Obento: The Japanese Lunch Box

Obento: The Japanese Lunch Box

Background Information.

In Japanese, there is a special term for lunch, “obento.” If you happen to known someone who is Japanese, you may want to try asking him or her what an obento actually is or what it looks like. An obento is a special kind of Japanese lunch that is not only tasty, but also very healthy and eye-catching. Japanese people tend to carry around their obentos in lunch boxes called “obento-bako.”

There are a few rules in order to make a good and successful Japanese obento. First, in an obento, rice is almost always present (it can occasionally be substituted with bread or pasta). It is also important that the rice is separated from the other dishes so that the rice will not pick up any additional flavors. Along with this rice are the main dish and the two side dishes. The main dish can be anything from dumplings, to fried chicken, to fish while the side dish can be anything like a simple salad. It is important that the obento not only consist of meat, but also of green and nutritious vegetables. In other words, the overall balance of the obento should look something like 3 parts (rice): 1 (main dish of meat/fish): 2 (vegetable side dishes).

The obento should consist mostly of strong flavors that can be enjoyed even without the use of a microwave. Again, the texture and the aroma of the food should be carefully chosen so that the person who will be eating it will not get bored. One pointer in making a good traditional obento is to constantly remember the color combination of red, green, and yellow. As long as you make an obento that tries to match this colorful image, the obento should end up looking very appetizing. On the other hand, if the obento only consists of fried food, most times what happens is that the obento turns out looking brownish; this is clearly not a pleasing sight. By attempting to fit this specific color combination, it often aids the obento to turn out healthy and nutritious. Food that is the color red usually has the potential to increase people’s appetites and is often packed with lots of vitamins. Food that is yellow is usually nutritious and food that is green tends to be full of both minerals and vitamins. When making obentos, special attention is also given to sanitation. For instance, it is very important that everything is dry when being placed inside the obento in order to reduce the risk of catching germs. It is also crucial that everything inside the obento be well-cooked and never entirely raw.

Obentos differ depending on the individual that it is being made for. In the case of a child, the obento should be half the size of a typical one.  Furthermore, if the child happens to be on the thin-side, it is imperative that the obento have more of the side dishes rather than rice.

Obentos also play a significant part in the everyday Japanese culture. When a family goes on a picnic, the mother will usually pack a large obento for the entire family. When a girl goes on a date with her boyfriend, it is a big deal for her to make him an obento. When a class goes on a fieldtrip somewhere, all of the students tend to bring their own obentos. These obentos are always packed with precious feelings that may be coming from a mother to her child, a wife to her husband, a girl to her sweetheart, and many more.

Learning Goals.

  1. Students will understand the importance of an obento in the Japanese lifestyle. 
  2. Students will learn the basic rules of an obento
  3. Students will be exposed to a part of the Japanese food culture.


Common Core Standards
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

  • Standard 2.   Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
  • Standard 5. Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language

  • Standard 1.  Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
McRel Standards

McRel Standard 6.
Understands essential concepts about nutrition and diet.

McRel Standard 7. Knows how to maintain and promote personal health

Grades K-4 History

McRel Standard 1.
Understands family life now and in the past, and family life in various places long ago

Key Concept. More than just a portable lunch, the obento is a nutritious expression of love, friendship, and caring.

Essential Question.  

Primary Source.  

Thought Questions.

  1. Is it important to have a healthy lunch/obento?
  2. What is an example of a bad obento?



Focus Activity Ideas. Ask the students what they normally have for lunch and write their answers on the left-hand side of a chart. Then, ask what they would like to have for lunch if they could choose anything they wanted.  Record these answers on the right-hand side of the chart.  Ask the students to explain the differences.  Note that a lunch must have a good balance and be healthy.  Next, introduce a picture of a typical Japanese obento. Describe an obento to them (that there is rice and a few side dishes, the reasoning behind the colors of an obento, etc.) When they look at the picture, do they find it appealing? Does it look healthy? Does it look nice? Would they want to try eating one?

Main Lesson Activity Ideas.

  1. Before the activity begins, prepare sheets of paper, each with its own drawing of an empty obento-bako (lunch-box) on it.
  2. The teacher will once again briefly describe a proper Japanese obento. The teacher will ask the students for some ideas on what they might put inside their typical obento.
  3. The teacher will give out one sheet per student and have them draw their ideal Japanese obento.
  4. After the students finish drawing, have some students (or all) share their drawings with the rest of the class. Ask them to explain what inspires them when making their obento.
  5. Remind them the obento is always made with love and care. This is what makes the obento so special and is why it's important to always try to eat all of it, even the parts the person doesn't like very much.
  6. Another fun class-activity would be to make a very large obento-bako where every student draws in one thing they’d like to have. It would be a special obento recipe that would be unique to your class.
Extension Activities:

One more fun activity would be to have every student bring in an empty box from home (it can even be a used chocolate box!). They could decorate this box and use it not quite as an obento box, but perhaps as a box to fill up with their precious things.

In Japan, there is something called the bento-tsutsumi, which is a particular way of wrapping up an obento-bako in a piece of cloth. By wrapping the obento in the cloth, it makes it easier for the person to carry it around with them wherever they go. Again, it can also make the obento look appealing to the eye if the cloth happens to have some nice designs on it. It is a nice reminder that the Japanese obento is more than just a lunch. As an art project, have students make their own bento-tsutsumi to use with their own lunch boxes.  Note the environmental benefits of using a reusable cloth rather than disposable paper wrapping.

Summative Activity Ideas.

Ask the students: How well does today's (or yesterday's) cafeteria lunch follow the obento rules? How would the students improve the lunch?  Challenge the students to apply the obento rules when making their own meals. 




Theme,Culture; Grade Level,Elementary; Topic,Food; Type,Lesson Plan;
obento, bento, health, nutrition, Japanese lunch box, obento-bako, food, lunch,food