Partitioned dining may remind you of a TV dinner from the 60s, but compartmental lunches can actually be appetizing, healthy, and appealing. All the rage with the K-5 crowd, bento boxes are gaining steam as a perfectly portioned, creative, fun way to pack and serve lunch — and they’re not just for kids. The bento box hails from Japan and first hit the scene in the sixteenth century. Cuteness is the name of the game in the current trend of bento lunch making: Food is often shaped into animals, flowers, or cartoon characters, though the adorable feast sometimes take longer to prepare than to scarf down. Here we’ve rounded up 33 bento ideas (sans cartoon faces) for kid-friendly, healthy lunches that could also easily fit in at the office.
Time to Get Lunchin’ — Creative Lunches On-the-Go
Photo: Lizzie / Veggie Bento Love
1. Naked Black Bean Burgers
Ditch the bun in favor of this healthy burger in a box with all the fixings. These mini black bean patties are swirled with one of our favorite condiments (Sriracha hot sauce). Serve ‘em up on top of a pile of lettuce, avocado, peppers, cukes, and an individual gluten-free brownie on the side for dessert.
3. Summer Squash Sauté
The main feature of this box — summer squash sauté — highlights summer produce including zucchini, squash, basil, and tomatoes. This is a perfect dish to whip up in the Crock-Pot then freeze for future lunch portions.
4. Ham Sammie
This simple bento is primarily sandwich, though we have to applaud the presentation. This meal is as easy as layering ham, cheese, and lettuce between two slices of whole-wheat bread, and filling the remaining space in the box with a couple of veggies and a low-calorie wedge of cheese (such as Laughing Cow).
5. Paleo Breakfast Bento
This paleo-friendly combo takes nearly no manpower. Simply combine one hard-boiled egg, a handful of almonds (such as these cocoa dusted ones!), a few chunks of beef jerky, and a ton of berries. When purchasing jerky, stick to organic brands without preservatives or nitrates for a healthier version (or try making your own).
6. Bean and Rice Wrap
Whole-wheat tortillas make for a perfect bento stuffer. This one is jam-packed with black beans, rice, spinach, cilantro, and cheddar for a fiber-filled, budget-friendly main meal. We have to admit, the artsy veggie chopping looks pretty ambitious — we won’t judge if you leave the pairing knife in the drawer.
7. Salmon Salad and Sweet Potato
Opt for the grown-up version of tuna salad with this sweet and savory salmon version studded with dried cranberries. This bento features separate compartments of vitamin C-packed sweet potato and broccoli. The fourth compartment — a wrap filled only with a pickle — is a little strange, but we don’t hate it!
8. Homemade Taco Cups
Much like the ingenuity of the salad bar bento, the taco cup bento is a fun make-your-own lunch idea (plus it keeps crispy taco shells from getting soggy). Stuff each container with standard taco fixins — shredded lettuce, tomato, shredded cheese, guac, and anything else you fancy. Use multigrain scoop-style tortilla chips as shells, or make your own version by cutting out rounds of a whole-wheat tortilla and baking them in a mini muffin tin.
9. Soy-Lime Tofu and Rice
Turn tofu into a tasty treat with soy sauce and fresh limejuice. The other compartments are simple: strawberries, orange slices, and steamed sugar snap peas. Rice balls make eating the heart-healthy grain a cinch for lunch on the go.
10. Raw Veggie Roll-Ups
The grown-up sandwich returns! These sushi look-alikes use whole-wheat lavash as the base (tortillas would work too) and hold avocado, spinach, carrots, and cucumber in the middle. Recommendation: Go easy on the balsamic vinegar (or use a thicker condiment, such as mustard instead) so the bread doesn’t become soggy by noon.
This bento is less about compartmentalizing different food groups than it is about beautiful presentation. The classic caprese — tomato, mozzarella, and basil — is layered in columns for a multicolor bento that makes a perfect snack or appetizer. For a more substantive meal, feel free to layer in thinly-sliced chicken or turkey.
12. Pizza Wheels
These mini wraps pay homage to pizza, but they look more appetizing than a cold slice wrapped in foil (plus, there’s no reheating required!). On the side, pack colorful veggies with dressing to dip.
