When the dog days of summer are almost gone, that means school is soon to be back in session (and even sooner if you’re in the South!). As you’re preparing for that upcoming tax-free weekend to buy all the essentials for the new school year, you’re probably also mentally preparing for a soon-to-be-hectic schedule! We’ve got you covered when it comes to quick dinners and super nutritious breakfasts, thanks to the handy-dandy slow cooker
, but what about lunch?
It’s fun to let your kids buy lunch every now and then, especially when it’s pizza day, but, depending on where your child goes to school, the lunch may not be as nutritious, grain-free, nut-free or balanced as you’d like. Plus, we know that sometimes kids will use their lunch money for vending machine snacks or soda. No one is opposed to the occasional treat, of course, but starting your kids on a healthy diet early on will help them later when they’re an adult, packing their own lunches
And because healthy eating starts with mom and dad, why not get involved in it, too? With bento boxes—cute, rectangular containers that have a set number of pre-portioned compartments—you can pack a portion-controlled lunch that has all the essential food pyramid goodies, like nuts, cheese, meat, grains, veggies, fruit and even a tasty little dessert
Bentos are great because they’re easy to maintain, typically available with a matching bag or containers, come in a variety of colors and designs, and are perfect for maintaining a certain diet. If you’d like to lose a few pounds, we highly recommend using a bento to portion out your food. Not only will the small compartments make it seem like there’s more food in the box, but they’ll also keep you from eating too much of a certain food, especially if it’s something you love.
The best thing about bento boxes, however, is that they’re relatively cheap (no more expensive than a standard lunchbox). They also have a lot of cool styles and features, so you can really customize your lunch experience. If you’re on the fence about bentos, that’s okay! Our handy guide will show you just how great they really are!
Bento boxes are relatively inexpensive, but the cost will vary based on how many compartments a box has, how many extras—like a lunch bag or thermos—come with the bento, the design of it and what it’s made from. Generally speaking, you can find bentos for as low as $15, but you can also find some that are $40.00 or more. Keep in mind that bento sets for kids are also usually slightly cheaper than sets for adults (in most cases, you can find these sets for about $30 or $35).
If you purchase a set—something that includes the bento, a lunch carrier, extra containers and so on—you’ll likely spend a little more than $40.00, but it’s better to have all the pieces you need to comfortably carry your food from home so that you’re more tempted to bring lunch versus buying it. Another factor that affects price is whether the material is designed to regulate temperature as compared to just being a container. If you go for one without insulation, you will need to either put it inside something that has it, or make sure it is stored in the refrigerator if you are packing perishable foods.
While you’re shopping, you may come across cheap bento boxes that seem like a really great deal. We generally suggest avoiding cheap variations of any product simply because it’s not worth wasting money on something that won’t hold up over time. Although a cheap bento box may work in a pinch, spending a little bit more guarantees several years of use (especially since some boxes even come with long warranty).
Bento boxes are for both kids and adults, but adult bentos tend to be sleeker with minimal designs while ones for kids tend to be easier to open and use. As you’re looking around, to keep in mind a few features that apply to all boxes, whether it’s for you or your child. Take a look:
- Design/Color – Although most bentos are fairly neutral in color and design, ones for kids have tons of colorful variations. If you’re shopping for your child, you may want to have them look at some of the designs. Typically, you can buy a bento set that has all matching items with it (like matching cutlery, ice packs, containers, and so on), but your child may want one design for their bento and another for their actual lunch bag.
- Material - Most are made from food-grade plastic, but there are a few that are made from glass or stainless steel. Glass bentos tend to be pretty heavy, so these may be better suited for adults use, but stainless steel ones are light enough for kids to handle and a great alternative to plastic.
- Size - Many people don’t think about the size of their bento’s pre-portioned compartments before buying, which often leads to disappointment when they try to pack in a sandwich that simply won’t fit. Before you pick a bento based on its aesthetics, look at the compartments and see if your favorite lunch items will be able to fit inside.
- Compartments - Similarly, you’ll want to look at how many compartments a bento has. Sometimes these compartments can be removed, which makes packing different types of lunch easier, but if you like a bento that has permanent, pre-portioned sections, take a look at your typical lunch items to see what will and won’t fit. Many people like to buy bentos with numerous compartments so they can pack in a little meat, a little diary, and nuts, and then use the largest sized section for a salad. Tasty!
- Care/Maintenance - In general, most bento boxes can go into the top rack of your dishwasher, but be aware that the lids are often too flexible to withstand high heat temperatures. We recommend never putting your bento box lids in the dishwasher to avoid having them warp and no longer seal around the box. However, if you have a dishwasher that has a low-heat setting and you usually put Tupperware lids in it, your bento lid might be okay.
