Column: Bento box diversifies lunch fun

Ariel Cheung | The News Record
April 11, 2011

As my column's faithful readers will know (read: my editors and my parents), I've been on a mission to eat healthier — in fact, it was almost exactly one year ago when I wrote my first column on the matter.

Since then, it's been more than an uphill battle. I think it is destined by the gods that college students simply cannot eat healthily. I start off the week in earnest, only to cave to the tantalizing call of Burger King or Pizza Hut in Tangeman University Center. Factor in my hectic schedule and lack of motivation, and it's a wonder I saw a single vegetable this year.

During Winter quarter, I enjoyed a little success — I at least managed to pack my lunch most days, instead of splurging on a BK Double Stacker with fries and a Pepsi ... And those adorable slices of cheesecake. Oh God, the cheesecake.

But packing lunch wasn't quite working. I found my meal consisting of whatever I had lying around the house: a half-eaten bag of Cheetos, a leftover chicken leg, some stale day-old Cajun fries from 5 Guys Burgers and Fries. Not exactly nutritious.

But, thankfully, my family came though and, in a surprisingly Asian turn of events, introduced me to the joys of the bento box. I've been hooked ever since.

The word "bento" stems from the Southern Song word for convenience, and the tradition itself dates back to the 1300s. Travelers and workers on the go used bentos as a way to transport an easy meal. Now, they can be found in Japanese schools, convenience stores and train stations.

But I'd never heard of bentos until my mom mentioned them during Winter quarter. They were her latest "obsession." She and my sister (a senior in high school) would journey to the nearest Trader Joe's to find fun, healthy goodies to stuff in their bento boxes for school lunches (my mom is an elementary school art teacher). They planned each week's menu with care and scoured the Internet for fun bento ideas.

At first, I doubted the appeal of the bento box. From what I could tell, it seemed like a tiny, problematic pencil case to cram in half a lunch. But then my mom showed me some Americanized bento websites, and I could feel the beauty of the bento luring me in.

Websites like and discuss recipes and the latest in bento findings. And after seeing the rice cakes decorated to look like Hello Kitty, I was sold. My mom gave me my very own bento box, and, since then, I've caught the bento bug.

It seems the trend is mostly focused on the West Coast, with San Francisco and Seattle scoring the most mentions. But this is a great way for college students on the go to pack a healthy lunch, and it could easily catch on at UC. While I haven't found any stores with bento products (I have high hopes for a future visit to Jungle Jim's in Fairfield), websites like and offer tons of bento boxes at great prices.

In terms of filling the bento, I must admit that I don't stick to Japanese cuisine — but that's part of what makes the bento box so fun. My weekly trips to Trader Joe's provide for a pretty adorable menu — tiny mushroom turnovers and chicken pot stickers serve for the meatier portions of my meal, while mini triple ginger snaps and yogurt-covered raisins make for sweet treats.

Each section of my bento is dedicated to a different food group, making it much easier to cover all my bases in terms of nutrition. Grocery store trips are now made doubly fun, as I hunt for the treasure of fun bento additions. I plan on expanding my bento box to include more fun foods while I continue learning, but, for now, I'm sticking to the basics. Blueberries, snap peas and grapes are easy to fit in the tiny spaces and help fulfill my fruits-and-veggies quota.

The bento box has become a way for me to pack a nutritious, simple lunch every week and explore the varieties of adorableness and creativity of a custom that dates back centuries. I highly recommend joining the bento bonanza — it's a fantastic choice for college students, and, hey, how much more awesome would your lunch be with a sushi roll that looks like Pikachu?