Bento Box FAQ
I regularly get questions about the bento box lunches I feature on this site via email or in the comments on individual posts. I try to answer each and every question individually, but I’ve started to notice that the same questions are coming up over and over, so I took a little time to answer the most frequently asked questions all in one place. These are all actual questions that people ask, so if there’s anything I haven’t covered here that you would like to know, shoot me an email or leave it in the comments.
OK, so here we go!
Where do you get your bento boxes and supplies?
I am very lucky to live in an area with a number of Japanese stores so I’ve picked up most of my bento boxes and bento accessories locally. Most of my supplies have come from either Ichiban Kan or Daiso. These stores are the most economical suppliers of bento supplies that I have found, but I’m sorry to say that neither of them has an online store for individual purchases (though Daiso does allow by-the-case, wholesale orders).
But don’t despair! If you don’t live close to a Japanese dollar store, there are still a lot of places to get supplies for bento-making.
I use a Laptop Lunchbox frequently (about once per week) and this item is widely available. I got mine locally, but they are also easy to find online. You can get them directly from the Laptop Lunches site and Amazon has a good selection too.
I’ve also picked up other non-”bento” boxes at some of the big chain stores, including Target, The Container Store and Dollar Tree. When I get these, I’m usually looking for a box roughly 4 x 6 inches wide and 1.5 inches deep. If you keep your eyes open, you’ll start seeing boxes you can use for bento lunch packing everywhere.
I purchased the silicon baking cups I use at Michael’s. These are also available at Joann’s and at many cooking stores.
For accessories, I suggest people look around a bit in the baking area of Michael’s, Joann’s or cooking and baking supply stores. I’ve found really cute Wilton toothpicks with pirates, ducks, princess stuff and polka dots on them that are meant to be stuck in cupcakes. There are also a lot of cute cupcake liners available in these same themes.
Finally, I highly recommend that you check out the Lunch in a Box Bento Store Locator for local sources of bento supplies.
Do you know of any internet sources for bento boxes and supplies?
Many people have good luck finding bento supplies they love on JBox, eBay, and Etsy (select “Supplies” from the drop-down and enter “bento” in the search box). Amazon.com has also started carrying many bento products in the last year or so. For more information about the boxes and supplies I use (including source information) visit these pages:
Where did you get your food markers? I’ve been looking everywhere for those!
Where do you get baked tofu?
I buy the baked tofu that I put in my son’s lunch at Trader Joe’s. There are two blocks in a package. I’ve also seen it at Lucky and Safeway and other grocery stores in my area though it has become harder to find in the last 6 months or so. I’m not sure why that is.
I know that it can be very difficult to find this product outside of large urban areas. Some people have reported they found it in the “natural” or “health food” section of their grocery stores, so if you’re looking, you might want to try there.
Do you have a recipe for that baked tofu?
I’ve attempted to make baked tofu myself with mixed results. I loved it, my son hated it. You can read about that adventure here.
How do you keep everything in the box from mixing together?
The key to keeping everything from mixing together is to pack the box very tightly and to fill it up to the top rim. That keeps the different items in place because there’s no empty space for them to move into. I also use silicon baking cups to keep smaller items (peas, grapes, raisins, etc.) and juicy items (peaches, frozen berries, etc.) from moving around or leaking all over the other stuff.
Do your sons eat all that stuff?
My older son is a regular kid with a pretty typical appetite for a boy his age. In other words — no, he doesn’t eat everything in his lunch box every day. Over the years I’ve gotten into a pretty good rhythm with lunch-packing though and I have a good feel for what he does and doesn’t eat. A big factor in how much he consumes is his short lunch period — only 20 minutes from entering the lunch room to heading out to the playground for recess — so sometimes he just doesn’t have time to eat much. I feel like a lunch has been pretty successful if he eats about 80% of it. You can see some examples of what his lunch looks like when it comes home here.
My younger son eats everything almost every day. It’s remarkable when he doesn’t finish it all!
How do you keep the foods in the lunches warm?
I will sometimes heat foods like pasta or casseroles in the morning and send it with my boys in a Thermos food jar. Otherwise, everything I pack is cold and I keep it that way by packing ice packs into the lunch box along with the bento boxes.