- Leak Proof - We found that a lot of bento boxes aren’t really leak proof, but rather VERY leak resistant. For most carriers, it’s fine to pack a salad tossed with dressing, but it’s probably better to avoid packing anything very, very liquidy, like soup. If your go-to for lunch is soup or something similar, go for a circular bento. Circular ones tend to be leak proof since they’re generally meant for things like cereal, yogurt and ramen.
- Warranty - Warranties are a little atypical when it comes to bento boxes, but some companies do offer them. If you’re unsure about bringing your lunch to work or school, but you want to give it a try, we recommend buying a box that comes with a warranty so you can return it if something happens to it, or if you decide packed lunches aren’t for you.
You might be wondering how these particular features factor in to the overall performance and design of the bento, which is a great thing to wonder! Luckily, we’ve explained everything below.
Construction and Design
There are actually many types of bento boxes, but the main one that many people know are the typical rectangularly shaped boxes with lids that either flip up or are removable. You can find tons of bentos that are this type, but you can also find circular ones, stackable ones, specially designed ones (for example, we came across a Star Wars box that was shaped like R2D2) and non-reusable ones.
Circular ones are best suited for liquid foods, like chili, ramen and cereal with milk, but you can also use a circular bento in addition to your rectangular one for salad dressing or even smoothies/juices. Stackable bentos, which are basically two regular bentos held together by a strap or clasps, are great for people who eat a larger lunch, and for folks who have to take their lunch and breakfast on the go. If you have little kids, buying one stackable bento and giving one box to each child can help reduce the cost of having to buy two complete bento sets. Just know that, with some stackable carriers, the top bento also acts as the lid for the bottom, so there’s no way to carry just the bottom box without the top.
Specially designed bentos can be a little hard to find, but they typically don’t cost any more than a normal one. In addition to the R2D2 box, we came across one that was designed to look like an older version of Nintendo’s Game Boy. You can also find animal ones, like pandas, and even circular ones that are shaped like dolls, ninjas, lucky cats and sushi chefs. Even though the designs are special, these bentos have some of the same components as regular ones (pre-portioned sections, a place for utensils, stackable, and so on).
The non-reusable bentos are sort of like the takeout containers you might get from a Chinese or Japanese restaurant. While not the “traditional” type of bento, the non-reusable containers are actually a better option for people who plan to make their meals for the week and then freeze/refrigerate them. They’re also a better option if you’ve got a large family and you plan to pack leftover dinners for lunch. For folks with big families and on a tight budget, the reusable containers may be more convenient and cheaper.
Be aware that “non-reusable” doesn’t mean “use it once, throw it away,” but more, “Use it until it’s not usable anymore.” Most of these containers can be used multiple times, but the lids tend to wear out, especially if they’re washed in very hot hotter water (and RIP if they go in the dishwasher).
Since material will generally dictate a bento’s durability and the kind of maintenance it requires, it’s something you’ll want to consider before simply buying a standard plastic one. Most bentos are made from plastic, but the grade of plastic and its thickness will determine its longevity (if you can bend the plastic in your hands with very little force, you may want to consider getting a different bento).
Glass will always be the most durable option, but it’s also the heaviest. Stainless steel, on the other hand, is also quite durable and light, but it doesn’t retain temperature very well, and certain cleaning products, such as bleach, will stain and corrode it. Thin stainless steel will also end up dented in the dishwasher.
If you plan to buy a plastic bento, check to make sure it’s BPA-free, food-grade and free of phthalates. Most are already safe for human use and safe to use with food, but double checking never hurts, especially if you’re purchasing a very cheap bento.
Performance and Ease of Use
The most difficult part about owning a bento is correctly portioning out your normal lunch to fit inside the container’s pre-portioned sections. If you’re very new to bentos and are a picky eater—or you’re on a set diet plan—we recommend buying a carrier that has removable compartments. If you’re trying to lose weight or following a specific weight loss plan (like 21-Day, Insanity, or Weight Watchers), buying a larger bento with more pre-portioned sections is a great idea. Not only will it help you keep your portions low, but you can still sneak in that little snack without feeling guilty about eating too much of it.
For kids, a bento with fewer, larger compartments might be better unless you’re trying to get your child on a specific diet. But since most bentos with 5-7 compartments won’t fit a standard sandwich—even when cut into fourths—you may want to buy something with larger sections. Be aware that, regardless of the bento you buy, there’ll still be some adjusts you’ll have to make to get your food to fit, like cubing your cheese and cutting fruits/vegetables into small portions. However, this can be a positive adjustment if it means you just throw more salad into your bento, or if it helps you lose weight and eat healthier.
