The original boxed lunch, bento has evolved from peasant farmers’ lunch, to soldiers rations, to upscale picnic fare.
Today, these boxes filled with compartments of tempting fruit, veggies, eggs, sandwiches, salads — anything, really — are more popular than ever. Moms love them. Kids love them. Who doesn’t love them?
Cuteness is the name of the game when rice, vegetables, and eggs are decorated or shaped into animals, flowers, or cartoon characters. Lift the lid on one of these adorable feasts, and it just says Love.
For real, making bento boxes can be time consuming, if you’re new to it. But with the help of tools like tweezers and cookie cutters, and accessories like decorative toothpicks, you’ll soon be stamping out bunnies, hearts, and a certain Kitty. (Hello!)
And here’s a secret, there are plenty of easy ideas among the 22 bento lunches below. If you think about it, it’s really the simple matter of filling a couple of compartments with colorful, tasty, and healthy things to nibble on.
Taste the rainbow with this artistic arrangement of tomatoes, carrots, grilled corn, and peas. Layer the vegetables and grain into colorful rows. We’re also a big fan of the side of Goldfish.
Mini pizza Margherita’s are transformed into charming kitty faces, stamped from a slice of mozzarella. The pink bow is made from bologna. Instead of nori for the eyes and whiskers, you could also use black olives.
No worries, we’re not suggesting you travel with raw fish or get your fussy eater to try it. This recipe uses canned tuna, rolled in pressed bread with julienned carrots and cucumbers. Sliced into sushi-size rounds, they’re adorbs.
Cookie cutters transform simple whole wheat sandwiches into shapes that make kids want to eat them. Choose cutters to reflect seasonal holidays.
This blogger goes all out to give her daughter international-themed lunches. She makes good use of toothpick flags and cookie cutters. This picnic-in-a-bento-box includes baby gherkins, grapes, soft Brie, and mini croissants.
Lucky girl to get a slice of lemon tart at lunch.
We’ve put this recipe in the kids category, but it’ll make adults happy too. And it couldn’t be easier to put together. Major portion control system on the chips, too!
This blogger ups the cute quotient with the use of a star-shaped cutter for a Christmas theme. Kiwi stars and raspberries fill one compartment. Grape tomato and cucumber salad fills another. Red and green, get it?
And the clever snow pea and carrot Christmas tree… that’s how to jazz up a tuna-filled pita pocket.
There’s a formula for bento boxes in Japan. Small portions and variety. The main ingredient can be fish, or meat. Rice is served with two kinds of okazu, or sides. Vegetables, raw, cooked, or pickled, and proteins like eggs or sausages.
This Japanese recipe is meant to be eaten on a picnic on a walk to enjoy the fall foliage. We’ll sign up for that picnic. Simmered prawns and shitake mushrooms. A rolled omelet with green beans. Mmm.
If some of the ingredients are hard to find, like lotus root and burdock, swap out pickled vegetables and fresh fruit.
10. Bento rice balls
Rice plays an important role in Japanese bento boxes. It can be plain, of course, but rice balls wrapped in nori, and stuffed with treats like grilled salmon are a fun alternative. Use short grain rice for this. It’s stickier, so it will hold together in a ball.
The rice balls, without the nori, are prime candidates for decorating into cute creatures.
This blogger gives a link to a tutorial on how to make animal faces to decorate little sandwiches. She’s got useful info on accessories too.
12. Adorable eggs
Hard boiled eggs are popular bento lunch staple because they’re high in protein. They’re easy to decorate too, with cutters like plastic straws, and food-based homemade dyes for peeled eggs.
How cute is this? Maple leaf cutouts reveal intriguing, colorful fillings in a checkerboard of sandwiches. And the acorn made of hot dog is so awesomely clever. Though we do think it needs to be dipped in something yummy.
This bento demonstrates the benefit of cooking a big batch of grains, and using it for lunches and throughout the week. Pearled barley, the tasty grain in this bento, provides 6 grams of fiber in one cup.
It’s all about the tahini dressing, which coats the veggies in sweet-sour richness. This salad is so healthy, we think it’s absolutely fine to pair it with pan-fried dumplings.
This gluten-free alternative pays homage to pizza, but with a low-carb twist (plus, no reheating is needed. Pack a side of veggies and fruit for a colorful, portable lunch.
Skewers are a useful bento accessory. Here, smoked tofu, which has been slathered with BBQ sauce, is threaded onto skewers and baked. Yum.
The potato salad is incredibly simple: leftover boiled potatoes, pickles, and chipotle mayo. You can also sub in plain Greek yogurt for the mayo.
This recipe takes advantage of pre-cooked shrimp and smoked salmon. Marinate shrimp overnight in olive oil, garlic, onion, and oregano. A bed of green leaf lettuce adds fresh nutrients to the bento box, like vitamin K.
In the morning, toss smoked salmon on top, and lunch-to-go is done.
Variety is the key to a satisfying bento lunch. Fresh fruit, salad, and a hard-boiled egg, are the backbone of the meal. Pickled vegetables have a salty-sour crunch. And we just love the Japanese accessories here.
20. Salad bar bento
Keeping each veggie, grain, and green in its own compartment prevents salads from going soggy. Fill each with seeds, nuts, cooked grains, and sliced and diced veggies.
Come lunchtime, eat it anyway you want, combine it in a bowl, or nibble away.
Shhhhh… You can create a sophisticated bento from the odds and ends in your fridge. Toss a leftover grain with some sautéed mushrooms, pine nuts, and dried cranberries. On the side, slices of bell pepper await a dip in a creamy cannellini bean spread.
22. Pinto bean wrap
Whole-wheat tortillas roll up into bento stuffers. This one is packed with pinto beans, brown rice and quinoa, for a fiber filled, budget friendly meal. Vegan sour cream keeps it moist and luscious.
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, plastic sandwich baggies!) and make lunch prep a creative outlet.
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 separated sections. The tray is divided into five 1/2 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 the lids are not watertight.
This insulated bag set-up perfectly houses a sandwich or salad in the bottom and snacks or sides on top. Plus, the lid has a removable, built-in ice pack to keep food chilled.
The classiest looking of the bunch, no? An inner dish separates foods, while a tiny triangular sauce pot holds dressings or sauces. The lid is also watertight (bonus points!).
Bento boxes are creative ways to make healthy on-the-go lunches filled with a variety of flavors and tastes. Kids love these Japanese-inspired compartment-filled boxes of goodness, and adults do too.
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.