THE ROOTS & BEAUTY OF THE BENTO BOX
With its roots in 5th century China and Japan during the Edo Period (1603-1868), the bento box has since transcended cultural boundaries to spark the imagination of eaters everywhere, to make visually appealing convenience a no-brainer, and to produce positive environmental impacts. In ancient China, the concept of “bei” or “biàndāng” was used to refer to a portable meal for travelers. And in its earliest iteration, bento boxes included pickled vegetables and rice wrapped in cloth or bamboo leaves.
According to Emiko Davies, author of the forthcoming book of Japanese home cooking, Gohan, the Japanese version that followed consisted of bamboo pouches carried around the waist. To the Japanese warriors during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) who brought bentos into further popularity, the boxes were known as “jūbako” and had multiple dividers built into intricately designed lacquerware containers. Looking inside one’s jūbako could tell you a lot about the person carrying it: the regional dishes of the samurai’s hometown and their social status being chief among them.
The Edo Period ushered in the democratization of the bento box among more common folks. The bento’s expanded ingredients and simplified design—now more often made of wood or bamboo—made the choice of carrying meals to one’s destination both more affordable and convenient. In the 1920s, the introduction of more durable metal lunch boxes coincided with the rise of “kyaraben”. These “character bento” were elaborate, colorful artistic expressions inspired by popular anime characters and other creative themes. Many of the Pinterest-perfect bento boxes we see displayed on the Internet today (especially those made for kids) are recent iterations of this uniquely curated midday cuisine.
Basic Bento Box Benefits
- Holistic meals
Advanced Bento Box Benefits
- Visual cues signal “appropriate” servings of each food group
- Helps prevent overeating
- Balanced nutrition
- Wholesome, nourishing meal
- Variety of food items - lean proteins, whole grains, colorful vegetables, healthy fats
- Visually appealing mindful eating
- Enhance enjoyment
- Cultivate mindfulness
- Attune yourself to the body’s hunger + fullness cues
- Improve your relationship with food
- Sustainable living
- Reduces plastic waste, minimize ecological footprint
- Reduces food waste
When preparing a bento box lunch, here are three key points to consider, according to NYT food columnist J. Kenji López-Alt:
Keep it simple and fun.
Serve deconstructed foods.
Plan ahead (but not too far ahead to keep it fresh).
Chef J. Kenji López-Alt also advises to first focus on the colors going into the box. Start with “a starchy main compartment with a colorful selection of mainly leftovers and raw ingredients filling out the side”, he says, emphasizing that this works just as well for non-Japanese recipes, too. The father and bestselling cookbook author says a do-it-yourself element makes it engaging, independence-building, and exciting for kids. But, while meal planning might start the night before (or even one week ahead for the most ambitious among us), López-Alt cautions that food looks and tastes best when packed in the morning.
In a 2019 Time magazine article the Kickstarter co-founder and author Yancey Strickler wrote: “The original bento box honors a Japanese eating philosophy called hara hachi bu, which says the goal of a meal is to be 80% full. That way you’re still hungry for tomorrow. By design, the bento ensures a balanced meal and balanced life.” As we strive for a balanced meal and a balanced life for ourselves and our families, let’s take a look at another ancient practice that has received some recent attention (for better or for worse): food combining. While modern interpretations may lack the spiritual and energetic foundations of its roots in Ayurvedic, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Taoist and other long standing traditions, there are certainly elements that can be mindfully adapted to making healthy, immunity-boosting bentos.
Various forms of trophology, also known as the science of food combining, have actually been around for hundreds of years, as it was first practiced in India, in Taoist health traditions, and in many other medicinal systems. What has come to be “sold” to the masses of contemporary eaters as “food combining” is based on the idea that when specific types of foods are not consumed alongside others, the body can function most optimally. Put simply, the theory posits that digesting different macronutrients is dependent on varying enzymes and pH levels, therefore avoiding certain combinations of food is one way to prevent poor health outcomes.
