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Posted on Jun 11, 2008 | 69 comments

Newsweek: Are bento lunches a trend?

Newsweek: Are bento lunches a trend?

Are bento lunches becoming a trend in the U.S.? I think we’re starting to see indications of that, as shown by this article in Newsweek magazine about bento boxes for the preschool set.

Egg-wrapped onigiri lunch for preschooler Newsweek contacted me a few weeks ago to discuss the growing popularity of bento box lunches in the United States. They wound up running a photo of this bento lunch for my three-year-old, who attends a Japanese immersion preschool in San Francisco where bentos are the norm (click for the lunch’s full contents, packing details, and speed tips). On the spectrum of kyaraben food art to Lunchables or PB&J sandwiches in plastic baggies, hopefully my everyday speed bentos fall right in the middle (ideally made in under 10-15 minutes, but still appealing).

The article gave some online stores for bento gear, and summarized the Japanese nutritional “Spinning Top” and bento packing guidelines described in my guide to choosing the right size bento box. (One minor nit: traditionally a bento has one part protein, not one part “meat” as written in the article. You know, Japan being an island nation with lots of fish and tofu and all.)

Anyway, while I definitely see elements of the overall picture, I’m not sure if they’re sufficient to anoint bentos as a new trend. Maybe it just feels like the start of a bento boom because I’m in the middle of it. Am I delusional? Here’s my split-personality argument weighing if bento lunches are becoming significantly more popular in the U.S…

The case for:

  • Google Trends shows steady growth in the popularity of “bento box” as a search term over the past three years, with U.S. searches approximately doubling since the start of their data in 2006.
  • Lunch in a Box’s web traffic has tripled over the past year, with over 370,000 page views and 70,000 absolute unique visitors a month. 75% of my readers are in the U.S., with the top three states being California, New York, and… Texas! (source: Google Analytics)
  • A Lexis-Nexis search for news stories with the word “bento” within 15 words of the word “lunch” in “All U.S. News (Papers and Wires)” turns up 214 results over the last 12 months (June 1 to May 31), as opposed to 178 in the previous 12, and 133 in the 12 months prior to that. (Thanks to my journalist husband’s Nexis account for this search!) (UPDATE: See the Press and Awards page for articles mentioning Lunch in a Box.)
  • Yesterday I called the store manager at Ichiban Kan discount store (Rumi), to let her know the store was included in the Newsweek article. She told me that bento boxes and accessories were far and away the most popular items in their online store (ships only within the continental U.S.), so much so that they’re having trouble keeping enough in stock for their retail stores in the San Francisco Bay Area. Knowing that the store regularly gets in big shipping containers of inventory direct from Japan makes their problem keeping up with bento demand particularly striking to me.
  • Lots of new bento-focused blogs have started up over the past year, listed pretty comprehensively on my Lunch Links page. I’ve definitely noticed an increase in specialty bento blogs, especially those for weight loss, food allergies, vegetarianism, veganism, and children’s school lunches.

The cynic’s view:

  • Are there more hard numbers? Does J-List or Daiso (Japanese discount store with branches worldwide) have a breakdown of bento gear sales in the U.S.? (No idea.)
  • Isn’t the increase in bento blogging just reflective of the increased popularity of blogging overall?
  • Yeah, so there’s an increase in bento-making, but it’s still a minority of lunch-packers, isn’t it? Don’t bento lunches have to be filled with Japanese food and rice? (Not if you approach them like I do. See most of my lunches for world food bentos.)
  • How to make apple rabbits
  • I’m sorry lady, you’re out of your mind if you think my friends and I are going to spend a lot of time making Decorative Food like apple rabbits every day. We’re too busy to be Martha. (Join the club. Make an everyday speed bento in 5 minutes, using leftovers, Leftover Remakes, freezing tricks, and smart pantry choices. Save the fancy stuff for a birthday lunch or special event.)

I know that it feels like a trend to me, but the jury’s still out. What about you? Have you seen any evidence that bentos are becoming more popular at your school, at work, or with your friends? Do you have a business that’s experienced a boom in bento sales over the past year? Or are we bento-packers just starting to attract attention disproportionate to our numbers? Tell us what you think in comments, or e-mail me privately at lunchinabox AT gmail DOT com if you don’t want to post publicly (I keep confidences). I confess, I’m really curious about your experiences!

