I’ve been preparing bento boxes for work since the start of November, and given that we’re now in February, that’s approximately three months worth of lunches. I usually take one lunchbox photo a day, partly to compare food with friends but mostly to keep a record of meals that worked and if I’m ever stuck for an idea, I can scroll through my camera roll and choose something.
This is especially true now I’m trying to reduce my intake of meat and animal products. I’m neither vegan nor vegetarian but making some substitutions in my diet is my small contribution to helping the planet. Also, it forces me to think more about what I put in my body which is pretty important as a young adult living alone. I could very easily binge on cake, crisps, and (fake) bacon sandwiches if I didn’t keep myself in check.
I thought that others might be interested in some bento ideas, so here are the lunches I ate this week…
DAY 1 – Monday (vegetarian, can be vegan, no microwave)
I was out for most of Sunday, and the time that I was home was spent doing laundry so I had very little time to prepare a bento. As a result, I kind of cheated a little bit. I bought a salt omusubi (or onigiri) from the local My Basket, along with a yoghurt. I put these in my lunch bag with a pot of nuts – mixing together hazelnuts, flavoured almonds, and tiny chocolate chips.
This bento was vegetarian, but the last time I used this combination, it was fully vegan, after substituting dairy yoghurt for soy yoghurt (in Japan, look for tōnyū – 豆乳 – on the label) and instead of honey butter almonds and chocolate, I added maple flavoured nuts. Sure, the maple nuts were processed in a factory that used animal products but I wasn’t about to be that strict. Last time, I also had apple slices with a light squeeze of lemon juice to stop them from browning too much.
DAY 2 – Tuesday (vegan, microwave)
One way that I cut corners is using leftovers from the night before. This was Tuesday’s lunch – tofu and vegetables in tomato sauce and rice. I bought momen tofu (the firmer kind) for this meal. I pre-boiled some zucchini and eggplant (or courgette and aubergine if you’re British like me). The eggplant had boiled for 5 minutes before I added the zucchini and I left them for 4 more minutes while I chopped the other vegetables. I drained the zucchini and eggplant then rinsed and dried the pan so I could re-use it to fry the onion, orange pepper, and green pepper with garlic granules, adding them in that order until everything had softened. Then I added the vegetables and the tofu, stirring carefully to not break it too much. In went some chilli powder then chunky tomato passata. I added the chilli beforehand so I could still see how much I’d used. I brought everything to the boil while adding salt, pepper and oregano. I only left this for a minute, just to finish everything at the same time.
The tofu and vegetable mixture filled half my bento box; the other half was white microwaveable rice and a silicone cup of edamame.
DAY 3 – Wednesday (vegan, no microwave)
Wednesday lunchtime was kind of busy and I’d already known that at the start of the week, so I’d planned a lunch that would be quick to eat and still filling.
Using some leftover quinoa from the night before, alongside some microwaveable mugi gohan (麦ご飯, barley rice), sesame and chia seeds, I made some salted omusubi by hand. I’m not a fan of nori so I chose to not include any but in my opinion, the mixed grains were enough to make the rice more flavourful. They also made the rice balls way more satisfying; together they were bulky enough to make me feel more satiated. Now, salted omusubi are not enough by themselves for definite, so I added a supermarket-bought smoothie which allegedly contains half your daily vegetable intake in one drink.
Admittedly, this doesn’t have much protein, but I figured that I’d compensated by having a soy yoghurt at breakfast time. Also, part of the reason my lunchtime was so busy was because I had to pick up a delivery on the way to a meeting in the city centre, but fortunately I still made it with plenty of time to grab a coffee and a small peanut butter sandwich.
DAY 4 – Thursday (microwave)
Thursday was my cheat day as I knew for certain that I would be eating out before my Japanese class. So this is my only non-vegetarian or vegan bento this week. Thursday’s lunch box contained spaghetti in Japanese style carbonara sauce, boiled vegetables in butter and octopus hot dogs. Octopus hot dogs are one of the first things I think of when I think of bento boxes and I’ve wanted to try them out for a while. If you’ve never heard of them before, octopus hot dogs are named after their shape, rather than the meat used to make them. It’s a surprise I hadn’t attempted them before because they are literally so low effort. All you have to do is take some mini hot dogs, cut one end into eighths about a third of the way down and gently fry them until the ‘legs’ fan out.
I cut down on washing up by boiling the carrot and broccoli first, and while they were cooling I used the same water to boil my spaghetti. It’s less effort and it’s actually a little bit healthier, as some of the nutrients lost from cooking the vegetables is reabsorbed by the pasta. I then drained the spaghetti, put it back in the pan, and added the pre-made sauce from a packet. I like my pasta really saucy so I used both sachets, which also reduces the chances of it drying out when reheating. I have quick-cook pasta so this lunch box probably took around 20 minutes to make and I even had a little extra for a late evening snack.
DAY 5 – Friday (vegan, microwave)
Thursday may have been my cheat day when it came to bentos so I was sure that my last lunch of the week would be vegan. I scoured the internet for ideas, double checking things I had in my cupboard to see if I could use anything. Fortunately for me, a quick foray into a Reddit thread told me that my favourite sauce has no animal products in it, and I instantly had an idea.
I boiled some plain noodles, but just noodles on their own isn’t any fun, so I used my vegetable peeler to make strips of zucchini and carrot before slicing them into thin noodle shapes. I made sure everything was soft before taking them off the heat, draining them and putting them back in the pan. I tossed them in a light drizzle of tonkatsu sauce, just enough to coat everything but not enough to overpower it. Once they were cool, I put them in my lunch box with a pot of sesame seeds for texture.
My protein this time was a chia seed pudding made with flavoured soy milk. My supermarket is currently selling vanilla ice cream flavour tōnyū, and I fell in love as soon as I tried it. I just knew I had to put it in a chia pudding. With flavoured milks I don’t feel the need to add any extra sweetener so this was just three tablespoons of chia seeds with one cup of fluid. In the second half of my bento were some frozen fruits left to defrost overnight, which I thought would be the perfect match for ‘vanilla ice cream’. If I was making this bento again, I’d probably just stick with frozen mango because the grapes went very squishy once they’d thawed.
I hope you liked this post – I have way more ideas for lunch boxes in Japan and I’ve barely scratched the surface here so let me know down in the comments if you’d like to see more!
Which of these bento options would be your favourite?