13. Sweet Potato Latkes
These potato latkes are a fresh variation of the Chanukah favorite. Instead of regular old russets, the recipe calls for sweet potato (or orange yam), known for high levels of potassium. Make a double batch ahead and freeze the leftovers for future bento boxes.
14. Salmon and Marinated Shrimp Salad
For a full on omega-3 fix, this bento is ideal. Marinate cooked shrimp overnight in an onion, garlic, oregano, and olive oil mixture. Toss smoked salmon on top in the morning, and the meal’s done! A bed of salad greens adds a little color (and, well, good-for-you stuff including vitamins A, C, K, and folate).
Photo: Sommer Collier / A Spicy Perspective
15. Turkey Rollups, Fruit, and Slaw
This snacky bento box is like a healthified lunchables (ya know, minus the gross rounds of “deli meat”). Rolls of cracked-pepper turkey and cubes of cheddar make up the main compartment, while sliced peaches and a handful of cherries fill two more. The last container holds an easy slaw of carrots, scallions, and cabbage.
16. Penne Ricotta
This meatless bento spotlights a veggie-packed summer pasta salad with carrots, asparagus, green beans, snow peas, and a light ricotta dressing. For a more filling lunch, feel free to add beans, lentils, or another protein of your choice.
17. Quinoa Salad, Daikon Radish, and Edamame
This four-part bento is full of protein with a mini omelet, quinoa salad, and edamame — which has nearly nine grams of protein per half cup serving. Usually available year round, with peak seasons in the Spring and late Fall, the pretty watermelon daikon radish tastes sweeter than its spicier counterparts.
18. Falafel Wrap
Falafel, small balls or patties usually made from ground chickpeas, tend to take a bath in the deep fryer (meaning a potential healthy food becomes not-so-healthy in a flash). Instead, bake the fiber-filled morsels. Pair the falafel, in a wrap or on its own, with hummus, tahini (sesame seed paste), and sliced veggies.
19. Apricot-Pecan Penne
Penne trades tomato sauce for a tangy, sweet apricot, feta, and pecan mixture. This bento shows how leftovers make for the perfect bento main dish. For sides, try deviled eggs, snow peas, and grapes.
20. Baked Tofu and Potato Salad
Skewers are a great bento accessory. They make eating easier while also keeping the tofu contained to one section of the box without a partition. The potato salad is incredibly simple with just four ingredients: potatoes, pepper, pickles, and chipotle mayo. For a healthier potato salad, we like adding plain Greek yogurt in place of mayo.
21. Peanut Butter and Banana Roll-Ups
This fruit-focused bento includes bananas, blueberries, grapes, kiwi, and carrots for good measure. Representing one of the most delicious combinations ever, tiny whole-wheat wraps are stuffed with banana and peanut butter. Sorry, Elvis, no bacon here.
22. Sweet Potato and Edamame Quinoa with Miso Dressing
The healthy salad featured in this bento concentrates on three seriously good-for-you foods. Sweet potatoes are loaded with fiber and vitamins A and C, and quinoa and edamame bring on the protein. The salad is served with chicken and pita bread for snacking on (or filling with the salad).
23. Nectarine and Chicken Bulgur Salad
Bulgur, another derivative of wheat, has tons of fiber — eight grams per one cup serving — which beats out quinoa, oats, and corn. This fiber-filled bulgur salad incorporates mint leaves and cumin-seasoned chicken.
24. Mini French Picnic
Who needs a picnic blanket (and ants) to eat picnic-inspired foods? Ya, neither do we. This picnic-in-a-bento-basket includes baby pickles, blueberries, soft brie, tomatoes, and a vegan sandwich made with meatless turkey and ham alternatives (though the meat-eaters out there could easily substitute the real stuff).
25. Mushrooms, Barley, and Brie
This bento demonstrates the benefit of cooking a giant batch of a grain, and repurposing it for lunches and dinners throughout the week. This barley is jazzed up with sautéed mushrooms, pine nuts, and dried cranberries. Served on the side is a creamy cannellini bean spread with bell pepper slices for dipping, as well as a few slices of brie.
26. Green Pea Burgers and Veggie Brown Rice
These burgers are as verdant as a most of the fare served on St. Patty’s Day, but it’s certainly suitable for lunch any day of the week. The main ingredient in the mini patties: frozen peas. Budget-friendly veggie-rice leftovers make up the remainder of the bento.
