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If certain foods aren't meant to be mixed together, then we prefer that they don’t touch in our lunch boxes while we head to the office. A burrito bowl? Stir away. Spaghetti and meatballs? Mix ‘em up. But mashed potatoes and peas? Must be separated at all costs.
That’s why we've always had an appreciation for the bento box, a Japanese take on single-portion food containers. They can be used for a picnic, hiking trips, takeout, and of course, as a lunchbox.
While you can opt for your food to be stored in one large compartment, many bento boxes are divided into smaller compartments. This is because "they usually contain a variety of goodies in one box," explains Junya Watanabe, chef-partner of Matsuoka, a Japanese restaurant in San Diego. "In Japan, these lunch boxes, taken to school or work, are prepared either a parent or spouse and are usually made to take to school or work,” adds Watanabe, whose restaurant serves premium bento boxes.
And in addition to the traditionally designed bento boxes, there are other types, as well, that let you customize: ones that include dividers that can be rearranged to your liking, or boxes that include extras like a sauce container or carrying bag. Both options are great for lunch meal prep, so you can literally grab and go.
Whether you’re looking for a fuss-free lunchbox alternative for your children or a sleek and stylish container for your workspace, we had our home tester (who also happens to be a mother of two) put our top bento box picks to the test to help you choose. She took note of the number of compartments and whether their capacity was better suited to a big lunch or a few snacks, whether its construction was sturdy or prone to scratches and dings, whether they included extra helpful features like a leakproof seal and insulation, and most important, whether the different foods (dry or liquid) in each box did indeed stay separated.
Without further ado, here are the best bento boxes, tried and tested, so you can truly enjoy your next meal away from home.
Best Overall: Bentoheaven Deluxe Bento Lunch Box
What We Love: Two large compartments (one is customizable), comes with a sealed sauce cup, easy to clean
What We Don’t Love: Difficult to pull apart sections, not insulated, spoon is flat and only holds half a teaspoon of liquid
The attractive design (and eight bright colors, including a fun faux woodgrain pattern) make this bento box a stylish option that’s also functional. Ideal for carrying snacks, salads, and small sandwiches, the set also includes a fork, knife, spoon, and chopsticks that all store neatly under the lid. A silicone gasket seals around both main compartments to prevent leaks, though it may be a little drippy if you’re transporting soup and it’s turned upside-down. But, when our tester packed her lunch and snacks in all three compartments, her food did indeed stay separated after some time carrying it around in her bag.
The set is ideal for most adults, but be aware that if you have larger hands, the petite utensils may be uncomfortable to grasp and use. For example, the spoon has a flat shape and holds less than a half teaspoon, so pudding and other liquid-y foods would be fine, but eating soup could take forever, observed our tester. The chopsticks also aren’t designed for large hands.
However, it’s a great all-in-one set that includes a stretchy band to keep it together so you can tuck it neatly in a handbag or briefcase. It's also BPA-free, dishwasher-safe (though the smooth surfaces make it easy to wash by hand), freezer-safe, and you can reheat foods in the microwave for up to 3 minutes.
"Best of the bunch. I still find it limiting, but if you want to eliminate plastic waste, this box is a better choice than many others." — Arricca SanSone, Product Tester
Material: Plastic and silicone | Dimensions (LxWxH): 7.3 x 4 x 4.3 inches | Capacity: 5 cups | Dishwasher-Safe? Yes | What's Included: Two compartments, 3.25-ounce sauce cup, removable divider, fork, knife, spoon, chopsticks
Best for Kids: Bentgo Kids Lunch Box
What We Love: Five decent-sized compartments keep foods well-separated, rubber edges cushion the box if it's dropped, easy to clean, inside tray is microwavable
What We Don’t Love: Latches are difficult for little kids to open and close, may be too large for younger kids' small backpacks
Little kids will love choosing snacks from each of the small compartments. Sections include 1-cup, half-cup, and quarter-cup portions, with a well for dips such as hummus. A leakproof rubber seal on the lid contains everything and ensures nothing mixes with anything else—ideal for your picky tykes who don’t like their foods to touch. The food tray itself can be microwaved for up to 3 minutes to reheat foods. It can also then be popped into the dishwasher, although the rest of the box must be hand-washed.
Although the box is designed for kids ages 3 to 7, younger kids may struggle to open it and may need adult help to close the lid snugly. Our tester, who packed lunches for her 3- and 4-year-old kids, confirmed that their food did stay separated, and she likes that each compartment has a decent amount of space for a variety of kid-friendly foods. However, both of her kids had trouble opening and closing the latches and needed adult assistance. She does, however, think children will probably do fine if adults take the time to teach them how to latch it.
The Bentgo is also larger than many boxes, our tester notes, so it took up a lot of space in her kids' backpacks. Plus, some reviewers online say mold may develop on the seals if they're not thoroughly cleaned and dried after use. On the plus side, the box is sturdy, BPA-free, and comes with a two-year warranty.
Material: Plastic | Dimensions (LxWxH): 8.5 x 6.5 x 2 inches | Capacity: 2.4 cups | Dishwasher-Safe? Yes | What's Included: Bento box, user manual
Best Budget: Bentgo Classic Lunch Box
What We Love: Compact and budget-priced, large compartments, includes utensils, top container nests into the other
What We Don’t Love: Not leakproof
Our product tester thought this Bentgo's classic lunch box is a good budget option considering its sizable compartments. These include one two-cup and two 3/4-cup compartments, so you can pack a normal-sized sandwich or salad and a decent amount of other snacks like mixed nuts and baby carrots.
The sections stack on top of each other, and a stretchy elastic band keeps everything together so you can tuck it into the bottom of your purse or backpack. Though the Bentgo our tester received did not come with utensils, "I imagine you could tuck them under the elastic band that holds all the boxes together," she says.
