Several weeks ago, I wrote a cheap bento guide on my journal. I got a decent response, and I’ve finally decided to move it over here, and update it a bit. In short order (read: a week or so) I’ll be testing some of the containers listed and updating with firsthand data.
I love bento. It’s healthy, it’s relaxing, and it’s nourishing. However, I gotta say: some people make it look like a bank-breaking hobby. Boxes, dividers, sauce fish, bags, cute little cups for everything, and God knows what else.
Well, fuck that!
Some people can’t afford to stock up on cutesy things to make attractive boxes. Some people can’t afford boxes, period. Hell, some people don’t even have real refrigerators! College students, teenagers with deadbeat parents, or even people with shitty, fridge-bogarting roommates. They’re hungry, dammit! They’re hungry, and I think that they should be able to have a decent lunch at work or school. Why? Because I can’t afford the cutesy crap, either. Hell, the one box I do have was a gift. Food’s a stretch, too, but at least I have a fridge. But enough about me.
Part 1: The Box
My personal, jaded advice is to be exceptionally wary when buying your bento from eBay. Most buyers cater to otaku, who buy mostly cute boxes that are tiny and of limited utility. However, if you see a cute box that you like, or even a not-so-cute one, keep this in mind: Check for the capacity. No, not the dimensions. Most sellers list dimensions only, which has the potential to be misleading. Here’s a useful chart from Lunch in a Box that can help you decide which size is best for you. If your cute box is a little smaller than you require, don’t despair! Fret not, for I’m living with a box that’s a little more than half of what I need! You can always compensate by packing a little energy bar, or just eating a decent breakfast.
Secondly, eBay is seldom cheap. My eeny weeny box cost fifteen clams, which is class money in my situation.
So what do you do when eBay and J-list seem too expensive? What if you don’t trust the internet? What if you have no PayPal? Well, god forbid, you could just improvise.
Take, for example, the noble Rubbermaid TakeAlong. Pictured is the divided rectangle model, which as it’s name implies, has a divider so you can keep your food separate to some degree. You can get TakeAlongs in square, undivided rectangle, and screw-top models as well.
Special Skills: Cheap, microwave safe, dishwasher safe, freezable.
Wallet Damage: A three pack of these things cost me a buck eighty five.
If you’re into round stuff, Rubbermaid also produces a collapsible container in such a shape. The smallest, at 590ml, is a bit larger than many bento selling on eBay. They scrunch down to about one inch in height, which is pretty spiffy.
Special Skills: Cheap, larger than average bento, microwave safe, dishwasher safe, freezable, easy storage.
Wallet Damage: About five bucks for one, but it beats $15 plus shipping.
Then we have the Lock & Lock from… Lock & Lock. The one pictured is the square 600ml model. What’s so enticing about Lock & Locks is that they’re so easy to flip open and closed, and yet stay shut with great tenacity. They’re mostly watertight (incidents always happen) and offer a great capacity for the price.
Special Skills: Larger than average bento, microwave safe, dishwasher safe, freezable, watertight.
Wallet Damage: I believe about five to seven dollars, but I’ll update later.
Added 7/19/07: A recent grocery store discovery, the Crayola Snack Packer comes in a variety of vibrant, eye-searing colors. As you can probably tell by its distinct shape, it’s made to keep sandwiches from getting mooshed. The containers are (approximately) 5″x5″x2″ and look like excellent children’s boxes.
Special Skills: Bright colors attract small children to it; dishwasher-safe.
Wallet Damage: $1.99 at my local Kroger. However, the website offers it up for a whopping $2.49, which while not expensive, also requires that you pay shipping costs.
Part 2: The Food; The Longest Section
The foundation of a decent bento lunch is rice, and thank God for that. Rice is cheap, versatile, filling, and easy to store. Since the prices of food will vary from place to place and store to store, I won’t run up a comprehensive price list. I will, however, offer a few tips on how to get the most out of your rice purchase. First, a quick and dirty list of common rice types:
Long grain rice: Long, thin grains. Almost no stickiness, which makes it useless for many bento staples like onigiri.
Medium grain rice: Shorter, stickier grains. For onigiri and sushi, it’s pretty decent if you take the time to wash and soak it. I use medium grain often and haven’t had any problems.
Short grain rice: Short, fat grains with a high sticky factor. Depending on where you shop, short grain rice may be offered as ‘sushi rice’ which is about the same thing, only twice as expensive. Sticky, sticky, sticky. Did I mention how sticky it is? Don’t use this in light, fluffy rice dishes. It will end in tears.
