By Sara Romo, CMP
With safety at the forefront of event planning, hoteliers, caterers, and restaurants are asking themselves, “How can we safely serve our guests?”
COVID restrictions encourage social distancing and minimal contact, so most venues are turning to individually packaged, grab-and-go. The question then becomes, “How can someone differentiate their safely packaged foods from their competitors?”
The answer: opt for a bento box.
What is a Bento Box?
A bento box is an individually packaged, pre-assembled meal with compartments for a grain, protein, and vegetable. Although the idea of this type of box lunch came from Japan, the word “bento” is a Chinese slang term for “convenient.” What better way to conveniently serve and display meals for guests than a bento box!
History of the Bento Box
The original bento box was an ancient technique used by Japanese farmers, hunters, and warriors to carry their rice meals in small seed boxes during the 5th Century, A.D. Eventually, the bento box became a more luxurious item as the designs of boxes became more intricate and the food within the box included greater variety and complexity.
Bento boxes of today are commonly found in Japanese restaurants to accommodate individually sized servings of an assortment of Japanese side items. The boxes provide an elaborate presentation of different food items, without flavors mixing, using dividers for creative compartmentalization within the box.
The 1980s re-popularized the method in Japan because of the growing demand for the microwave. The trend has potential for a come-back due to its elegant display and variety of dishes that can be included.
What’s in My Bento
Traditionally, bento boxes exclusively contained rice. Proteins and vegetables were eventually added to the box in conjunction with the standard rice. Today, many restaurants have expanded the box to include a compartment for sushi and some type of appetizer, such as spring rolls or gyoza. Even though Japanese restaurants tend to be the sole provider of this type of serving method, other restaurants and venues have caught onto the trend.
While the traditional box has several tasty options, some recipes have taken a creative spin on the variety of types of bento boxes. One hotel in London caught onto the trend long ago. The Hilton London Metropole offers seven different boxes with flavorings inspired by French, Thai, Asian, Mediterranean, and Italian flavors. Each box has a protein, two sides, and dessert options to ensure flavors complement each other.
Since their inception in 2012, it has remained a popular alternative against a typical boxed lunch. It is, ultimately, the vibrancy of color, differentiation of flavors, and special divisions that make this type of plating appealing, but the application of sustainable presentation adds to its appeal.
The packaging for a bento box can be either reusable or made from recyclable materials. To abide by COVID-safe and single-use, venues can serve food in recyclable plastic containers with separate compartments to use the “bento box” format, while also remaining sustainable. Furthermore, this single container will mitigate the use of additional single-use containers, since the dividers within the box allow all parts of the meal to be neatly packed in one box, rather than multiple, separate containers.
Long-term, venues can invest in reusable boxes made of bamboo, lacquered wood, or other reusable materials. These can still be safely distributed to guests, but following a proper cleaning, they can be used for the next group similar to other dishware. The ability to consistently reuse the product and use less dishes or containers overall adds to its environmentally friendly appeal.
As planners and venues continue to do all they can to serve food safely, keep the bento box in mind. Let the chef be creative in determining the perfect carb, fruit or vegetable, and protein to include in each box. Not only do bento boxes offer a unique, individually packaged food service, but also make for creative presentations.
With its history, variability, and sustainability, bento boxes could be the next trend to help events safely serve and add a touch of flare to your next meeting.
Sara Romo, CMP is a contributing writer in St. Louis and a meeting and event professional.