However, the box is not leakproof, so don’t plan on bringing foods such as stews or applesauce. And the two main top compartments are not sealed off from each other, so you may get some spillover if the box tips over in your bag. But even if you do get some spillover, it is relatively easy to clean and dishwasher-friendly, according to our tester, "though I think it would scratch easily if you used a knife to cut [your food] inside the compartments," she adds.
It’s also BPA-free, microwave-safe, and has a two-year warranty. The top nests neatly inside the bottom section for compact storage when not in use.
"It stacks neatly, and I could actually pack real-sized food, not miniature food, in this box." — Arricca SanSone, Product Tester
Material: Plastic | Dimensions (LxWxH): 7 x 4 x 2 inches | Capacity: About 5 cups | Dishwasher-Safe? Yes | What's Included: Bento boxes, sealing strap, utensil set, user manual
Best with Carrying Bag: Ozazuco Bento Box
What We Love: Silicone seal on the top box prevents drips, recyclable (made from wheat fiber), compact and easy to transport
What We Don’t Love: Small compartment and narrow design are not for big eaters, utensils are very small, silicone seal is not leakproof
What makes this bento box stand out from the rest is that it comes with a handy carrying bag. Our product tester notes, however, that this case is relatively thin, so she advises adding an ice pack to keep foods cold on the way to work or school.
She also likes this lunch box's narrow shape, which means it stores easily in cabinets, and also that it’s made from organic wheat fiber and BPA-free plastic. It can be microwaved and put into the dishwasher, though the lid must be removed in both cases. The latching system on the side is easy to use, and the box comes in several attractive colors.
But its small size may also be a disadvantage, notes our home tester. Yes, the lunch box can hold a salad and cut-up sandwiches. Crackers, nuts, and diced fruit will also fit well in the compartments. However, "because the boxes are narrow, [I] don't think there's enough space for a big eater," she says. She also found that though this lunch box is dishwasher-safe, the ridges at the bottom of each compartment tend to catch food, making cleaning a little trickier.
A fork and spoon, which are reversible to become a set of chopsticks, are included with this set, and they can be stored neatly inside the box. But because of their petite size, it’s best for kids, not adults. This bento box has a silicone seal to keep your foods separated when it's being jostled around, but it's not totally leakproof as Ozazuco claims, so we don't recommend using it for liquids and juicy foods.
Material: Plastic, wheat fiber | Dimensions (LxWxH): 6.8 x 2.9 x 4.3 inches | Dishwasher-Safe? Yes | What's Included: Bento boxes, fork, spoon, portable food cooler
Best Customizable: Mepal Modern Large Bento Box
What We Love: Large 1.5-liter capacity, comes in several colors, customizable and removable compartments
What We Don't Love: Not freezer-safe, pricey
One of the caveats of bento boxes with containers that are already divided is the lack of customization. While the compartments may work out perfectly some days, they may be too big or too small other days. The solution? A bento box with customizable compartments that can be added or removed as needed.
This one by Mepal features one larger compartment with smaller compartments that are removable. All components are microwave-safe. If a portion of your meal needs to be microwaved, you can separate that compartment from the other foods and pop it into the microwave. However, this model should not be stored in the freezer.
Dimensions (LxWxH): 10 x 7 x 3 inches | Dishwasher Safe: Yes | What's Included: Bento box with lid, utensils, removable compartments
Bentgo has several suitable models for children (view at Amazon) and adults (view at Amazon). These are especially great for those on a budget. And with its 40-ounce capacity and stylish design, the Bentoheaven Premium Bento Lunch Box (view at Amazon) is sure to satisfy a variety of people.
What to Look for in a Bento Box
Traditional Japanese bento boxes are made with bamboo or wood. Disposable bento boxes may even be made from single-use plastic or styrofoam.
Plastic is the most common material used to make reusable bento boxes today. Many are made with BPA-free plastic that is durable so it can be reused over and over again. Other models may be made with stainless steel, another durable option. Stainless steel bento boxes are less likely to stain, though they are not microwave-safe.
Bento boxes are designed for single-serving meals, but portion sizes can vary from person to person. Sets tend to have several smaller containers, while some have just one larger container with compartments. If you plan on transporting large salads or prefer larger portions, you may want to opt for a single spacious container. If your meals include several sides or you eat throughout the day, a set might work for you.
The idea of a bento box is the same no matter which model you choose, though some offer additional features. Bento boxes usually do not have a separate space for utensils, so you will have to plan accordingly. However, some now include reusable utensils that attach to the lid of the container for easy storage.
Another nifty feature is having multiple removable compartments or dividers within your bento box. This allows you to add and remove compartments as needed and customize the design of your bento box with each use.
Bento boxes often have a unique shape, so it can be difficult to find a carrying case that fits them snuggly to prevent leakage. Though less common, some models include a portable insulated case for easy transport and to keep your food cool between destinations.
Are bento boxes microwavable?
Some bento boxes made with plastic are microwave-safe, though this varies from model to model. The manufacturers often recommend microwaving for only a few minutes on medium heat. Those made with stainless steel are not microwavable.
Do bento boxes keep food warm?
Since most are not insulated, bento boxes will most likely not keep food cold or warm. They’re mainly simply designed to carry food. You'll need to invest in an appropriately sized insulated lunch bag if you know that's necessary.
Why Trust Simply Recipes?
Lacey Muinos is a food and product writer for Simply Recipes. She covers health and wellness topics with a specialty for food. As a self-proclaimed foodie, she has an impressive collection of kitchen tools.
Arricca SanSone tested these products and contributed to this piece. She is passionate about all things home and kitchen, gardening, and sustainability, which—in addition to her experience being a mom of two small children, who helped her try some of these bento boxes—inform her reporting.
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