When you’re a kid, you don’t want to eat the lunch your parents packed for you, and when you’re an adult, it seems so much easier to grab an overpriced deli sandwich or struggle through whatever’s left in the fridge than to sit down to a balanced meal. You can’t win. Or can you?

RELATED: Tips and products to pack school lunch without breaking a sweat

Bento box-style lunches have been all the rage on Instagram and Pinterest for a while now, though they often seem like too much work for us mere mortals. But with one hour of advance planning per week, you too can turn your refrigerator into your own personal takeout case—a saving grace for families of any size.

Casey Barber

The key is to get a week’s worth of lunches MOSTLY packed in one fell swoop by filling the bento boxes with foods that can keep in the fridge for a few days without spoiling or losing quality. By packing crunchy salads that can marinate in dressing, sturdy starches and grains, and power-packed proteins that aren’t necessarily sliced turkey breast or chicken, you can build an arsenal of lunch options that can be mixed and matched to satisfy everyone.

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This is how I keep my sanity when trying to reconcile my husband’s picky eating tendencies with my own more adventurous eating style. He loves cheesy couscous and simple vegetables; I want tuna salad and Thai peanut noodles. By building our own bentos, we can grab our own personalized combination of foods as we each dash out the door. Use these tips to get started.

  1. It’s a small investment, but the bento box-style containers with compartments (whether in one piece or removable) really do work best for two reasons: They are designed specifically to keep foods separate from one another and they take up less space in a lunch bag or tote bag than a disparate collection of containers. But if you’re not ready to commit to buying new equipment, make sure the containers you’re pulling from the cupboard have no-leak lids.
  2. Assemble a well-balanced meal by packing each box with an item from each of the categories below. Add in fresh fruit or other spoil-prone foods the night before or the morning of, and throw in a few shelf-stable treats and desserts like Goldfish crackers or chocolate-covered pretzels for fun.
  3. Got a bigger appetite? Supplement with fresh-made extras (like half a sandwich) or last night’s leftovers (like a slab of spaghetti pie) to complete the meal, though each box will function just fine on its own if you’re in a rush.

RELATED: Skip the bottle! Make salad dressing so good you’ll want to drink it

Now get packing and get stacking!


  • Hardboiled eggs sliced and sprinkled with your favorite seasoning like taco seasoning, lemon pepper, Old Bay, or Cajun seasoning
  • Cottage cheese topped with a spoonful of your favorite jam
  • Edamame tossed with sesame oil, salt, and scallions
  • Tuna salad: oil-packed tuna tossed with chopped roasted red peppers and capers
  • Falafel salad: chickpeas tossed with cumin, coriander, parsley, salt, pepper, and Greek yogurt

3 tips for packing school lunches

Aug. 24, 201501:11

Fruits and vegetables

  • Frozen succotash or other vegetable medley splashed with your favorite vinaigrette and left to defrost in the fridge
  • Frozen peaches, raspberries, blueberries, or mango cubes drizzled with honey and left to defrost in the fridge
  • “Pickled” cucumbers: cubes or slices tossed with rice vinegar and sesame seeds
  • Toothpick-skewered cherry tomatoes and mini mozzarella balls

Starches and sides

  • Roasted or boiled baby potatoes tossed with olive oil and herbs
  • Leftover rice mixed with frozen peas and a splash of soy sauce
  • Couscous mixed with olive oil and Parmesan, salt, and pepper
  • Pasta or noodles tossed with sauces like pesto, curry, or peanut sauce

A Look Inside Japanese Bento Boxes: Types & Ingredients

Put simply, a “bento” or “bento box” is a Japanese lunchbox. What separates it from the ham sandwich and soda many of us carried in a Spiderman lunchbox in elementary school is the attention to detail and the balance of the ingredients. A proper bento lunch is crafted with care and should be a complete meal with a variety of tastes, textures, and food groups. The meal typically includes rice, meat or fish, and pickled vegetables. The Japanese are known for their ability to make use of every last bit of space, and lunchboxes are no exception–the meal is packed neatly and tightly into small square or rectangular shape, making it easy for children and busy office workers to transport. Traditionally, the mother of the family prepares the meal for her kids and husband, though today bento boxes are often purchased from convenience stores and restaurants.

Types of Bento

There are various types of bento, each with its own purpose and appropriate setting. These are the most common types of bento boxes in Japan:

Marukonouchi Bento

Prepared by a caterer, these are the two-section bento boxes typically found in convenience stores, supermarkets, and department stores. One side of the box contains a rice dish while the other holds small side dishes. This style of bento was originally served in Kabuki theaters as a meal for actors and audience members in between acts.

Koraku Bento

Translating to “picnic lunchbox” in Japanese, these large bento are made to be shared among a small group. They are especially common during hanami (cherry blossom viewing) season in late March and early April. Like many traditional Japanese dishes, the items included in the lunchbox are chosen deliberately to reflect the season in which it was prepared. Onigiri (triangular rice balls) and maki-zushi rolls are standard fare in a koraku bento.

Hinomaru Bento

Literally, “circle of the sun”, hinomaru refers to the Japanese flag and symbol of Japan. Like the flag, this meal is elegant in its simplicity; the base is white rice topped with a single red umeboshi (pickled plum) to represent the sun, with a side dish of meat or fish. Aside from keeping things patriotic, the plum also acts as a natural preservative to keep the meal fresh.

The Shikaeshi Bento

You know you have done something wrong if you get one of these. The “revenge lunchbox” is a passive yet effective way a wife can give her husband a very unpleasant surprise during his lunch break. Upon opening the lunchbox, he may find an embarrassing design, a box filled with nothing but corn, or a meal that is entirely inedible, such as uncooked rice and a raw egg.

Aisai Bento

The aisai bento, or “bento made by loving wives”, is exactly what it sounds like. In addition to making the children’s lunches, the mother of the family prepares this special lunch for her husband to be taken to work. Similarly, young women in relationships sometimes prepare a handmade bento for their significant other during hanami season.


A combination of eki (train station) and bento, these high-quality lunchboxes are sold at major train stations, including on the platform and on the train. The ekiben is a complete meal served in a plastic, wood, or ceramic box along with a set of disposable chopsticks. The ingredients in the lunchbox typically reflect the staple foods of the area, with some stations becoming nationally recognized for the quality of their bento boxes. Similar styles of railway meals have become popular in other East Asian countries as well, particularly Taiwan.


