Ah yes, the Bento Box: every sushi diner’s dream. Whether you’re a grazer, you love variety or you can’t stand it when the foods on your plate touch, this compartmentalized meal is a feast for the eyes (Whoa! So much food!) and a feast for your belly (because it’s usually so delicious).
The trouble – once you’ve eliminated the animal products from your order and opted instead for the veggie option – is that the overall healthfulness of this geometric meal isn’t great. A typical combination in an Americanized Japanese restaurant includes sauce-drenched teriyaki veggies, a maki roll with white rice, a colorless iceberg lettuce salad, extra crispy deep-fried tempura and a mound of more white rice. Remember that true color signals the nutrient density of a food, and even when it comes to those tempura strips, the cooking temperature was likely so intense, any useable nutrients in those colorful veggies were destroyed.
Luckily, you can recreate your own plant-based bento box using some easy to find, nutrient-dense ingredients. We love recreating restaurant favorites at home because it gives you more control over your ingredients and the cooking method, plus it’s less expensive,and generates less (unnecessary) trash.
Here’s how to make the switch from takeout to take-charge with a DIY Bento Box Dinner:
Rethink the Rice
The Component: White Rice
The Trouble: White rice is almost purely white starch. The nutritious parts of the grain have been removed, and what is left is blood sugar-spiking, insulin-stimulating sugars. We tend to more hungry after we eat these kinds of carbohydrates, as the body seeks out the missing components of the grain and blood sugar ricochets from one extreme to the other.
The Swap: There are tons of great alternatives to white rice. Brown rice, quinoa or another whole grain of your choice. Unprocessed grains like these have their bran and germ (the parts containing protein and fat, in addition to valuable minerals) intact. They are more nutritious, more filling and contain more fiber, which means their effect on blood sugar is less extreme. These grains take just 15-40 minutes to prepare on the stovetop, and can be made in a large batch or even a slow-cooker (which means Bento Boxes all week long!).
Replace the Fried Filling
The Component: Tempura
The Trouble: Generally, if something has been dipped in batter and dropped in a deep fryer, it’s not a great bet for optimal health. If you’re gluten intolerant, the wheat-based panko flour is a no-go, and if you eschew anything that has come in contact with animal products, keep in mind that the same fryer is used in most restaurants to prepare everything from breaded chicken to pork gyoza. Plus, we can’t forget the health dangers of excess unstable oils, especially the GMO corn oil used in many commercial kitchens.
The Swap: Homemade roasted sweet potato fries, eggplant fries, eggplant slices, green bean fries or lightly-dusted zucchini fritters are a great substitute for their deep-fried cousins. You can control the amount and type of oil (coconut oil is a great option, thanks to the stable and nourishing saturated fats). Plus, cooking at a lower temperature will keep more nutrients intact.
Swap Out the Sauce
The Component: Teriyaki Sauce
The Trouble: Like many commercially prepared sauces, teriyaki sauce is full of unnecessary sugars, preservatives and stabilizers. It’s not uncommon for the sauce used in restaurants to contain corn syrup and modified food starch, both byproducts of GMO corn, in addition to caramel color and sodium benzoate. Caramel color contains 4-methylimidazole, or “4-Mel”, which has been shown to cause cancer in mice. Sodium benzoate has been shown to contribute hyperactivity in children and when combined with Vitamin C (readily found in green foods like broccoli), reacts to form benzene, a known carcinogen.
The Swap: Make your own! A simple starter sauce base is easily made by combining 4 parts organic soy sauce with 1 part minced garlic, 1 part maple syrup and 1 part ginger. Blend these in a food processor until smooth and store extra in the fridge.
Remake Your Roll
The Component: The Maki Roll
The Trouble: More white rice? Why? This is an intense starch overload for one meal.
The Swap: Skip the extra rice and instead use the roll’s center ingredients to form a deconstructed no-rice salad: cucumber, avocado, sesame and nori (the papery seaweed wrapper) with a splash of soy sauce or your homemade teriyaki sauce. If you’re intent on having the roll experience, try reinventing our own homemade vegan sushi rolls or wrap your filling in nori or a collard leaf before slicing up.
Add Plenty of Color!
The Component: The Colorless Salad
The Trouble: Iceberg lettuce and pale mealy tomatoes have little to no nutritional value aside from their hydrating water content. Most restaurants tend not to use organic veggies for these salads, which is too bad: lettuce and tomatoes are on the top of list of produce treated with pesticides and herbicides.
The Swap: Organic veggies are a good first step; local is even better if you can find it. Look for produce that hasn’t been treated with chemicals, especially options with vibrant color. You can easily put together your own Asian-inspired salad using carrot, daikon and cabbage slaw, and whip up a homemade dressing without added sugars or preservatives.
The result of this DIY Bento Adventure? A nourishing meal that is packed with good-for-your-body, good-for-the-planet ingredients. Enjoy!
Lead Image Source: Jeffery Loo/Flickr