Bento Tip: A Simple Formula for Packing Bento Boxes

by Wendy Copley on September 24, 2013

a simple formula for packing bento lunches

Some mornings packing bento lunches feels like a puzzle. I have to figure out what food we have, what food each of the kids will eat, which lunch box the food fits in and how to arrange it all. If I throw in my desire to pack a cute bento box….Ahhhhh! Too much figuring out for 7:00 am!

But I’ve been doing this bento packing thing for a while now and a few years ago I noticed that I’ve unwittingly developed a formula that makes the whole process go a little more smoothly.

  1. Pick a box.
  2. Pick a food from each of four groups — fruit, veggie, protein, grain.
  3. Mentally divide the box into four equal sections.
  4. Put one kind of food in each section of the box. (If you’re looking for inspiration for different foods to pack, check out my Lunch Box Idea List. It’s already divided up into different food types, so you can just pick one thing from each area.)

Picture something like this:

Visually divide a container into 4 parts and fill each one with a different type of food

Start with a square box. They’re easy to find (think Glad containers) and they’re easy to divide into equal parts. If you look around a little you can even find one that’s already divided for you. (I like this divided Lock & Lock bento box a lot. The Lunchbots Quad is also a good, simple choice.)

When I arrange the food, I put the protein and the grain kitty-corner from each other because they’re often both brown or beige. Then I put the fruit and vegetable in the other two squares. That way you don’t have too much brown all lumped together and your bento box is prettier.

That’s really all you need to do. Once you have the basics down you can start improvising and getting fancy, but I guarantee that if you go with this at even the most basic level you will end up with a good-looking, well-balanced lunch box.

Let’s see the formula in action:

Preschool Hummus Bento #488

This lunch could not be simpler. I started with a box that it already divided into squares so I didn’t have to use my imagination at all. I neatly stacked some carrots in the first section and dumped some pita chips, hummus and strawberries in the remaining quarters. Done.

I think it took me about 5 minutes to make this lunch and most of that time was spent cutting the tops of the berries and digging for the hummus in the fridge.

abento499

OK, let’s get slightly fancier. For this lunch I cut carrot and celery sticks so they were the same length as the height of the box and then stood them on end in the first section. Next, I cut a piece of cinnamon bread into squares and made them a little cuter by adding a frog food divider on top (purely for decoration). The protein is two pieces of deli ham that I cut into strips length-wise, then rolled up and stood on end. I filled the last section with strawberries and jabbed a cute hippo pick into one of them for a little more decoration.

Big Kid Bento #596

Once you’re used to the basic formula you can start switching things up. With this lunch I started moving my squares around. The grain and the protein are next to each other! The strawberries and the carrots are too! No worries — it’s all good.

(What you’re looking at here, is flat bread cut into star shapes, turkey dogs cut into semi circles and threaded onto cute skewers, berries and carrot sticks. The lunch is packed in a Laptop Lunches bento box which also is conveniently divided into four sections.)

Airplane Bento #59

Once you’re comfortable with the basics you can try packing a box with no built-in dividers. I made this meal for my husband to take on a plane and I used a Glad entree container so he didn’t have to worry about losing an expensive bento box. Some of the items (like the bread) take up more than a quarter of the space, some — like the cheese — take less. I created an impromptu divider by putting the cheese in a paper cupcake liner. I also included two veggie sections instead of a fruit and a vegetable. Though now that I think of it tomatoes are technically a fruit, aren’t they? Never mind — I did stick to my formula!

Preschooler Salami Rose Bento #490

And now let’s get super crazy! This box still has all the basic elements but we’re improvising like a jazz musician now! Whoa man! You can see I put the protein (salami in a silicone baking cup) down in the lower left and the crackers (also in a silicone cup) in the upper right like usual. But then I got a little wacky. Instead of sticking the berries in the lower right quadrant, I threaded them onto a bamboo skewer and laid them diagonally across the box. Then I filled in the remaining spaces with cherry tomatoes. The food proportions are the same, they’re just arranged differently.

(The box is an ECOLunchboxes Solo Cube. I used one of these leaf picks on the tomatoes.)

Preschool Star Wars ECO Lunchbox Bento #476

And how do foods that are made of more than one type of food — like sandwiches — fit into this formula? I just wing it. For this Star Wars lunch, I combined the grain and protein elements by making two R2-D2 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I stacked them on top of each other and placed them in one corner. I filled two more quadrants with veggies and fruit per the formula. That left one more empty quadrant. In this case, I filled it with more fruit (yes, my kids eat a lot of strawberries) but I could have put in goldfish crackers, pretzels or some other crunchy snack.

So this formula is easy, right? And I bet you’re probably already doing something like this as you’re packing your kids’ lunches. If you’re just starting out with bentos and feeling overwhelmed, try this and see if it doesn’t take some of the complexity out. Once you’re more comfortable with the process, you’ll have a jumping off point and it it will make it easier to improvise.

Do you have your own bento/lunch-packing formula? If you do, please share your wisdom with us!

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  • Anna Sammelson

    I have a schedule that I follow that goes by day of the week. Mondays: sandwiches (start the week easy!). Tuesdays: salad with dressing on the side. Wednesdays: thermos (which means we eat pasta every Tuesday night for supper since that’s what the kids like in their thermos). Thursdays: get creative. Fridays: lunchable style. Everyday includes fruit and whatever other sides balance the meal. Having this schedule has helped me a lot and the kids are happy the previous lunchbox repetition has gone down. -IndianaAnna

  • I think this is a *brilliant* idea! I bet my kids would love it too if I could be organized enough to accomplish it.

  • Venia Conte

    My PlanetBox definitely makes it easy to fill in the blanks. And, I pretty much only leave out her treat when I’m packing in her LunchBots. I guess my real trick is to try and do a different vegetarian protein each day of the week to help keep things varied and make sure I hit as many nutritional targets as possible. I don’t have a set schedule (except for Chocolate Sandwich Friday, it’s just what’s available and attainable that day. No time to boil eggs? It’s nuts, soy, legumes, or cheese then!

  • Loving Lunches

    Brilliant starting point. I ended up following a formula too for my giant eater. She gets: sandwich; yogurt; drink; fruit; snack (eg salami/cheese/crackers); treat (eg biscuit/cupcake); and ‘something else’ (normally leftovers) – and most days it gets all eaten too. Once you get a system & the right box it just falls into place. Even hubby was able to pack her lunch when I had a little holiday last year!

  • Julie

    Great post! Love how you show different ideas on the 4 groups you use.

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