Originating in Japan, bento-style boxes are compact, visually appealing meals packed in a box-shaped container. A traditional bento box in Japan may hold rice, fish or meat, with pickled or cooked vegetables.

Share story

ATLANTA — The latest trend in packing creative, healthy and perfectly portioned lunches is all about the lunchbox.

The bento box, that is.

Originating in Japan, bento-style boxes are compact, visually appealing meals packed in a box-shaped container. Some bento-style boxes have only two or three compartments, while others feature as many as five sections for various foods — everything from rice and tortillas to deli meat, crackers and fruits and vegetables.

A traditional bento box in Japan may hold rice, fish or meat, with pickled or cooked vegetables. In recent years, they’ve gained popularity in the United States as an eco-friendly approach to store and transport a mix of foods all together in one container.

And they aren’t just for kids, with bento boxes winning over adults who want to give their sandwich — and the brown bag — a modern face-lift.

A range of bento-style boxes are widely available, including simple plastic, bento-style containers at Target for under $15 and the stainless steel PlanetBox — part bento box, part TV dinner tray — available in three sizes starting at $34.99.

Ellen Stokes, a registered dietitian and a nutrition instructor at the Art Institute of Atlanta, said the different compartments in a bento box help people think about assembling a healthy meal with variety, such as a lean protein in one space, along with grains, fruits and vegetables in other parts. Variety and portion control are also easier to visualize with a bento box, she said, and it’s fun to see your lunch lineup displayed in the bento before digging in.

They can even make dinner leftovers more enticing, Stokes added.

Wendy Palmer, a registered dietitian at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, said bento-style boxes can be a good way to serve a balanced plate of food — just as long as you actually fill those compartments with a mix of nutritious foods (fruits and vegetables, lean protein and whole grains). And while many stylish, even sleek, swanky high-end bento boxes are in the market, she said basic, cheaper bento-style plastic containers for as little as $10 can serve just as well.

Palmer recommends at least four compartments in the bento box to have space for not only the healthy eats but also for extras like a low-fat ranch dip for vegetables, and for an occasional treat like a cookie or a spot to leave a little note.

As bento boxes become all the rage, so do the ideas to jazz things up by slicing and arranging food in the shape of cute animals and flowers. Eye-poppingly creative ideas abound on Pinterest and food blogs.

Palmer said while parents with creative flares should go for it (your child will love to see an animal face carved out of fruits and vegetables), she emphasized it’s not really necessary. Simply filling the bento boxes with different colors — green sliced cucumbers, purple grapes, red cherry tomatoes — can make food quite appealing, she said.

Jenni Hilton, of Cumming, Ga., turned to rectangle-shaped bento-style boxes a few years ago for her daughters’ lunches as an eco-friendly way to send lunch to school. With her younger daughter Madeline, 8, allergic to peanuts and tree nuts, she was also attracted to the idea of Madeline eating out of a bento box, keeping her younger daughter’s food off the school lunch table and limiting contact with allergenic foods.

She goes to www.easylunchboxes.com for ideas, and thinks the bento box lends itself to a better variety of foods, and ultimately a healthier lunch.

“I think it’s fun for them and it’s colorful and it’s all there, ready to go,” Hilton said.

CHICKEN TACO ROLLUPS

Makes 6 servings

16 ounces reduced-fat cream cheese, softened

1-ounce package low-sodium taco seasoning mix

1 cup reduced-fat shredded cheddar cheese

1 cup chopped, cooked chicken breast (use grocery store rotisserie chicken or leftovers from dinner)

¾ cup shredded or matchstick carrots

6 (8-inch) 100 percent whole-wheat soft tortillas

Mix the softened cream cheese with the taco seasoning. Stir in shredded cheddar and set aside. Combine the chopped chicken and shredded carrots. Spread the cream cheese mixture on one side of each of the tortillas. Top with chicken/carrot mix. Press the toppings into the tortilla. Roll up tortilla tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight. In the morning, cut rollups in thirds at an angle and put 3 pieces in one compartment of bento box.

FIESTA FRUIT SALAD

Makes 8 servings

1 cup chopped fresh papaya or mango

1 cup chopped fresh cantaloupe

1 cup fresh pineapple chunks

1 cup seedless red grapes, cut in half

1 tablespoon fresh orange zest

½ cup fresh orange juice

1 tablespoon fresh lime or lemon juice

8 small lettuce leaves

1. Combine first four ingredients in large bowl. Set aside. Combine orange zest with fruit juices in small bowl. Pour this mixture over fruit and gently toss to coat fruit. Cover and refrigerate.

2. Before packing in bento compartment, drain serving of fruit salad thoroughly. Put 1 lettuce leaf in bottom of compartment and spoon ½ cup fruit salad portion on top.

GREEN BEAN, CHERRY TOMATO AND BROWN RICE

Makes 6 servings

½ pound fresh whole green beans

1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in half

½ cup good-quality bottled light balsamic vinaigrette

¼ teaspoon ground cumin

1½ cups cooked brown rice, chilled

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

1. Steam green beans until tender crisp. Plunge in ice water to stop cooking. Drain thoroughly. Combine with tomato halves. Place mixture in shallow dish. Combine bottled salad dressing with ground cumin. Pour about ¼ cup of this mixture over green bean/tomato mixture. Cover and refrigerate.

2. When packing in bento compartment, place ¼ cup brown rice in bottom of compartment, then put ¼ cup of the green bean/tomato mixture on top after it has been very well drained. Sprinkle each serving with 1 teaspoon chopped cilantro.

— From Ellen Stokes, a registered dietitian and a nutrition instructor at the Art Institute of Atlanta.