I had purchased a few books in the last year or so either for creating bentos or actually “dissecting” them. One I found very useful the other a big let down.
“501 Bento Box Lunches” p.359 by Grafitto Books was the let down. Although there is a nice intro explaining a bit about Bento Basics and how to divide up your box so as not to contaminate other ingredients, the rest of the book is mostly western style bentos. The ingredients are clearly western inspired as is the subject matter. I couldn't find that many bento lunch suggestions worth remembering or repeating here.
The book is divided up into such sections as “Colorful Bento” or “Stylish Bento”. There is one chapter dedicated to traditional bentos but even there it's mostly onigiri filled bentos or sushi and some recipes for omelette fillers. It would have made more sense to divide the book into primary ingredients(meat,fish,veg) and eventually have chapters for Cute Bento-as they did- or Chariben Bento with people and characters (plus explanations of how they were executed). They do end up including a chapter for special holiday or occasions bento. All I can say is that for years I have been looking for explanations on how to paint facial expressions on bento manga characters and no one has yet to include this in their book (altho I did find it in Japanese. Too bad I can't read kanji.)
Overall it's pretty useless as a bento reference book. You would need tons of bookmarks just to be able to find the recipes or bento you may want to repeat or use. Given that in fact there are 501 bentos it's pretty much stuffed with every type of ingredient you could possible try to use in a bento but with no real index so you cannot easily find what you need. If I am creating a bento I usually have a certain set of ingredients I would like to use. If I cannot find a bunch of bento suggestions based on the main ingredient then the book really isn't very useful to me. It's like a badly packed bento box.
At the back of the book they have listed the contributors who, out of 15 listed, only 2 possibly 3 names could be oriental or asian. I am not saying that westerners are unable to create good bento but I believe it is a cultural thing. You can spot a westerner's bento compared to one that is cooked and created by a Japanese mom hell bent(o) on her kid having the best looking and nutritious boxed lunch at school that day. Perhaps it's generalizing but I defer to the culture that has created and nurtured the bento for my inspiration and instruction.
The book I felt was more useful was “Kawaii Bento Boxes Cute and Convenient Japanese Meals on the Go” pag.81. Kawaii basically means cute. The first few pages are dedicated to the basics as usual but explaining it so even a child can understand. The Bento is divided into the Energy Source (carbs) Body Builder (meat fish or soy) and Body Tuner (veg). They even give a nice example of smart packing and suggest how to make the bento fun for kids. There are a lot of photos to explain each section so you can't mess up.
Most of the bento examples offered here are simple with simple ingredients – the only down side is that some of the bentos suggest the use of foods that may be considered less nutritious than others. Lots of ketchup for decorating or hot dogs as fillers or prepared fried foods. But anyone with issues can find substitutes easily.
What I liked most about this book is the explanations on how to prepare the food. They make ample use of the microwave oven and plastic wrap. Both these kitchen tools are essential when making a bento in the morning before going to work. The plastic wrap stuffed in the rice mold facilitates removal of the form without loosing the overall look. When making “sushi” peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, white bread substitutes the nori, it becomes easier to roll and cut them into the pieces and place them in the box. You just throw away the plastic once you are ready to eat.
The book is divided into sections like “Bento for Cold Weather” or “Bread Bento” which is much easier to understand and to choose the ingredients you prefer. There are a ton of suggestions to make each bento special. And each type has some easy to follow recipes at the bottom of the page (one was for Mac And Cheese to be made in the microwave so super fast and doable in the morning) and the quantities for each recipe are perfect for one.
The last sections of the book are dedicated to methods such as “Rolled Meat Variations” or Omelette variations and Accents with instructions on how to cut some of the fruit and veg used to decorate the bento. There is also a section on ingredients and their recipes divided by color so you can even plan your bento – for example cheesy spinach for green (instead of just steamed or boiled spinach) or quick quiche in a muffin foil for yellow – based on what's in your fridge.
The book may not have over 500 bentos but I found it infinitely more useful than the one that did.