Bento newbie seeks sensei
September 16, 2012 4:47 AM   Subscribe

Help me find the perfect bento box.

I'm looking for bento boxes for my two children (ages 7 & 9) to cut down on the weight and volume of all the separate containers they carry now and to pack more diverse meals for them.

There are several great askmes about what to put in a bento box or where to buy them, but I haven't found any links that help one choose a bento box.

Usage details: These boxes will go into these knapsacks that will also contain books/notebooks and extra clothes. I'll make the boxes in the morning. My kids eat just about anything, so imagine I'll be putting just about anything into them. There is no refrigeration or a way to reheat things at the school; it'll all be room temperature for about four hours.

Questions: How many compartments? Leakproof? Microwavable? What to use for internal dividers? Elastic band or side clasps to close it? Cooling element or insulated bag? Rectangular or oval? Plastic, metal or wood? Where do (reusable) drink containers go? The "unknown unknowns" of how children will use/abuse the boxes?

posted by digitalprimate to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Here's what I liked about Laptop Lunches: The box fits 4 compartments--one for a protein, one for a fruit, one for a veg, and the fourth for a treat or whatever. It was easy to pack balanced lunches and reasonable portion sizes just because of the compartments. It's not leakproof, but one of the compartments has a lid, and it held left-over General Tso's tofu with no disasters. There's room on the side for a fork or a cheese stick. The box and a water bottle (made by that company) fit into a larger insulated bag that looks like a little briefcase. You can slip an ice pack into the insulated bag if you want. The whole thing fit in my children's backpacks. It's plastic, but the company touts it as BPA-free and claims other eco-friendly practices. We used those for years, and they held up well. Maybe the insulated bag saw some wear, but we fixed it with duct tape.

We now stack two LunchBot containers and a small Klean Kanteen bottle in a resuable lunch bag. That all fits into a backpack as well.
posted by Fichereader at 5:33 AM on September 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I have seen thousands of bento ("box" is already included in the world) and my Japanese school-age children often carry them, so I may have some background.

Most bento, at least in Japan, do not have compartments. Instead, they have dividers that can be inserted to allow flexibility. If compartments are fixed, three would be most common, dividing the bento 50/25/25, with the rice going into the 50% size compartment. This Google Image search may give you some ideas of what I am talking about.

Plastic is the overwhelming choice. There is really no such thing as a leakproof bento, and will the children really be given access to a microwave? Liquids and runny foods are generally not kept in bento.

I've never seen a bento with a cooler pack. In Japan, they are eaten at room temperature with no attempt to keep them cool or insulated.

I would look for a bento that would fit inside the small outside pocket of those backpacks. Good luck!
posted by Tanizaki at 5:38 AM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

(Tanizaki: Bento is the lunch itself, bento-bako is the box, no?)

My search for the ideal bento box finally arrived here, but they're expensive (and they hold a LOT of food, too much for school-age kids, though you could just carry one of the boxes rather than both.)

Most of the leakproof bento boxes I see are of this type, with a rubber ring to lock in liquids. These are reasonably satisfactory, and I've carried stews and curries in them without any leak incidents, but I got sick of them because they're such a pain to clean -- maybe easier if you have a dishwasher. The problem with plastic bento boxes in general is that you have to be very vigilant about cleaning them because plastic holds on to grease and smells. But I don't have any experience with wood or metal boxes.

I had an insulated bento box that I loved (Mr. Bento) but it was just too bulky and heavy to take on the bus every day while also carrying a full bag of books and papers.
posted by Jeanne at 6:07 AM on September 16, 2012

Way out there, but my husband and I have these, which are more like tiffins than bentos as such. But I treat them like bento boxes anyway. The silicone seal and clamps prevent any drips, and they're compact enough to go in a lunch kit, and tough enough to a) get dropped and b) go in the dishwasher on the sanitize cycle.
posted by LN at 6:16 AM on September 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I just got the laptop lunches mentioned above, for my 5 year old. I love it! I bought a pack of the extra tubs and lids, so now I have a flexible set I can mix and match each day. The containers with lids are leakproof enough for yogurt or ranch dressing with no spills so far.
posted by Joh at 6:47 AM on September 16, 2012

I have the Laptop Lunches system too. It's a little too big for the amount of food my preschooler needs, but seems like it will last until elementary. The instructions say its dishwasher safe with the caveat of no heat boost (which I think defeats the purpose). The insulated case for it has space for a juice box and ice pack, but doesn't fit her Kleen Kanteen. Overall I'm happy with it though I make more creative bento using her Hello Kitty! box.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 7:52 AM on September 16, 2012

Best answer: I have one of these, which is about as compartmental as you can get.

Here's Just Bento's list of recommended places to buy bentos.
posted by royalsong at 8:39 AM on September 16, 2012

Best answer: I think you're leading yourself astray thinking about it as bento. Bento is just means "boxed lunch" in Japanese. Therefore, what you're looking for is just a plain old (compartmentalized) "lunch box" (in English).

I use a Klip-It cube, which I like and dislike. (I am considerably older than your kids, but I do end up carrying my lunchbox in my backpack so...)

Like: It's kinda spiffy. It holds a good amount of food. It keeps my foods separated. It's pretty easy to clean (plus I'm only cleaning one container). It protects crushable foods. It works really well for my standard lunch (sandwich, cheese+fruit, crackers, cookies).