Although this guide has touched on it a few times, it’s worth mentioning again that most bento boxes are safe to wash in the dishwasher, but you’ll want to hand wash your lids in cool water. If you can’t find any information about whether or not your bento is dishwasher safe, it’s best to just hand wash it. In general, bento boxes aren’t difficult to maintain or clean, but avoid using abrasive cleaners, like bleach and steel wool. For stainless steel boxes that have lost their luster, feel free to give it a polish for that just-purchased look!
Lastly, never put your bento in the microwave without first completely or att least partially removing the lid! Many people have mistakenly destroyed their bento box—and ruined their lunch—by putting it in the microwave with the lid. The heat from the microwave will likely warp the lid (or melt it, if the lid is very thin/part of a non-reusable bento set), but, beyond that, if your lid is sealed around the box, steam can’t escape as the food is heated.
In really extreme, rare cases, the build-up of steam can cause a miniature food explosion, which will definitely ruin your lunch and probably your day (but make a great story later on). More likely, however, you’ll just end up burning your hands from the extremely hot steam leaving the container once it’s done microwaving. If you aren’t sure if your bento lid can be microwaved, you can always cover your food with a little saran wrap to keep your food from drying out.
The “best” is often pretty subjective, so we can’t say what the best bento box will be for you and your lifestyle. However, we can say that, for some people, the best one will be a box that easily fits their whole lunch inside its pre-portioned compartments. We can also say that, for some, the best bento box will be one that their kid can easily use without adult supervision. We can even say that, for some, the best one will be the carrier that helps someone control their portions better, or even helps them eat less overall. Whatever category you fall into, our review will have something that’ll meet your needs!
Bentology’s founders, Amy Hemmert and Tammy Pelstring, began designing and selling reusable lunchboxes in 2002 after they noticed how much plastic waste normal lunchboxes generated. Their idea was to craft a carrier that would reduce the use of plastic baggies, tinfoil and plastic wrap while also providing people quick, easy and nutritious meal recipes. The company still operates on these same principles and has certain policies in place to further reduce their footprint on the environment. All paper products manufactured by Bentology, for example, must be made from 30% recyclable materials. Because the environment is so important to them, Hammert and Pelstring even host workshops that teach parents and children how to take care of the environment and their bodies—all by reducing, recycling and, of course, eating healthy!
Bentology Kitty Lunch Bag and Bento Box for Girls is everything your little one needs to take their lunch to school! It has 3 removable containers and a total of five compartments, and the lids are totally leak-proof. The set also comes with an ice pack that matches the design of the bag, and the bag itself has a special inner pocket for holding it. There’s also a spot to place utensils.
If your child has a later lunch period, this carrier is a great choice for them because it’s fully insulated. It’s also easy to clean—simply wipe down the inside—and the multiple exterior pockets can be packed with other snacks, wet wipes, or a drink thermos. Bentology makes matching drink bottles, other containers and different styles of lunch bags, giving you the ability to create a truly custom lunch set for your child.
Beginning in Japan as a maker of fountain pens in 1938, Skater grew into a plastics business that eventually began to focus on providing customers with necessities for their homes. In 1984, they partnered with Sanrio, perhaps better known as Hello Kitty, to diversify their product lines by appealing to children. In 2006, they partnered with Disney for the same reasons. Today, Skater holds numerous awards for their everyday, plastic household products, and operates in several countries, from South Korea to Iran.
Skater’s Japanese Traditional Bento Box with Chopsticks is a sleekly designed bento that’s ideal for adults who want to carry a lunchbox that doesn’t actually look like a lunchbox. This bento stands out not only because of its unique style, but also because of its 6, pre-portioned inner compartments, which are completely removable. If you want to bring a big bowl of noodles for lunch, you can simply take out the plastic sections and pack your food directly in the main box.
The bento is microwavable and safe to place in the dishwasher as long as you remove the lid. It also comes with a pair of chopsticks that are housed inside the lid, so you’ll never be without utensils, even if you forget your knife and fork at home. We particularly liked this box’s center divider because it allows you to keep your foods separated even if you choose not to use the inner compartments.
In 2008, Jacqueline Linder founded LunchBots after noticing that all the lunchboxes available on the market were made of plastic. Worried about chemicals from plastic affecting the quality of her food and health, she decided to purchase a lunchbox made of stainless steel, but couldn’t find one on the market. Like all good inventors faced with an impasse, Linder began designing her own and, today, LunchBots stands as one of the very few companies to offer non-plastic lunch carriers. Her mission? To get people eating healthier by showing them how easy and quick it is to create nutritious meals—packaged, of course, in carriers free of toxins, BPA, and phthalates.
