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 box hails from Japan and first hit the scene in the 16th century.
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Cuteness is the name of the game in the current wave 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 25 bento ideas (sans cartoon faces) for kid-friendly, healthy lunches that could also work at the office.
This bento demonstrates the benefit of cooking a giant batch of a grain and repurposing it for lunches and dinners throughout the week. Barley, the tasty grain in this bento, has tons of fiber (almost a quarter of the daily recommended value in one cup of the pearled stuff).
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.
Whole-wheat tortillas make for a perfect bento stuffer. This one is jam-packed with pinto beans, brown rice, and quinoa for a fiber-filled, budget-friendly meal.
Turn tofu into a tasty treat with soy sauce, fresh ginger, and garlic. Add a side of a heart-healthy grain to make lunch on-the-go a cinch.
Sweet potatoes are loaded with fiber and vitamins A and C, which makes us love this burger even more. Throw in some extra veggies and leave off the brown sugar and honey sauce to make it even healthier!
This gluten-free alternative pays homage to pizza, but with a healthier, low-carb twist (plus, there’s no reheating required!). Pack a side of veggies and fruit for a colorful, portable lunch.
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.
This bento 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.
This Thai-inspired bento has all our favorite flavors. Marinate the salmon for one hour before you grill and add some tropical fruit for an extra tasty lunch.
This hearty bento features grilled chicken as the protein of choice. Feel free to leave it out for a vegetarian option that’s just as flavorful.
This healthy burger is suitable for lunch any day of the week. The main ingredients in the mini patties: black beans and quinoa. Throw in some fruit and salsa, and you’ve got yourself a delicious, Mexican-inspired meal.
Skewers are a great bento accessory. They make eating easier while also keeping the tofu contained to one section of the box (which doesn’t have 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 subbing plain Greek yogurt in for the mayo.
This bento rounds up some classic Italian flavors for a delicious lunch. Bruschetta lentil salad with a side of caprese skewers—yum!
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 good-for-you stuff, including vitamins A, C, K, and folate.
This pasta salad isn’t all noodle: It gets a healthy makeover with the addition of black beans. It’s also a perfect driver for vegetables with tomatoes and a side of cucumbers and peppers.
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 salads 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.
Sushi doesn’t have to be all seaweed and raw fish. These dainty (and super mature) finger sandwiches make tuna salad classy. Well, kind of. To get the sushi effect, flatten two slices of bread, fill with canned tuna fish and julienned carrots and cucumbers, roll, then slice into individual bites.
This pita pocket filled with tuna and lettuce takes all of 10 minutes to whip up. Add a side salad and voila!
This vegetarian sandwich packs cheese, lettuce, sprouts, light mayo, and honey mustard between two slices of sprouted grain bread. Simple and delicious!
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.
This meal is as easy as piling ham, cheese, and lettuce into a small roll and filling the remaining space in the box with yogurt and fruit. You may want to spice up the sandwich with any extra fillings you have on hand for extra nutrients.
22. Homemade Taco Cups
Much like 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.
Hard-boiled eggs and cold cuts are the stars of this protein-packed lunch kit. Add a selection of your favorite fruits and veggies, and you have yourself a wholesome meal.
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.
This picnic-in-a-bento-box includes baby gherkins, grapes, soft Brie, and mini croissants. You’ve even got something sweet with the addition of a lemon tart.
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 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 lids are not watertight.
This plastic 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!).
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.
Originally published August 2014. Updated March 2016.