Do your kids eat foods that are typically served warm when they are cold?
Yes! Neither of my boys have a way to heat foods at school, so unless I’ve heated something and packed it into the Thermos food jar, they eat their lunches cold. They’ll eat a surprising number of foods cold. Meat is almost never a problem and they’ll eat some cooked veggies cold. They’ll even eat taco meat, pulled pork and quesadillas cold! Every kid is different of course, but even if you think your kid wouldn’t eat “hot” foods cold, it might be worth trying it on them.
Why do you do this?
I pack my son’s lunch bento-style for a number of reasons:
- It’s fun! I’m a creative person, but I’m also a busy person. I don’t always get time every day to scrapbook, sew, write, craft or do any of the other hobbies I love so much. But I have to make my kids lunches every stinkin’ day, so I figure if I’m going to be doing it anyway, I may as well take a little extra time to indulge my creative side and enjoy it.
- It encourages me to pack a healthful lunch. Taking the time to pack a lunch with a balance of colors and textures inevitably leads to me putting healthier foods in my son’s lunch box.
- It’s environmentally friendly. The average elementary school student’s lunch generates 67 pounds of trash per year, but because almost everything I use to pack my sons’ lunches is reusable they generate very little paper or plastic waste. I do pack an occasional juice box or applesauce crusher, but I do my best to avoid products with excess packaging.
- It’s one more way to show my kids that I love them. By taking a smidge more time with their lunches, I’m showing my boys that they are important to me. That’s not to say that people who don’t pack their kids’ lunches bento-style don’t love their kids as much as I do — of course they love their kids! — but it’s one of the ways that I show them how I feel about them. They think it’s exciting and fun to pick out the cookie cutters I use to cut their sandwiches or tofu and they get a little thrill when they open their lunch boxes to find pictures drawn on their rolls.
How long does it take you to pack a bento box?
I honestly don’t know because I’ve never timed it start to finish. Also, I usually pack the lunch while I’m preparing breakfast for myself and the boys so the timing overlaps. For example, I’ll chop up some melon for our breakfast plates and then I’ll put some of the leftovers in the lunch boxes. Does cutting the melon into chunks count as lunch prep or breakfast prep? It’s a conundrum!
I would guess that it takes me about 20% longer on average to pack a bento than it would to pack a “regular” lunch. Most lunches take about the same time — it takes no longer to put blueberries or a bun in a bento box than it would to put them in a ziplock bag. If I’m putting tofu into my son’s lunch, I have to cut it up somehow because I can’t very well expect him to gnaw on a block of tofu at the lunch table, but it doesn’t take any more time to cut it with a cookie cutter than it does to cut it with a knife. When I occasionally dress a lunch up a bit more by cutting something into a shape and arranging it or decorating with food markers, it does take a bit longer. And like everyone else, a good chunk of my time is spent figuring out what in the heck we have in the fridge that my kid will eat, but I’d have that problem with any lunch I packed.
Where do you find the time to do this?
I have to make lunches anyway, so I’m going to be spending a bit of time feeding my kids no matter what. And like I explained in the question above, it doesn’t take that much extra time to pack the lunch bento style so it’s not exactly like I’m carefully scheduling this time in my Franklin Covey planner or something. A better question would probably be: “Where do you find the time to photograph your son’s lunches, download the photos from your camera, upload them to Flickr and then blog about it?” Cause, really? That’s the part that’s most time-consuming.
Like anyone who crafts or cooks or blogs for fun, I’m making a choice about how to spend my time. I don’t have to do this — I want to do this. It’s enjoyable! How does anyone find the time to do the things they like to do? You might choose to spend a spare 10 minutes in the morning reading the paper, checking your email or sitting quietly enjoying a cup of coffee. (Or you might put on make-up and brush your hair, which I don’t do. Ha ha!) I spend that same 10 minutes playing with food.
What do you use for the backgrounds in your bento box photos?
The vast majority of the backgrounds I use are pieces of scrapbook paper. I will occasionally use a table cloth, dish towel or cloth napkin as well.
What kind of camera do you use?
I use a Canon Rebel XSI.