How to Make Bento

While the Japanese term "bento" roughly translates to "box lunch" in English, this is not your average packed lunch. The goal with bento is to assemble a meal that is just as appealing to the eyes as it is to the taste buds. It's not uncommon for Japanese mothers to prepare an elaborate boxed lunch, playfully and creatively decorated, to entice their children to eat all of their food when they're at school. If you're sick of bringing a sloppy sandwich to work or you'd like your kids to look forward to opening their lunch box, there's a lot to be learned from the bento tradition.


  1. Image titled Make Bento Step 1
    Divide the meal proportionally. When preparing bento, there are two ways to divide the food. You can stick to a 4:3:2:1 ratio (4 parts of rice, 3 parts of the side dish, 2 parts of vegetables, and 1 part of a serving of pickled vegetables or a dessert) or you can make a 1:1 ratio (1 part rice, 1 part side dishes, where the side dishes themselves contain a 1:2 ratio of meat to vegetables). You can follow one of these traditional layouts, or you can vary the ratio and substitute more familiar ingredients. The objective is to have a nutritionally diverse yet balanced meal.
    • Alternatives to rice include, but are not limited to, sushi rolls, inari sushi, or onigiri (rice ball). You can also experiment with different kinds of rice (such as Spanish rice) or pasta.
    • The side dish should be the main source of protein, either beef, chicken, pork, or fish. This can be grilled, fried, breaded, and so on. For vegetarian bento, try beans or tofu.
    • Shredded cabbage with a light dressing is a popular choice for the vegetables. Sliced vegetables or even potato salad are used as well.
  2. Image titled Make Bento Step 2
    Obtain a bento box which is divided into compartments reflecting the proper bento ratio. You may be able to find a bento box in an Asian food store or online. Keep in mind that in Japan, food portions are smaller than in the West. (This might be a good thing if you're trying to control your portion sizes, or it might be an inconvenience). If you can't find a bento box anywhere, you can improvise by using a square container and dividing the food creatively (e.g. with a dividing wall of baby carrots or saltine crackers). Muffin and cupcake cups also make great compartments.
  3. Image titled Make Bento Step 3
    Choose brightly colored food items. The bolder and more solid the color, the greater the visual impact of your bento, and the more nutritional benefits are conferred (at least when it comes to brightly colored vegetables; see the citations below). White rice, whole hard-boiled eggs, and cheese can add a nice contrast to your bento, especially when paired with bright orange, green, and red foods.
  4. Image titled Make Bento Step 4
    Pack the foods tightly in order, especially if your bento box does not have built-in compartments. This will prevent the food from shifting within the box.
    1. Rice (or other starch) is nearly half the meal.
    2. Food items that are awkward in terms of shape or arrangement (e.g. a piece of chicken or a large dumpling) might have to go in first.
    3. Food items that are flexible, such as potato salad or cut vegetables go in any large remaining spaces.
    4. Small and sturdy items, like cherry tomatoes or small pudding containers, should fill in the gaps and accent the bento.
  5. Image titled Make Bento Step 5
    Create striking patterns and shapes with the food items and/or seasonings by using stencils. You can also decorate your bento according to a theme. You can also paint using food colouring mixed with Cream Cheese, Butter, Sour Cream, or frosting.
    • Keep the edges neatly defined. Contrasting colors, textures and shapes should be placed next to each other, but similar ones should be separated. Don't let clashing flavors mingle (e.g. don't put fried rice next to a pastry).
    • Make animal faces or other shapes with the food. Two slices from a hard-boiled egg with a dot of paprika in the middle of the yolk can make a great pair of eyes.
    • Sprinkle seasonings and add garnish to emphasize the center of a section of food.
    • Cut fruit, vegetables, cheese and kamaboko (pureed white fish shaped into a loaf) into shapes like stars, hearts, and diamonds with cookie cutters.
    • Put sauces or loose snacks into quirky containers. Small refillable sauce bottles made especially for bento can be purchased online.


  • If rice is a common ingredient in your bento, it may be wise to invest in a rice cooker with a timer so that the rice can be freshly cooked and ready to be packed in the morning -- rice doesn't hold up too well overnight.
  • Make time to make bento. It's not something to be rushed through. What makes bento unique is the time and effort invested in creating a balanced, carefully prepared meal that's as much a delight to look at as it is to eat.
  • Fried meat or vegetables should be placed on an absorbent layer of shredded cabbage or rice in order to soak up excess leaking oil.
  • Start with a basic bento and get fancier as you develop proficiency. If you try to make something too elaborate on the first try, it's easy to get frustrated and give up.
  • Since bento is so well organized, you can pre-pack it and freeze it. However, keep in mind that only certain foods can be used for this. A good example could be frozen noodles, frozen chicken, frozen fish and frozen cherry pie filling.
  • Using lettuce leaves instead of cupcake papers adds nutrition, color, and the food boundary.
  • Sticking to a specific ratio can help with nutrition and weight loss, since it'll keep you from packing too much junk relative to the good stuff.
  • Nori (dried seaweed) and soy paper ( which can be found in a range of colors) can be used for onigiri and for edible decoration. An easy way to use nori is to take a small clean paper punch of a shape you like (heart, star, palm tree, etc.) to it and punch out the shapes, adding the punches wherever you want. You can even cut strips of nori and punch shapes out, using the strips to wrap food and add contrast.
  • Let the rice (or any other hot ingredients) cool completely before closing the bento. Otherwise, the steam will condense inside the box and make the food soggy.
  • If you have leftovers from making the bento keep in mind it is not good to store anything fried for very long time.
  • Try flavoring the rice by using seasonings from home or small pre-made packets called furikake which come in a variety of flavors and can be purchased at Asian markets. Seasonings can be used to form beautiful images and designs with the use of stencils.


  • Take precautions against food poisoning. Cook all the foods well and make sure the bento is stored in a cool, dry location or, preferably, a refrigerator. This practice must be stressed for children who bring their lunch to school.
  • Try not to mix solid and liquid/runny foods. It will end up becoming soggy and not appetizing.

Sources and Citations

Article Info

Featured Article

Categories: Featured Articles | Japanese Dishes