In a recent academic paper, scholars argued that traditional Indian dietary practices (like food combining) may support pediatric diabetes management. Citing a report of an excavation in northwestern India, the writers highlighted how the 4,000-year-old Harappan civilization’s sophisticated understanding of balanced nutritional composition was reflected in their ancient culture’s preparation of multigrain, high-protein ladoo. These handmade sweet balls were (and continue to be today in many regions) made of wheat, barley, chickpea, and oilseeds. “Over the centuries, with travel and migration, ‘foreign’ plants and ingredients were assimilated into local Indian cuisines,” explained the scholars.
Considering that the “Plate Method”, practiced for centuries as “Thali” (meaning plate in many Indian languages), is a very similar concept to the bento box, we can see how varying textures, flavor and food groups presented in a portion-controlled and visually pleasing manner have led to better health outcomes in many societies. Specifically, the researchers underscored how the Indian Thali aligns with the ISPAD 2018 recommendations that “children and adolescents with diabetes should eat a variety of healthy foods, including fruits, vegetables, dairy, whole grains, legumes and lean meat in amounts appropriate for age, stage of growth and energy requirements.”
In another nationwide study conducted among over 2,000 Japanese adults between the ages of 19 and 80, the most commonly consumed food combinations for all main meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) involved “rice, total vegetables, and tea and coffee”. In general, the study showed there was a positive association between food combinations and the quality of the overall diet of participants. Because of evidence that Japanese dietary habits are believed to contribute to a lower prevalence of coronary artery disease and longer life expectancy, deeper investigations have drawn increased fascination from the rest of the world. And with the recent release of a new Netflix series titled “Live to 100”, Japan and other famed “Blue Zones” (said to be home to the world’s healthiest people who have unlocked the secrets of longevity) continue to attract global interest and attention.
What Experts Say
“Contrary to what the 'food combining' advocates might think, eating different foods and macronutrients at the same time is actually much more healthful than eating them in isolation,” says Dr. Ali Webster, the Associate Director of Nutrition Communications at the International Food Information Council Foundation. High-carb foods like fruits, when eaten alone, can cause blood sugar levels to spike then fall rapidly, which can negatively impact our health. However, if your meal or snack includes a combination of carbohydrates, protein and fiber, glucose absorption is slowed, which helps to ensure that blood sugar levels don’t spike as high as they would if you’re eating carbs by themselves.
Because the “food combining diet” as many trends market it today forbids carb and protein combining, requiring that fruits be eaten alone, for example, registered dietitian Willow Jarosh reminds people that “many health experts suggest eating protein with carbohydrates to stabilize blood sugar and provide satiation. This diet promotes distrust of our bodies and foods, and overly complicates eating.” Dr. Webster and Ms. Jarosh aren’t alone in their criticisms of food combining. But, there’s strong scientific research that suggests this fad diet may just be overreaching in its attempt to distill Ayurvedic and other ancient medicinal wisdom into something that’s trying to help us “digest” how to eat better.
Food Combinations That DO Work (According to Science)
Despite the confusion and passionate debates surrounding food combining—which could actually just be a result of trying to mix-and-match ancient food pairing wisdom rather than zeroing in on local, seasonal, and fresh whole foods—nutrition science has demonstrated that some food combinations are both synergetic and offer promising health benefits. Here are a few that have some evidence-backed proof:
Turmeric + Black Pepper
- High rates of turmeric consumption in India are believed to be one of the reasons that the age-adjusted rate of Alzheimer’s disease is significantly lower in India than the U.S.
- Turmeric’s active ingredient (curcumin) is rapidly metabolized in the liver; therefore, combining it with black pepper (the piperine in it gets to work) helps block the pathways that would clear curcumin from the body. Hence, the magic of golden milks!
- Here’s a simply fascinating formula: piperine + curcumin = 20x increase in blood levels.
