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Healthy Lunch Hacks: Build-Your-Own Bento

By: Caroline Murphy Kinzey, MS, RDN, LD

Anyone else feeling like they are fresh out of lunch ideas – or getting tired of another turkey sandwich on-the-fly? If your answer is yes like mine, I have a “lunchtime lifesaver” to share that's been keeping me afloat this week.

Lunch has always been a bit of a challenge for me because I don’t typically crave traditional lunch foods, so leftovers from dinner end up being my main go-to.

Although this worked for a while, I was becoming tired of the repetition and searched for some new options. This is when I discovered the “bento box” concept (aka the lunchtime lifesaver). The idea is that you basically get to combine all of your favorite finger-friendly foods into organized little compartments**, but in a way that doesn’t make you feel like you are back in elementary school.

Here's what I love about “building your own” bento box:

1) You get to include your personal favorite “snack” foods, while also building a nutritionally balanced meal!

2) You can be creative with food and flavor combinations that you may not typically pair together.

3) There is minimal prep time involved – so lunch is ready to go in about 5 minutes!

**Important note: you can still “build a bento” without an actual bento box – the compartments just make it easy to arrange your food items, especially if you are taking it to go! But . . . #stayathome, folks. Since most of us are trying to quarantine as best as possible, building a “snack plate” works just as well!

Bento Basics

If this a new concept to you, check out our bento basics template from dietitian Alissa Palladino's Easy Lunch Ideas as a reference guide for picking foods from the key categories (Veggies, Protein, Fiber-Rich Carbs, Healthy Fat).  As always, these are just suggestions – so be sure to customize based on you and your family’s food preferences.

The goal is to include foods from each category to fuel your body and keep your taste buds satisfied, while also saving time and hopefully reducing some stress around lunchtime!

My (Current) Bento Picks

Bento Box #1: Turkey Roll-up Box

Key Components:

  • Avocado (healthy fat) & cucumber (veggie) & turkey (protein) roll-ups
  • Grapes (fiber-rich carb)
  • Dried apricots (fiber-rich carb) & walnuts (healthy fat + additional protein)
  • Chickpea puffs (fiber-rich carb + additional protein)

Why it Works: 

Okay I admit this may seem like an odd combination at first glance, but hear me out!

I have tried different variations of turkey roll-ups and could never get it quite right – until I realized it was missing a “crunch.” So this is where the cucumber idea came in! Including the avocado made it more satisfying and filling, and I added a pinch of salt and pepper to enhance the flavor a bit.

If you are a sauce person or need an extra "zing," try dipping these roll-ups in your favorite mustard variation (i.e. Dijon, yellow, spicy) or other sauces that spark your interest.

The turkey roll-ups are packed with protein, healthy fats, and fiber. I was craving a combination of sweet and savory foods; so for sides, I decided to go with grapes, a few dried apricots paired with a handful of walnuts (a delish combo!), and last but not least, chickpea puffs, one of my favorite crunch-worthy snacks.  Not only are chickpea puffs delicious, they also have a good amount of protein and fiber for a packaged & chip-like snack!

Bento Box #2: Tuna Salad Box

Key Components:

  • Tuna salad [mayo, red onion, celery, salt & pepper] (protein + veggies)
  • Crackers (fiber-rich carbs) - To boost the fiber content, look for crackers with whole grain/wheat as the first ingredient on the ingredient list.
  • Veggie dippers [celery, carrots, tomatoes] (veggies!)
  • Apple slices with peanut cashew butter (fiber-rich carbs + healthy fats & protein)

Why it Works:

This bento is worth the few extra minutes it takes to prepare the tuna salad!

Keep things simple and quick with your tuna salad prep: my personal go-tos include a little mayo, a touch of salt and pepper to taste, and chopped celery and red onion, which are my favorite texture & flavor-enhancing additions (pick whatever you like best for your version!).

On this particular afternoon, I paired the tuna salad with crackers and veggies for an added crunch, fiber boost, and flavor!

If you happen to be wondering how the apple & nut butter fit into this story, I was in need of something to satisfy my sweet tooth.  While this may not be the obvious choice (to anyone else besides me), the granny smith apple slices and peanut cashew butter did just that!

Bento Snack Plate (Meal): Hummus Power Plate

Key Components:

  • Hummus (healthy fats)
  • Crackers (fiber-rich carbs)
  • Strawberries (fiber-rich carbs)
  • Hard-boiled eggs (protein)
  • Salad greens with goat cheese & olive oil drizzled on top (veggies & healthy fats)

Why it Works:

Although it may not look like it (i.e. no meat!) – this plate is powered with  about 18g of protein! A snack plate is similar to a bento box where you can include your favorite finger-food combos. Depending on the foods you select, your final plate may look a whole lot like a “traditional plate," but the idea is still to use foods with minimal preparation, provide a balance of nutrients, and most importantly, taste good together!

With this particular plate, the eggs are the only item that required cooking (and by cooking I mean the very minimal effort it takes to boil eggs!). I like to do this sort of thing ahead of time by boiling a bunch of eggs in the beginning of the week, but even if you do it on-the-fly, it only takes about 10-15 minutes.  If hard-boiled eggs aren't your thing, try subbing in leftover proteins from dinner the night before like sliced grilled chicken, experiment with chopping up slices of turkey or ham, or keep it plant-based with some chickpeas, nuts, and seeds!

To add more fiber and nutrient diversity (i.e. the more colors on your plate, the greater variety of nutrients), load up on additional veggies.  Ideally, I would have liked to top the salad with cherry tomatoes and add carrots for hummus dipping – but hello, we are in the middle of a quarantine and my inventory was running sparse this day. These days we're using what we have, and we're making it nice!

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Hopefully this goes without saying, but please know that there is no such thing as a “perfect” plate (or bento box!). Each one of us has different food preferences, health histories, levels of food access, and budgets – so not only is it nearly impossible for our plates to look exactly the same, the likelihood we'd all choose or enjoy the exact same meal is pretty low.

The ideas and examples included here are just a stepping stone to spark your own personalized bento box or snack plate – and to help us all start re-imagining our lunchtimes!

As one final note:

Even though I'm a dietitian and could talk all day about nutrition advice (a fun quarantine dynamic for my spouse, I assure you), I specifically didn’t mention calories or portion sizes in the tips here.

Focus instead on the importance of incorporating a variety of foods into your meal (i.e. protein, carbs, healthy fats, and veggies) so that you can give your body nourishment and the fuel it needs to get through the day.  When you include foods you truly enjoy and crave in the variety on your plate, it helps keep you full AND satisfied both physically and emotionally.

Our bodies are smarter than we think – and they do a pretty good job of telling us things, we just have to take the time to actually tune in and listen.

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