leaves
You can use fresh parsley and lettuce as dividers for different types of food. The antibacterial properties found in such leaves will help keep food safe.
- Include Some Pickled Items
In Japan, bento box meals usually include a pickled plum. In the same vein, you should also include pickled items in boxed meals. This is not solely for tradition’s sake but to reduce the chances of the rest of the food going bad.
- Use Salt
Salt is a known preservative so using some in lunch box meals will help keep food fresher for longer.
- Use Sugar Wisely
Sugar is yet another preservative so remember to sprinkle some on your child’s meal (not too much though). If you want to minimize sugar in your child's diet, you can consider using raw honey instead. Honey has a whole ton of antibacterial properties and it tastes really good!
- Use An Insulated Thermal Carrying Package
There are insulated and thermal carrying cases made specially for bento boxes that you can use to keep food hot or cold.
Just make sure food is either piping hot or freezing cold when you pack them in.
- Get Creative With Liquids
Finding containers with lids tight enough to store liquid can sometimes be tricky. However, these cute little bottles here may be what you're looking for. They're also great for storing salad dressings.
- Get Some Antibacterial Sheets
You should use these antibacterial lunch box sheets to help keep food safe. But don't think everything will be all fine and dandy as long as you use these sheets. Remember to use them in addition to the tips mentioned above.
Packing bento box meals safely is not difficult. So, just because you've read a whole bunch of safety concerns in regards to packed lunches, it doesn't mean they're inherently more dangerous. Any sort of food needs to be handled and packed carefully with safety in mind, yes?
Packing Bento Boxes Ahead of Time to Avoid the Morning Rush
If you don't have time to pack lunch in the mornings before your child heads off to school, you'll be glad to know it's pretty easy to pack meals ahead of time.
Here are some ideas...
- Make Use Of Your Freezer
Before freezing food, remember to cut them into the appropriate sizes since you'll want the food to be able to fit into your bento box.
- Make Food In Batches
Cook extra veggies, extra rice, and plan your bento boxes around the food your family will be eating for dinner.
- Keep The Rainbow In Mind
In order to ensure your bento box meal is healthy, you'll need to remember the rainbow as you prepare. The more colorful your meals are, the more vitamins they'll have and the more flavorful they'll turn out.
- Make Use Of A Weekly Meal Planner
When you write your grocery list for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the family, think about your bento boxes and which items go well together. Each bento box should contain a protein, a starch, a veggie and maybe something sweet. It's all about balance.
These beautiful magnetic pads will help you stay on top of your grocery list!
- Don't Stress Out!
If you've seen what some mothers in Japan have managed to do with food, you may feel overwhelmed. If you try copying them, you'll eventually stress yourself out.
Those boxes you see take years of skill to recreate. It's a great place to be at when you get there, but don't fret if you're not at that stage yet.
If you happen to have a special talent for creating beautiful food art, great! Otherwise, just do the best you can with whatever you have. The important things to focus on for now are balance and flavor.
10 Kid-Friendly Bento Box Meal Recipes Just For You!
If I haven't stressed it enough, remember just about anything goes when it comes to bento meals. Many of the recipes you see below can be prepared ahead of time and simply added to the box when it's time to pack lunch.
I've also tried focusing on the most "picky-proof" ingredients possible. But then again, every child is different. You know what your children like best so feel free to modify these recipes as you go along. The most important things is lunch gets eaten, right?
So, this sums up the whole bento-making process from food ideas to tools to recipes you can recreate. I hope you enjoyed reading the guide and send me your creations too - I'd love to see what you've managed to come up with!