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Guide to choosing the right size bento box

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So you ordered a bento box online, it arrives and you're shocked at how tiny it is. People try to tell you to just eat less, but you have a sneaking suspicion that you may have accidentally bought a bento box sized for a 2-year-old instead of an adult. Here's how to tell: check the box's total capacity against the gender/age/height guidelines in the table below (I translated them from a popular Japanese website that's been getting a lot of media exposure in Japan -- they're based on official Japanese nutritional guidelines).

In Japan, bento box size is described not by its dimensions (inches or centimeters), but instead by its volume or capacity (in milliliters -- ml).  Why? Because a rule of thumb in Japan is that when you pack a bento box normally (A: 3 parts grain dishes, 1 part protein dishes, 2 parts vegetable dishes; B: without candy, junk food or fatty food; and C: without empty space), calories correspond directly to capacity. So a 600ml box should hold a 600-calorie meal.

Capacity (容量) is usually written on the bento box package and also often on the bottom of the bento box in raised plastic. If you're not sure of your box's capacity, you can measure it yourself by filling the box with water, pouring the water into a liquid measuring cup and checking the milliliters (ml) or ccs there. Most, if not all, Japanese eBay sellers should be able to tell you the size of a box in ml if asked. (Edited to add: 240ml = 1 cup American)

Here's a quick height conversion chart in case you don't know your height in centimeters.

Women: Bento Box Size Guide*
Age (Women)Avg. height (in cm)Calories per meal (kCal)Bento Box Size (in ml)
* Source: http://item.rakuten.co.jp/yellowstudio/c/0000000352/

Men: Bento Box Size Guide*
Age (Men)
Avg. height (in cm)
Calories per meal (kcal)

Bento Box Size (in ml)
* Source: http://item.rakuten.co.jp/yellowstudio/c/0000000352/

Step 2: Adjust for your level of physical activity and height *

Physical activity:
Level 1:  Low (spend most of your time sitting or quiet)
Level 2:  Moderate
Level 3:  High (lots of exercise, sports, etc.)

Adjust the size of the bento box for your height and physical activity:

Add 100ml to your bento box size for:
  • Taller than average height
  • High physical activity (Level 3) 
Subtract 100ml from your bento box size for:
  • Shorter than average height
  • Low physical activity (Level 1)
* Source: http://item.rakuten.co.jp/yellowstudio/c/0000000352/

I'm not sure how much to adjust if, for example, you're both taller than average and have high physical activity (add 100ml or 200ml?), but it's something to start with. If you're dieting, you might want to choose a smaller box, but these are the general Japanese guidelines for packing dense food (i.e. rice or pasta, veggies and a protein). Bulky foods like sandwiches or salads would require larger boxes than the chart above.

The Japanese Food Guide Spinning Top defines the following food groups:

CategoryCooking Category(Ideal Japanese Bento Makeup)
Grain dishes Dishes that mainly include rice, bread, noodles and pasta (carbohydrate sources)3 parts
Vegetable dishesDishes that mainly include vegetables, potatoes, beans (excl. soy beans), mushrooms and seaweeds (various vitamins, minerals and fiber sources) 2 parts
Fish and Meat dishesDishes mainly include meat, fish, eggs, soy beans and soybean products (protein sources)1 part
MilkMilk, yogurt and cheese (calcium sources) (occasional)
FruitsFruits and fruit-like vegetables (Vitamin C and potassium sources)(occasional)
Source: What is Shokuiku (Food Education)?

BTW, if you get excited about the bento boxes at the Yellow Studio website linked from the charts above, be aware that they won't ship outside Japan.

If you'd like to vote for this blog in the Blogger's Choice Awards (nominated for Best Food Blog), click here (you can vote for multiple blogs in the same category). Thank you for your support!


( 42 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 7th, 2007 02:52 pm (UTC)
Great Tip
This is a really helpful tip.
I have not gotten around doing the bento-box yet, but I know this, once I do, I will have a lot of helpful tips laying around thanks to you.

I have a question, being a Chef myself.
I noticed you pre-make many of the components that make your meal.
The white rice, does it lose flavor due to freezing? How hard it is to heat back up and not get clumpy? Or does everything taste as good as it looks?

