Last Updated October 31, 2020
If you have ever tried Japanese cuisine, chances are you may be familiar with or have heard of the culture’s bento box. These meals are packed with a variety of food, and are sometimes presented in a manner so adorable that they become too cute to eat!
Continue reading to learn more on what exactly are bento boxes, how it has achieved popularity across regions beyond Japan today and what the best rated bento boxes are on the market for you to purchase for yourself or as a gift.
What are Bento Boxes?
Before we dive into the topic of bento boxes, it is important to first understand what bento is.
In simple terms, bento is a Japanese-styled, single-serving, packed meal which consists of food items such as rice or noodles, as the foundational starch, variety of pickled or cooked vegetables, and a protein or two like sashimi, which is raw fish, eggs or meat.
It is essentially a balanced dish for healthy eating, however, there are variations that have adapted inspiration from the Western world, where it includes sandwiches, fried potatoes, dessert, and others.
Bento boxes are, therefore, the containers for packing bento. What makes a bento box unique is its capability of keeping a meal packed neatly and tightly into small squares or rectangles.
Where traditionally families would prepare them in the morning to take to work or school for lunch later on, bento boxes are widely available for purchase at restaurants, train station vendors and supermarkets.
How is it Different from Lunchboxes?
Function-wise, the two may not be so different as both are for storing meals to be eaten later during the day. But the key is in the attention to detail and the balance of ingredients put inside a bento box.
Essentially, a proper bento box is made to have a complete meal inside, and are considered healthy if the foods are balanced together; basically, a bento box does not just contain white rice and protein, but also a variety of vegetables. This is because in Japan, so-called ‘healthy’ meals include a colorful variation of food types and flavors, rather than a strict categorization of what is ‘healthy’ or ‘not healthy’ to eat. This contrasts with the mindset in the U.S., in which typically ‘healthy’ meals are those rich in greens, such as salads or grain bowls.
What is the History of Bento Boxes?
The word ‘bento’ derives from the Chinese word biàndāng, which is a Southern Song dynasty slang term meaning ‘convenient‘, referring to both the bento meal and the bento box itself.
The earliest version of the bento traces back to the Kamakura period, between 1185 to 1333. Around this time, it was common for people residing in Japan to carry cooked and dried rice in small sacks to eat at work. The version of the bento box that is similar to the modern version can be traced back to the Azuchi-Momoyama period, which was between 1568 to 1600; this is when the classic wooden lacquered bento boxes began being mass produced and used.
As popularity of the bentobox grew across the region, it gradually became more refined and elegant. Furthermore, bento recipes also began to surge, particularly during the Edo period, between 1603 to 1867, in which numerous cookbooks on how to prepare, cook and pack bento for special occasions began being published.
Eventually, the bento became a staple food for schoolchildren and teachers during the Meiji period, which lasted between 1868 to 1912, as school lunches were not provided during this time.
Who can use Bento Boxes?
The great thing about this meal container is how it can be served anywhere, including at home, restaurants and other public places like the train station and airport, and used for consumption from children to adults.
What are the Advantages of Bento Boxes?
Below are the top three benefits of using a bento box and what makes it such a great choice for anyone that is on the go:
1. Maintains Freshness of Food
This is thanks to the compartments a bento box has, which allows different kinds of food to be kept separate from each other so each food’s freshness is not compromised and remain as it is for hours.
2. Removes the Need for Foil or Plastic Wrapping
A bento box typically comes with a lid, or multiple lids to cover each compartment, to seal the food inside and remove the need for having to seal the food yourself with foil or plastic wrapping. This not only saves time but helps save the environment too!
3. Promotes Healthy Eating
The compartments of the bento box hold single servings of each food item, which makes it easier for portion control. Furthermore, you can fill different kinds of food in each compartment. Of course, healthy eating is better promoted when the bento itself consists of balanced food items!
What are Some Examples of Bento Boxes and are They Made of?
We will highlight five different kinds of bento boxes that can be found in Japan:
1. Shokado Bento Boxes
These are traditional, elegant boxes that are black-lacquered, contain several compartments and are typically made of ABS resin with urethane coating.
It is strongly connected to Kyoto’s tea culture; therefore, they have been known to be used during tea ceremonies or to serve light meals to guests. But they are not limited to tea settings; they can also be found in high-quality traditional Japanese restaurants.
2. Wooden Bento Boxes
These usually contain only two compartments and are made from Japanese cedar, cypress or pine– all long-time materials for making wooden bento boxes.
It looks much simpler compared to shokado bento boxes and can be for everyday use. However, as they are made of wood, there are some limitations to ensure its quality is not reduced, which includes not microwaving it and putting it in the dishwasher.
3. Hangetsu Bento Boxes
These are uniquely shaped; whereas the two previously mentioned come in the form of rectangles and squares, hangetsu bento boxes are semi-circular. This is because ‘hangetsu’ means half-moon. The material is also of lacquered wood and, although visually appealing, using it daily, such as for lunches at work or school, may be a hassle and might be better used for special occasions.
4. Aluminum Bento Boxes
Being a classic in the 20th century, these are made from anodized aluminum. They come with multiple compartments, are easy to clean and stronger than other bento boxes.
5. Cartoon Character Bento Boxes
Lastly, these are simply bento boxes containing popular cartoon characters and designs on the lids, making them popular for children and young adults in Japan. These are made from plastic, and come in a variety of sizes, shapes, colors and even come with accessories, such as matching chopsticks.