- Vegetables + Healthy Fats
- Think: olive oil + salads and other vegetable preparations. When a small amount of fat is added to vegetables, it creates a potent, biologically adaptive formula to increase the absorption of key nutrients: specifically, fat-soluble vitamins.
- Another amazing equation: salad alone = minimal blood levels of lycopene. Salad + healthy fat = those levels increase up to 4x more
- Lemon Juice + Vegetables
- Citrus fruits are vitamin C-rich treasures that help support iron deficiency and the absorption of plant-derived iron sources like lentils, leafy greens, and brown rice.
- Fun fact: yellow peppers are especially vitamin C dense (up to 2x more than green peppers).
- Vitamin D + Calcium
- Though we cannot meet our daily vitamin D requirements solely through our diets, there are some great foods that contain this crucial nutrient. Oily fish, fortified milks, and mushrooms exposed to UV are a few examples.
- When we combine vitamin D and calcium, it can support better teeth and bone health, mood, and energy levels, among many other health concerns.
Are food combining advocates just part of an unsustainable fad diet or offering supportive guidelines? It truly depends on how you define “food combining” and whether or not it’s anchored in a cultural context of people who have been practicing balanced, nutrient-rich, gut-supportive ways of eating for centuries.
Between 2500-500 BC, the science of Ayurveda was developed by Vedic scholars to manage overall health and well-being. The two root words—ayus (life) and veda (knowledge or study)—combined are understood to mean knowledge of life, which the Vedics believed encompassed nutrition, medical science, exercise, immunity-boosting and gut-supportive practices, mental health, the function and flavor of food, and quite a complex set of season-specific wisdom derived from nature. This ancient society was acutely aware of the synergistic role of herbs, spices, and a variety of foods in producing therapeutic effects.
The basic principles in the Ayurvedic diet examine three key digestive functions: (1) the initial digestion process (kedara kulya nyaya), (2) the selectivity of nutrients by tissues (khale hapota nyanya), and (3) how immature tissues are transformed into mature tissues (kshira dadhi nyanya). In the first process, the pitta (fire energy) helps to break food down into nutrients, which are then circulated throughout the body. Next, the different basic tissues “select” specific nutrients for their own nourishment. Lastly, the growth and development of tissues goes through numerous processes through various actions.
In this incredibly meticulous system, for the non-scholars among us, carefully, mindfully, and non-judgmentally implementing even some of this food combining wisdom can improve our quality of digestion and lives. One thing that may be helpful to consider (that’s missing from the “food combining diet” that is more a spinoff idea than a culturally relevant way of eating) is the energetics of our food. Certain combinations of food have long been believed to unduly disturb or overwhelm the digestive tract.
As we introduce a few major categories of foods the Ayurvedic dietary guidelines suggest avoiding, please keep in mind these are not intended to be definitive by any means. The intent here is to offer some insight into common foods and Ayurvedic tools for strengthening our overall wellness. It’s of vital importance to honor your instincts when it comes to food combinations that do and don’t work for your body. In keeping with the Ayurvedic foundations of the primary doshas (vata, pitta, kapha), note that our individual constitutions vary widely. Consider this our invitation to eat more mindfully in general, not a black-and-white blueprint for strictly following without exception.
- Bananas + Milk
- Did you ever consider that bananas are “warming” while milk is “cooling”?
- As bananas break down in our digestive tract, they become sour, which means that if we combine milk with them (or any sour fruits), it may lead to the creation of toxins, congestion, colds, coughs, allergies, rashes, hives, and other digestive issues.
- Nightshades + Cheese
- If the alkaloids contained in this food group are mixed with oily, heavy foods like cheeses, the combination is considered highly taxing for the digestive fire.
- Nightshades is the common name for members of the Solanaceae family of plants, which include bell peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and more than 2,000 other plants.
- Beans + Cheese
- Taken individually, both beans and cheese require their fair share of digestive power.
