It is the start of the new year and 'eating more healthily' and 'lose weight' are on the top of the list of many new year resolutions. I have detailed my own reasons for making bento in an earlier post. Over at the Bento Lunch community, we have been seeing a surge of new members and new posts as more people are getting into the spirit of packing bento for the new year. Over the next week, I will be posting some tips and pictures relating to bento supplies, accesories, food and packing so that those of you who are considering making bento for yourself can get off to a good start.
There is a common misconception that 'bento' refers to Japanese packed lunches in Japense boxes, with super-cute arrangements and presentation, and only contains Japanese or Asian ingredients. It does not help one when gapes in awe at creations like these and these and think - oh my god, I don't have the time/ability/imagination/ingredients/money/skill to do that!
A 'bento' is essentially just a packed lunch. Although the term and concept originates from Japan, a bento can contain any kind of food. As long as it is a meal in a container that you eat on the go, it works. It doesn't have to be cute, it doesn't have to be expensive. It does have to be healthy, balanced and, most of all practical, for your individual dietary and lifestyle needs.
So what sort of container should you use for packing bento? The above picture shows the containers that I use for packing bento. They vary from regular tupperware and Lock n Lock containers to more traditional lacquer-effect boxes shipped from Japan. In my next post, I will write more about the pros and cons of each types of container. They not only vary in terms of cost and functionality, but most significantly in terms of size.
So what size should your container be?
Although many people started to pack bento lunches in the interest of losing weight, almost everybody is shocked at the size of Japanese bento boxes when they arrive in the post (if ordered online) or when they are seen in a shop (if you are lucky enough to find one where you live). The key to packing bento lunches the Japanese way is to pack the food densely with minimal empty spaces. This makes the most out of all available space in a container (even one which looks small) and prevents food from shifting about and mixing. I, too, was dismayed and suspicious when I received my first Japanese bento box, thinking that it must be for a child rather than a grown woman. But after some practice with packing food tightly and filling up all the spaces in my containers, I have been thoroughly convinced. If you fill up a bento box to its capacity, and then tip all that food out onto a plate and arrange it like you normally would for a sit-down meal, you will really see how much food a bento container could hold.
Japanese bento boxes are calculated according to its capacity in milimeters (ml). You can find it on the bottom of the box or its plastic wrapping. If this is not stated, just fill the container with water and empty the water into a measuring jug. This Japanese website provides guidelines for what bento box capacity is suitable for women (pink table) or men (blue table). The columns denote age, height, calories per meal and bento capacity. This is only a guide, of course, and should be adjusted up or down depending on whether you lead an active or sedentary lifestyle, and whether you are tall or short for your age. So as a women in my 20s, I should be fine with a 600ml capacity container. But since I am taller than that stated in the table, I could do with a slightly bigger container, e.g. 700ml. Also bear in mind that these capacity guidelines are for dense food such as rice, noodles, lean protein and vegetables found in most Japanese or Asian diet. Bulky items like sandwiches or salads will take up more space and require bigger containers. So you might need at least two different containers, a smaller one for more dense items so that your food does not slosh or tumble around in it, and a larger one for sandwiches and salads.
The above webpage also recommends an ideal Japense bento proportion of 3:1:2. That refers to 3 parts rice (or similar carbohydrates such as noodles, cous cous, potatoes or pasta), 1 part protein (e.g. chicken, beef, eggs, fish), and 2 part vegetables. Sweets and diary are occasional items, although cheese does feature in many people's bento especially in the non-Asian context. Beware of cute and colourful ingredients that you often see in Japanese supermarkets and bento boxes, such as tempura, croquettes (korokke), shumai, tonkatsu (fried breaded pork cutlet) and store-bought gyoza/potstickers (often loaded with salt and MSG). They are great as an occasional treat but won't help if you are trying to lose weight! The key is to use fresh ingredients as far as possible.
I leave you with a couple of my lunches from yesterday and today:
Bottom tier: sushi rice. Top tier: Two seafood gyoza, garlic and ginger prawns and spinach with crispy fried anchovies.
Pasta with meatballs in tomato sauce, blueberries, rocket salad, mango cheddar and container of oil and vinegar dressing.