Bento: a Frugal Feast

Students living in dorms in Tokyo say they prefer to buy meals rather than cook from scratch. Ready-made bento meals are a top choice–they’re both nutritious and convenient. They’re easy to find and affordable–and they’re complete meals you can bring home and heat in a microwave.

Bento booth. | Ris@i_hate_u

Students buy them at most konbini (convenience stores) around Tokyo–7/Eleven, FamilyMart, and Lawson. Most stores are open 24/7, and they offer an array of sweets, meals, and snacks as well. You can also buy bento boxes at bento shops, restaurants, department stores, and even train stations.


The word bento (弁当) came from southern Song Dynasty slang, from the word “convenience,” in the Kamakura period (1185-1333), when cooked and dried rice, or hoshi-ii, came about.

Bento box. | ignote

During the Azuchi-Momoyama period, from 1568-1600, intricate wooden lacquer boxes held bento at hanami (tea parties). Bento culture rose during the Edo Period (1603-1867) and flourished until after WWII, when standardized food was supplied for school lunch boxes.

Interest in the bento box returned in the 80s, when it was readily available at convenience stores and was a cinch to heat up in a microwave. Bento boxes are now often made of polystyrene instead of metal or wood.

Homemade bento. | WordRidden

The bento box

Bento boxes are containers, often with divisions to separate the food portions. They vary in design, shape, and material. They can be disposable or exquisitely hand-crafted lacquerware. Traditionally, they contain rice, meat or fish, and cooked or pickled vegetables.

Commonly, bentos contain curry, okonomiyaki (savory pancakes of fish, meat and/or vegetables), tempura (battered, deep-fried seafood or vegetables), teppanyaki (grilled meats), tonkatsu (fried and breaded pork cutlets), or yakitoi (chicken grilled in skewers). They are all usually served with rice and noodles.

A kyaraben design. | saotin

Japanese creativity is evident in the design of bento meals. Kyaraben, or “character bento,” are made to look like popular characters from manga and anime. Oekakiben, or “picture bento,” are designed to look like people, flowers, buildings, and the like.