American Bento - What is it?

(Some of this information is taken from other blogs and edited to fit my particular focus on an American bento.)
'O-bento' is what the Japanese call a packed lunch. Bento boxes contain internal dividers, and sometimes several stacked layers, so different kinds of food sit in their own little compartments.  The goal is to make the whole package as attractive as possible.  To do so, you should consider the colour combinations of the food and presenting and garnishing it as neatly and artfully as you can.  This is what I call the "prettiness factor" and it varies for me from day to day.  Some mornings, I just don't have a lot of energy to put into the process.  Other days I may have the time to take more care in assembling a pretty lunch.  One thing is for certain, I'm just a beginner at this.
Bento boxes range from handsome lacquered wood boxes to children's plastic lunchboxes decorated with cartoon characters. There are styles to appeal to the businessman, the elegant young lady, the differing tastes of little boys and girls.

The base of any bento lunch is cold, cooked white rice, or sometimes noodles - the filling, carbohydrate-rich staples of the Japanese diet. In addition, there are okazu - side dishes, which can include meat, fish, eggs, tofu, fruit and vegetables, all presented in bite-size form for handy chopstick action. They all have to be prepared in such a way that they will taste nice cold (although sometimes bento is reheated). Okazu add colour and flavour, vary with the seasons, and round out the nutritional value of the meal with protein, vitamins and minerals. For colour and dietary balance, try to have one 'protein' item and at least two from the fruit/veg category (remember, a healthy diet includes at least five handful-sized portions of fruit and vegetables a day). Of course, there are also different ways of dressing up the rice or noodles to avoid monotony.

So, what is an American bento?  What I've tried to do here is take some of the Japanese ideas behind bento boxes and apply them to western styles of cooking.  I try to create lunches that are compact, pretty, and contain a lot of variety.  There aren't a lot of ham sandwiches here.  I don't pack chips, soda, and junk food.  Prepackaged foods aren't big on my list either.  My goal is to make a healthy, reasonably balanced lunch every day.  I try to vary the food selections though there are certain staples.  I generally combine French, Italian, and Greek styles of cooking in my bento boxes because those are the cuisines I know particularly well. 

There are pages that discuss using bento boxes to help limit portion sizes and caloric intake.  They say that in general the number of milliliters in a bento equals the number of calories it contains.  Obviously, if you cook your food with a lot of oil and butter, that number could be substantially higher.  If you fill your bento with more veggies and fruit than other items, the number could be lower.   My bento tend to have a lot of veggies in them.  I prefer to try to keep the calories reasonable and the fat content fairly low. 

Want to see more?  Why not follow my blog and perhaps share your own interpretation of the bento?

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