I am very curious to know..
Mar. 7th, 2007 10:26 pm (UTC)
Re: Great Tip
Welcome! With the white rice, I use short- and medium-grain rice that is meant to be eaten sticky/clumpy, so that's not a big issue for me. When I freeze fried rice or long-grain fluffy rice, it comes back to life fine (without clumpiness). The important things are to freeze warm, fresh rice (like out of the rice cooker within 30 minutes of it being done), wrap it tightly before freezing so that it can retain its moisture, and before eating to heat in the microwave until warm. You also wouldn't want to keep it in the freezer for months on end, in case it develops freezer burn. Cycling through your bento freezer stash every 3 weeks or so helps with that.

I'd say any time you eat room-temperature rice you're taking a hit on flavor, and frozen/nuked rice is no exception (which is why those little bento kits with insulated food jars just for the rice are becoming popular in Japan). Of course fresh rice is going to taste best, but I find the pre-frozen & nuked rice acceptable for bentos (and it gives me more flexibility for lunch as I only make rice every 10 days or so). Hope this helps -- I welcome your comments/suggestions!
Mar. 7th, 2007 03:09 pm (UTC)
Wow, that's very cool. Thanks for taking the time to translate and post it.
Mar. 7th, 2007 10:12 pm (UTC)
My pleasure -- it's been on my mind for a while now.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 7th, 2007 10:05 pm (UTC)
Yes, it helps you get a handle on bento box sizes -- I'm lost without capacity in ml.
Mar. 7th, 2007 05:32 pm (UTC)
Wow. At 178 cm, I am -way- taller than the average Japanese woman, and still have a bit on men as well...

Thanks for this!
Mar. 7th, 2007 09:09 pm (UTC)
Me too. Eheh...

Anyway, very interesting stuff.
Mar. 7th, 2007 10:04 pm (UTC)
Yup, I'm 177cm, so I'm with you! It was always fun wearing 3-inch heels to work in Japan. :-)
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 7th, 2007 09:58 pm (UTC)
The Japanese Food Guide Spinning Top and the Shokuiku Law (passed in 2005) are an official government thing (not a company advertising thing) -- take a look at the Shokuiku link above.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 8th, 2007 01:53 am (UTC)
Excellent -- I'm so glad that helped.
Mar. 8th, 2007 12:47 am (UTC)
XD WOW... Im average height... somewhere in the world!

But seriously... I read your post early this morning and I couldnt help but think of how helpful and informative it was. Like sprater said before me... I used to think my obento boxes were small, :X but after having learned that the ml roughly equal the calories they seem so huge. >_> Now I also realize why my boyfriend complains that bento arent enough food... XD because according to that chart, he needs a box about double the size of mine! =^.^= Shopping time it is!
Mar. 8th, 2007 01:53 am (UTC)
Ooh, enjoy your bento shopping! Happy to give people a rationalization for getting more bento boxes!
Mar. 8th, 2007 09:59 am (UTC)
Bento size
Hello Biggie - so glad that your Flickr friends made this link - your first entry made me laugh, cos it was EXACTLY what I thought - bought online, thought it was for a 2 year old...ha ha...but this has been very interesting, and I'm now going to check out more of your wonderful tutorials and your pics on Flickr - Thank you very much - Best wishes from Cesca in Berlin (aka Bowhaus)
Mar. 8th, 2007 10:25 pm (UTC)
Re: Bento size
I'm glad it hit the mark! I suspected that was happening, looking at some of the pictures...
Mar. 8th, 2007 04:05 pm (UTC)
Thanks for translating! That was really helpful in answering the whole "how big should the box be?" question!
Mar. 8th, 2007 09:51 pm (UTC)
Hooray! My job here is done! ;-)
Mar. 8th, 2007 07:29 pm (UTC)
So informative!
I'm loving the Spinning Top diagram. The charts are really easy to understand, using familiar japanese dishes! I love that their number 1 guideline is to "enjoy eating". So much of the Shokuiku program is wonderful, from educating your kids about farming and fishing...and teaching them how to prepare meals...I love the holistic approach, getting corporations and communities involved with food education! great stuff. thank you for sharing that.
Also, I'm loving all the bento size guide chart! I was using a bento box too big for my daughter. I notice if I put a itty bitty piece of something, she'll eat it. Rather than a big pile.
Mar. 8th, 2007 09:59 pm (UTC)
Re: So informative!
Thanks, Julie! I'm intrigued by Shokuiku as well, especially getting kids involved.

