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School lunches are certainly going to look a little different this year. For those who are heading to school, red trays piled with sloppy joes and chicken nuggets may be eschewed for brown paper bags stuffed with turkey sandwiches and carrot sticks. But with many schools around the country counting on another semester of virtual education, lunchtime may very well be taking place at the dining room table. 

Related Reading: Marie Kondo’s Guide to Bento Box Lunches Your Kids Will Love

If you’re a parent and looking for ways to get creative for lunches at home—rather than relying on yet another day of peanut butter and jelly—may we suggest taking a peek at “Bento: Over 70 Make-Ahead Delicious Lunches,” a cookbook from Noriko and Yuko, the minds of behind the website Japanese Cooking 101. The two friends, who hail from Japan but now both reside in San Diego, California, showcase recipes for Japanese home cooking through the lens of their experiences abroad and in the States. 

Bento: Over 50 Make-Ahead, Delicious Box Lunches, $15.99 on Amazon

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“Bento” serves as inspiration for more than 50 make-ahead lunches for everyone in the family, allowing you ample time to put together meals long before they’ll be eaten. Preparing these bento boxes ahead of time will certainly give you more time during the day for, say, keeping the Zoom link going during fourth period algebra.

Flip through the pages and you’ll find a slew of healthy recipes, primed with mains and plenty of sides, which you can always mix and match depending on your kids’ mood. You’ll learn how to make classic Japanese bento boxes, like chicken teriyaki with vinegared cucumber and radish sunomono, and beef roll-ups stuffed with okra and paired with tamago egg and a carrot salad. There are options for noodle bentos, popular Japanese plates like cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches and sweet and sour meatballs, and quick 10-minute bentos for when you’re in a rush (think English muffin pizzas and spicy chicken wraps). 

The book also explains to newcomers some history behind bento boxes and offers plenty of advice on stocking up on accessories, like food-storage containers, baking cups and dividers, and food molds.

Bento Lunch Boxes Snack Containers, $25.99 on Amazon

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Ahead, Noriko and Yuko share seven key points to making a bento box at home, along with a recipe for a chicken karaage bento box. Karaage, aka, fried chicken, requires bite-sized hunks of chicken thighs to be dredged in flour and cornstarch, then fried for 5 to 6 minutes. The pieces of chicken should turn a wonderful golden brown and so crispy that it shatters upon impact. Along with the chicken karaage, Noriko and Yuko recommend packing the bento box with steamed rice sprinkled with furikake, a green bean and tomato salad, and a hard-boiled egg.

How to Make Bento: 7 Key Points

Whether you are already packing lunches or thinking about starting soon, the idea of making bento every morning can be both exciting and daunting. You may not know where to begin or realize how easy it can be to make bento that you and your family will enjoy. Here are the 7 Key Points for making bento a reality, including important safety tips, what food to pack, how to select bento boxes and putting it all together.

Safety First
Bento is usually eaten at room temperature, unless you have access to a microwave or hot food is packed in a thermal container. However, from the time you pack the food in the morning to the time it is eaten at school or work, bacteria can grow inside of a bento box. It is very important to pay attention to the following food safety rules to keep everyone safe.

  • Keep everything clean, including your hands and utensils. Avoid cross contamination by switching utensils when cooking raw meat and packing cooked dishes. Use a dishwasher, if you can, or hot soapy water to clean bento boxes well after each and every use.
  • All foods must be thoroughly cooked unless they are meant to be eaten raw. No sashimi, runny eggs, or medium-rare steak for bento unless you eat it right away at home.
  • If you are packing leftovers, reheat them in the morning. Heating up leftovers in a toaster or conventional oven or microwave will freshen the food and kill bacteria.
  • Cool food completely before closing the lid. Imagine steamy rice straight from the rice cooker warming up the temperature inside the box, which could become a breeding ground for bacteria.
  • Keep hot food hot and cold food cold. Packing a bento box in an insulated bag with an ice pack will help maintain the freshness of cold food; use a thermal container for hot food. You want to avoid the temperatures between 40°F to 140°F (4ºC to 60ºC), known as the “Danger Zone” according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
  • Try adding natural antibiotics. It’s been said that some foods, such as salt, vinegar, and ginger, help suppress bacteria and prevent bento from spoiling. This is one of the reasons why many bento dishes include vegetable sides that are well-seasoned or marinated in vinegar. Umeboshi (pickled sour plums; page 14) are believed to be the best of all and are often used as a filling for Onigiri (rice balls; page 130) rice balls or a topping for Steamed Rice (page 16).

Aim for a Balanced Diet

  • One of the main purposes for making bento in the first place is to provide a healthy meal for your family or yourself when outside of the home. So, if you are reading this book, you are more likely health conscious and already seeking a balanced diet; however, you do not need to be super picky or stressed out about adding all the nutrients you need for a day in a bento box. A good rule of thumb for packing a reasonably healthy bento is to include a main dish rich in protein along with a carbohydrate and a couple of vegetable sides and/or fruits. (Read more about Bento Ingredients on page 15.)