Dislike: It is constrained in terms of what foods fit, for example a whole apple or even a tangerine is just out of the question, also bulky foods that don't pack into rectangles aren't so great (think potato chips, although Pringles would be fine). The sandwich compartment is much deeper than my normal sandwich, which wastes space unless I pack something in on top, also if I pack a smaller than normal lunch there is also wasted space. The cube shape doesn't fit so well in my backpack--the cube ends up at the top of my bag, instead of fitting down beside my books (although for your bags it looks like the cube might be perfect--put their other stuff in and then look to see what shape you have left over). It seals, but I'm not sure I would really trust it with anything too wet, plus trying to eat anything wet out of a rectangle is just awkward (damp food like rice is OK).

How many compartments?
Depends on how many things you pack, if those things can be touching or not, and how you prepare them (a whole carrot with just the ends cut off keeps best--but then you have to have a carrot-length compartment, on the other hand carrot pennies will fit anywhere but don't keep as well). Consider how many wet foods (rice, beans), dry foods (sandwich, crackers), and either-way foods (raw veg if it's not sliced, carrots) they will want at each meal.

Don't bother, the shape of most lunchboxes sucks for eating liquid-y things anyway, if you want to pack soup or anything like that then use a different container with a screw on lid (ex. a thermos with a cup-lid).

No, they can't microwave it at school anyway and there's no need to microwave it at home. Also, I just don't like microwaving in plastic.

What to use for internal dividers?
Depends on which one you get and also which foods need to be divided.

Elastic band or side clasps to close it?
Clasps, elastic band isn't reliable.

Cooling element or insulated bag?
Insulated bag, it works whether or not you remembered to put it in the freezer last night.

Rectangular or oval?
See above re: what shape is left in the bag when all the other stuff is in it.

Plastic, metal or wood?
Plastic or metal. Wood is too much work.

Where do (reusable) drink containers go?
In the backpack (in an insulated drink sleeve), or in the insulated bag if there's enough room.

Don't be surprised if you don't find one box to rule them all, a hard sided box is necessarily and obviously inflexible, but you do want a hard sided box on some days/with some foods. You might end up with an array of options such that you pick your main food (sandwich, soup, something else..) and then pack whatever side foods fit with the container that holds your main food. If you have a Container Store in your area, you should really go around and at least look at some things in person, even if you don't want to buy any of them, just to get a feel for what the different sizes and latching options are like.
posted by anaelith at 8:41 AM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, forgot ot mention. Silicone baking cups make excellent cups/holders in bento boxes. There's all sorts of shapes.
posted by royalsong at 8:42 AM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding royalsong's rec for silicon baking cups. That way you can be flexible in the number of compartments you have.

I have this one and I really like it. The compartments work well for me. One wet, one dry, and there's also a removable divider container thing in it. I don't know how long the elastic will work, but I don't see that as an issue, I can always buy a new one.

I think a good rule for bentos is the size doesn't have to be as big as you think! That one I have looks small, but makes for a good adult lunch.
posted by manicure12 at 9:50 AM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I bought this system at the beginning of last semester for my son, and now that he is away from home, my husband is using it for his lunches. I like the flexibility of the boxes and how you can mix and match them according to your needs. I also love the cooling brick things - tailor made to fit and thin enough to not take up too much room. I bought the larger size bag for them, but they are big eaters. You could get the smaller one for your children, or go ahead and get the larger one and also be able to include a beverage. Target does carry the boxes, though I ordered directly from Rubbermaid, since I couldn't find the bag in a store anywhere near me. The boxes are dishwasher safe and also will go in the microwave, although I usually just pack cold stuff.
posted by jvilter at 10:02 AM on September 16, 2012

Here is a better link for the LunchBlox stuff.

I also forgot to say that they don't leak at all.
posted by jvilter at 10:07 AM on September 16, 2012

I have about a dozen beautiful bento boxes in all kinds of configurations, but the thing I use 90% of the time is a Lock & Lock with dividers that make it 50/25/25 (Sorry no link, I went looking on the Lock & Lock site but it's gotten so huge that I couldn't find it quickly--I'm sure it's there, though.) The advantages are 1) it can go in the dishwasher, 2) it's leakproof, 3) it's nearly indestructible, 4) it's flexible because you don't have to use the dividers, 5) it's cheap and easily replaced, and 6) it's just somehow aesthetically pleasing to use, even though you'd think a fancy box would be nicer. I think the layout makes it easy to create a pretty lunch. I've been using them for six years now so they're very durable. The real bento boxes mostly languish in a drawer.
posted by HotToddy at 11:00 AM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and 7) they're microwaveable, and 8) no fiddly elastic band to lose.
posted by HotToddy at 11:01 AM on September 16, 2012

I think this guide to selecting the right bento lunch box would be most useful for you.
posted by bie81 at 5:50 AM on September 17, 2012

We used one of these Sassy boxes for about two years, and it was very flexible for contents and completely leak-proof. However, it's (a) a little small for older kids (perfect for preschool years), and (b) hard enough to open that a teacher probably needs to help (and Grandma used to swear about it). We still have those, but have switched mostly to the LunchBots line, supplemented by a couple of round dishes with tight lids for when we want to send yogurt or other liquids, and a thermos for the occasional warm lunch. I like the the LunchBots include a 3-compartment box and also some larger ones that will be useful through highschool.
posted by acm at 7:49 AM on September 17, 2012

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