By Caroline Young Bearden, MS, RD, LD, RYT
Let’s face it. It’s easy for lunchtime to take a backseat in our busy lives. But chances are, the more nutritious it is, the better you will feel in the afternoon. And packing your own lunch (or your kid’s lunch) doesn’t have to be boring or expensive to be healthy and delicious.
To make it easy to build a healthy, nutrient-dense plate at every meal, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) created MyPlate as a guide. Much like a Bento box, the USDA’s plate is divided into sections, including one for protein, one for grains, one for fruits and one for veggies, and a side serving of dairy. It’s a fabulous reminder to help you get your five food groups every time you chow down.
What’s the deal with Bentos?
Bento Boxes have been part of the Japanese culture since at least the 14th century. When creating Bentos, the Japanese had limited food resources and therefore aimed to combine aesthetics with nutrition. It’s about taking simple, and sometimes mundane, ingredients and presenting them in a nourishing, beautiful way.
Wouldn’t it be fun to practice the MyPlate concept using the ancient tradition of a Bento Box? We thought so.
The formula is simple: In a Bento box with three compartments, fill the large side with fruits and veggies, one with a protein and one with a grain. Or try a box with four compartments and fill each part with a grain, protein, fruit and veggie. Then, add a side of dairy to round out your meal.
According to MyPlate, here’s what you should aim for at each meal to load up on all the essential nutrients your body and mind need to thrive, followed by some examples to get you started:
Daily Protein Needs
Ladies: 5 ounces
Gents: 6 ounces
Learn more about your protein needs here.
What does an ounce of protein look like?
1 Tbsp peanut butter, 1 egg, ¼ cup cooked beans, 1 ounce chicken (1 small chicken breast is about 3 ounces.)
Daily Grains Needs
Ladies: 5-6 ounces
Gents: 6-8 ounces
Shoot for half of all your grains to be whole grains (i.e. brown rice, 100% whole wheat bread).
What does an ounce of grains look like?
1 slice of bread, ½ English muffin, ½ cup oatmeal, ½ cup pasta
Daily Fruit & Veggie Needs
Fruit- 1.5-2 cups
Veggies- 2-2.5 cups
Fruit- 2 cups
Veggies: 2.5-3 cups
What does a 1 cup equivalent of fruits & veggies look like?
Fruit- 1 cup or 1 large banana, 1 small apple, 1 cup or 32 grapes, 1 cup berries
Veggies- 1 cup broccoli, 1 cup cooked spinach, 2 cups raw spinach, 1 cup mushrooms
Daily Dairy Needs
Ladies: 3 cups
Gents: 3 cups
What does a 1 cup equivalent of dairy look like?
1 cup milk, 1 cup or 8 oz. yogurt, 1/3 cup shredded cheese, 2 cups cottage cheese
Remember, if you’re hitting the gym or active more than 30 minutes per day, your needs might increase for each food group.
Ready to make your own nutrient-dense bento box?
Here are a few combos. to get you going:
PB & friends
Protein: 2 Tbsp. Peanut Butter
Grain: 1 Slice 100% whole wheat bread
Fruits & Veggies: 1 small apple, sliced, and 1 cup carrots & celery
Dairy: 1 cup milk
Peanut & veggie rice
Protein: ¼ cup Peanut sauce
Grain: 1/2 cup brown rice or Soba noodles
Veggies: 1 cup peppers and broccoli
Fruit & Dairy: 1 cup plain yogurt with ½ cup-1 cup orange slices
Protein: 1 oz. (about 28) Roasted peanuts
Grain: Five 100% whole wheat crackers
Veggies: 1/2 cup sliced cucumber, ½ cup to 1 cup cauliflower, broccoli (or veggie of choice)
Fruit & Dairy: 1 to 2 cups cottage cheese with ½ cup-1 cup strawberries
Salad with all the fixings
Protein: 2-3 Tbsp. hummus mixed with 2-4 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar (depending on desired consistency for salad dressing)
Grain: 1.5-2 small whole wheat pitas or 1 medium whole wheat pita
Fruits & Veggies: 1 cup lettuce, ½ cup to 1 cup veggies of choice (i.e. tomatoes, mushrooms, carrots), ½ cup to 1 cup blueberries
Dairy: ¼ cup feta cheese
Protein: ½ cup black beans or 3 oz. (1 small breast) chicken, diced
Grain: 2-3 small corn tortillas
Veggies: 1 cup spinach (or your favorite greens), ½ cup peppers and 2 Tbsp. to ¼ cup salsa
Dairy: 1/3 cup Shredded cheese
 Choose MyPlate. Choose MyPlate. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/. Accessed January 26, 2017.
 Beauty and the Bento Box. The New York Times. https://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/19/beauty-and-the-bento-box/?_r=0. October 19, 2009. Accessed January 26, 2017.