Bento Lunches Reduce Consumer Waste

In recent years, more and more people are choosing to pursue “green” lifestyles by making conscious decisions about their day-to-day impact on the planet. One simple way of reducing waste is to incorporate reusable containers into your weekly lunch routine. The Japanese tradition of bento boxes has been adopted by many Westerners as a means to express themselves creatively through food, as well as to limit portion size and do away with the necessity for disposable items such as plastic sandwich bags, plastic wrap and aluminum foil.

Traditional bento boxes are, in essence, small tiered containers, often made of hard, durable plastic. There may be two or three tiers, and these stack on top of each other to form one single, easy-to-carry “box.” The tiers are secured together with an elastic band. Typically, the box is carried in either a coordinating drawstring cloth bag or furoshiki, a flat piece of cloth which is tied securely at the top. Of course, some bento boxes are not tiered at all but divided into sections and equipped with a snap-close lid. As a more affordable option, Tupperware types of containers are perfectly suitable for bento-style lunches and available everywhere, including at dollar stores.

Though they are not necessary for bento preparation, there are many reusable accessories specifically produced for bento which allow for an easier partitioning of food and transport of difficult items, such as liquids. These include tiny sauce bottles — which sometimes resemble fish or other animals — egg molds in an array of shapes and sizes, and picks for holding rolled or wrapped food together. Some bento boxes include a fork, spoon and/or chopsticks, but if yours does not, there are several sets to choose from, offered in small locking plastic cases designed to fit into your bento carrying bag. All of these items may be found at online bento stores or through a quick search of eBay listings.

Other, more readily available tools for bento-making include cookie cutters for shaping sandwiches into smaller shapes; use mini metal cookie cutters on fruit, vegetables, cheese or whatever else you’d like to create sweet little bites, such as flower-shaped tomatoes on a bed of lettuce, or heart-shaped bits of apple. Silicone cupcake liners are excellent dividers and can hold everything from yogurt to fruit to pudding, mess-free.

Now, here is an example of a possible bento lunch. Top tier: seasoned rice or pasta with vegetables. Bottom tier: yogurt and fruit in a silicone cupcake liner; wheat crackers with sliced cheese. Virtually any sort of food is suitable for bento containers, thus opening up more options for your daily carry-to-work (or school) lunches; there are even bento boxes specially designed to keep soup hot and salads cold.

Bento boxes have become fully integrated into the “culture of cute,” influenced by kawaii (cute) Japanese art and merchandise. Most bento makers strive to fill their boxes with colorful food in attractive arrangements, some even going so far as to form food in the shapes of whimsical scenes, like gardens or oceans, or to resemble famous characters such as Hello Kitty and Mickey Mouse. The preparations can become quite involved and time-consuming. Sometimes it helps to prepare as much of the food as possible the day before it will be eaten, so that you only have to concern yourself with presentation, not cooking/slicing, etc., the next morning.

When it comes down to it, though, the contents of a bento box don’t have to be cute or creative at all. Bento boxes are simply convenient and practical tools for toting meals here and there, and no matter what’s inside of them, they inflict far less environmental impact than a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich wrapped in foil, carried in a plastic grocery bag.

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