The Beauty of the Lunch Box

When looking at a Google Maps layout of the small Taiwanese coastal city of Taitung, you can find plenty of restaurants that are common in any city, ranging from Korean bibimbap to Japanese ramen. However, there’s one common type of establishment less familiar to the Western observer – Lunch Box Supplier.

To me, the phrase “Lunch Box Supplier” (hereby shortened to LBS) evokes nostalgic images of my childhood – memories of zippered lunch boxes purchased at Target, memories that conjure up the taste of pre-cut ham sandwiches, apple slices, and Oreo cookies. But the lunch-boxes sold by LBS in Taiwan are not the ones fondly remembered from my childhood, those Target-inspired cloth bags. In fact, they don’t even target schoolchildren as their main demographic. Instead, the primary customers are adults and as a result, the boxes are one of the most common forms of lunch in the country. Moreover, for a foreigner in Taiwan like myself, they can provide an insightful example of how Taiwanese culture approaches food, meals, and the environment.


The prevalence of Lunch Box Suppliers is no fad – lunch boxes are a popular and thriving business in the Taiwanese culinary industry. Originally conceived as a convenient midday meal for long railway trips, Taiwanese lunch boxes (known as bian dang 便當, literally meaning “convenient” in Chinese) are an offspring of the Japanese bento box but it has developed a vibrant culture of its own. While still commonly purchased for consumption on a train, LBS have become more than just a rail station necessity and are now a common sight in most Taiwanese cities. The bian dang offers a quick and reliable meal for everyone from the businessman to the teacher. Individuals can grab one on the way to the office or companies can order them as a convenient form of catering for employees. The meals are usually packaged in flat rectangular boxes, ideal for transportation in large amounts on the back of a delivery scooter or stacked high on a train aisle.


While the convenience of the meal and prevalence of the suppliers contributes to the popularity in Taiwan, the food breakdown of the bian dang also reveals some insights about local food attitudes with its emphasis on a diversity of food groups, creating a holistic meal in a neat package. Nearly every standard box will have a white rice base, topped with fish, meat, or fake meat in a section that takes up approximately 30% of the box. The rest of the box usually contains three or four other partitioned sections, each with a different fruit, vegetable, or xiaochi (small snacks). This structure allows each meal to offer up to five or six distinct foods, which contrasts with the large mono-portions common in American lunches.



When considered only in the context of Taiwan, this diversity of portions mentioned above might not be remarkable. But compared to most of my lunches in the United States, it’s quite different. First, the amount of meat is usually less in a Taiwanese lunch box. Rather than a common American lunch with one large portion of a main food (meat, fish, etc) to fill you up and one or two side dishes to round out the meal, the dian bang emphasizes the importance of diversifying your diet with no single food forming a majority of the meal. Instead of filling up on more and more of the same food, you can try a variety of different fruits and vegetables in one meal, leading you to feel more full with less food. It also quite literally forces you to touch on nearly every part of the food pyramid by creating a pocket for each food group. The structure of the bian dang, similar to the habit of eating family-style at restaurants, is an example of how Taiwan values both convenience and diversity of dishes within a meal.

Lastly, the Taiwanese attitudes towards sustainability are evident when you finish your lunch box. Originally, the bian dang was sold at the train station in a reusable metal box, with a worker patrolling the aisles after lunch to pick up the used metal boxes for future uses. After many customers failed to return the metal box, rendering the system economically inefficient, the railway dealers opted for plastic boxes, which is the most common form today both on railway cars and in city shops.

The actual lunch box is usually made of a material similar to Chinese take-out containers in the United States and one I would commonly toss in the trash back home. But instead of tossing your lunch box, you wash it out and stack it in the recycling bins. Any leftover food goes in the compost tub, which I’ve noticed remains impressively empty most of the time – not because of a lack of adherence to composting but because people tend to finish nearly all of their food here, perhaps as a result of the stigma of tossing too much edible food in the pile. Bring your own reusable chopsticks and you’ve arrived at a nearly zero-waste meal. Overall, the eco-friendly practices involved with the lunch box system demonstrate the generally sustainable steps Taiwan has taken in developing their food system. And although the Taiwanese dian bang is merely one cog in that food system, there are countless other practices I’ve observed that I’ll be examining in future essays. Hope you enjoyed.

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