• The nutritional value of bento box is in more than just the types of food. (Getty)Source: Getty
How a simple lunchbox could transform your diet.
Bonnie Bayley

19 Oct 2020 - 5:12 PM  UPDATED 19 Oct 2020 - 5:12 PM

If there's one thing nutrition enthusiasts love, it's the next silver bullet solution to eating better. 

A lot of the time, these 'solutions' turn out to be mostly hype. But in the case of the bento box, it may actually be the real deal.

With numerous varieties of multi-compartment, bento-style lunch boxes available online (see here and here), and increasingly on supermarket shelves, they make regular Tupperware looks downright dull.

But aesthetics aside, packing your lunch in a bento box – or even just applying general bento principles to meals – could genuinely inspire you to eat better. 

This bento box art will make you rethink your lunch
Put down that peanut butter sandwich and take a gawk at these adorable bento lunches.

Lifting the lid on bentos and nutrition

First on the list of the bento box's virtues is portion control.

Aloysa Hourigan, senior nutritionist at Nutrition Australia, says, "It helps you regulate your portion sizes because each compartment in a bento box is not large.

"You might have a small amount of say pasta or rice salad in one section, then you'd have vegetables.

"Then in another compartment some protein like tuna, hardboiled egg, chicken, tofu or beans, you might have fruit in another compartment and possibly a snack item like a muffin or vegetable sticks and hummus."

Good for the gut: oily fish can help increase your omega-3 count.

The multiple compartments mean you're more likely to include a variety of foods, which research shows is correlated with improved dietary quality and nutrient adequacy. Even within food groups, variety matters.

Dietitian and nutritionist Christina Ross explains, "We know that the colour of vegetables roughly correlates to some of the key nutrients they contain, so for example orange and yellow fruit and veg provide beta carotene, whereas dark leafy greens are rich in folate."

Another bento benefit? Compared to a typical sandwich or wrap, having a mini buffet of assorted morsels can quell the urge to keep grazing, post-meal. "It taps into different taste sensations and flavours, so it might feel more satisfying because you've experienced all those things within the meal," says Ross.

It's worth noting that other cultures do this well too – from the Mediterranean mezze platter and Chinese yum cha to Sri Lankan curries with accompanying chutneys, pickles and coconut sambal. The Indian tiffin lunchbox is another example, with its multiple, stacked tins.

Middle Eastern mezze menu
fried cauli with tarator // charred whole eggplant // shredded-pastry wrapped prawns // rice-stuffed mussels // Turkish delight doughnuts

Eating with your eyes

In Japanese bento culture, presentation is everything.

A quick google search reveals images of artistically arranged boxes and next level kyara-ben (character bento), in which food is fashioned into cutesy animals, cartoon characters and miniature landscapes. Even an 'everyday' bento (makunouchi bento) in Japan still calls for neat presentation and splashes of colour.

"By making it colourful, it's automatically healthier."

Japanese cooking teacher Yoshiko Takeuchi says, "Japanese food is often brown because we love putting soy sauce on everything, so we force ourselves to add cherry tomatoes and greens to a bento so it looks pretty.

"By making it colourful, it's automatically healthier."

Prettifying a bento box is a smart move, nutritionally. By including a rainbow of colours (ideally via at least three different vegetables, suggests Ross), and experimenting with how they are presented (for instance grating, dicing, spiralising), healthy food instantly becomes more appealing.

The power of food presentation is borne out in research, too. 

"We know that in the aged-care population, if people go on texture-modified diets and they are presented well, their intake goes up, which is a clear indication that how food looks makes a difference," says Hourigan.

Other research shows that people rate food as tastier when it's presented with creative flair.

Packing the perfect bento

The typical bento box in Japan is carb-heavy, containing up to two thirds rice, along with perhaps a cherry tomato, steamed broccoli, umeboshi (pickled plum), tamagoyaki (omelette) and perhaps some chicken karaage, says Takeuchi. Ideally, you want to scale back the starch.

"I'd encourage having two parts vegetables, one part carbohydrates and one part protein, then adding a bit of fruit, some good fats like avocado, olives or nuts, and 'extras' to elevate the flavour, such as sauerkraut, dukkha, fetta or tabouli," suggests Ross.

A spot of weekend food prep can be your ally in the bento game.

"You can prepare frittatas and mini quiches ahead, and have them ready to go in your fridge or freezer," suggests Hourigan. Pre-roasted vegetables and hard-boiled eggs, tins of tuna or beans and pre-cooked quinoa or brown rice are also useful.  

Character bento

Character bento is where the children's lunch box meets art. Using simple techniques and a bit of personal creativity, every lunch box can be a blank canvas.

Another bento essential is to separate wet and dry elements. "Always put the dressing on the side, so you can enjoy fresh, crispy vegetables," says Takeuchi.

She suggests using patty pans as dividers, and experimenting with fun accessories (try Daiso) and vegetable shape cutters.

If you eventually find yourself in kyara-ben zone, don't say we didn't warn you.

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