Bento is a single-portion takeout or home-packed meal common in Japanese cuisine. A traditional bento consists of rice, fish or meat, and one or more pickled or cooked vegetables as a side dish. Containers range from disposable mass produced to hand crafted lacquerware. Although bento are easily available in many places throughout Japan, including convenience stores, bento shops, train stations, and department stores, it is still common for Japanese homemakers to spend considerable time and energy producing an appealing boxed lunch.
Bento can be very elaborately arranged. Contests are often held where homemakers can compete for the most aesthetically pleasing arrangements. The food is often decorated to look like people, animals, or characters and items such as flowers and plants. This style of elaborate bento is called kyaraben.
From AirAndAngels.com, "The base of any bento lunch is cold, cooked white rice, or sometimes noodles - the filling, carbohydrate-rich staples of the Japanese diet. (I wonder if anyone in Japan is willing to try the Atkins diet, or are they all too sensible?) In addition, there's okazu - side dishes, which can include meat, fish, eggs, tofu, fruit and vegetables, all presented in bite-size form for handy chopstick action. They all have to be prepared in such a way that they will taste nice cold (although sometimes bento is reheated). Okazu add colour and flavour, vary with the seasons, and round out the nutritional value of the meal with protein, vitamins and minerals.
For colour and dietary balance, try to have one 'protein' item and at least two from the fruit/veg category (remember, a healthy diet includes at least five handful-sized portions of fruit and vegetables a day). Of course, there are also different ways of dressing up the rice or noodles to avoid monotony. As well as seasonal items, bento may showcase regional specialties - this is true of ekiben, takeaway bento sold at railway stations around Japan. You can take an ekiben eating tour of the nation if you like!"