If you grew up in Japan, you might have eaten daily from what today is trending stateside: the bento. One specifically named bento is kyaraben, which is a shortened form of “character bento,” elaborately arranged lunches featuring food decorated to look like people, animals or plants—likely what has pushed bento into a wider consciousness.
Ultimately, says registered dietitian Marna Canterbury, the goal with bento is to appeal to the eyes as well as the taste buds.
Stick to a 4:3:2:1 ratio. Four parts starch (traditionally rice), three parts of a side dish or protein, two parts vegetables and one part dessert (or supplement with Japanese staple pickled veggies). Follow this traditional layout, or vary the ratio and substitute familiar ingredients.
Be bold, bright and solid in color choices. Foods with the greatest visual impact generally also have more nutritional benefits (think: brightly colored, nutrient- and vitamin-rich vegetables). White rice, whole or sliced hard-boiled eggs and cheese can add a nice contrast.
Pack it tight. Especially if your bento box does not have built-in compartments, keeping foods compact against each other prevents shifting in transit. Start with the starch, which is nearly half the meal; small and sturdy items, like cherry tomatoes or liquid-tight containers, can come last and fill in the gaps. Contrasting colors, textures and shapes should be placed next to each other, and don’t let clashing flavors mingle.
Be creative. Use stencils to make patterns or shapes with the food; you also can decorate your bento according to a theme. Consider mixing food coloring with cream cheese, butter, sour cream or frosting. Cut fruit, vegetables and cheese into shapes with cookie cutters.
Get Your Own
Bento is available on the lunch menu at Osaka Sushi in Stillwater and Shanghai Bistro in Hudson; prepacked boxes are at Kowalski’s and River Market Community Co-op in Stillwater.