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In my quest for a healthier mid-day meal, I started packing a bento lunch. Inspired by the traditional Japanese meal, which combines balance and variety with petite portions, I found a portable bento kit that is almost as fun to pack as it is to unpack and enjoy. As I did a little research, I discovered a fascinating bento subculture, with wonderful blogs such as Lunch in a Box, which highlights useful tips, easy recipes, and links to other bento resources.

There's something about having four little containers to fill that encourages me to make smarter choices about what to put in them. I always try to put a different color in each one, which usually results in a greater variety of flavors, textures, and nutritional benefits. And because the containers are fairly small, I can fill them to the brim without letting my portion sizes get out of control.

As you can see in this photo, you don't need to stick to Japanese food to enjoy the bento's benefits. While the typical Japanese bento contains rice, soup, fish or meat, and fresh, cooked, or pickled vegetables, the same approach -- variety -- works well with any cuisine. The other day I packed a decidedly un-Japanese meal consisting of grilled-veggie pasta, cucumber salad, carrots with hummus, and fresh blueberries.

Another bento benefit is reducing the waste I generate every time I order take-out food or eat at a restaurant that uses disposable plates, utensils, and napkins. It's a small step toward green living, but one that adds up over time.

While you could accomplish the same thing with any reusable food storage containers, a well-designed lunch pail makes packing lunch a bit more enjoyable. Mine (a Mr. Bento model) has an insulated thermos with four containers. The rice bowl and self-venting soup bowl sit in the insulated thermos, which keeps them warm enough that I usually don't need to re-heat them for lunch. The other two containers sit above the thermos inside the lid, which prevents them from getting warm (great for fruit or salad). It also comes with a carrying case and chopsticks or a fork. I added a pretty cloth napkin.

I don't have time to get beyond the basics with my bento lunches, but I do enjoy checking out the elaborate creations of some bento fanatics, who create edible masterpieces. If you want more ideas, explore the bento subculture, with its many photo-sharing Flickr groups, communities, and blogs.