I don’t think a day goes by where I don’t read something about the trashless lunch’s most trendy friend – bento.

What is bento? Bento is basically a boxed lunch will several smaller boxes or containers inside separating the food. There are several types of bento. In Japan, restaurants will serve elaborate bento, known as Makunouchi, in elegant boxes. Kouraku bento is made for casual picnics. Ekiben bento are boxes traditionally sold at train stations for travelers. And something known as “cute bento” has gained popularity as not only food but also works of art (see photo at left).

Then there’s the simple bento – the box that people bring from home for lunch. It can be made of any type of box and contain any kind food. This simple bento is what has a lot of people talking and trying to get creative with the school and office lunchboxes.

Why is bento becoming so popular? I can only guess that as the buzz about trashless (or waste free) lunches spreads as a way to be more environmentally friendly, people started to look for a way to make the lunchbox a little more hip. Perhaps bringing lunch to work and calling it bento makes it a little more acceptable than the traditional “brown bag?”

I suppose I’ve been doing a version of bento for my boys’ lunches for a couple of years now, only their lunch boxes are filled with several smaller boxes of the Rubbermaid and reused sour cream container type. One of the things I’ve been reading about bento is that the important part really isn’t the box itself (although there are sites dedicated to selling all sorts of bento boxes), but the food itself that’s important.

The Americanized version of a bento lunch goes way beyond the staple of a sandwich and an apple. Eating Well has five tips for packing a bento-style lunch.

  1. Pick your container: Bento boxes come in styles for all ages. Basic reusable food-storage containers work well too.
  2. Get creative: Sandwiches and wraps work in a bento, but don’t forget less-typical lunch fare, such as roasted tofu, rice balls or pasta salad.
  3. Think colorful: Typically a bento contains at least five different colors—fill yours with a variety of fruits and vegetables.
  4. Pack efficiently: Pack foods in small containers to control portion size and use reusable silicone cupcake liners or even lettuce leaves to keep foods separated.
  5. Keep it cool: Refrigerate or pack the box in an insulated lunchbox with a freezer pack.
I really like the idea of using silicone cupcake liners to separate food that is in the same container. I think I’ll start doing that.

I think #3 is where I really need to focus, though. I need to get more creative with my boys’ lunches. More colors. More variety. I like this Pizza Roll Up Bento Lunch from Eating Well that uses whole wheat tortillas, baby spinach, mozzarella cheese and pizza sauce to make roll ups and adds a variety of colorful cut up fruits and vegetables as sides (as well as a couple of cookies). 

Do you bento? Tell us about it.

image: luckysundae 

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Do you bento?
Bento is the hip way of taking your lunch to work or school. Are you a fan?