Pack What You Like to Eat

Although bento originated in Japan, today’s bento ingredients are not limited to Japanese food. In fact, you should pack the kind of food that you and your family like to eat. If you enjoy Mexican food, for example, pack a cut-up quesadilla with salad. If soup is your thing, whip up a quick vegetable soup and pack it in a thermal jar. If you are following a special diet, pack what you can eat. What goes inside the bento box should not be much different from what you would normally eat at home. You can be adventurous and try something new, of course, but try it out for dinner first, just in case you don’t like it and there is no other option for lunch

Plan Ahead

You may have seen bentos made by other people and wondered how they can pack so many different dishes in a bento each and every day. The truth is that many bentos we make are with leftovers from the night before. Add a few side dishes made ahead of time or quickly prepared in the morning in the box, and you will have a typical and decent-looking bento. With a little bit of planning the day before or during the weekend, bento-making becomes so much easier and realistic. The majority of our featured recipes are great served as a main dish for dinner. Since the recipes in this book are for 2 servings, it is easy to double or triple the recipes in order to make enough portions for dinner and bento. You will find Plan Ahead snippets throughout this book to help you plan better.

Choose the Right Bento Box

While there are many different types of containers that you can use for bento (see Bento Boxes and Accessories on page 10), you should choose the right kind depending on the type of food you pack. For example, a large box with compartments is great for sandwiches and cut-up fruits, while a more compact Japanese-style bento box is easier to fill for a classic bento with rice and a few small dishes. A deeper container is ideal for noodles and rice bowls. We recommend you keep a few boxes of different sizes and depths, and choose depending on the kind of bento you’re packing.

Pack Attractively

Assembling a bento box is like plating a dinner. You can certainly pack what’s left from the night before, “as is,” without much thought and call it a bento. However, you don’t need to be a bento artist to make a more attractive bento. Follow the few tips below, and you can pack a bento with ease and make it look appealing. An added bonus is that good-looking bentos tend to be healthier too!

  • Start packing with larger dishes. We find it easier to start with something that takes up more space, such as rice followed by a main dish and sides. You want to think about which direction to pack, depending on the size of the dish. For example, if the teriyaki fish you are packing as a main dish takes up the whole length of the bento box, pack some rice diagonally on one side and place the fish on the edge of the rice. Fill the other half with a few side dishes.
  • Compartmentalize. You can use the built-in dividers in a bento box or insert baking cups (page 11) to easily compartmentalize. Or even better, some healthy edibles, such as green leaf lettuce or shiso leaves, can be used to separate one food from another.
  • Pack tightly with no space. The difference between a dinner plate and a bento is that a plate sits still on a table while a bento is moved around, sometimes completely upside down in a kid’s backpack. If there is a lot of space left in the box, use small vegetables, such as grape tomatoes, baby carrots, and snap peas, to fill the small gaps.
  • Add contrasting colors. Preparing a colorful bento with contrasting colors makes a bento not only more attractive but also healthier. Carbs and meat tend to be brown and white, so be sure to add a rainbow of colors in a bento by packing a variety of vegetables and fruits. (Read more about Vegetables on page 21.)

Make It a Routine

Still too much of a hassle to make bento? Try establishing a routine that works best for you. For example, first thing in the morning, open the rice cooker and place the rice in the bento box and let it start cooling. Then, place leftovers saved from the night before in a toaster or conventional oven to reheat. So far, it has only taken a few minutes. Now you can start brewing your coffee (a must!) and prepare breakfast while working on a couple of quick and easy bento sides. Some side dishes, such as vegetable sticks and salad, are great served for breakfast too! Place everything in a bento box without the lid on and let all the components cool completely while you get ready or enjoy breakfast with your cup of coffee. All you have left to do is to close the lid!

Chicken Karaage Bento Recipe

Karaage, or fried chicken, is one of the most popular main dishes for bento in Japan. Marinated bite-size chicken pieces are lightly coated with seasoned flour and starch before being fried, which gives it a perfectly crispy texture on the outside. Karaage makes for a great appetizer, a dinner main, or a perfect portion for your lunch bento.

Chicken Karaage Bento

Prep Time: 15 minutesCook Time: 10 minutesServes: 2
Ingredients
  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bitesize pieces
  • 1 tablespoon (15 ml) sake
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • ¼ teaspoon salt, divided
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
  • ¼ cup (30 g) all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup (24 g) cornstarch
  • Black pepper, to taste
  • Vegetable oil, for frying
Instructions
  1. In a medium bowl, combine the chicken with the sake, soy sauce, half of the salt, and the ginger. Let the chicken marinate for 10 minutes.
  2. In a separate medium bowl, combine the flour, cornstarch, remaining salt, and black pepper. Dredge the marinated chicken pieces in the flour mixture.
  3. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat (350°F, or 180ºC). Fry the chicken for 5 to 6 minutes, or until cooked through. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and place on a paper towel–lined plate to absorb excess oil. Plan ahead: Enjoy Karaage and Green Beans and Tomato Salad for dinner, and have leftovers in tomorrow’s bento. Reserve some chicken thighs, marinate overnight, and fry the Karaage in the morning.
  4. Before you go to bed, hard-boil the egg and set the timer on the rice cooker. In the morning, fry or reheat the Karaage in a toaster or conventional oven.

Header image courtesy of "Bento."

Amy Schulman is an associate editor at Chowhound. She is decidedly pro-chocolate.
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