Partitioned dining may remind you of a TV dinner from the 60s, but compartmental lunches can actually be appetizing, healthy, and appealing. All the rage with the K-5 crowd, bento boxes are gaining steam as a perfectly portioned, creative, fun way to pack and serve lunch — and they’re not just for kids. The bento box hails from Japan and first hit the scene in the sixteenth century. Cuteness is the name of the game in the current trend of bento lunch making: Food is often shaped into animals, flowers, or cartoon characters, though the adorable feast sometimes take longer to prepare than to scarf down. Here we’ve rounded up 33 bento ideas (sans cartoon faces) for kid-friendly, healthy lunches that could also easily fit in at the office.
Time to get lunchin' - Creative lunches on the go
1. Naked Black Bean Burgers Ditch the bun in favor of this healthy burger in a box with all the fixings. These mini black bean patties are swirled with one of our favorite condiments (Sriracha hot sauce). Serve ‘em up on top of a pile of lettuce, avocado, peppers, cukes, and an individual gluten-free brownie on the side for dessert.
2. Sushi Sandwiches Sushi doesn’t always have to be all seaweed and raw fish. These dainty (and super mature) finger sandwiches make tuna salad classy. Well, kind of. To get the sushi effect, flatten two slices of bread, fill it with canned tuna fish and julienned carrots and cucumbers, roll it, then slice into individual bites.
3. Summer Squash Sauté The main feature of this box — summer squash sauté — highlights summer produce including zucchini, squash, basil, and tomatoes. This is a perfect dish to whip up in the Crock-Pot then freeze for future lunch portions.
4. Ham Sammie This simple bento is primarily sandwich, though we have to applaud the presentation. This meal is as easy as layering ham, cheese, and lettuce between two slices of whole-wheat bread, and filling the remaining space in the box with a couple of veggies and a low-calorie wedge of cheese (such as Laughing Cow).
5. Paleo Breakfast Bento This paleo-friendly combo takes nearly no manpower. Simply combine one hard-boiled egg, a handful of almonds (such as these cocoa dusted ones!), a few chunks of beef jerky, and a ton of berries. When purchasing jerky, stick to organic brands without preservatives or nitrates for a healthier version (or try making your own).
6. Bean and Rice Wrap Whole-wheat tortillas make for a perfect bento stuffer. This one is jam-packed with black beans, rice, spinach, cilantro, and cheddar for a fiber-filled, budget-friendly main meal. We have to admit, the artsy veggie chopping looks pretty ambitious — we won’t judge if you leave the pairing knife in the drawer.
7. Salmon Salad and Sweet Potato Opt for the grown-up version of tuna salad with this sweet and savory salmon version studded with dried cranberries. This bento features separate compartments of vitamin C-packed sweet potato and broccoli. The fourth compartment — a wrap filled only with a pickle — is a little strange, but we don’t hate it!
8. Homemade Taco Cups Much like the ingenuity of the salad bar bento, the taco cup bento is a fun make-your-own lunch idea (plus it keeps crispy taco shells from getting soggy). Stuff each container with standard taco fixins — shredded lettuce, tomato, shredded cheese, guac, and anything else you fancy. Use multigrain scoop-style tortilla chips as shells, or make your own version by cutting out rounds of a whole-wheat tortilla and baking them in a mini muffin tin.
9. Soy-Lime Tofu and Rice Turn tofu into a tasty treat with soy sauce and fresh limejuice. The other compartments are simple: strawberries, orange slices, and steamed sugar snap peas. Rice balls make eating the heart-healthy grain a cinch for lunch on the go.
10. Raw Veggie Roll-Ups The grown-up sandwich returns! These sushi look-alikes use whole-wheat lavash as the base (tortillas would work too) and hold avocado, spinach, carrots, and cucumber in the middle. Recommendation: Go easy on the balsamic vinegar (or use a thicker condiment, such as mustard instead) so the bread doesn’t become soggy by noon.
11. Caprese This bento is less about compartmentalizing different food groups than it is about beautiful presentation. The classic caprese — tomato, mozzarella, and basil — is layered in columns for a multicolor bento that makes a perfect snack or appetizer. For a more substantive meal, feel free to layer in thinly-sliced chicken or turkey.
12. Pizza Wheels These mini wraps pay homage to pizza, but they look more appetizing than a cold slice wrapped in foil (plus, there’s no reheating required!). On the side, pack colorful veggies with dressing to dip.
13. Sweet Potato Latkes These potato latkes are a fresh variation of the Chanukah favorite. Instead of regular old russets, the recipe calls for sweet potato (or orange yam), known for high levels of potassium. Make a double batch ahead and freeze the leftovers for future bento boxes.
14. Salmon and Marinated Shrimp Salad For a full on omega-3 fix, this bento is ideal. Marinate cooked shrimp overnight in an onion, garlic, oregano, and olive oil mixture. Toss smoked salmon on top in the morning, and the meal’s done! A bed of salad greens adds a little color (and, well, good-for-you stuff including vitamins A, C, K, and folate).
15. Turkey Rollups, Fruit, and Slaw This snacky bento box is like a healthified lunchables (ya know, minus the gross rounds of “deli meat”). Rolls of cracked-pepper turkey and cubes of cheddar make up the main compartment, while sliced peaches and a handful of cherries fill two more. The last container holds an easy slaw of carrots, scallions, and cabbage.
16. Penne Ricotta This meatless bento spotlights a veggie-packed summer pasta salad with carrots,asparagus, green beans, snow peas, and a light ricotta dressing. For a more filling lunch, feel free to add beans, lentils, or another protein of your choice.
18. Falafel Wrap Falafel, small balls or patties usually made from ground chickpeas, tend to take a bath in the deep fryer (meaning a potential healthy food becomes not-so-healthy in a flash). Instead, bake the fiber-filled morsels. Pair the falafel, in a wrap or on its own, with hummus, tahini (sesame seed paste), and sliced veggies.
19. Apricot-Pecan Penne Penne trades tomato sauce for a tangy, sweet apricot, feta, and pecan mixture. This bento shows how leftovers make for the perfect bento main dish. For sides, try deviled eggs, snow peas, and grapes.
20. Baked Tofu and Potato Salad Skewers are a great bento accessory. They make eating easier while also keeping the tofu contained to one section of the box without a partition. The potato salad is incredibly simple with just four ingredients: potatoes, pepper, pickles, and chipotle mayo. For a healthier potato salad, we like adding plain Greek yogurt in place of mayo.
21. Peanut Butter and Banana Roll-Ups This fruit-focused bento includes bananas, blueberries, grapes, kiwi, and carrots for good measure. Representing one of the most delicious combinations ever, tiny whole-wheat wraps are stuffed with banana and peanut butter. Sorry, Elvis, no bacon here.
For all 34 healty and eye-catching bento box lunches, go to Greatist.com.