Dietitians Dish: Consider bento boxes for lunches

A bento box lunch is a balanced meal.

A bento lunch is a stylish, portable meal packed into a box. In my opinion, it is a meal prepared with love and care for our children, spouses or even just for ourselves. Its origins can be traced to the Japanese culture. A suitable definition of bento cooking is art and nutrition intertwining and engaging all our six senses.

The food is thoughtfully packed in boxes of different sizes and shapes; they are made of metal, wood or plastic. They may be single-tiered or two- and three-tiered that are strapped with a decorative elastic band. Even though bento is a Japanese tradition in which steamed rice and fish are staples, one can pack any kind of food.

Some examples include sandwiches, salads, mini burgers, grilled veggies and meats, casseroles, soups, etc. The concept of assembling a bento box is to prepare a balanced meal by including protein, fruits and/or vegetables and grains. Bento lunches are an excellent way to keep track of calorie intake and portion control.

According to Makiko, the author of "The Just Bento Cookbook," the number of milliliters of a bento box is a rough estimate of the total calories contained within the bento. To determine the capacity of your bento box, just fill it with water and then pour it into a measuring cup marked with milliliters. For example, if your bento box holds about 500 milliliters, your packed meal may be about 500-600 calories.

This is just a general rule, and one must make sure that the meal is balanced. For example, packing just chicken nuggets and ketchup in a box is certainly not a balanced meal and definitely may have more calories than the capacity of the box.

The uniqueness of bento lunches is that they can be as creative as one wants them to be. They can be simple or elaborate. Nevertheless, they are definitely tasty, economical and fun. They can save money from eating out and are a great way to monitor portion sizes and calorie intake.

Moreover, bento lunches are a guaranteed success with picky eaters. With bento, parents can change things a little and get out of the monotonous routine of lunch packing but still incorporating kid's favorite foods to eat. One will soon discover that children are excited to eat healthier as they see fruits and vegetables very appealing when packed in bento style.

If you decide that you want to pack bento lunches, there are a few things that you may want to have. First, you need to buy a bento box, which does not have to be expensive. Bento boxes are available in some groceries stores or online. Secondly, you may want to purchase accessories such as rice molds, sushi molds, vegetable and fruit shape cutters and small containers or bottles for sauces and dressings. However, these are optional.

One can use cookie cutters to cut cheese, deli meats and bread into different shapes. When making bento lunches have fun, be playful and enjoy your healthy and creative meals.

Iustina Iznaola is a dietitian at DeTar Hospital.