FURTHER READING:

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  1. Of course, Daiso has a store in New Zealand but none in Australia. Figures.

    And congrats on getting into Newsweek!

  2. Nobody at my work packs bentos nor do they even own a bento box other than me. I seem to be the novelty at work. The norm is a square upright lunch box with packed leftover in various containers or some kind of tupperware with leftovers or sandwiches and that’s it.

    A few people have ‘picked on me’ about my strange lunch boxes and japanese lunches as I have an affinity for dim sims, dumplings and the unusual veggies and fruits. People often tell me my lunch ‘smells bad’ or smells ‘awful’ as they don’t or have never tried kimchi or other asian foods.

    I don’t mind. I like being an individual!

  3. So many good comments before me.
    I agree with those who have said that it is more of a green movement and that it is helping with adults portion sizes.

    I lived in asian for awhile and was somewhat aware of bentos but didn’t know enough about them to buying any while I was in Japan (><)
    I feel like my time in asian has contributed to why I do bentos but then it spreads as I bring my lunch. People become more aware of it and I know two people who have started using bento boxes for portion control while they are trying to lose weight.

    I think it IS a trend. As the pendulum swings back to a ‘healthy’ and ‘green’ America, I think things like this will catch on. Also, I don’t think we can deny the success of Ichiban Kan’s website. They only ship in the US and they are having trouble keeping things stocked so someone must be buying them!

  4. I am happy that this blog has received attention that it deserves as a very and informative source of information. However, the description of overachieving parents was just wrong, offensive and unnecessary. I don’t have kids and make lunch for myself. Does that make me an overachieving lunch eater? Am I to be labeled because my attempts at bento are healthier and cheaper than the combo meal at the closest fast food burger place and more interesting than another P,B & J sandwich?

  5. I don’t know that folks at my work pack bentos, exactly, but many of us pack our lunches because we are thrifty. With the economy tanking, “thrify” may be the real trend.

    Anyway, because about half the people I work with are environmental lawyers, using disposable containers and wrappers is socially frowned upon. (There is even one woman who regularly packs her lunch in glass Mason jars.) Usually I use Lock & Lock containers for my lunch and it passes without comment.

  6. I hadn’t heard of Bento boxes until a couple of weeks ago, but already I am finding that there just isn’t enough information out there about them. I have had to order them from Japan and California retailers because there isn’t a single box within a thousand miles of here. Then I wanted a book full of pictures of Bento meals for kids. Zip. Apparently it doesn’t exist. I’m going to try the Bento route, but I cant get many of the ingredients here and everything has to be ordered. It makes it tough for Americans trying to do this!

  7. To be honest, I feel like the trend is away from home-packed bento boxes for lunches in Japan. There seem to be more and more alternatives (more delivery places, even here in the countryside, for instance), more canteens at workplaces, and of course conbinis multiply like rabbits. Also, more and more kids attend daycares with food provided instead of kindergarten.
    I don’t eat a bento usually because I prefer sandwiches. My son’s lunch is provided my his daycare (at my company). I do however make a bento for my husband, but he is the only one of 9 married men at his company who gets a daily bento (also the only one with an employed wife- go figure!)
    No proof of this- just speculation!

  8. LS–I just use containers I have on hand–like tupperware or gladware. It’s the “how” of packing that is important, I think. I pack the types of food my kids are used to–not really Japanese types since they probably wouldn’t eat them.
    I also purchased some silicone baking cups for divider things and some shrimp forks from our local grocery store. I’m trying to make do with the things around me.

  9. Here, Sweden, bringing lunch to work in the for of left overs but cold is possible because most employers provide nuking possibilities to all. Luncheon traditions are traditions are changing or should I say AS interchangeable as anything we eat. Some 15 yrs ago you brought your own lunch. Sandwich was NOT lunch. Salad as a lunch salad is constructed now might have passed the criteria then. Now people nibble on sandwiches as they work, do salads. The byo-lunch tradition has subsided.

    I came from BYO-lunch and being used to having to bring food all the time (due to food allergy), then I went to Japan and came used to bento-culture where making up of a meal with a dessert and not make it boring.