Usually made for children, kyaraben (“character bento”) are lunchboxes in which rice and other bento box food are shaped and designed to look like popular characters from anime, manga, or video games. In addition to adding a bit of color to the standard lunchbox, the cute characters also help to encourage kids to eat foods they do not particularly enjoy. Aside from famous characters, kyaraben may also include animals or natural scenery to reflect the season or holiday.

Types of Bento Lunch Box Containers

Convenience store bentos are usually made from disposable plastic, but reusable containers are made from a variety of materials with a wide range of quality and price. Standard bento containers are made from aluminum, plastic, glass, stainless steel, or silicon, and will typically last quite a while if cared for properly. The more expensive options include thermal materials for keeping food warm, bamboo, lacquered wood, and melamine. The more elegant wooden containers are sometimes kept as family heirlooms.

Popular Bento Box Food

Rice – This is the base ingredient of just about every bento; one without it would be like a sandwich with no bread. The rice can be prepared in several ways, such as hakumai (standard white rice), genmai (brown rice), sekihan (rice cooked with red beans), zakkokumai (rice with mixed grains), noriben (rice covered with a sheet of nori seaweed), and wakame gohan (rice mixed with seaweed).

Read: 12 Popular Japanese Rice dishes

Umeboshi – pickled sour Japanese plums.

Salads – Vegetables and salads are often chosen to reflect the season.

Read: 9 Popular Japanese Salads & Vegetable Dishes

Tamagoyaki – a sweet Japanese rolled omelette.

Agemono – Deep-fried foods include chicken karaage, tempura, croquettes, and fried fish cakes.

Tonkatsu – A heavily breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet served with a brown sauce made specifically for tonkatsu.

Grilled fish – Typically mackerel, salmon, or unagi (eel).

Read: Grilled Fish in Japan

Nimono – Slowly simmered fish, meat, or vegetables reminiscent of home cooking.

Stewed beef – Gyudon, a flavorful layer of beef served atop a bed of rice.

Sushi – A Japanese staple, typically raw seafood served on top of pressed rice ball.

Read: 28 Popular Sushi Toppings – A Guide to Nigiri

Bento Boxes Are a Cheap & Nourishing Traditional Japanese Meal

Whether you are a foodie, adventure traveler, or just visiting on business, bento boxes are a great option for anyone looking for an authentic local experience.

This Set of BPA-Free Bento Lunch Boxes Has More Than 3,000 Positive Reviews On Amazon

Photo: Gary Waters/Getty Images, Amazon

When it comes to meal prepping lunches the container can make or break even the most well-thought-out meals. Salad dressing spills wreaking havoc on perfectly crispy greens, cut fruit accidentally mixing in with pasta sauce-these are just two examples of how a healthy lunch you spent Sunday preparing can turn unappealing quick. And when your packed lunch becomes unappetizing, you’re more likely to grab a too-big, expensive sandwich instead.

Don’t waste your time on bad meal prep containers. Do your homework and read reviews. With more and more retailers relying on e-commerce, you can find comments from real shoppers that can help steer you toward the right purchase (or help you avoid the wrong one).

Mega e-retailer, Amazon is a hotbed for customer reviews and enthusiastic ones at that. Reviewers are keen to share their painstakingly honest opinions on everything from essential oils and anti-aging serums to swimsuits and leggings, often resulting in cult followings for brands or even specific items.

One such find: EasyLunchboxes 3-Compartment Bento Lunch Box Containers (Buy It, $14 for set of four), which has a four-star rating and more than 3,000 positive reviews from customers who’ve come to rely on the containers to keep food organized, sealed, and fresh.

Each of the chic three-compartment boxes is FDA-approved, free of BPA, PVC, or phthalates, and microwave-, freezer-, and dishwasher-safe. Note: They feature an easy-open lid to make them a solid choice for kids, but that does mean there’s risk for accidentally opening. This hasn’t seemed to deter buyers though, with one reviewer saying they commute with the containers in their backpack daily (along with books and a computer!) and trust them not to spill or crack.

You can buy the four-piece set in three different colors, and each set will run you $14 (or about $3.50 per container). And yes, it’s available for free two-day shipping with Amazon Prime.

The brand also has an insulated lunch box if you’re still taking your meal prep containers in plastic to-go bags. Complete your meal prep arsenal with these top-rated buys also on Amazon.

  • By By Kristin Granero

These 3 easy and budget-friendly meal prep ideas for bento prove that eating healthy can be delicious and fun! A little prep work on Sunday will set you up to eat healthier, save money, and reduce your stress through the week.

Many of us including myself struggle to prepare our children’s lunch. We want them to eat healthy homemade lunch at school, but how do we do that when our morning is hectic as it is?

A few hours on meal prepping for bento lunch box on a Sunday might be a solution to consider. Today I’ll show you an example of meal prepping and how I pack 3 days of bento using the ingredients I meal prep on a Sunday morning. As a bonus, I made it a challenge to make each bento box under $3.

How to Meal Prep Bento: $3 Bento Challenge

These 3 easy and budget-friendly meal prep ideas for bento prove that eating healthy can be delicious and fun! A little prep work on Sunday will set you up to eat healthier, save money, and reduce your stress through the week.

Plan Your Bento Schedule

Before the week start, plan your bento schedule and visualize what each bento should look like. If you’re new to bento making, you can even draw the bento box and write down each dish or ingredients in the section of bento. Eventually, you’ll be able to do this process in your head.

Planning ahead will help you check on the colors of ingredients so your bento won’t look dull with all the same color. It also helps cut down on frequent trips to grocery stores and save money by using the same ingredients for each bento.

Here’s my plan:

  • Saturday – Shopping Day
  • Sunday – the Meal Prep Day
  • Monday – Bento #1: Karaage Bento
  • Tuesday – Sandwich Day
  • Wednesday – Bento #2: Soboro Bento
  • Thursday – Sandwich Day
  • Friday – Bento #3: Onigirazu Bento

On Sandwich Day, you can make your children’s favorite sandwiches (my kids love grilled cheese sandwich). I have some sandwich recipes here:

  • Tamago Sando
  • Wanpaku Sando
  • Crispy Chicken Sandwich
  • Katsu Sando (coming this Friday)
  • Menchi Katsu Sandwich
  • Korokke Sando
  • Yakisoba Pan

Sunday – The Meal Prep Day

This is the most important day. I set aside 2-3 hours for meal prepping as you will need to make several dishes at the same time.

For the meal prep recipes and ideas I share on Just One Cookbook, I make sure they have a minimal/simplified ingredient list and cooking process (but it doesn’t mean less tasty!).

Here is the list of dishes I need for the week:

  • Ajitsuke Tamago (Ramen Egg)
  • Easy Carrot Salad
  • Spinach Namul (Korean Spinach Side Dish)
  • Chicken Karaage
  • Chicken Soboro
  • Scrambled Egg
  • Tuna Salad

Other food to prepare:

  • Wash vegetables (carrot, snow peas, spinach, green leaf lettuce, cherry tomato)
  • Blanch snow peas
  • Cook steamed rice (and freeze individual portions)

A Quick Breakdown of The Meal Prep Process

In general, I prepare EVERYTHING ahead of time, and this means the food that keeps well in the refrigerator. I cook and wash everything, and place each dish or ingredient in an airtight container (I use this brand) and put in the refrigerator. I even cook rice ahead of time and freeze the individual portions of the rice in a container.

In the morning of the day I pack bento, I reheat everything and let cool before I pack each dish into the bento box (Please read my Food Safety Tips for Bento).

To get everything ready in the most efficient way, I first separate my tasks into working stations and then tackle the tasks that require marinating/cooking or take the longest first, and I work backward from there.

*If you prefer to go through the process based on steps instead of working stations, please re-arrange the list I provided below to work best for you.

Washing Stations

  1. Rinse rice and soak for 20 minutes << Step 1
  2. Wash carrot, lettuce, tomatoes, snow peas, and spinach << Step 2

Cutting Stations

  1. Cut carrots into julienned pieces << Step 4
  2. Cut spinach after blanching << Step 9
  3. Cut chicken before marinating << Step 12

Cooking Stations

  1. Bring water to boil and boil eggs << Step 3
  2. Cook rice in rice cooker or over stovetop << Step 6
  3. Bring water to boil and blanch snow peas << Step 7
  4. Blanch spinach << Step 8
  5. Cook ground chicken for Soboro << Step 16
  6. Cook scrambled eggs << Step 17
  7. Deep (shallow) fry the Karaage << Step 18

Work Stations

  1. Make the Ajitsuke Tamago marinade and marinate eggs << Step 5
  2. Make the Carrot Salad marinade and mix with julienned carrots << Step 10
  3. Make the Spinach Namul marinade and mix with blanched spinach << Step 11
  4. Make the Karaage marinade and marinate the chicken for 30 minutes << Step 13
  5. Measure the seasonings for Soboro << Step 14
  6. Measure the seasonings for scrambled eggs and beat eggs << Step 15
  7. Make the tuna salad << Step 19

Meal Prep Check List (9 containers)

Pack each dish and ingredients in a separate container and refrigerate/freeze. << Step 20

  • Ajitsuke Tamago (Ramen Egg)
  • Grated Carrot Salad
  • Spinach Namul (Korean Spinach Side Dish)
  • Chicken Karaage
  • Chicken Soboro
  • Scrambled Egg
  • Tuna Salad
  • Washed vegetables (lettuce, tomatoes, blanched snow peas)
  • Steamed rice (How to Store Rice in the Freezer)

Monday – Karaage Bento (#1) = $2.32

You will need the following item to pack in Karaage Bento:

Wednesday – Soboro Bento (#2) = $2.50

You will need the following item to pack in Soboro Bento:

  1. Rice ($.30)
  2. Chicken Soboro ($1)
  3. Scrambled egg ($.30)
  4. Blanched snow peas ($.75)
  5. Red pickled ginger ($.15)

Friday – Onigirazu Bento (#3) = $2.20

Onigirazu (おにぎらず) is a rice sandwich that has been popular for the past decade in Japan. Similar to rice balls, it consists of rice, nori seaweed, and filling. The only difference is that you can stuff more fillings in Onigirazu. Here are 3 kinds of Onigirazu I packed in the bento lunch box on Friday.

For each onigirazu, you will need a half sheet of nori seaweed, rice, and lettuce.

  1. Karaage Onigirazu ($.85)
    • Grated Carrot Salad
    • Spinach Namul (Korean Spinach Side Dish)
    • Chicken Karaage
  2. Soboro Onigirazu ($.65)
    • Chicken Soboro
    • Scrambled egg
  3. Tuna Onigirazu ($.70)
    • Tuna salad (a mixture of drained canned tuna, Japanese mayonnaise, salt, and pepper)

To learn how to make Onigirazu, please watch the video above or check out one of the following onigirazu posts for detail instructions. If you like the idea of Onigirazu, here are other onigirazu recipes you can try on Just One Cookbook.

  • Spam Onigirazu
  • Bulgogi Onigirazu
  • Teriyaki Salmon Onigirazu
  • Ginger Pork Onigirazu
  • Chicken Katsu Onigirazu

I hope this meal prep plan is helpful to you. If you have any questions, please leave a comment below and I’ll try my best to answer you.

More Recipes for Japanese Meal Prep (Jobisai 常備菜):

  • Spinach Gomaae (Japanese Spinach Salad
  • Spinach Namul (Korean Spinach Side Dish)
  • Seafood Salad

Japanese Ingredient Substitution: If you want to look for substitutes for Japanese condiments and ingredients, .

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These Healthy Bento Lunch Box Recipes are perfect for back to school and are the equivalent of adult lunchables! Try pizza, turkey & hummus, egg & cheese and more!

Gain access to my free 4-week meal prep magic ebook!

Why use a bento box?

Bento boxes were first common in Japan. Thanks to the Bento’s ability to make lunchtime fun for kids, they’re popular nearly everywhere these days!

The most popular Bento lunch boxes feature elaborately styled food but you don’t need a special box; glass meal prep containers work perfectly. Bento lunch ingredients are often colorful and always fun – that’s why kids love them!

It’s also a fantastic way to manage portions and divide up a larger servings, and it’s better for the environment when you skip using plastic bags and switch to reusable products.

How long does it take to make a bento box lunch?

Some people take hours to craft a picture perfect bento box. If that’s not for you, I have a perfectly easy solution to help you create Bento lunch box ideas in minutes!

To create one of the five no-cook bento box lunches below, you really only need 5-10 minutes of prep time and you’ve got amazing lunches ready in no time.

By preparing several bento boxes at one time, you can meal prep lunches for an entire week. No fancy ingredients, not a ton of prep time, and NO cook time.

Different varieties of Bento box lunch ideas

All of these varieties make a bento lunch box kids and adults will both enjoy! I have made five different bento boxes for you to try – here they are listed and pictured below alongside the ingredients you’ll need.

Pizza Bento Box

Turkey and Hummus Bento Box

Chickpea Salad Bento Box

Egg and Cheese Bento Box

Meat and Cheese Bento Box

How to make bento lunch boxes (step-by-step)

Bento boxes are basically assembling a variety of healthy ingredients into one meal. But here are some suggestions to get you started.

  1. Find containers you like. Typically, you will want some kind of glass or plastic container that is divided into sections. You could also use silicone dividers to separate the food in a larger container. Here are the containers I use.
  2. Create a well balanced meal. There are four sections to the bento box: carbs, protein, vegetables and fruits.
  3. Tightly pack the Bento box lunch. The tighter you pack the box, the less mess and shifting there will be. Pack the bulky stuff first and the flexible items last. For example, the cheese in the pizza bento should be last because it will fit in anywhere. Using leftovers is a great way to create a new meal out of the ingredients you already have in your fridge.

How long will they last in the fridge?

If you are packing hot food into a bento box, allow it to cool completely before putting the lid on. This will help you avoid soggy meals.

Bentos can be kept in the refrigerator overnight or can be made quickly in the morning.

How long they last in the fridge depends on the ingredients. The five in this recipe will last several days. Just wait to put any non-refrigerated ingredients in until the day you plan to eat them.

How to extend shelf life of ingredients

You can freeze most of the ingredients in the bento boxes, but do so individually. For example, make the chickpea salad and freeze it separately from other items you plan to add to the box.

You can also vacuum seal the bento box ingredients in a similar manner.

Bento lunch boxes for adults

Bento boxes are a perfect solution for leftovers. Nearly any ingredient that you have some leftovers of after dinner can be reimagined into bento lunch boxes for adults!

What started as a trend for school lunches gets a sophisticated new look when you add ingredients like eggs and cheese. This is your chance to combine the flavors you like best for a lunchtime meal you will look forward to.

Where can you buy bento lunch boxes?

With the recent popularity of bento boxes, you can find them at nearly any national chain store, or online at places like Amazon.

You want to look for boxes that have compartments for the different food groups. Most are dishwasher and microwave safe. Many even come with silverware and an ice pack to keep everything at a safe temperature until lunchtime.

  • Here are the bento box containers I use in this post
  • Here are some cheaper plastic bento boxes

Other cold lunch ideas

If you need some suggestions of ingredients to add to a Bento lunch box, try some of these. They don’t even need to be reheated!

  • Deli meat roll ups
  • Cold noodles or pasta
  • Quinoa salad (with or without meat)
  • Watermelon salad
  • Marinated vegetables

Other meal prep lunch resources

Preparing meals in advance helps you make healthy choices and it saves you a lot of time in the morning.

A Bento box lunch box is just one solution on the quest for a healthy, easy lunch. Get more meal prep ideas from these posts:

  • How to Meal Prep
  • 20 Easy Healthy Meal Prep Lunch Ideas for Work
  • Meal prep school lunch ideas

Meal prep tools for this recipe

  • Here are the bento box containers I use in this post
  • Here are some cheaper plastic bento boxes

Meal prep challenge

If you’d like some more help with meal planning, then you’ll love my free 5-day meal prep challenge! It’s basically a free course that will teach you how to meal prep and cook healthy meals at home with some PDF bonus materials. Over the course of the challenge, I’ll send you a free meal planner and shopping list templates so that you stay on the right track with meal prep (plus more goodies of course!)

Sign up for free below:

Gain access to my FREE 5-day meal prep challenge + bonus resources when you sign up.

learn how to meal prep by subscribing to our newsletter!

Healthy Bento Lunch Box Recipes 5 Ways

These Healthy Bento Lunch Box Recipes are perfect for back to school and are the equivalent of adult lunchables! Try pizza, turkey & hummus, egg & cheese and more! 4 from 3 votes Pin Course: Main Dish Cuisine: American Keyword: adult lunchables, bento box, bento lunch boxes, cold cuts, cold lunch Prep Time: 20 minutes Total Time: 20 minutes Servings: 4 servings Calories: 338kcal


Turkey & Hummus

  • 16 deli turkey slices
  • 2 cups mixed veggies (cucumber, carrots, cherry tomatoes)
  • 1/2 cup hummus
  • 4 cheese sticks

Meat & Cheese

  • 1 cup sliced kielbasa, ham or salami
  • 1 cup sliced cheddar cheese
  • 2 cups crackers
  • 2 cups raspberries & blackberries

Egg & Cheese

  • 8 hard boiled eggs, sliced in half
  • 2 apples, cored and sliced
  • 1 cup sliced white cheddar cheese
  • 1 cup grapes
  • 1/2 cup raw almonds

Chickpea Salad

  • 1 can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
  • 1/3 cup light mayo
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp curry powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt & pepper
  • 1/2 tsp dried dill
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 2 green onions, sliced
  • Extra veggies and crackers, to serve


  • 3 pitas, cut into small circles
  • 1/2 cup pizza sauce
  • 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese
  • 1/2 cup mini pepperoni or turkey pepperettes, sliced


  • Add ingredients of choice to each bento box container. For chickpea salad, mash chickpeas in a large bowl with a fork (will be a rough mash), then serve over lettuce in bento box container with sides of choice.
  • Bento boxes will last in the fridge up to 5 days. Enjoy!



Calories: 338kcal | Carbohydrates: 27g | Protein: 19g | Fat: 17g | Saturated Fat: 6g | Cholesterol: 41mg | Sodium: 1085mg | Potassium: 455mg | Fiber: 3g | Sugar: 4g | Vitamin A: 48IU | Vitamin C: 2mg | Calcium: 92mg | Iron: 2mg

I’ve had some people ask me questions about how I do a weekly food prep, so I hope this post will help answer them. I got my inspiration to prepare lunches and snacks a week in advance from this awesome blog. (There’s lots of good info here – check it out!) My reasons for doing a weekly food prep are to help me lose weight, save time, and to make my family’s meals and snacks healthy and more fun.

I’ll walk you through a sample Weekly Food Prep day that I did a while back ( it was actually a couple of years ago when my blog used to be on Blogger ), while describing the steps I generally use to accomplish this each week.

Step 1: Plan Your Meals

I have a meal planning sheet that I created years ago that I print out that shows a whole week’s worth of meals on one page. I jot down in pencil my ideas for all our breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks, and post it on the fridge. I use it as a guideline, but I don’t stress about it if I have to change it over the course of a week. Over the years I have developed a formula that I follow for planning a week’s worth of meals. If I’m really busy, this formula is like an automatic pilot for my brain. I choose:

2 proteins: A lot of different lunches and dinners can be based around just 2 proteins. I almost always cook chicken for one of those protein choices. Other proteins I make frequently are taco meat, meatballs, burgers, marinated pork or beef sirloin, beans, and boiled eggs. I choose my proteins based on what we have on hand, and what’s on sale at the grocery stores that week.

2 carbs: The same is true for carbs. Being gluten-intolerant, I always cook rice as one of my carb choices. It keeps in the fridge all week, and freezes well, too. Other carbs I frequently make are sweet potatoes, pasta, and bread.

3 breakfasts : It makes life so much easier to just choose 3 breakfasts and repeat them throughout the week. For example: 1. oatmeal, 2. egg burrito, 3. pancakes – then repeat that to fill out the week. On super busy mornings, I forgo the meal plan and make protein smoothies 🙂

4 snacks: same as with breakfast. An example would be: 1. boiled egg and raw veggies, 2. apple slices and peanut butter, 3. yogurt, 4. cottage cheese and pineapple – repeated to fill out the week. I just keep plenty of these snacks prepared and in the fridge and let my family choose when they want to eat them, but I usually eat what’s written on the meal plan – just one less decision to make for me.

lunches: I loosely plan for lunches which are usually salads, sandwiches, or leftovers. I just make sure that I have plenty of ingredients ready to go from my weekly food prep session and I put lunches together in the morning, or the night before. I enjoy being creative with our lunches ( you may have noticed), so this part of my plan is pretty flexible. I do jot down any good bento ideas that come to mind on my meal plan so I don’t forget, but I don’t always stick to them 🙂 You can find a lot of the things I use to make bento, along with the lunch boxes I use on My Favorite Kitchen Tools page.

7 dinners: I like having something different for dinner every night, but I still keep it pretty simple. I think about what activities are going to happen during the coming week and plan dinner accordingly. On busy days, I put something in the crockpot in the morning. When we have activities in the evening, I plan things to eat that take 30 minutes or less to put together. On Sundays, I like to have a big traditional dinner where we set the table nice and all sit down together. I also include in my plan some ingredients for some “emergency dinners” because crazy things often come up that change my plans, and it helps to have a Plan B. Here are some of our family’s favorite 20 minute dinners – Best 20 Minute Dinners Round-up

vegetables: One thing you may notice about my Food Prepping, is that I make a LOT of vegetables! There are a couple of reasons for this. Number one – if I don’t make vegetables a priority in my meal plans, we don’t really choose to eat them. It seems to be human nature to avoid vegetables for some reason! But if I keep prepared vegetables front and center in the fridge, ready to grab and go, they do get used up during the week. Number two – I have been well-trained by my health coach, John Gibson, to eat vegetables at every meal (yes, even breakfast). I swear by this principle as the best way to control my weight and be healthy. You can read more about John and his excellent weight loss coaching on his website, fatlossevolution.com.

So this is how I make sure we have enough vegetables:

Salad Bowl and Salad Bar: I have made this nearly every week for over 2 years, and I swear by this as the best way to stick to healthy choices for meals, even when you’re super busy! I can throw together a great salad for lunch, or place the salad bar on the table to round out dinner at a moment’s notice. You can see what my salad bar looks like here: How to Make a Salad Bar and learn about my big salad bowl here: How to Make Salad Stay Fresh All Week

Packets of frozen veggies: I like to prepare several Zip n Steam veggie packets ( like I show in the photos below in the “Prepare Your Food” section) but mostly I use already frozen vegetables and just separate them into portion sizes with the Zip n Steam bags and keep them in a larger bag in the freezer. Frozen vegetables are convenient and cheap, and if I end up not using them all in a week, I don’t have to worry about them getting spoiled, and they can just stay in the freezer to be used the following week.

Raw Vegetables and Dip: I usually keep single serving containers of cut-up vegetables and dip in the fridge for snacks and to add to lunches. For dip we like basic ranch dip, hummus, and my Lite Blue Cheese Dip. Here are the containers I typically use to pack up veggies and dip:

Step 2: Shop for What You Need

I like to read the weekly grocery ads to help me plan what to eat for the week – I love a good sale, and I like to stock up when prices are low. I sit down with my meal planning sheet and the grocery ads to write up my grocery list. Then before I head out, I quickly clean out my fridge.

Now I get out all my fresh fruits and vegetables and put them on the table. Why do I bother with this? I’ve noticed how easy it is to forget what’s in the fridge and before I know it, I have a pile of rotten veggies. Yuck. It’s worth the trouble to pull it out and examine it. If anything is going bad, I dump it in the compost bucket that I keep on our back doorstep. When I can see what I’ve got, then I get inspired with ideas for what to do with it for the week, and I make a quick shopping list to get things I need to complete my plans. Here’s what that looks like:

I usually go to two or three stores to get everything I need. I plan my store trips to combine them with other errands so I’m not wasting gas driving back and forth around town.

