Bento lunch boxes have always been my go-to method for packing lunches for my girls. And lately I've been using the bento method to pack healthy lunches for work too. Not only are they quick, but bento lunches have also helped to streamline my meal-prep process—something I'll take more of any morning! The dietitian side of me also loves that the packing process helps me ensure that the lunches include options from several food groups. Another plus: packing bento boxes for my husband and myself is cheaper than eating lunch out every day.
So what took me so long to start packing my own "grown-up" bento box lunches? Perhaps it was their simplicity, or the fact that they're very similar to what I pack for my girls. Regardless, now that I've embraced the bento box concept, I can't get enough. Thinking through foods to pack—rather than recipes to make—makes eating a healthy lunch every day seem totally doable.
If you like the idea, but aren't sure where to get started, here's my simple formula for a healthy, satisfying lunch to pack for work: Protein + Veggie + Fruit + Extra.
Pictured: Mediterranean Bento Lunch
Think lean meats and fish, like skinless rotisserie chicken breast, cubed ham or turkey, tuna, thinly sliced grilled flank steak and cooked shrimp, as well as vegetarian proteins like black beans tossed with a vinaigrette, a cooked grain pilaf with a sprinkle of nuts and cheese, fresh mozzarella balls, cheese sticks, peanut butter and almond butter.
Now that you've got a protein, this is where the fun and creativity can really start.
Money-Saving Tip: Go Meatless
Try to include vegetarian proteins in your lunch for the week. Choosing plant-based proteins over meat, even a couple of times a week, can help save money, since meat is usually the most expensive part of a meal. Canned chickpeas or hummus, lentils, nut butter, quinoa and hard-boiled eggs are good vegetarian protein options.
Related: Top Vegetarian Proteins
Pictured: Picnic Bento Box
The options really are endless. Keep it simple with veggies like baby carrots, cherry tomatoes or ripe summer tomato slices, roasted broccoli florets, steamed green beans, salad greens, cucumber slices or bell pepper slices, and pack a little dressing or hummus on the side if desired.
Money-Saving Tip: Choose Conventional Veggies (Sometimes)
Organic produce is usually more expensive. If you can afford it, great. If not, conventional vegetables are better than no veggies at all. If you're worried about pesticides, just focus on the "Dirty Dozen" list of the most contaminated fruits and vegetables to buy organic—and choose conventional for the rest.
Pictured: Deconstructed Sushi Bento Lunch
You get a little freedom here. I love to have a little fresh fruit included—berries, grapes, peach slices, clementines—because it satisfies my sweet tooth. But if you're not a fruit fan or don't have any on hand, packing an additional veggie is just as good. The bottom line is we all need more fruits and veggies, so get them however you can.
Money-Saving Tip: Choose Seasonal Fruit
Many of us have gotten used to eating whatever fruit or vegetable we want to year-round, regardless of whether it's in season. But eating in season can save you money. For example, strawberries will be less expensive in the summer, and oranges will be a cheaper option in the winter.
Pictured: Clean-Eating Bento Box Lunch
Add one more food to round out the meal and ensure satiety. This is where I look at what I've got, and then fill in the gap. I might add a carbohydrate-rich food like crackers, pita chips, edamame or roasted chickpeas, a dairy item like Greek yogurt, or a little dark chocolate.
Money-Saving Tip: Plan Ahead
When you make dinner, think about what you're going to eat for lunch tomorrow. If you're making a salad, make a little extra and put it in a container, undressed. And what about your leftovers? If you have a little extra chicken or half a can of beans, toss that in with your lunch salad.
Pictured: Salmon Salad Bento Lunch
Learn to Love Leftovers: Identifying a protein can be the biggest roadblock for some, so don't overthink it. My go-to lunch protein is often the leftover protein from dinner the night before. Plan to cook a little extra at dinner to save for your bento box. Or, make a quick chicken or tuna salad Sunday evening to have for lunch boxes.
Take Veggie Shortcuts: Go ahead and prep some fresh veggies or roast extra veggies the night before to pack for lunch. Also, buying precut veggies is one splurge I recommend if you know you've got a busy week.
Mix It Up: Don't feel like you have to keep food groups separate. The formula is simply a guide to ensure you get variety. Mix tuna into a cooked grain, add almond butter to apple slices, or top yogurt with nuts and berries.
Keep It Simple: Don't feel like it's got to be fancy either, though. A bento box with whole-grain crackers, turkey slices, grapes and yogurt can be just as healthy as a gourmet one.
Holley Grainger, M.S., R.D. is a culinary nutrition and lifestyle expert and the “Mommy Dietitian in the Kitchen” who instructs families on how to make practical, doable and delicious meals.