These Japanese-inspired containers make it easy to pack a variety of foods into one meal. Which one was our favorite?
Published Jan. 1, 2019.
Bento-style lunchboxes are compartmentalized containers inspired by the Japanese bento, a single-serving, portable, boxed meal that according to some sources dates back to the 12th century. In Japan, a traditional bento box commonly contained rice, pickled vegetables, and fish or meat, but today they often include a wide variety of foods—sometimes shaped and arranged to resemble cartoon characters, flowers, animals, or other objects.
But no matter the composition of your meal, a multicompartment, fairly compact container can be convenient. To find out which bento-style lunchbox is best, we selected six widely available models ranging in size, all under $40.00. Four had individual containers that stacked vertically; three of these were held together with an elastic band, while one had latches. The other two models were essentially large containers with dividers inside and either a simple lift-off lid or latches that snapped shut. We included lunchboxes made of both metal and plastic, and because we wanted a product that anyone could use, we excluded those designed specifically for kids.
To test the lunchboxes, we measured capacity—we didn't want to be left hungry after lunch—and checked whether any leaked. We filled them with both smelly and stain-inducing foods to see if any models retained odors or stained easily, and we opened and closed them multiple times to determine whether doing so was easy or not. We also dropped each model a few times, repeatedly washed each one, and asked colleagues to use the boxes for one week to find out how they fared in the real world with real lunches.
All the bento-style lunchboxes were easy to clean and satisfactorily resistant to stains and odors. They all also held up well to repeated dishwasher cycles. But there were key differences in size, ease of use, and leakage that determined our rankings.
The models in our lineup ranged in capacity from 3⅔ to 8 cups. Inside each one, we attempted to fit a reasonably sized lunch that, in the tradition of these containers, included a variety of foods: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, five broccoli florets, six baby carrots, 10 grapes, 12 almonds, and two dark chocolate squares. We also shook them with the lunch inside to see if the food shifted substantially.
All the lunchboxes accommodated a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with no squishing necessary—although some did so with nary a millimeter to spare. But three containers were too small to fit all the additional snacks. The smallest model forced us to leave out the most food: Nearly all the grapes, a carrot, and a couple of broccoli florets...
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