If you are new to bento you can not go wrong by taking a look at JustBento’s “Maki’s Top 10 Beno Rules.” If you follow even half of them, you will be well on your way to bento making bliss. To me the most helpful tip is #8.
From personal experience and from hours cruising /r/JapaneseFood I have noticed that the main thing that seems to keep people from cooking regularly is the time constraint. Cooking without preparation takes time that most of us do not have. The key then, is to figure out how to pre-stage as many of your ingredients as possible. This collection of read-to-go ingredients is called johbisai and is the cornerstone to a stress free cooking experience. Maki Itoh has a great discussion about what should be in your stash. It is worth mentioning that she is absolutely right that you should not run out tonight and buy a thousand new ingredients. I found it is helpful to only buy what I am going to use for the week. If you vary your bento menu from week to week you will eventually fill out your complete stash.
If you take one thing away from this blog post, take this: Stock up on frozen vegetables, particularly edamame. The hardest part about making healthy bento is figuring out how to get two servings of vegetable in each meal. If you have a broad assortment of vegetables and a few simple preparations, your eating experience will vastly improve.
The following picture should look familiar but it is still a good one:
Left to right:
Wakame (dried seaweed): I use it primarily for making miso soup bombs but it comes up in a number of other recipes as well. It keeps forever so it is a great pantry stocker.
White and red miso paste: I am not sure what I did before I had these. Miso keeps extremely well in the fridge and it vastly improves a huge array of foods. Having some boring vegetables? Mix them with miso paste. Having a bowl of generic ramen? Mix the paste into the broth. Want a quick soup? Check out the miso soup bomb recipe linked above.
Hon-dashi (instant soup base): This goes hand in hand with miso paste. You can make miso soup with them or you can just add them to some chicken stock for an upgraded bowl of instant ramen noodles. Another great thing to do with it is boil some frozen vegetables in water with 1-2 tablespoons of hon-dashi. It will give the vegetables a much deeper taste than if you had merely salted them.
A couple more ideas, left to right:
Nuts: Having a stash of various kinds of nuts is a great way to add a snack to a bento. I like pistachios but really anything will work.
Chazuke: These little satchels of rice flavoring come in a variety of flavors. My favorite is ume-boshi because it has a refreshing blend of sour and salty. You pour these over rice and then pour hot tea or water over until you have a quick rice soup.
Small seaweed strips: These are not big enough to use to make sushi but they are the perfect size for making onigiri (rice balls) or for just snacking on.
Hope this helps! Get out there and make some bento!