The LunchBots Five Section Stainless Steel Bento Box is one of the larger bentos available from this company, making it perfect for folks who need to eat a larger lunch, for extra-long days at the office, and for those all-day field trips when a sandwich and a snack may not be enough for your child.
The two larger sections can hold about 1 and 1/4 cups (10 ounces) while the three smaller compartments can hold about a 1/2 cup (4 ounces). If you’re trying to switch to a diet that has more fruits and vegetables, this bento box is perfect because it can hold up to 32 ounces (plenty of room for a sizeable salad!). And, because it’s crafted from 18/8 stainless steel, you can put it in the dishwasher without worrying about it warping or getting damaged.
LunchBots also makes a line of bento boxes for little children, but this bento is available with colorful “dot” lids in pink and blue if you’ve got an older kid who would prefer to carry something a little more stylish than the standard grey.
Misc Home is a company based in Los Angeles, California. Its founders, who have over 60 years of combined experience in distributing and manufacturing, understand the importance of strict quality control and affordable prices, so they operate with a small inventory that doesn’t have repeat products. Misc Home offers only a select handful of items in part because of its customer-oriented philosophy: when consumers are faced with too many choices, they have to spend a lot more time and energy on purchasing products instead of enjoying them. The company’s goal is to reduce the stress and fatigue that shopping can sometimes induce while maintaining quality and, of course, affordability.
Misc Home’s 32 Oz. 2-Compartment Meal Prep Containers come in a 20 pack, which makes them perfect for individuals who need to prep their meals far in advance and freeze them for later, and for people who are trying to adhere to a specific diet plan. Each BPA-free container measures 9x6.25x2 inches, and the larger compartment can tightly fit a regular-sized sandwich. These containers are also stackable, so you don’t have to worry about having enough cabinet space to fit 20 individual pieces.
Even if you don’t want to carry these to-go style boxes to work, they’re perfect for packaging up leftovers, especially when there’s a gathering with lots of guests and food! Every product is tested by SGS and then further tested by the FDA to ensure they’re certified safe for food. You can also place the containers in the top rack of your dishwasher without the lids, but we recommend hand-washing if the water in your dishwasher gets very hot (to avoid warping).
In 2013, Bentgo was established with a single mission: to turn boring, brown-bag lunches into something creative that would make people ditch their fast food meals for nutritious, homecooked ones. To achieve this goal, Bentgo’s founders scoured the market to see what types of lunch-time solutions were already available. What they discovered were unpragmatic lunchboxes that lacked aesthetic appeal and did little to keep foods fresh and, most importantly, separated (because no one wants their tuna fish sandwich touching their doubly chocolate brownie!). Their line of bento boxes is designed to support healthy living by offering customers a stylish, adult-friendly lunchbox that encourages portion control with pre-portioned compartments. And, because healthy eating tends to be a family affair, this brand also has a line of kid-friendly bento boxes with easy-to-open lids.
The Bentgo Stackable Bento Box is a 2-tier lunch carrier with built-in silverware. The bottom container is one large compartment that measures 7x4.5x2.5 inches while the top one has two smaller compartments that each measure 3.4x4.3x1.7 inches. Because the entire bento box is stacked together, you can easily just carry the bottom or top box for a lighter lunch (especially good for portion control, dieting and lunches for little kids).
Storing and maintaining this set is a breeze! All the pieces can be set inside the bottom bento to help keep everything together and to help save cabinet space when it’s not in use. The actual lunch carriers and plastic silverware are dishwasher safe and can be microwaved, but it’s recommended you hand wash the lids and center divider to preserve their seals and shape (you’ll also want to remove the divider when microwaving).
If you’ve never used a bento-style lunchbox before, we recommend giving Bentgo’s Stackable set a try because it comes with a 2-year warranty, is available in multiple colors, and includes a free book of recipes. Since some people have expressed difficulty in initially packing their lunch because of the bento’s small compartments, the recipe book will show you what fits, and provide you with an assortment of delicious, nutrition-packed meals.
The only thing better than a tasty lunch is a lunch that saves you money, helps you eat more nutritious food and keeps you away from the fast food joints (except for special occasions, of course! We’re all entitled to indulge every now and then). Whether you found a great bento box on our list or you discovered one from one of our top choice brands, we know you’ll be on your way to homemade lunches in no time.