Remember the good ol' days when your parents packed you an oversized plastic box adorned with a faded picture of your favorite He-Man, Smurfs or Rainbow Bright characters (I bet you can’t guess what decade I grew up in) with a sandwich and some chips and an apple and called it a day? Not anymore. Lunch—even for kids—is more complicated now. We are much warier of portion sizes, food waste, plastic consumption and the type and quality of food we pack for school lunches.
We found the best lunch containers for storing all kinds of lunches, including sandwiches, salads, and grain bowls.
Instead of a giant hard box we have a whole new class of lunch boxes designed to accommodate the more complicated, multi-component meals we're packing these days. There are bento boxes and stainless-steel boxes, lunch boxes that go right in the freezer, and ones that are more stylish than some of the purses I own. There are a dizzying variety of designs—so I tested what was out there to determine the best for packing a kid's lunch in 2019. Bearing in mind that I couldn’t test every brand, I aimed to test a wide array of types of lunch boxes to figure out what was really the best out there for each lunch-packer's specific needs.
Best Overall Lunch Box: YumBox
There’s a reason people have jumped on the bento box bandwagon—it makes it very easy to pack multiple lunch components and sauces without using any plastic baggies. Although the YumBox has a variety of sizes, we liked the one that was still big enough to put a sandwich or main dish on one side. The box also has two smaller sections, which I used for cut fruits and vegetables—and small amounts of leftovers from dinner the night before. It also has a small round compartment that's perfect for condiments. The food stayed in its proper section and didn’t get mixed up (a pet peeve of my kids!) even after a fair amount of jostling.
This lunch box is also super easy to clean. Although it’s dishwasher safe, it's removable tray makes it just as simple to pop out the tray and hand rinse it after school. It's also easy for kids to use. Both my 4 and 7-year-old could open and close the box with no issues and could carry it easily in their backpacks.
This Bento Box is narrow, which makes it easy to slide into a small backpack. The downside, though, is that it can't hold an ice pack and it doesn't have a handle, so it can't be carried separately. Many of the companies suggest a carrying case, which seems slightly counterintuitive and is just another thing for your child to forget at school.
Best Traditional Lunchbox: Pottery Barn McKenzie
Bento Boxes aren’t for everyone, especially the kid that doesn’t like too much variety in their lunch. If thinking of what to put in a bento box starts to feel stressful, go the traditional soft case route. This one is large enough to hold reusable containers—and even a small insulated lunch container for hot soups—so you don’t have to use plastic baggies. (You do have to worry about whether or not your kids will bring home all of the extra containers you pack.) It was the most spacious of the lunch containers I tried and has plenty of room for an ice pack of any size (in fact it has a pocket you can easily slide an ice pack into) and a side pocket for a water bottle as well. Since this is a cloth lunch container, it won't go in the dishwasher. However, the BPA-free plastic interior is super easy to wipe down.
These finish quality on the exterior of the lunch box can’t be beat—unlike many soft lunch box options, it's well made, with high-quality zippers and straps. It's easy to carry on its own and comes in every imaginable pattern or color (plus there are glow-in-the-dark and monogramming options).
Best for Packing a Hot Lunch
The Omiebox makes it possible to pack a hot lunch for your child, if that's your thing. It has a stainless steel bowl that screws right into a compartment of the bento- style box. The bowl is small—the perfect size for a cup of soup or some leftover pasta—and keeps the food warm, not hot, so you can rest easy that it won’t be too hot for kids to eat (the container isn't double-walled so it won't keep things warm forever, but in my testing hot food lasted until lunch easily). Since it screws into a bento box with other compartments, you can actually pack cold foods right next to the hot food. If you decide not to serve a warmer style lunch that day, the bowl easily pops out.
The only downside is that this box is a little heavier than the other lunch boxes out there and the price point is higher as well. If you aren’t regularly serving warm foods, this box probably isn't worth it for you.
How I Tested
I tested these lunch boxes from the perspective of both parent and child: I packed lunches in them for my kids and I used them myself as well. We used each lunchbox multiple times over a few weeks. I packed various lunches in each, then cleaned and repacked them. We evaluated how they performed going from backpack to cafeteria to home.
The Factors I Looked For
Are they easy to clean?
I send lunch to school for two kids, five days a week. It's essential that the lunch box, when it arrives home at the end of the day (hopefully, is easy to toss in the dishwasher or quickly rinse out.
How much other stuff do I need to use to pack a lunch?
Some lunch boxes, like bentos, contain compartments which means you won't need any baggies or separate containers. Generally this was a bonus, although it can tend to limit the size of the container. If you tend to pack a large large with fewer individual components, a large box without compartments could be preferable. I looked at how much extra stuff was required to pack a lunch in the boxes, bearing these differences in preference in mind.
Are they easy to open?
Once these boxes leave my house it’s my little guys who need to open them. If they can’t, this doesn’t work for me.
Do they have curb appeal?
Less important, but still important to my kids, was how these lunch boxes looked. There are so many rules around what they can pack in their lunch boxes, it’s nice to still sport a box that has a little style.
Are they easy to carry?
Do they take up too much room in the backpack? Are they too heavy? Are they easy to carry from the classroom to the lunchroom?
Other Products I Tested
I have friends who rave about stainless-steel lunch boxes and I know the material is better than plastic in many ways, but after one day of testing the Lunchbots container, I didn't like how it returned with grubby fingerprints all over the box —plus, the boxes needed to be hand-washed every time, which was a deal-breaker.
I also tested a classic Thermos lunch kit, which is a great price point if you don’t want to shell out a lot of money for a standard lunchbox, but its finish quality is lower than the winning Pottery Barn soft lunch box and Amazon reviews often reported that the zippers broke after only a few uses.
The Packit is great because it has built-in freezable gel, and thus doesn’t need an ice pack. But, it’s just a wide open container without compartments, meaning it requires a lot of extra containers or bags. And we often forgot to throw it in the freezer prior to packing it.
We loved it the Rubbermaid lunchblox in theory—its containers attach right to the ice pack, which was cool. Although it worked well, it was cumbersome for our kids to carry without a bag (it needs to be carried like a tray).
Choosing the right lunch box is subjective and based on the kinds of lunches you pack, the restrictions of your child's school, and their individual preferences. If your kids are game for trying new foods (or that’s your goal!) then the bento style YumBox is the way to go. Pickier kids are probably better suited for a traditional lunchbox like the Pottery Barn McKenzie, and those who want to bring warm food to school should try the Omiebox.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious