I've mentioned 'bento' a couple of times, and some of you might be wondering what it is. To put it simply, it's the Japanese term for what we would call 'lunch box'. However, that's like saying both filet mignon and Wendy's are beef.
The Japanese are as obsessive with making lunch cute and pretty as they are about styling pretty much everything. Instead of a plain soup and a sandwich, a lot of Japanese (especially children) eat lunches packed in special containers that are chock-full of foody goodness and which incorporate ideas of shape, color, and seasonality. I became interested in bento a few years ago by accident when I stumbled across J-List, an online store that has both gorgeous and adorable boxes of different sizes for both men and women.
However, to really understand bento, you have to look inside the box, and that's where my favorite site Lunch In A Box comes in. Biggie, who is the brilliant proprietress and a former resident of Japan, takes you by the hand and explains everything about bento- what kinds of food carry well, how to maintain food safety, how to pack healthy fruits and veggies that even the most persnickety child or adult will eat. Because I have such a bizarre work schedule where it's hard to buy non-starchy food I've taken to packing my lunch almost every night, and reading Biggie's site has helped me keep from getting bored. the essence of bento is variety- a little meat, some veggies, some fruit and maybe a small dessert, all packed to be as enticing as possible. Bento, as Biggie points out, lends itself to using up leftovers and to make-ahead dishes, so that a fully-stocked box can usually be assembled in 15 minutes, more for less.
Eating bento style has helped me lose weight- no small feat when you consider that the average night-shift worker gains weight and is more prone to heart attack than those who work during the day. But if you're still not convinced, you might want to go over to Flickr and search for 'bento'. There are tons of people photographing some of the most beautiful homemade meals you've ever seen, and sharing recipes with each other. You'll also find that not everyone is using fancy containers from Japan to store their meals- chances are if you have a couple of takeout containers, you too can put together some amazing bentos.