Packing a nutritionally dense bento box for the active person


This health-conscious guest post is by Debra of the fabulous hapa bento. We are entering the heavy duty feasting season now, so now is a good a time as ever to use nutritional bentos to keep yourself going!

The classic bento box with its proportioned rice, protein and vegetable combination is a balance of taste, harmony of flavors, and prepared to keep spoilage to a minimum. Another dimension of this classic lunch is nutrition. The rice provides carbohydrates, and carbs are arguably the most important source of energy. The protein keeps your muscles in repair, vegetables offer crucial vitamins that nourish your organs, and lastly but just as vital, some fats. More about the value of fats a little later. A bento box lunch is designed to offer sustenance.

But what if you need more? What if you are an active person and need to turn it up a notch? Well, a nutritionally dense bento box may be your answer.

Tweaking your bento box by packing nutritionally intense foods is an important enhancement for people who exercise or train on a regular basis. More "bang for your buck" as the saying goes.

My husband "Saba Man", nicknamed for his love of mackerel, and I have enjoyed participating in the local events in the past. We took a break but now we're back in training for a sprint distance triathlon. Needless to say we are always hungry and crave the foods that offer optimal health benefits! Here's how I boosted our bento box lunches in support of achieving our goals.


The first change for raising the bento box "bar", was to simply switch from white rice to brown. We like brown rice, but if you don't, then try mixing half and half at first then slowly eliminate the white grains with each batch. Work your way up to an onigiri that's 100% brown. Brown rice provides fiber as well as the energy that fuels our muscles. For heavy workout days, 2 onigiri or musubi as I call them, are de rigueur. And by wrapping rice up in a sheet of nori, we've enhanced it with essential amino acids and Vitamin C. Never be afraid to eat more seaweed!

When I'm not in the mood for rice, I like packing sweet potatoes which are also high on the nourishment scale. Better than regular potatoes, some sources rank it as number one! The wonderful sweet potato -- they taste fantastic. I keep their skins on whenever possible for additional vitamins. It's important to mention that I usually roast the potato. Roasting or baking lessens the leaching of vitamins and nutrients.


Do you like tamagoyaki? Perfect. Eggs are filled with healthy goodness, high quality protein without the high calories. Convenient too. When time is a factor, I can cook a batch of tamagoyaki or hard boil a dozen eggs and save them for couple of days. Maki has a wonderful recipe for making miso marinated boiled eggs. The miso not only adds a delicious touch of savory flavor but again, more nutrients. Saba Man's bento box lunches almost always feature both an egg along and another protein such as salmon or tuna mini burgers.


We opt for salmon because of the Omega 3 oils that other animal meats do not provide. And the salmon skin furnishes more of the essential fats. If fish is not your thing, then substitute with homemade chicken or turkey burgers and add flax seeds. I sometimes go ahead and add flax seeds to the tuna burgers too. It's a good thing.

Being that I am vegetarian, my bento box contains neither fish nor chicken. My lunches are filled with chick peas (garbanzo beans), falafel or "wheat meat" (seitan) along with eggs. My intake of Omega 3 is via steel cut oatmeal cooked with ground flax seeds. This is the standard in my breakfast bento box; a very healthy start to the day and it keeps me going until lunch.

Vegetables and Fruit

Both of us love our veggies and the "go to" greenery is broccoli. Hands down, it's the most versatile, delicious and highly nutritious vegetable. Again, roasting is preferable with olive oil and seasonings. Broccoli is ranked very high on the "wholesome scale" and I recommend them not only for their health values but for ease in preparation and packing. I also suggest the very healthy brussel sprout. And as we recently discovered, roasted brussel sprouts taste pretty good.

I want to stress that vegetables are essential but do not take up the majority of space inside our box. This is because they are low in calories. Nutritious calories are needed to fuel our workout, but a disproportionate amount of veggies with their lowered energy value, will not sustain us through the day and especially not when training. We have noticed that when I pack too many vegetables and fruits, our workouts lack quality and endurance.

Speaking of fruits -- they offer valuable benefits too and do occasionally appear in some of our bento boxes. However, leaving out the bits of fruit and instead filing the void with more protein works better for us. I now stuff a whole fruit in our bags for any emergency ìpick me upî instead. With each bento that I pack, I am learning about what works, and what doesn't. Our bento boxes are evolving, especially now that we are exercising more than usual.


Let's talk about fats. The fats and oils are naturally included in our bento ingredients. The fish, eggs, and beans contain all the "good" fats which are important for providing the main fuel source during the long, and low to moderate intensity exercise. Vegetables also contain their own fats. Olive oil, with it's monounsaturated fats, is used for roasting our vegetables. It's also good for additional flavoring, but don't over do it.

Fats and oils are calorie dense; too much fat will, well, make you fat. I do consume extra fats by eating nuts and occasionally tuck in some raw almonds. Eating them raw is far healthier than eating them cooked and they are an essential part of our daily fat intake. Saba Man and I are not athletes, not by the farthest stretch of the imagination, and cannot afford the consumption of vast amounts of calories like marathoners, Iron Man participants or Michael Phelps. So we keep additional fats low.

Bento fillers

The rest of the bento lunch are the fillers and these come in all shapes, flavors and forms. I like red and orange foods such as cherry tomatoes and carrot sticks, not only because of their excellent health benefits, but like all the before mentioned foods, you can enjoy eating without the fuss of utensils. It's not a crucial factor, but it is (pardon the pun), handy when we are in a rush. No need for chopsticks, forks or picks.

Bentos to go, for a couple on the go

A daily bento box or two, filled with yummy, energy packed items is crucial as we juggle our jobs, training and other daily tasks! Saba Man and I dine "on the go" constantly and a pre-packed healthy meal allows us the freedom to eat when ever and where ever. Sometimes in the car while commuting between work and the workout!

As you can see, my nutritious bento boxes do not stray too far from the traditional concept. A classic bento does lend itself to eating for fitness -- all that's needed for optimization is to choose brown rice over white, roast your veggies and sweet potatoes instead of boiling. Add flax seeds when you can. Use olive oil, but sparingly. And keep all other fats and oils to a minimum. Fruits can be completely eliminated from the bento box. Eggs provide essential nutrients and protein. If you are a vegetarian, the egg is important as well as garbanzo, ìwheat meatî and soy.

Whether you are a weekend warrior, a dedicated marathon runner, or just working out to maintain your fitness, eating a healthy bento box, packed with nutritiously dense foods not only plays a major role in your body's well being, but also with your own athletic goals.

As a reminder, this article is about my personal needs and habits, and like any other physical program, please consult your physician for guidance before starting your own regimen.

About the author

Debra, author of hapa bento, and her husband currently live outside of Seattle, Washington with their two cats, suitably named Mochi and Musubi. They enjoy traveling, dining out and dancing more than working out, but they somehow squeeze trips to the gym within their busy schedule. Commuting separately because of opposite work schedules is very challenging and having a packed bento box lunch curbs any spontaneous food spending and hunger pangs.

They both grew up in Hawaii and enjoyed a culturally diverse diet where bento boxes were the norm, so it was a natural step to start making them for their daily lunches.  With Debra's renewed sense of a healthy lifestyle, sending her husband off to work with a bento box full of nutritious foods coupled with a variety of ethnic flavors, gives her great satisfaction.  Her bento boxes are not only healthy and tasty, but also express and celebrate their combined Hawaiian, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, African American and European heritages!

Last modified: 
11 Jun 2019 - 06:20

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