My son also eats better if I serve him small portions from little plates, bowls or bento boxes. I was doing some reading on this and evidently it's common for that age group -- huge servings overwhelm them.
Mar. 12th, 2007 11:33 am (UTC)
Thank you so much for this post. I plan to buy online one day but I never would have understood what was going on if I hadn't read this post.
Mar. 14th, 2007 10:15 pm (UTC)
Glad it helped -- it's never good to be unpleasantly surprised after you've shelled out good money online for something.
Mar. 21st, 2007 03:52 am (UTC)
Thanks for posting these, they are interesting. I can't apply the rules for myself, but they are nice to know. My bentos are 800ml but I pack mostly veggies. I pack at least 1/2 vegetables, then at least 1/4 protein, and then carbs if I have room left.

Why are other "dry" type beans not counted as proteins? It seems to me that they should be. I count those type beans as proteins, although of course they are also high in carbs. I count hard cheeses as protein also unless they are used as garnish.
Mar. 21st, 2007 11:14 pm (UTC)
I don't necessarily stick to the guidelines either, but I find them interesting to know (as just that -- guidelines). I'm not sure why all of the items are categorized exactly the way they are by the Japanese government; you may as well count them however you like for your own dietary purposes, right?
Mar. 22nd, 2007 04:46 am (UTC)
I agree, I find them interesting too :) You are such a great resource.
Mar. 30th, 2007 12:18 pm (UTC)
great info!
I'm trying hard to bring my own lunches to school since the bento I can order at school are kinda spendy (and often include things I can't eat cause of food sensitivities) and I've gotten into a rut with what I eat at the cafeteria. I have a cute pink bento box I found at a store but have received a few comments from other staff and students that it's too small. (I work/live in Japan, also got my B.A. majoring in Japanese ^^)

Having no background for judging the size of bento boxes, your info here is sooooooooooooo helpful! I just tested my box and its around 500 ml. I don't pack it full on the bottom either. I think tomorrow would be a great day to get out and find a slightly larger box and avoid the many "are you eating enough? are you eating properly" questions.

I'm so glad I stumbled upon your lj. I look forward to reading more of your hints and tips. ^_^
Mar. 30th, 2007 04:23 pm (UTC)
Re: great info!
Oh boy, your comments brought back memories! It's nice that everyone's concerned, but sometimes I wished they'd just give me a good reliable resource to use to solve the problem myself instead of chiming in with opinions I wasn't sure if I should trust or not.
Apr. 15th, 2007 05:12 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for this!! While I've been drooling over bento photos/blogs for quite awhile I've only started looking to buy a bento box within the last few days. And looking through auctions on eBay I was struck with a near constant sense of, "Uhhhhhhh...??" I had absolutely NO idea what I should be looking for! Thank you again!!
Apr. 27th, 2007 01:22 am (UTC)
Well, the eBay sellers haven't necessarily caught on yet that their buying public needs to know box capacity in ml, but at least now we know what question to ask to get a meaningful answer! More business will go to eBay sellers who can give us good info.
Apr. 26th, 2007 04:41 pm (UTC)
Thank you for all of your beautiful photos. I admire all your work, too!

My son is starting preschool in September and I thought I had until then to get started, but it turns out he needs to begin taking his lunches to daycare now (starting today!) because he doesn't like the food they serve there and his teacher is worried about him not eating. I've always felt that bento was the way to go and I gave it my first shot this morning.

All of this info and your posts will serve as definite inspiration and a handy resource.
Apr. 27th, 2007 01:31 am (UTC)
Ack, starting TODAY!?!? Serious panic time -- I'm glad you're here. Preschool bentos are some of the most challenging bentos to pack because of our kids aren't yet skillful with utensils (and can be picky eaters but aren't yet able to articulate their "rules"). My children's bento books have a few suggestions (off the top of my head): think finger food, don't over-pack food as that overwhelms children, cut things into bite-size pieces for easy eating, include picks and little spoons/forks to facilitate eating, don't see lunch as an opportunity to totally educate their palate with things they don't like -- just do that occasionally with one thing, and think about the *fun* aspect (dipping, little characters, etc.). They also recommend practicing together with your child beforehand -- how to unpack/open the bento equipment, and how to pack/close it all back up. Make sure they're capable of all of the latches (many preschoolers start with boxes without the flap/snap wings as they're easier to open). If you're using a bento box with the flap/snap wings on the sides, be sure to *thoroughly cool* all of the food you're packing inside before closing it up. Not doing so will create a vacuum in the box, and make it difficult/impossible for your preschooler to open without the teacher's help (and some kids are embarassed to ask for help).

