The Cheap Chick makes a frugal bento

This is a guest post by Erin, who writes a frugal lifestyle blog in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, called The Cheap Chick.


My name is The Cheap Chick, and I have a confession to make: I’m addicted to online bento. It’s shocking, but true. Every day, sometimes two or three times a day, I log on to my favorite site and look at what other people packed that week for their lunches.

However, if there’s a 12-step program to help me stop, I don’t want it. Because not only did Just Bento (and its sister site, Just Hungry,) help change the way I cook and eat for the better, bento fits in perfectly with the ‘be cheap and fabulous’ gospel I’m trying to spread across the globe. What could be thriftier than packing your lunch and using the pantry items and leftovers you already have, rather than buying your lunch every day at a restaurant or fast food joint?

When Maki asked for guest writers for Just Bento, I knew it was time for me to join the world of bento makers. And I promised her I could make a bento that would be frugal, use many of the ingredients I already own or buy on a regular basis, and would look and taste delicious. Here’s how it turned out...

Step One: The ingredients

I wanted to make a bento that incorporated some of the recipes from Just Bento. My two favorites are Maki's carrot kinpira and salmon furikake – but please note, I have tweaked them to suit my own tastes.

So, off to the grocery store I went, to pick up my inexpensive bento foodstuffs. The following prices are based on what I spent at the Cub Foods grocery store in Arden Hills, Minnesota.

  • Julienned carrots - $1.50 per bag (okay, normally I get baby carrots, but the julienned ones are the same price.)
  • Cucumber – 50 cents each, on sale
  • Brown rice - $1.25 per bag
  • Canned salmon - $1.50 per can (I buy the cans that are the same size as canned tuna.)
  • Nori seaweed - $3.99 for 10 sheets, located in the Asian food aisle
  • Sriracha - $2.99 for the really big bottle
  • Soy sauce – Approximately $2 for Kikomann’s
  • Rice wine vinegar – Approximately $3
  • Sesame oil – Approximately $3.50 for the bottle

Total bill: $22.23. And as groceries are not taxed in Minnesota, I incurred no additional costs. (Please bear in mind, the soy, rice wine vinegar, sriracha, and sesame oil are all pantry items that will last a month or longer, so I won’t have to buy them every shopping trip.)

Step two: Prepping the food

One of the things Maki talks about is building up a stash of bento staples, or johbisai. In order to have these staples, you have to do some cooking and prepping first. Once I got my ingredients together, I made the following:

  • Carrot kinpira – using the julienned carrots, sesame oil, soy, rice wine vinegar, sriracha and some powdered ginger (eek!) I had.
  • Brown rice – cooked in plain water, measured and frozen in one cup increments.
  • Peeled cucumber slices – not really cooking, just food prep
  • Salmon furikake – using two cans of salmon, soy, rice wine vinegar, sriracha (I like my food spicy), and the dread powdered ginger.

All this was made the night before I created my first bento. The only time-consuming part was drying out the salmon and waiting for the brown rice to cook, which took about an hour.

Step three: Assembling the bento

First, I found an appropriate plastic food container. This one is made by Rubbermaid, and they cost $2.99 for three containers at the Target in Arden Hills. Mine, however, was free, because I stole it from a friend of mine, when she used it to transport crudités to my house for a party. Sorry!


Next, I measured out my rice. I ended up using 1 ½ cups of brown rice, because I had a bit leftover after divvying it up into those 1 cup increments.


Then, I placed half the rice in the container, topped it with half a sheet of nori, and covered the nori with the rest of the rice. On the side, I put half a cup of the carrot kinpira. Looks good so far, no?


I nuked the works for about 2 minutes. Yes, my microwave needs cleaning. Moving on.


Once it was all heated up, I sprinkled soy sauce, fresh-ground black pepper, and 2 tablespoons of the salmon furikake over the rice.


Then I smooshed the kinpira over to one side, and filled in the empty spot with sliced cucumbers. Last, I topped the rice and furikake with the other half of the nori.


I popped the top on the container, set it aside on the counter, and waited 2 hours before I allowed myself to devour the contents. While eating, I visited my favorite (addiction) web site.


The whole assembly process took around fifteen minutes – including taking all those pictures! – very doable for me (time-wise) in the morning. And with the stash I made, I was able to get 5 bento meals, with enough furikake for 8 meals and enough nori for 10 meals.

Total cost per meal – around $4.45. But remember, I have those leftover pantry items to use in future bento. So if you take out the soy, etc, the total cost per meal is $1.80. And THAT, my friends, is frugal living at its best!

Last modified: 
11 Jun 2019 - 06:21

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