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What is a Bentō Box?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Feb 27, 2024
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The bentō box is the Japanese equivalent of the lunchbox, though it tends to be much more aesthetically pleasing, and varies significantly in what it contains. The earliest boxes were made as far back as the 12th century, usually of lacquered wood. For home preparation, lacquered wood is still a common choice for bentō boxes. Semi-disposable ones made of Styrofoam can be purchased at restaurants and convenience stores, and some people prefer stainless steel types for long-term use.

Each bentō box has numerous sections into which various cooked or fresh foods can be placed, and the box itself may be carried in a bag or wrapped in special cloth called furoshiki, which is tied on the top so that it can be more easily carried. Typical offerings in a bento box can include different types of rice, a few pieces of sushi, pickled vegetables and fresh fruit. Homemakers often pride themselves on filling boxes for their children, or for their families on a picnic that are not just delicious but also aesthetically beautiful.

Yet there was a time period in Japan, particularly after WWII, that bringing a bentō box to school was discouraged. Since children brought what their parents could afford, disparity in what each box contained created class separations between richer and poorer students. In many parts of Japan, schools began to serve lunches to all students so as to avoid “marking” students as poor.

With the advent of the microwave, the popularity of bentō boxes was again assured, especially disposable ones, which could help heat food. Restrictions regarding bringing a bentō box to school have also loosened, and they’re commonly seen at many public and private schools. They are also popular in Taiwan, where they may be called Bendong.

The simple lacquered wood box usually has grooves onto which the lid slides. You simply slide the lid off to have access to your food. Disposable types may merely have a plastic wrap covering, which is removed before or after heating depending upon instructions. Some items called bentos are not boxes with individual compartments, but are instead large bowls with mixed ingredients, such as a clay pot meal.

The name bentō may refer to any meals packed in boxes. A student might take a bentō box to school, but he or she eats bentō for lunch. The term defines almost any foods packed in boxes or disposable containers, and the variety of these foods is extraordinary.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

By cloudel — On Sep 25, 2011

My boss takes his employees out to lunch when we meet a big goal, and we always go to a Japanese restaurant. Some people prefer the hibachi, but I love the bento box.

My favorite is the shrimp and vegetables. The shrimp have been broiled in a delicious sauce, and the zucchini, squash, and carrots have been sliced thin and steamed.

This box comes with steamed rice, which has green peas and shredded carrots in it. It also comes with two gyoza dumplings.

Sometimes when I go out to lunch at other places, I feel heavy and bloated afterward. I always feel healthy and light after eating bento, though.

By seag47 — On Sep 24, 2011

The Japanese restaurant I go to for lunch sometimes has bento box specials for lunch. They cost around $9, which is about what lunch anywhere else in town would cost, but they are so much better, and they’re better for you.

I usually order the broiled teriyaki salmon bento box. The salmon in the main compartment is cooked with slices of onions, and it is so flavorful.

One of the smaller compartments contains two spring rolls. The other compartment houses the fried rice. In the middle of the box is a built-in sauce tray. I spread this sweet sauce over the rice, and I dip the spring rolls in it.

By rugbygirl — On Sep 24, 2011

There's a lot of pressure on moms to fill those bento boxes just the right way. There are "supposed" to be tiny portions of several different things, cooked specially for the child - not leftover. And each one is supposed to be cute!

Like maybe there's a tiny sandwich cut into a bunny shape, and everything else would have its own adorable little shape. They think American packed lunches are pathetic!

By animegal — On Sep 23, 2011

@lonelygod - Making your own bento boxes can be really easy, and honestly, a lot of Japanese moms make gorgeous bento boxes for their kids with leftovers from the night before. All you have to do is make sure you arrange things in a visually appealing way.

What I like to do is take one of those little kid bento boxes with me to my job. I just add rice to one side, drop a vegetable mix in the middle, and perhaps add a bit of sushi to the end compartment. It always looks great and only takes me a few minutes to make. The key is, if you're strapped for time, just use leftovers.

By lonelygod — On Sep 22, 2011

There is a fantastic Japanese restaurant near my house that makes bento boxes that coincide with the seasons. They are each decorated beautifully, and I love the lacquer boxes they are served in.

Has anyone ever tried to make their own bento boxes at home? Did you find it challenging or very time consuming?

I would love to make my own bento boxes because they can get quite expensive if you are eating out. I often take lunch to work and think that having a bento would be a healthy alternative to my usual routine of sandwiches and microwave dinners.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia...
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