27. Chicken and Pepper Rice Cooker Bento
Though we love the Crock-Pot for super easy meal prep, we’ve got to hand it to the rice cooker for simple lunch-making. Toss rice, bell peppers, chicken, and seasonings into the rice cooker, then sit back and relax.
28. Ants On a Log
Ants on a log aren’t just for kindergarteners. This bento combines the celery sticks (topped with peanut butter and raisins) with sliced peaches and yogurt. We like this grouping for a post workout snack.
29. Rainbow Bento
Taste the rainbow with this artistic arrangement of tomatoes, carrots, grilled corn, and peas. This snack bento layers the vegetables and grain into colorful rows. We’re also a big fan of the side of Goldfish.
30. Lightened-Up Pesto Fettuccine
While pesto — albeit delicious — is generally a calorie bomb, this version gets a healthier makeover. Silken tofu adds thickness to the sauce that gets its color from basil and Swiss chard. The fettuccine isn’t all noodle: It’s a perfect driver for vegetables including zucchini and tomatoes.
31. Salad Bar Bento
Instead of showing up to work with a haphazard mess of salad slop (even if it looked appetizing in the morning), sectioning off each veggie, grain, and green prevents salad from going soggy. Fill each compartment with seeds, nuts, cooked grains, and sliced and diced veggies, and combine In any way you like when lunchtime hits.
32. Egg Salad with Blueberry-Banana Yogurt
Each of the four compartments of this bento is a mini healthy snack, which when combined makes for a solid lunch. Blueberries, bananas, and yogurt combine for one section, toast and pistachios fill another, and broccoli and tomatoes fill the third. And in the forth is an aesthetically pleasing egg salad (because, well, egg salad isn’t exactly the most attractive concoction).
33. Chicken Nugget Pita Pockets
This bento takes all of five minutes to whip up. Toss fruit of choice into one compartment and carrots into another. The main meal — a pita pocket filled with chicken tenders lettuce, and whatever sauce you like — can be whipped up with store-bought goods or ones made from scratch. To make your own, grill up some chicken tenders. If you go store-bought, try a natural version such as Applegate’s antibiotic- and preservative-free nuggets.
THINK INSIDE THE BOX
So you want to take up a career in bento-box making (or just want really pretty lunches). Where to start? We’ve rounded up some of the most popular bentos out there — they’re eco-friendly (see ya later sandwich baggies!) and make lunch prep a cinch.
This stainless steel box is definitely one of the priciest out there — but it’s also sleek and adorable. The box itself is partitioned and includes one lidded container, a glass dish, and a soft carry bag. Extra containers are available separately.
The illustrations inside this plastic box are sort of silly, but we like the pre-separated sections. The tray is divided into five ½ cup portions illustrated with the key food groups: fruit, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy, plus a tiny compartment for a treat, dressing, or dip.
These stainless steel lunchboxes come in four arrangements ranging from the “uno” (one compartment) to the “quad” (four compartments). This option is best for dry foods because lids are not watertight.
Fit & Fresh
This plastic set up perfectly houses a sandwich or salad on the bottom container, while two compartments on the top hold snacks or sides perfectly. Plus, the lid has a removable, built-in ice pack to keep food chilled.
The classiest-looking of the bunch, this box looks more appropriate for adults than some of the more child-friendly options. An inner dish separates foods, while a tini triangular sauce pot holds dressings or sauces. The lid is also water-tight (bonus points!).
Here’s a chic option for the grown ups out there. These bright, stackable boxes are airtight and stay put with a wide elastic strap. Each container’s lid can allow steam to escape when reheating food, and a moveable divider in one of the compartments separates foods.
DIY Bento Box
To make your own bento without a starter kit, it just takes a few items. Start with a BPA-free plastic box and use disposable cupcake liners or silicone cupcake liners to divide food.
If you really want to get into the bento spirit, go ahead and get crazy with fun accessories such as cute food picks, cookie cutters, itty-bitty sauce cups, and fancy carriers.
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What are your favorite bento ingredients? How do you do bento? Let us know in the comment section below or tweet the author @nicmcdermott.