Step 3: Prepare the Food

*The photos and descriptions below come from an old post I did almost three years ago. I added just a few minor updates:

The 2 proteins I’m using for our example week are mushroom chicken meatballs, and kalua pork. My husband works at an office that has a fridge and microwave, and I work at home, so I usually make us lunches that get heated up. But when I need to pack lunches that will be eaten cold, I will usually choose to cook chicken breasts and eggs for the 2 proteins. I look at grocery ads and choose the proteins based on what’s on sale that week. Whenever possible I like one of those proteins to be something that I can cook in the crockpot – in this case, kalua pork. I start out by getting the meat prepped and in the crockpot first, since it usually cooks the longest. Now that chore is out of the way and I know I’ll have some delicious meat for dinner that night, and leftovers for some lunches and dinners in the coming week. (I’ll show you how I make chicken meatballs in a minute.)

The 2 carbs will be brown rice, and baked sweet potatoes. It’s super easy to throw some sweet potatoes in the oven, and get some rice boiling on the stove top.

Now I get down to making chicken meatballs. These little meatballs are one of my favorite creations – I replace the breadcrumbs usually found in meatballs with ground up mushrooms! It saves a lot of calories, and the mushrooms make the meatballs so moist and tender! My husband says he could eat these every day of the week. This was inspired by a recipe by Chelle Stafford in the aforementioned awesome blog – original recipe found here. I only put mushrooms in, no other veggies, and I make mini meatballs because they are so great in bentos and they cook quickly. Here’s where you can find my recipe: Gluten Free Chicken Meatballs

Here’s the meatball mixture – I use a mini cookie scoop and bake them in the oven on a pan brushed with 2 Tbsp. oil. (* update -Ugh, that old cookie sheet! I’m glad I replaced that one years ago…)

While they’re cooking, I sit down to prepare some packets of steamed veggies. I have already decided how many times this coming week I’ll be serving steamed vegetables. I love to use those Zip n Steam bags – it makes life so much easier! I had lots of asparagus, so I’m making some individual packets for lunches, and some large dinner- sized packets to go with some dinners this coming week. I store all these in an extra fridge I have in the garage, and pull them out when I need them. When I’m making a bento in the morning, I steam a small packet of veggies for just a minute, then pack them into the bento box. I rinse out the Zip n Steam bag and let it air dry and use it again next week. I also had lots of carrots and broccoli, so I made some Zip n Steam packets for those too.

Another thing I make every week is a big bowl of salad. I rinse and carefully dry the leaves before I toss them in the bowl – very cold, and very DRY lettuce leaves will keep for about a week if stored loosely packed in a big bowl with a tight fitting lid. I use iceberg and spinach, but most of it is leafy lettuce. I also throw some grated carrots or some broccoli slaw in the salad bowl, but nothing very wet such as tomatoes or cucumbers – moisture will make the salad spoil quickly! I add other veggies when I pack some for lunch, or serve some for dinner. It’s always been a big help to have a bowl of salad around … a healthy meal can be put together very quickly! ( reminder: salad bowl post here )

This picture reminds me of another thing I do to my bowl of salad – I put a paper towel on top before I close the lid. It helps absorb any extra moisture that may accumulate that would make the lettuce go soggy.

By this point, the chicken meatballs should be done, so I take them out of the oven to cool while I prepare a few snacks. I had a lot of green apples to use up, so I make some apple slices with my Protein Peanut Butter to dip them in.

First I slice them all and put them in a bowl:

I add Fruit Fresh to keep them from browning ( directions on the bottle). Then I make little containers of Protein Peanut Butter. Each container has 1 Tbsp. of natural peanut butter…

To that I add 1 Tbsp. of nonfat greek yogurt:

Now I add 1/2 Tbsp. or so of vanilla protein powder to each container, along with about a teaspoon or so of water and stir until it’s creamy and a consistency I like. ( *update -sometimes I leave out the protein powder – either way it’s good!)

I close them up, and keep them in the fridge with the containers of apples so everyone in the family can see them and grab them for a snack. (*Update – these photos were originally taken before EasyLunchboxes Mini Dippers were invented, but now I mainly use those to pack up dips. The other containers shown in the picture are Fit & Fresh Kid’s Lunch 2-Cup Chilled Containers Set. Fit&Fresh snack containers are absolutely essential to my Weekly Food Prep success! Each container has a mini ice pack that can be snapped into the lid, which is a great option when you’re grabbing food from the fridge to take with you – just snap in an ice pack and go.)

I also bought grapes on sale, so those get washed and bagged up in little sandwich bags. These can be eaten for snacks as is, or I may take some to fill out a bento box during the week, or my boys may get a bag in their lunch. (* update – grapes must have been reeeally cheap that week because those portions are HUGE! that’s about double the portion size I would normally eat, BTW)

Now the meatballs are cooled, so I package them in portions in zip lock bags and I put them all in a gallon zip lock bag which I keep in the fridge or freezer.

I pack up the rice and sweet potatoes in containers and keep them in the fridge, or out in the garage fridge.
When it’s done, I serve kalua pork for dinner, and after dinner I pack up the rest of the meat in baggies to store away for the week- some frozen, and some in the fridge.

In the morning I can quickly grab the containers of meat, carbs, and veggies and fruit I need to create a cute bento box. Since all that work is done for the week, I have time in the morning to add the cute details that make a bento really stand out.

My husband often posts pics of his bento lunches on Facebook, and he sometimes gets comments from others along the lines of ” Your wife has too much time on her hands”. Actually, I have NO time on my hands! But serving healthy meals is something I make the time for, and this is how I manage it.

Added to Dare to share Saturday and the SITS girls Sharefest Saturday

What are Japanese plastic bento boxes made of? Are they BPA-free?

I recently got an email from a Just Bento reader concerning the plastic used to make bento boxes. She was concerned, since she couldn’t read the Japanese writing on the packaging. I’m sure a lot of other readers have similar concerns, especially given recent scares reported in the media about plastic containers leaching chemicals into food and beverages. Keeping in mind that I am not a scientist or expert, just a concerned consumer just like you, here’s what I’ve been able to find out by doing some research on various Japanese as well as English-language web sites.