Have Bento Boxes Changed over Time?
As mentioned before, the first wooden lacquered bento box was introduced between 1568 and 1600.
During the Taishō period, between 1912 and 1926, the aluminum bento box became popular. However, due to its material and the type of bento served in it, the aluminum bento box became a status symbol and a topic of social controversy.
In the 1980s, many bento shops and sellers replaced expensive wood and metal bento boxes with more affordable bento boxes made from polystyrene.
What are the Best Bento Boxes on the Market?
Below are five highly recommended bento boxes to purchase from, based on the reviews made by the editors at The Spruce Eats. They have independently researched, tested then recommended these products. Do note that The Spruce Eats may receive commissions on purchases made from the links.
1. Best Overall – Original BentoHeaven Bento Box Bundle by Bentoheaven
This bundle comes with a free lunch bag, divider, chopstick and utensils as well as fun lunch box notes, all at a price of $22.
Despite the budget-friendly price, the bento box has a high-end, modern and minimalist look. It has been reviewed to be best overall thanks to its stylish appearance and functionality. It includes two 20-ounce containers which you can pick in either black or white.
The bento box is leakproof and airtight, with silicone sealed lids and ventilation caps, to ensure your food remains fresh and in place. Furthermore, it is freezer, microwave and dishwasher safe.
2. Best for Children – Kids’ and Children’s Lunch Box by Bentgo
This product is available for a price between $25 to $40. Parents usually seek for a sturdy lunch container for their children; one that is leakproof is even better. Bentgo’s Kids’ Lunch Box is perfect for parents everywhere.
This is because the bento-style lunch box has five leakproof compartments, thanks to a rubberized seal the prevents any leaking both between compartments and out of the box itself. For added protection, the lunch box has rubber edges in case the child drops it, keeping it safe from severe dents or scratches.
Design-wise, it comes in three vibrant colors: blue, purple and green. The compartment tray is actually removable, which lets you mix and match colors. Bentgo is well experienced in creating lunch containers for children; it has a line of kids’ bento-style lunch boxes in several neon colors and attractive prints that are fit for children, including unicorn prints, space rockets, pink dots and mermaid scales.
Function-wise, the five compartments come in different sizes: one is large enough for a small sandwich or vegetables, three medium-sized ones for proteins, like chicken or fish, or snacks, and one small round compartment in the center that is suitable for sauces or dips.
If you are worried on whether the material may be toxic or harmful to your young kids, this bento-styled lunch box are made from durable plastic that is FDA-approved and free of BPA, vinyl, lead and polyvinyl chloride plastic (PVC).
3. Best Stainless – Three-in-One Stainless Steel Bento Box by Ecolunchbox
Introduced to market in 2008, this product is built to last. With a steel container, it is virtually lighter than a comparable glass container and can be said to be non-breakable. In terms of product safety, Ecolunchbox’s steel bento box has been third party independently tested, and has been found to be free of toxins commonly found in plastics, such as BPA, BPS and phthalates.
Ranging between $35 to $40, this bento box comes with two large, stainless steel compartments and a lidded snack pod; all this can hold up to 4 cups of food. The larger version can hold 8 cups, so you can choose to fit with your needs. The three compartments are held in place with a metal latch, which can snap shut and ensure the box stays closed.
The product is completely dishwasher safe, making it easy to clean. However, the downside is that it does not have any plastics, silicone or rubber, meaning it is not entirely leakproof, so avoid packing soup or other liquid foods in this bento box.
4. Best Removable Compartments – Click & Go Bento Boxes by Caleb Company
For a price between $23 to $28, you can get a comfortable fit of three sleek and practical bento boxes, with each holding a capacity of 39 ounces this makes its total capacity 1.15 liters. One container comes with one large and two small removable compartments. It is available in four colors to choose from: blue, green, purple and pink.
Although it is made out of plastic, it is BPA free and friendly for microwave, freezer, refrigerator and dishwasher use. Caleb Company’s Click & Go Bento Boxes can even withstand extreme temperatures up to 248 degrees Fahrenheit (120 degrees Celsius). It is built to last, and can be used repeatedly without worry of it warping, cracking, chipping or shattering.
The bento boxes are also praised for its leakproof silicone sealed, snap-locking lids, which help keep food fresh and spill proof. Furthermore, it has a textured edge on the bottom that helps prevent sliding and makes the boxes much easier to grip.
5. Best with Insulated Bag – Lunchmate Bento Lunch Box Kit by Komax
Available to purchase at a price from $23 to $28, this kit comes with an insulated bag, two Biokips food storage airtight containers, stainless steel utensils and chopsticks. This makes it perfect for transporting lunch and meals as you head to work, the office, school, a picnic or on a long road trip.
Each container is leakproof, divided into two compartments and can hold up to 17.9 ounces of food. It is BPA free, food grade and safe; while the reusable insulated bag is PVC free. The containers are freezer, microwave and dishwasher safe– meaning that you can prepare meals ahead of time, heat them before eating then simply put them in the dishwasher for easy cleaning. The bag, on the other hand, has a waterproof-coated fabric, a zipper and handle for easy carry and access.
Bento boxes have become popular in Japan to the point that you can even get a bento box meal at train station vendors. They are excellent for preparing lunches for on-the-go, as its separate compartments allow different foods to be put without coming into contact with each other, which reduces the chances of losing their freshness. There are many kinds of bento boxes to fit for the occasion, with differing styles and designs, but all essentially have compartments for food.
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