Packing a lunch box doesn’t seem as flashy and exciting as some of the meal options that are readily available at just the swipe of your phone. Packed lunches can sometimes get a bad rap as boring or uncool, but this need not be the case. If you’re curious about how you can add some pizzazz to your next lunch, try the convenience and creativity found in homemade bento boxes. They are an enjoyable and budget-friendly option for any age.
Bento boxes are Japanese-style portable lunches that typically contain single-serving portions of rice or noodles, fish or some other protein and various vegetables and fruits. The small portions allow for a balanced meal consisting of a variety of nutrients, while the small bento box packaging makes it the perfect to-go lunch for school or work. They are easily customizable and can be as simple or complex as one desires.
Because of their rise in popularity in areas outside of East Asia in recent years, you can usually find an array of bento boxes at most local retail stores that carry kitchen goods. They can range in price from $3 up to $35 depending on the material they’re made from. Some common types of bento boxes are bamboo, stainless steel, plastic and glass. They can come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and some are even made to be stackable. Although bento boxes are usually made to be eaten at room temperature, you can also find thermal and microwave-safe containers if needed.
When it comes to planning your lunch, think about the flavors that you enjoy the most. Start with a protein and build around it with sides that incorporate a variety of textures and colors. For example, a favorite simple addition to my son’s bento box includes ham and cheese tortilla rolls. This is paired with seasonal fruit and veggies and other bite-sized portions of his favorite foods.
If you’d like to try something different than a typical sandwich or salad for lunch, try the onigiri recipe featured on our website. Onigiri is a Japanese rice ball that is sometimes filled with meat, such as tuna. They are fun to make and even more enjoyable to eat. I like to pack my onigiri in bentos with lettuce, fresh sliced veggies and fruit.
The beauty of a modern bento box lunch is that you can add whatever you want to it. Not only that, but the small portions allow for the opportunity to try new combinations of foods. If you’re still not sure where to begin, try finding inspiration on Pinterest or YouTube. You can also find great bento box-focused accounts on Instagram or TikTok. Gather more inspiration from our list of creative bento box ideas and try one for yourself. The key is to be curious and stay open to different possibilities. ::
10 Creative Bento Box Ideas
- Breakfast style: waffles, mini pancakes or French toast sticks, side of fruit, sausages and syrup
- Deconstructed salad: sliced avocado, hard boiled eggs, lettuce, cherry tomatoes and a side of ranch
- Mini cheeseburgers with baked sweet potato fries and a watermelon wedge
- Fried rice with mini egg rolls and edamame
- Mini meatballs, penne pasta and marinara sauce with mozzarella cheese pearls and steamed veggies
- Spring rolls with pickled daikon and carrot slaw
- Mini chicken kebabs with pita bread and tzatziki
- Grilled chicken burrito bowls with black beans, rice, cheese, pico de gallo and shredded lettuce
- Spam musubi with diced pineapple, sliced bell peppers and carrot sticks
- Tea sandwiches, apple wedges, almonds and cheese cubes
Bento Box Tips
- Save time by prepping ingredients the night before.
- Have your kids help pick out their food choices and fill their own bentos.
- Use small containers or pouches for sauces and dips to keep food from getting soggy.
- Use silicone cupcake liners as reusable dividers to keep different foods separated.
- Cut sandwiches, fruit and cheese into fun shapes with cookie cutters.
- Keep applesauce and yogurt pouches handy for when you’re in a pinch.
- Try varieties of raw, pickled, sauteed and steamed veggies as side dishes.
- Go to the local farmer’s market to purchase fresh seasonal produce for your bento.
- Make sure you allow cooked items time to cool before placing them into your bento box to avoid bacterial growth, or use a thermal insulated bento for warm foods.
- Place the bento box inside of an insulated bag with an ice pack.
- Pack a bento lunch for your next picnic or day trip.
(Japanese Rice balls)
Makes 8 medium rice balls
4 cups cooked short grain white sushi rice, cooled
¼ tsp. and ¹/8 tsp. salt
1 5 oz. can tuna, drained
1-2 Tbsp. mayonnaise
Nori (roasted seaweed)
Furikake seasoning (optional)
Rice ball mold (optional)
Cook rice according to the package directions; once cooled, mix in ¼ tsp. salt and set aside. Add one drained can of tuna to a medium sized bowl and mix in 1 Tbsp. mayonnaise. Add more mayonnaise if you desire a creamier consistency. Season the tuna mixture with ¹/8 tsp. salt and a dash of pepper and garlic powder. Once rice has cooled, add a small amount to the bottom of rice mold, if using, then add 1 Tbsp. of the tuna mixture and top with more rice. Compress the rice ball in the mold until the desired shape is formed. Carefully remove the rice ball and add a small section of roasted seaweed to the outer bottom portion. If you’d like, you can add furikake seasoning to the outside of the rice ball. Continue to make more rice balls with the remainder of the rice and tuna mixture. Serve warm or at room temperature. For the best quality, eat within 4 hours of preparing. Refrigerate any leftovers for up to 3 days.
:: If not using a rice mold, simply mold the rice into a triangle by hand. Make sure rice is not too hot to the touch before handling. Lightly dampen your hands with water and shape ¼ cup cooked rice into the desired form.
:: Get curious and add different fillings to your rice balls. Shredded smoked salmon, a small teriyaki flavored meatball, diced fried Spam or a small amount of shredded barbecued meat are delicious additions to your onigiri. You can also add some of the crushed seaweed to your rice with a bit of sauteed diced carrot before shaping it into a triangle.
:: Have fun with molding the rice into different shapes. In addition to the traditional triangle shape, you can make rounded circular balls, small cylinders and flat, round rice patties. You can even find different molds online to make unique shapes like hearts and cute little bunnies or bears. There are many options to make your rice balls the highlight of your bento box lunch.
Ham and Cheese Tortilla Rolls
2 slices deli cheese
2 flour tortillas
4 slices deli ham
2–4 Tbsp. whipped cream cheese
Green leaf lettuce (optional)
Spread the cream cheese on one side of each tortilla. Add 2 slices of ham and 1 slice of cheese to the center of each tortilla. If you are using lettuce, add this to the center of the tortillas as well. Roll the tortillas tightly into cylinders using the cream cheese as a binder to keep the rolls from unraveling. Cut the tortilla rolls into bite-sized coins. Serve immediately or refrigerate up to 1 day for best quality.
:: Get curious and customize your rolls with something different. Try adding some sliced bell peppers or pickled vegetables for a pop of color and texture. Mix in different seasonings to your cream cheese mixture to play with the flavor profile of your tortilla rolls. Add a variety of different deli meats and cheeses to make them your favorite go-to lunch box addition.