Bento boxes from Japanese manufacturers

The parts of plastic bento boxes that touch food from known Japanese manufacturers are generally manufactured using three types of plastic: polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polypropylene (PP), or a compound of PET and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) called PET-A. A common practice is to use PP or PET-A for the bento box body and outer lid, and polyethelene for the flexible inner lids, or the main lids on small side boxes.

For example, the cheaper bento boxes made by Nakano Co. (manufactured in China), which includes popular brands like Puti Fresh, Lube Sheep and Clickety-Clack that are sold at Daiso and similar ‘100-yen’ stores (previously), are made of PP. According to The Green Guide ( a site that is owned and operated by National Geographic), PP is a safe plastic, though it’s not very recyclable.

Higher end plastic bento boxes such as the very popular ones models made by Hakoya aka Tatsumiya Shikki or Yellow Studio (mostly manufactured in Japan, some accessories manufactured in China), use mostly PET or PET-A. (Hakoya also uses other plastics on parts of their boxes that aren’t in direct contact with food.) According to The Green Guide list, the main objection against PET seems to be the porous nature of the plastic, so it’s not recommended to re-use thin PET water bottles. However, from reading some Japanese reports, PET-A in particular seems to be regarded favorably as a recyclable yet food-safe plastic. In practice, I do find that my Hakoya and Yellow Studio bento boxes are easier to keep clean and of a better finish than my Lube Sheep boxes. (Update: As of late 2009-early 2010 I’ve stopped using any of my Lube Sheep boxes…not because of safety concerns, but just because they do tend to get a bit beat-up looking with continuous use. Well what can you expect from boxes that retail for 100-200 yen ($1-2 or so) in Japan?)

What about BPA?

The substance that has generated the most controversy and concern in recent years when it comes to plastic food containers is bisphenol-A, or BPA. This exists in polycarbonate, a clear plastic that is used for some water bottles, as liners in metal cans, and so on. None of the major Japanese bento box manufacturers use polycarbonate in parts of their plastic bento boxes, water bottles and so on that touch food. (I have seen a few thermal mugs that use polycarbonate on the exterior parts that do not come into contact with the liquid.) It may be interesting to note that the Japanese canning industry began to voluntarily cut down on the use of BPA as can liners as early as 1998 (a decade before BPA even began to be talked about the the United States for example), and have been using other plastics since. (see.)

So in a nutshell, any bento box from a reputable Japanese maker should be perfectly safe. Generally speaking, food safety regulations in Japan are just as strict as they are in North America or Europe.

However, you should always heed the directions about whether or not a box is microwave-safe/dishwasher-safe or not. If you are not sure and are concerned, ask the seller of your bento box, or just don’t put it in the microwave. Needless to say, plastic is not oven or stovetop safe!

(Studies on the safety or not of BPA, especially for adults, still seem to be inconclusive. As with any other health related news, try to read as many reputable studies as you can and keep an open mind.)

Bento accessories (picks, inner cups, baran, etc.)

Most rigid plastic bento accessories made by companies like Torune such as picks, are made of ABS and/or polystyrene. Many reusable inner cups are made of silicone. Flexible plastic items such as baran (dividers, like ‘sushi grass’) made by Torune are made of PET.

Note that most of these accessories (except for silicone cups) are not microwave safe, so use your cute little picks and such for bentos that you don’t intend to nuke, or else take them out before doing so.

Nori cutters made by Arnest (the Niko Niko Punch line) and Kaijirushi (the Chuboos line), are made of ABS (the body) and zinc or a zinc alloy (the cutting parts). I do not have information on repurposed cutters that are meant for use on paper and other non-food products. If you’re really concerned about safety you may want to avoid using these on food.

Food cutters by Arnest (e.g. the Kyarappa line) are made of polystyrene.

What some popular non-Japanese manufacturers use:

  • Rubbermaid: A useful page on their website with a list of which of their products contain BPA (i.e. are made of polycarbonate) and which don’t. (Generally speaking their clear plastic containers contain BPA.)
  • Lock & Lock food containers (I don’t know about their non-food containers): PP
  • Fit & Fresh: PP
  • Ikea (their 365+ line in any case): polypropylene carbonate (PP-C)
  • Tupperware (their food containers): low density polyethylene (LDPE) or PP

Plastics to avoid

It might be tempting to re-use takeout containers, but again according to The Green Guide, that may not be such a good idea (this link is now broken, and their internal search leads back to their home page. grr). In essence you should not be re-using plastic containers that are not meant for multiple use, like takeout boxes and such, if you’re concerned about plastic safety.

Plastic alternatives?

The most practical alternative to plastic for bento boxes is probably stainless steel. See Stainless steel bento boxes. My favorite model of stainless steel bento box has a silicone sealing element around the inner rim of the lid; this is quite acceptable to me as a ‘green’ bento box, and makes it very practical. There are also 100% stainless steel bento boxes or lunch boxes, such as those from Lunchbots (their orange-lid model is a good size for a bento box). Beware of packing any moist food in them since the lids are not leak-resistant.

Stainless steel bento boxes are generally more expensive than plastic, but should last a lot longer with proper care.

A very stylish though rather high maintenance alternative to plastic is wood. Traditionally bento boxes were made of wood, either untreated or coated with lacquer. Wooden bento boxes are wonderful, but need to be handwashed carefully and dried with a soft cloth immediately after washing. A famous type of wooden box is the Magewappa, made of uncoated bent Japanese cedar.

This is my personal opinion, but when it comes to wooden bento boxes, you really get what you pay for. Avoid cheap wooden boxes – these usually have a rough finish, inferior workmanship, and are generally rather nasty. Expect to pay at least $40-50 or more for a good wooden bento box. A genuine Magewappa bento box will cost you at least 6,500 yen (around $70) and on up from reputable stores in Japan. On the other hand, a high quality wooden bento box will last for years with proper care.

See also

  • Table comparing the pros and cons of various materials used for bento boxes and accessories (added 8/10)
  • Stainless steel bento boxes (my favorite non-plastic material for bento boxes)
  • The SIGG water bottle controversy
  • More articles in the Bento Boxes category

(Update added 1/09: All of the links in this article to are broken because they have changed them all apparently without proper redirects. What’s worse, their internal search results lead right back to the home page too. As a web developer myself I have to say this is so very lame. Anyway, once you get to their site (all links just go to their new front page) you can look around for the appropriate information. This page regarding Bisphenol-A (BPA) is current, as of now, unless they change things around yet again.)

