New Year, New Lunch Box?
how a bento lunch box can encourage healthy eating habits
(and make lunch more enjoyable)
I’ve been seeing a lot more people in the gym lately (myself included), which must mean it’s January.
This time of year is a time when we take a good, hard look at ourselves and say, “I gotta do something about this.” Unfortunately, many of us will also take a look at what we packed for lunch today and say, “I gotta do something about this.”
It’s hard to pack a decent lunch, isn’t it? So often you end up putting the same old stuff in there.
What if there were a way to breath some new life into that stale lunchbox – an approach that has the potential to be more healthful, more enjoyable, and less stressful?
Let’s talk about bento boxes: the Japanese style of packed lunch that is gaining in popularity in lunch rooms, break rooms, and especially in Google Image Search!
I recently shared my thoughts about this culinary institution at a wellness presentation sponsored by Sumitomo Electric Wiring Systems in Marysville, Ohio, a company founded in Japan that saw a genuine opportunity to use one of their cultural staples to encourage better health and nutrition for their employees. You can see the footage from the presentation on my YouTube channel.
The following is a brief synopsis of what I shared with their associates.
What is a bento box?
Bento is a Japanese boxed meal, either home-packed or take-out, that is characterized by a use of a unique compartmentalized travel container filled with an assortment of edible items – typically rice or noodles with some sort of protein (meat, fish, tofu, egg) and an assortment of raw, cooked, and pickled vegetables.
History of Bento
The concept of bento started nearly a thousand years ago in the Kamakura Period when work travelers would bring with them a small sack of pre-cooked rice called hoshi-ii that could later be cooked and eaten. Several centuries later, the bag made way for a box that eventually took on the name of the dish.
The compartmentalized nature of the bento box began to take shape in the 1600s with the advent of the makunouchi bento, which literally means “intermission bento.” Japanese people enjoyed live theater, but they had no popcorn or concession stands in the 17th century, so the bento became a way to provide themselves with a variety of delectable delights in between acts.
The story of bento is also a story of industrialization and progress: cloth sacks and bamboo leaves were replaced by wooden boxes. Rudimentary boxes became more ornate and lacquered. Further industrialization led to the development of boxes made from aluminum, stainless steel, glass, and eventually plastic.
Modern Bento Culture
Today, bento is a cultural phenomenon. In Japan, everyone from school children to working adults enjoy bento for lunch – whether packed at home or purchased on the go. Travelers can find their favorite varieties in train stations, department stores, convenience stores, and specialty markets.
Not only is bento known for its unique container; it has become a unique artform. Type it into a search engine and be prepared to see food made to look like cute animals, famous cartoon characters, and elegant nature scenes. It’s art you can eat (after you’ve posted it to Instagram, of course).
Health Benefits of Bento
When you decide to adopt the idea of bento, you are not only participating in a centuries-old tradition that looks amazing on social media; you are adopting a framework that can lead to healthier eating habits.
Here are a few ways bento can help you with that New Year’s resolution:
If you’ve ever taken a look at MyPlate’s recommendations for a daily diet, you know that consuming foods from all the food groups, and controlling how much of each you consume, is critical to proper nutrition. A bento box helps prevent you from falling into the habit of going too heavy on one part of the plate.
Have you ever looked at your plate on Thanksgiving and seen brown turkey, brown stuffing, brown gravy, brown dinner rolls… just a plate of brown food. How dull and boring is that?!
Bentos are made to be filled with a variety of items, representing different colors, textures, flavors, and preparation methods. Not only does variety look and taste more appealing, it is often more nutritionally balanced!
Preparing bento for an entire week is a big time-saver - it allows you to build the boxes once rather than five times, plus it’s easier to prepare a larger batch of something and distribute it in smaller portions rather than make many small batches.
This is a habit that can (and should) carry over into your evening dinner planning as well - consider preparing items that can be cross-utilized in at least one of your suppers, or plan a supper to have leftovers that can be placed in your bento for the following day.