Sorry about the unorganized brain dump, but you've got a bento emergency!!!
Apr. 29th, 2007 01:18 pm (UTC)
THANKS for the advice. I packed him some grilled chicken breast slices, we had left over from dinner, apple slices, carrot sticks, black olives and some muenster cheese. And in two other smalls containers, some hummus and some blackberries.

Yesterday, I went to Mitsuwa and bought him a child-size bento so tomorow's lunch should be much more compact and organized. I've also been eyeballing little condiment bottles on eBay.

I'll definitely be getting loads of inspiration from your toddler lunches. ;)

Apr. 29th, 2007 03:43 pm (UTC)
Glad to hear back from you! With my toddler lunches, just remember that I still eat with him (he's not in preschool yet), so I help him with eating & utensils when he needs it. This fall when he goes to preschool I'll be focusing on foods he can eat all by himself without assistance.
May. 1st, 2007 01:08 am (UTC)
I just joined your Kids Eat flickr group! I am loving your LJ, btw. Thanks again for all your hard work and wisdom! :D
May. 2nd, 2007 01:18 am (UTC)
^_^ mr bento?
I am curious if you have any idea how many ML/Calories a full Mr. Bento would be?
I've been trying to find this out...
I am on a 1,300 calorie diet.. and I am used to eating only a banana for my breakfast and lunch combined... but I wasn't able to resist the beauty and appeal of bento , so I have since then gotten a Mr. Bento for me and my fiance .. and I am imagining that I'm eating wayyy over my calorie allotment right now >_< lol
please help if you can? :D
May. 2nd, 2007 01:30 am (UTC)
Re: ^_^ mr bento?
A Mr. Bento (or Nissan Stainless thermal lunch tote) is 1230ml total capacity: 450ml (rice), 300ml (side), 200ml (side), and 280ml soup container. If you pack it with loose, bulky food like salad, breads or soups, however, the calorie count will come down from 1:1. It's a little too big for me for a single meal, but my husband likes it especially when one of the tiers is packed with a snack. Maybe the smaller Ms. Bento would be a better size for you?
May. 5th, 2007 07:05 am (UTC)
I was thinking of this post when I sent a note to the owner of the eBay shop 'Japan Souvenir' and got this reply:
Tha manufacturers do not display the milli-liters hence our omission. But your proposal is well noted. Thank you.
May. 6th, 2007 06:34 am (UTC)
Well, I *have* seen some Japanese bento boxes where capacity isn't marked on the box (although it's usually on the package then -- Bug's little Thomas the Tank Engine box was like that), but most are. It'll be telling to see if they start listing ml for boxes other than the one you asked about. Seriously, that's the key bit of data.
May. 6th, 2007 06:42 am (UTC)
I've got that rust-red square usagi box, and I'm pretty sure the volume isn't marked on that one, either on the sticker or molded into the plastic — I had to measure it (and yes, it's bigger than it looks! 550ml, to my surprise).

And I agree, it'll be interesting to see if that vendor starts adding that information. :)
May. 8th, 2007 04:46 am (UTC)
Got Nagomi, Inc. ^_^
...Regarding your advice on the bento's description,thank you so much.We really appreciate it.We will revise our bento's description one by one....
I just got some items from him and when it wasn't embossed on the box, the volume was noted on an enclosure or the packaging.
May. 8th, 2007 05:02 am (UTC)
Very responsive! Smart seller.
May. 29th, 2007 04:58 am (UTC)
Thanks for your website. I stumbled upon your website via Wikipedia, and I am glad that I did. However, the link here on your website to JBOX.com gives sizes in grams and I was wondering what the equivalents are to ml - measurements? Thanks for your help :)
May. 29th, 2007 05:34 am (UTC)
Oh wow, I had no idea that this site was on Wiki! Cool.

I do have a bit of a beef with bento box sellers who don't provide box capacity in ml -- JBOX.com is not exception, unfortunately. They provide the weight of the box in grams for calculating shipping, but only give dimensions for the boxes themselves. I'd suggest e-mailing them and asking about the ml capacity of any box you're interested in -- eventually they should get the hint and start providing the info up front.
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