(Update added 2/10: Added link to Rubbermaid BPA page; added bento accessory information and plastic alternatives section.)

How To Create Your Ideal Million-Dollar Business: Insights From Amazon’s Lunchbox Ninja

Many readers have contacted me to find out more about how to create their own seven-figure startup since I posted How Bold Entrepreneurs Are Breaking $1 Million in One-Person Businesses. One new friend I met on Twitter stands out in my mind. He’s trying to find the ideal business and asked me what niche he should enter.

That’s not an easy question to answer—especially if you don’t know someone personally. To help readers answer this question for themselves, I spoke recently with Kelly Lester, founder of EasyLunchboxes. She has run her thriving one-person business from her home in Los Angeles since 2009, generating $1.7 million a year selling the bento-style lunchboxes she manufactures and sells via the Amazon.com vendor program and from her own website. Oh, and the mother of three daughters ages 15, 17 and 22 is also a professional stage and screen actress who has a small role in an upcoming Eddie Murphy film, Cook.

EasyLunchboxes founder Kelly Lester (Credit: EasyLunchboxes)

Like many mothers, Lester was always passionate about packing healthy lunches for her children. She started her business after discovering no one made re-usable lunchboxes in the style she wanted—one with three individual compartments that fits inside a standard lunch cooler. That led to a period of intense internet research to find out how to manufacture them and get them to market. Fortunately she already had some knowledge of starting an internet business, having founded an online store that marketed decorative switch plates, which she sold in 2006.

It turned out Lester was onto something with her lunchboxes, and the business took off, thanks in part to her lively presence on social media. Avid foodie moms have spread the word about EasyLunchboxes by sharing pictures of the photogenic meals they pack in them on Pinterest and Instagram—and she, in turn, promotes these images. “I got lucky,” she says. “People take pictures of what they are eating. People are obsessed with food.” Such efforts have helped her become the number one lunchbox seller on Amazon. The publication Thank You For Selling, recently named her one of the 50 best sales people of all time, alongside Steve Jobs and Jack LaLanne.

Rather than spread herself thin, Lester has stayed hyperspecialized as she has grown the business. “I’ve tried to be the standout and go-to place for all things lunch packing,” she says. That’s just one of her secrets to success. Here are some other insights from our conversation. (Edited transcript).

Elaine Pofeldt: One challenge for entrepreneurs is finding a business they are passionate about. How did you know lunchboxes interested you enough to sustain the business? Why not make pens, for instance?

Kelly Lester: I didn’t know. I think I’m one of those creative entrepreneurs who just barrels forward. I don’t do focus groups, A/B split testing, those kinds of things people do. I was really, really obsessed with the drudgery of packing lunches and how complicated and annoying it was. When I figured out something that streamlined the process, it was incredibly life changing–and I loved it! I thought “If this helped me this much, it’s going to help other people.” I went with that feeling. I literally showed the product to one girlfriend. She said, “Where do I buy it?”

Why didn’t I start making pens? There are a million pens in the world. There were not a lot of lunch containers like mine. This product didn’t exist as I created it. I thought, “There’s a need. I’m going to go for it.”

At the time, we really needed the money. The recession had hit. My husband is an actor and had been in a lot of commercials. Companies stopped advertising as much. All of the work for commercial actors really dropped off. I told him, “I have this idea for a business.” He said, “This is great.”

Pofeldt: How did you know where to get started?

Lester: When I launched my first business, I knew zero about business, but I found that I was good at asking questions, and I was good at investigating and finding the answers. I really enjoy that. So what I decided to do was just ask every question I can ask and not stop until I get the answers.

By 2009, when I started this business, the internet was a gold mine. Anything I wanted and needed, I found on the internet. I Googled everything.

Pofeldt: What is your secret sauce?

Lester: The main, main, main thing is that my products help people and fulfill a need. If you start a business, company or service that sells something people really don’t need, you’re in trouble. You’ve got an uphill battle.

Pofeldt: What qualities do you have that contributed to your success?

Lester: One is my innate ability to reach people, communicate and connect with them in a way they can relate to. I’m always looking to answer someone’s question even before they know they have a question. That’s what I believe a smart marketer does.

I spend hours every day on the computer learning and investigating. I really enjoy that. When I find something that grabs me, I can tell what it is about something that sucks me in. I think subconsciously I emulate that process. For instance, when other people take photos of their lunches in my containers and I share them, I’ll add text to grab people.

Pofeldt: How did you know which social media to focus on?

Lester: When I first started my business, I spent a lot of money on inventory and had it in a warehouse. No one knew EasyLunchboxes existed. I thought, “If I put up a website, people will come.”

Then I started Googling lunch containers and lunch boxes and finding blogs with articles about them. I learned if you can get social media mentions and links back to your website, Google recognizes those things. Slowly, your website gets further up in the search engine results pages.

I started connecting with bloggers in a one-on-one, extremely friendly, uncorporate way. I wrote to them like a fellow mom and, if I did indeed love their blog, said stuff like. “Hey, I love your pictures. Your family is beautiful. I’d like you to feature my lunchboxes. Is this something you can use?” I reached out to them like a person.

The majority of bloggers I’ve worked with are always delighted and amazed that the owner of what they think is a big company– even though it’s me in my den–is actually communicating with them. I’m good friends with a number of these original bloggers I contacted. They continue to support EasyLunchboxes and share my products. This has multiplied like a spider web.

It was one foot in front of the other. I look back how that all worked, and I’m amazed myself. If we had not started turning a profit in nine months to a year, I would have thrown in the towel. I’m very impatient. I think we had spent at least $50,000 on inventory and setup. I couldn’t afford to keep putting money into the business.

Pofeldt: So what is your number one piece of advice for would-be entrepreneurs who’d like to build their own version of a business like yours?

Lester: I think that if you find an idea, a product or a service that speaks to you and really changes and helps your life, it will help others. Start there. You have to be passionate about what it is. I really believe that to be successful all by yourself you have to do something that’s unique and stand out. You can’t do what everyone else is doing.

Lunch bento box container

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