    Whether it is a passing thing? I think BYO-lunch in terms of FOOD lunch is returning due to heightened inflation. Eating out is turning pricy. I eat bento-style for it being an interesting way to create a versatile bento, plus I don’t have to explain to a waiter than NO TOMATO WHATSOEVER. Plus it’s cheaper.

  10. I think the reason for the gain in popularity for bento lunches is the online bento blogs, such as lunchinabox (which is totally amazing). It’s just really inspiring to browse through and read about bentos that other people make, and people just can’t take it anymore so they wanna start their own, at least for the health benefits. And once you start, it’s really hard to stop. That’s how it was for me!

  11. I think it might be a trend brought on by more people trying to eat and feed their children more healthfully. I came across your site a few months ago when I was researching different kinds of food I could include in my kids’ lunches. Somewhere along the line Bento came up. It might not become a nationwide trend, but it is or likely will become one for some demographics.

  12. I found it interesting Texas was named as one of the states getting into this. Yes, I pack BBQ bentos etc., but I don’t see many others following the bento trend. I do have coworkers that occasionally bring their lunches, and that’s for the latest diet they may be on! LOL! Congrats though like everyone has said on the Newsweek article! It’s very exciting!

  13. I’m still the only person I know who packs a bento. I’ve had lots of curious questions about it and I’ve even talked my buddy into possibly getting into it, but it seems like the “bento boom” is still majorly an online trend?… if that makes sense. Although with the economy the way it is now, I can almost see people start getting into it. As for me, I’ve found it’s cheaper to make bentos than it is to make traditional “ham & cheese sandwich” lunches, mostly because I can use the leftovers in my bento.

  14. Trend or not all I know is that I love my bento. I don’t have time to take pics of it but I almost always use it when I’m packing my lunch. I find that it helps me eat a lot healthier.

  15. Congrats on the awesome mention in Newsweek. It’s well deserved. I tell ya, I don’t have kids, but when I look at your adorable bento lunches, I sure wish I did. Hmmm, maybe I can pack them instead for a big “kid” _ me. ;)

  16. LS @ 65: I found a whole bunch of books on bento, right on amazon.com. Amazon also has the wonderful fit and Fresh boxes, and my fave, the Zojirushi Mr. Bento container (great for hot lunches). (“bento” on Amazon)

  17. I had a bento box for years and had no idea what it was until I came across a bento site by mistake a few years ago. I find that when I stop using my bento for a few days, I tend to gain weight. I live in NYC, so
    I’m able to buy some Japanese supplies here and in NJ. However, I usually pack leftovers. Especially now that I work nights, being able to have a healthy, tasty lunch that doesn’t taste like cardboard is a joy.
    Some of you asked if adults can do this too. Heck, yes. One also doesn’t need special equipment- an old Tupperware container will do. I do like the boxes and my Mr. Bento, though. The trick is to pack not just a plain sanwich, but to add other things that will make lunch interesting. when I make a sandwich, for instance, I’ll cut it into fingers and sqkewer it, and add things like cut hard boiled eggs and fruit.
    Tonight’s bento was leftover taco lasagna made from a kit, two small Banon cheese wedges, a handful of sweet cherries from the local market, some olives, anda handful of golden raisins mixed with raw almonds. My sweetie, who lives in western PA, also enjoys bento- he takes his Mr Bento (a Christmas present from me, bought through Amazon)to band practice every week. He says that it makes the other guys jealous. Now that he is actively seeking to lose weight, I’m going to start sending him little items to use in his bento, and maybe even a box for everyday use in the office.

    Neither of us have kids, by the way. And because I’ve been seen with my box at work, two more people (men)in the opffice have started bringing their lunches regularly.

  18. I’ve been making bentos for 3 nearly 4 years now and I still have to describe what a bento lunch is for those not into anime. So to say its a new “trend” is a jumping the gun a little bit. At least that’s what I think. Besides, if it was wouldn’t there be more English language bento books?

  19. well umm i always pack in that kind of way but i used seperate small rubbermaid containers hard to carry but i liked the lunch i packed better than the schools
    but i think its the containers getting popular but the idea will always stay
    but i did just buy a bento easier to carry instead of three small roud rubbermaid containers

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