Bento Box Part 2

Bento Box Part 2

Earlier I posted about the Bento Box I am recommending to my clients and readers to help with healthy lunch prep. Grocery-shopping-days until school are rapidly dwindling, so without further adieu, here’s my Bento Box Starter Plan.

WARNING: If words like Mise en Place seem scary or overly fancy, feel free to scroll down to the Building Fundamentals and come back to the rest after you have dipped your toes into the Bento-building process.

Side Bar:  I am intentionally using “Bento” as a proper noun because I love them so much.

Mise en Place

Mise en place is the French culinary term which means “everything in its place.” Essentially, the Bento creates an orderly approach to lunch creation with it compartmentalized containers. Now, we need to prepare ourselves to create lunches that feed not just the belly, but the senses.

My mise en place begins with my refrigerator. Before I make a big shopping trip (with 5 kids, every shopping trip is a big one), I make a mental inventory of what’s already in the kitchen. This works for me in two ways:

  1. It minimizes food waste.
  2. It avoids the frustration of trying to figure out where to store the food purchased.

The next step is to create a grab-and-go fridge and pantry. I prep as many fruits and and veggies as possible. This means washing, slicing, and chopping carrots, celery, peppers and storing them in airtight containers (My go-to is Rubbermaid’s  Brilliance line. They are leakproof, seal tightly so that food stays fresh longer, and stack easily and without slipping.  I am not associated with Rubbermaid, nor paid for any endorsements, they just work well and I love sharing the love.). Thin-skinned produce such as tomatoes and berries rapidly degrade after rinsing, so hold off on prepping them until ready for use. Most fruits are ideally cut as close to serving time as possible, but pineapple and mango hold up reasonably well in the refrigerator for 3-4 days. Quinoa, pasta, and other grains can be cooked and then stored for 3-4 days.

Once the kitchen is well-stocked, creating Bentos can be a fun, creative experience. It can even take on a meditative quality as you focus on the foods you are choosing, their smells, textures, and tastes that they will bring to your meal. For parents interested in sharing lunch prep as quality time with their kiddos, building Bentos is a great choice.

Building Fundamentals

Mise en place is ideal, but in the real world, sometimes we have to look at Good/Better/Best.  Somedays “Good” is our “Best,” and I am just fine with that.

I like to start with using foods I already have on hand. Bentos are a great way to use the last bits of produce or leftovers. Don’t feel like you have to go on an all-out shopping extravaganza to make this happen. Start where you are at, add as you can. Here’s a general outline of what an ideal Bento will hold:

1 (or more) Vegetables (Cooked or Raw): celery, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers, sliced peppers, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, salad greens, green beans, beets, potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc.

We can save the discussion about the classification as fruits vs. vegetables vs. fungi for another post

1 (or more) Fruits: slices apples, oranges, or pears, pineapple or mango chunks, grapes, melon cubes, plums, no-sugar added apple sauce, raisins, dates, etc.

1 Leaner Protein: cubed, sliced, or shredded turkey, chicken beef, or pork; smoked salmon, cod, halibut, hard-boiled eggs, yogurt,  legumes (lentils, kidney beans, black beans, navy beans) etc.

Depending on the number of compartments you have, add more fruits or vegetables and from the following

Whole Grains: Quinoa, oats, kasha, rice, pasta, pasta salad, tortilla wraps, whole grain crackers, whole grain bread cut to fit your containers or used to make finger sandwiches.

Fattier Proteins: cheeses, nuts, seeds, nut butters, seed butters, avocado, etc.

Dips and Spreads and Other: guacamole, humus, nut and seed butters (almond, peanut, cashew, sunflower seed, etc), salad dressings, olive oil, marinara sauce, salsa, high-quality ranch or other favorite vegetable dip, olives, sauerkraut.

Leftovers: The tidbits that you might have thrown away before are now right-sized for your Bento!

So, you probably have an assortment of ingredients on-hand or now on your shopping list. Here are some template ideas for Bento Boxes based on a 6-compartment option:

Vegetarian

  1. Bean salad
  2. Sliced peppers
  3. Sliced cucumbers
  4. Almonds
  5. Grapes
  6. Feta cheese

Deli Box

  1. Sliced deli meat
  2. Whole grain crackers
  3. Cheddar cheese slice to fit crackers for stacking or cubed
  4. Sliced sweet peppers
  5. Slice apples
  6. Hummus

Breakfast-for-Lunch

  1. Scrambled or hard-boiled egg
  2. Sliced fresh, sauteéd,  or marinated mushrooms
  3. Tomatoes
  4. Baby Spinach
  5. Yogurt
  6. Berries

Italian

  1. Leftover pasta (add marinara sauce if desired)
  2. Mozzarella cheese (fresh or string)
  3. Zucchini (cooked or raw)
  4. Caesar salad (home made or from a bag)
  5. Cannelloni beans marinated in olive oil and balsalmic
  6. Dates

Bits and Bites

  1. Olives
  2. Slices carrots, celery, and cucumbers
  3. Black bean dip
  4. Ranch Dip
  5. Pita Chips
  6. Strawberries

Oh, No! I Have Practice/Rehearsal/Class That Will Last for 4 Hours. It May or May Not Conflict with Lunch or Dinner, and I May or May Not Be Hungry or Get a Proper Meal Break, Just Time for Nibbles

We had this put together in about five minutes, which included slicing the pepper and apple, and washing the blueberries. This is real life, real time, it happened while I was writing the post. If you look at the photos above, you can see where I “sourced” this bang-it-out-Bento. This was not a meditative process. True story.

The last theme is completely transparent and the one many of you can relate to. I hope it lets you know, you are not alone.

Part of the Bento beauty is the process of assembly. You’ll notice that I created titles for the suggestions above. It’s not necessary, but having a theme can provide some guidance. Turning to the flavor profiles of certain countries (Mexican Burrito Bento, anyone?) can be a great inspiration, but not necessary and certainly should provide a structure, not a mandate.

This goes for the compartments, too. Just because you have 6 compartments doesn’t mean they all need to be filled or that you need to eat everything you pack. One or two of the compartments may be for snacks for later in the day or hold condiments that may fall outside the items listed. We don’t always know exactly what our hunger level is going to be for a particular day, so if you overpack, save the less-perishable foods (like nuts, seeds, or crackers) for another time.

If you have kids in the kitchen, make it fun by making it easy. Clear the counter and make lots of room. If the kids are old enough to use a knife safely, include them on the slicing and dicing. If not, have the heavy lifting done before they join you. Creating a Bento Building Buffet may take some effort, but the work you put on the front end will translate to a great lunch, and leftovers should be easy to store and ready for the next lunch-making session, especially if you have good storage containers. As you put your box together, consider the smells, textures, colors, tastes, and even sounds (think of the crunch of celery) that each food will provide. It’s a mindful exercise that you may not always have the luxury of enjoying (see my real life Bento moment above), but over time, you will find you have favorite combinations, which in a pinch, you can pull together as quickly as I did this afternoon.