What the Hell am I supposed to do with rice, of all things?
Well, only fill about a third of your meal with it. The harsh fact is, rice it an excellent staple food. It’s full of carbs and low in fat, and that makes your body very happy indeed. Of course, plain rice can be a tad boring. Here are a few ways to spice up your rice. Or rice up your spice.
Foo Ree Kaw Kay: Furikake is the tasty stuff you sprinkle on your rice when you’re too lazy to make something complicated. Because prepared furikake kinda-sorta falls into the ‘cute crap I can’t afford’ category, improvisation is your friend. Toasted sesame seeds, shredded nori (ah, sheets of dried algae cut into convenient squares) and even dried onion and garlic flakes make great furikake.
A Velvety Food Cloak: If sprinkling isn’t to your liking, you could always lay a sheet of tasty food over the rice. It’s fairly simple to fry up a flat omelet and trim it to fit. The excess can be part of that good breakfast I mentioned earlier. If you’re partial to ham and cheese sandwiches, mix a little cheddar cheese into the rice while it’s still hot, and lay a trimmed sheet of ham over it. You can even cut out little shapes to make it more attractive, and less like a slab of pink flesh.
Just Fry It Already: Fry the rice. Really. No, no, it’s okay. Stir-fry some veggies, toss in the cooked rice, pour in a little soy sauce, crack an egg over it, stir until cooked, and enjoy. Just fry the damn rice!
Eat Strongly Flavored Foods: Plain rice makes a great contrast to salty or otherwise strong-flavored foods.
You could also replace rice with another starchy food, such as pasta, noodles, or potatoes.
Meat, Meat, Meat!:
Well, this is where it gets kind of hard. Meat’s expensive, see. It’s expensive, and more often than not requires refrigeration. Fear not, though, for I have suggestions to help you get at least a little protein in your diet.
Canned, Sealed, Preserved Goodness: Canned tuna is quite cheap, and canned crab is reasonable if you’re looking for a treat and can’t refrigerate seafood. Jam some of that in onigiri with a little mayonnaise and relish. The tuna, not the crab. Crab and mayo. Urgh. You can also get canned beef, and the less desirable canned pork brains in milk.
Of course, when discussing canned meats, you always have to mention Spam and Vienna sausages. Why? Because they’re good examples of what can go so wrong with processed, canned foods. Spam is okay. Spam tastes vaguely like ham. Spam can be fashioned into tasty little kebabs with pineapple. Sure, it’s cheap and a little gross, but it’s okay fried. Vienna sausages are never okay. They taste like cat food. Don’t eat them, no matter how they tempt you.
Mmmmm, Gelatinous Cuuuubes: Tofu is good for you. It’s jam packed with protein, and many places offer a block for about $2 these days. Check Asian markets for even cheaper prices. Tofu can keep for a long while in its little airtight package, even without a trip to the fridge. However, once it’s been opened, use it up quickly. Tofu’s good simmered in soups, deep-fried, or cut into slices and slathered in teriyaki sauce before pan searing. Just remember that tofu is like popcorn, or a friend who likes NASCAR. It really has no taste, so it’s up to you to give it some.
Eggs, Eggs, They’re Good for Your… Hair: I don’t really know if eggs are good for hair or not, but they’re cheap and tasty. If you’re the kind of person who makes multiple bentos, you could go through a six pack of eggs before you even need to refrigerate them. You can do a Hell of a lot with eggs. Boil ’em, mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew… Maybe not. Boiled and deviled eggs are great in bento, though, as are omelets and tamagoyaki. If you’ve got a tea bag and a little extra time, you can make attractive marbled tea eggs. Hell, make some egg salad! Make an egg and potato scramble in place of your rice!
Tiny Little Cheeses! Wait, What?: Mini Babybel cheeses are an excellent bento staple. You can pick up a little sack of them for about three fifty, and they can be kept unfridged for a short time. They come in original, cheddar, gouda, and light. In addition to being tasty, they have a bright red wax shell that looks attractive in bento boxes. The shell can be decorated by cutting shapes into it.
God Damn it, Bobby, People Are Starving in China!:
Repeat after me, cheap bastards: Canned vegetables are not the only vegetables. Canned vegetables are not the only vegetables. You can have your cheap veggies without draining out half a can of salty fluid. Many fresh veggies will keep for a few days in a cool/dim place. Root vegetables like carrots are especially good for this. Fruits like apples, pears, bananas, mangos, and melons can also be stored without refrigeration.
