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menu: Planning ~ Freezer Love ~ Packing and Arranging ~ Type of Cuisine

The secret to packing bento every day without driving yourself batty from lack of sleep (or chronically showing up to work late) is good planning.  I can’t say that I always plan well, but when I do, I can whip up a tasty bento in about 30 minutes.  Sure, it takes longer than packing a sandwich and chips, but overall it’s healthier, less expensive than eating out, and a cute bento can really brighten your (or a loved one’s) day.

If you have loads of time, then you might be able to cook up everything freshly every morning.  But if you’re like me (and, I suspect, most folks out there), then you’ll want to have a cache of goodies in your fridge and pantry that will allow you to whip up bento quickly.  This cache is made possible through good use of leftovers, making sure you have on hand, and having lots of goodies in the freezer that are minutes away from bento-readiness.  If you really want to make things easy on yourself during the week, pre-cut your fresh veggies, cook a big batch of rice, make any dishes that you can ahead of time, etc.

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I find the hardest part of making bento to be the small portion sizes.  You don’t want to go through the trouble of making a nice batch of curry only to have to eat it every day for a week.  At the same time, you don’t want to have to cook something new each and every day (unless you like and have the time to), especially in such small portions.  This is where your best friend, the freezer, will come in.  Make a big batch of food, reserve a portion or two for that week, but then freeze individual portions for use later.  My freezer is filled with 2 person-sized portions (as I cook for the hubs too) of a lot of our favorite foods that are time consuming to cook or that make a whole lot at a time.  

So many types of food are freezer-friendly – sauces for pasta, curry, sauces for stir-fries, dumplings, eggrolls, wontons, grilled meats, fresh noodles from Asian markets, etc. etc.  You’ll build your freezer cache slowly, but over time, you’ll find yourself with a veritable smorgasbord of pre-portioned goodies to warm up and throw into your bento.  (By the way, I use this method for dinners too.  I even have a , which I heartily recommend.)

Add even more variety to your freezer cache by stocking up on goodies at your local and Asian supermarkets. 

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If there are hard and fast rules and ratios you’re supposed to follow when packing bento, I’ve never followed them.  I just pack what I like to eat.  Generally, I have a base of either rice or noodles, some sort of protein, and lots of vegetables and fruit.  The more colorful the food, the better.  Not only do the hues look beautiful in pictures, but the colorful vegetables and fruits are often the healthiest. 

As is traditional, I do not refrigerate my bento, and I eat it hours after it is prepared (sometimes not until late afternoon).  Thus, I use foods that will not spoil easily, and I make sure to separate foods with more liquid from dry foods to keep the latter from getting soggy and unappetizing.  There are many types of dividers available, such as the humble foil cupcake liner, that makes this easy.

Food presentation and visual appeal is important, so I pay attention to color and texture, placing foods so that the dishes contrast with and enhance each other.  If I have similarly colored dishes (e.g., broccoli and green beans), I separate them and place differently colored or textured dishes in between.  Sprinkles of colorful furikake and well-placed accents of herbs do wonders for overall presentation.  The wide array of cookie cutters and molds available also are handy for kicking up the cute factor.  Take a look at the for examples of how I’ve laid out my bento, and check out the bento blogs in the section for more ideas.

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Traditionally, bento food is Japanese.  However, as discussed in the section, the Japanese themselves have made Western- and Chinese-inspired bento for many years.  I like to include all types of food in my bento, and my husband and I enjoy the variety.  You should put whatever suits your fancy in yours!

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