- The “incompatible” combination of these two food groups stems from their opposing energetics: beans have a pungent post-digestive effect, while cheese has a sour post-digestive effect. This starts to matter once the food(s) move to the colon, where it impacts the tissues in the form of our excretion of toxins, even at the cellular level.
Equipped with this introduction to the power of food combining and the beauty of bento boxes, we encourage you to go slowly and gently as you adjust any habits. A great starting point is actually just developing a greater awareness of what you’re consuming regularly. Journal or make notes about what your body digests well and what causes your energy levels and mood to slump, or what seems to negatively impact your digestion and elimination. These can all be helpful indicators of necessary changes.
What both the data and ancient wisdom can teach us is that proper food combining is not a one size fits all methodology. What works for you may be to gradually experiment with introducing some of these herbs, spices, and foods together (maybe it’s time to try out some of the recipes below!) while considering eliminating other combinations that frequently cause upset in your mind-body health.
One way to boost your bentos is to add supportive spices and herbs to aid digestion and improve immunity. According to Ayurvedic principles, herbs and spices can make some food combinations less taxing on the body. Here are a few of our favorite kid-safe herbs to consider adding into the mix.
- Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
- This cousin of ginger is a tried and true digestive aid, and a color and flavor enhancer for almost any dish, from curries or simple scrambled eggs to warming medicinal milk beverages.
- Used for over 4,000 years to treat a variety of ailments—thanks to its powerful anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, cognitive function and skin health-boosting properties—our heirloom variety is grown in a women’s cooperative in Guatemala.
- Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
- A delicious antiviral, elderberry is known to help keep colds and flu away. It can also shorten the duration of illnesses; especially great for kids in a syrup form as a preventative measure.
- Both the berries and flowers are packed with antioxidants and vitamins that boost the immune system, protect the blood and heart, and help rid the body of infections.
- Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia)
- Pure vanilla (like our raw, organic, unrefined version from Papua New Guinea) is a sweet shield for children’s immune systems thanks to its abundance of magnesium, calcium, potassium, manganese, zinc, iron, vitamin B2, fiber, and other antioxidants and minerals.
- Vanilla may also soothe anxiety and depression, boost bone, skin and hair health, reduce inflammation, regulate metabolism, and support nervous system function.
- Moringa (Moringa oleifera)
- Mineralizing moringa helps to give kids the boost they need to learn, play, and fight off bacteria and viruses by fortifying the immune system and naturally sustaining energy.
- Our organic super tonic is grown in Costa Rica or Jamaica, depending on the season.
- Butterfly Pea Flower (Clitoria ternatea)
- Magical lemonades, hydrating water, blue ice cubes, and purple eggs are just a few ways adding this vibrant natural pigment to liquids can fascinate and cool down kids on the go. Adding acid (like lemon or lime) alters the pH of the water, changing it from blue to violet!
- This anti-inflammatory flower is also great for skin, hair and eye health. Combined with its antioxidant and nervous system balancing powers, this blue healer in an organic powder form (ours is grown in Thailand) is a great addition to countless dishes for all ages.
These recipes are visually stunning and will help get your main compartment filled with nutrient-dense ideas to support your overall well-being. Taking the guesswork out of the cooked or prepared portions of the bento-making process allows you to fill in the rest with raw foods, pickles (krauts, kimchis, etc.), and of course, one of the greatest additions to any yummy bento: leftovers! Try any of these vibrant combos:BENTO 1: Rice Box
Rice with mushroom curry + moringa chutney | raw veggies | raw fruit | flower print cookies or blue pie
BENTO 2: Noodle Box
Noodles (can be served cold with less broth/saucy) | fruit + cheese | raw veggies | cupcakes or moon pie
BENTO 3: Quiche Box
Quiche | raw fruit | raw veggies | hummus dip | almond-pistachio cookies or vegan vanilla cake
Almond-Pistachio Cookies - or -
BENTO 4: Lettuce Wraps Box
Lettuce wraps with hummus | cheese or protein-rich snack | raw fruit | elderberry sweet treat
Elderberry Rose Tart - or -