A few tips for the purchasing of tasty green things:
-Always be aware of what’s in season. A melon bought in the winter is always gonna be more expensive than one bought in summer. The same can be said for berries, tomatoes, corn, and most other produce. Remember: If it’s too cold or hot to grow it where you live, it has to be shipped from elsewhere, and you pay for it. Oh, do you pay.
-Support your local dirt farmer, and always be on the lookout for a local farmer’s market, or just a neighbor who sells his excess tomatoes. More often than not, you’ll get fresher produce at a lower price.
-If you’re buying a lot of one kind of veggie or fruit, make sure some are still under-ripe. By the time you’re out of yellow bananas and red tomatoes, the green ones you bought the same day will be almost ready to chow down on.
-That putz spraying the apples might know more than you do. If you don’t buy much fresh produce, don’t hesitate to ask if something looks ripe/under-ripe/flat-out nasty. Ask what’s in season, or what’s new this week.
Mm, mm… Beans: Dried beans and lentils provide many essential nutrients, and cost at most $2.00 a pound, if you know where to shop. A nice pot of lentils can last you for days, and even longer if you mix it up with rice.
Fuck Vegetables, Gimme Sweets:
Buy a damn bag of Hershey’s kisses. Seriously, though, cruise dollar stores for cheap bags of individually wrapped morsels of sugar. They’re good stabilizers, and their colorful wrappers add more zazz to your bento. However, don’t put much candy in your bento. It’s just sugar energy and fat, so it really has no place trying to muscle in with your meat.
Part 3: Accessories and the Art of Making Bento Fabulous
Since you’ve hypothetically already got a bento box, it’s time to consider how you want to make it more appealing to the eye. I’ve broken this subject down into these subcategories: Bags, Dividers, and Containers
Some bento boxes come with their own carry bags, and this is a good thing. However, if your bento didn’t come with a bag, you may find yourself facing the problem of having nothing to hide your food from scavengers. Oh, and your fork and stuff will be loose. Anyway.
If you don’t have a bag you could re-purpose, I will share with you what I’ve found to be the cheapest way to combat a lack of carry bag: the furoshiki. A furoshiki is, in effect, a larger than average bandanna used as a multi-purpose carry bag. Wal Mart offers a 22×22 inch square bandanna that I find perfect for my bento. Best of all, it only cost me ninety four cents. If you shop at a thrift store, you could save even more.
Then again, if you can’t see yourself tying all those knots and folding all those corners, you might want to look into a drawstring bag, or just a small (very small; think makeup bag) tote bag. The best way to get a good deal on these would be to shop around, concentrating your effort on thrift shops and dollar stores.
And, if all else fails, chuck it in a plastic bag and call it done.
This is a pain in the ass. Finding decent dividers or dividing cups for your bento can be a real challenge when you can’t afford to import or buy from eBay. So, what’s a hungry person to do? Look to the dollar store, where everything is smaller. Don’t deny it; it’s either smaller or crappier than normal stuff, and that’s why it’s so cheap. Here are a few specific examples of good dividers:
-Wax paper cupcake cups. Cheap, plentiful, colorful.
-Silicone cupcake cups. I want these. They’re sturdy, reusable, and come in nice colors. The only downside is that they come in an eight pack for nine dollars, and I am cheeeeap.
-The food itself! Cut long strips of cucumber the width of your box. Make a cup out of lettuce. Build a blockade out of broccoli. When you’re working in a small container like a bento box, sometimes it’s best to just make as much of the stuff inside edible as possible.
More of an ass pain than dividers. Little cups and bottles for your sauces and sprinkles are damn hard to find unless you want to re-purpose something. Again, look to the dollar stores. And to theft. That comes later.
-Ever see that candy that came in containers shaped like fruits? It’s just sugar and malic acid inside, really, but we want what’s outside. The little fruit-shaped containers are just the right size to fill with sauce and nestle inside a bento box. All you have to do is wash out all the sugar dust. It’s a plus that you get about five for less than two dollars.
-Scope out beauty supply stores, as they often carry tiny bottles ideal for taking just a tiny bit of hair-fortifying chemicals. Of course, you could also put mayonnaise in there.
-Steal from Wendy’s. Really, if you’ve ever been to a fast food joint with pump-your-own ketchup, you’ve handled those little paper cups. The next time you’re there, just palm a few. Now you have dividers and containers!