You can pack your bento lunch any which way you like, but you may find my American take on the traditional Japanese approach useful (especially when packing bentos in a hurry). When putting a bento together, I try to keep the 3:2:1 ratio in mind (3 parts grains, 2 parts fruits/veggies, and 1 part protein). I also try to include a bit of dairy to balance things out.
Grains come first. It’s key to include some into your meal – I know carbs may have a bad rep, but they’re vital to fueling your body for the day (and there are plenty of healthy whole grain options to choose from).
I chose to pack last night’s leftovers, which includes whole grain penne mixed with green onions, bell peppers, and pasta sauce. It’s always a good idea to integrate vegetables into a dish when possible. My style of bento box has its own removable compartment which comes in handy when heating only part of your lunch and not the rest. Also, notice how the pasta portion takes up about a third of the bento – in a traditional Japanese bento, about half of the meal would be rice, but I find this approach better suited to my needs.
Next comes the main dish. In my case, it’s a whole wheat wrap with turkey, lettuce, and cheese.
We now have added a vegetables, protein, and a little bit of dairy to balance out the meal. It’s important to pack your main dish second because it’s often a food item that is larger and less flexible in shape than other items that can be placed in gaps and corners of your bento. Wraps and sandwiches are also a great way of incorporating various flavors, colors, and textures into your meal (which is also a major part of “bento-ing”). In addition, I used a simple twisty skewer to secure my wrap closed, and to also dress up my bento a bit! You can use a variety of different cut outs, decorative skewers and food separators to add a personal touch to your lunch (especially when catering to picky eaters).
Packing your side dish comes next. I’m using a silicone cupcake mold to separate my side dish from my main dish (they’re an extremely useful tool in bento-making).
I’ve packed a dollop of cottage cheese topped with strawberry slices. It’s now incorporating a healthy fruit option, it’s adding a bit of dairy, and it’s also my way of including a light dessert. I find it important to pack a little something special to perk up any bento lunch.
Now it’s time to fill the gaps. Packing your bento tightly is essential. A loosely packed bento will often shift, spill, and mix it’s contents ruining what you had so carefully packed.
I’m using broccoli florets to fill my gaps (with a touch of Italian dressing for a little extra flavor). You can use a variety of gap fillers like cherry tomatoes, strawberries, orange slices, and grapes.
Following this approach can be a huge time-saver when packing lunches for the day. If you know what goes where, all you have to do is pick and choose from the fridge and you’re American bento lunch is ready to go!