The Best Lunch Coolers of 2018By Julia MacDougall
Whether you’re sticking to a strict diet, trying to save money, or have food cravings that no restaurant or cafeteria can sate, there’s one tried-and-true method of achieving your goal: bringing your lunch to school or work. If your food is perishable and you can’t brown bag it, or if there’s no guarantee that you’ll be near a refrigerator in the immediate future, investing in a lunch cooler—like the Stanley Adventure Cooler (available at Amazon for $41.93), or an insulated lunch bag—like the Packit Freezable Lunch Bag (available at Amazon for $20), is a good idea.
There are a ton of lunch-carrying options, each with their own sets of pros and cons, but don’t worry, we’ve got your back. We investigated the temperature control, usability, and versatility of eight lunch containers, including both small coolers and insulated/freezable lunch bags to find the best for you. Here's how they ranked:
- Coleman 9-can Soft-Sided Cooler with Hard Liner
- Stanley Adventure Cooler
- YETI Hopper Flip 8 Soft-Sided Cooler
- Clevermade SnapBasket 30-can Soft-Sided Collapsible Cooler
- Igloo Playmate Elite Personal Cooler
- Packit Freezable Lunch Bag
- Rubbermaid LunchPak Insulated Freezable Lunch Bag
- L. L. Bean Lunch Box
To see which option is best for you, read on.
Updated September 21, 2018
Coleman 9-can Soft Cooler
Coleman 9-can Soft CoolerBest Overall
Best for: work/school lunch, car trips, events where it would only be carried over short distances.
The Coleman 9-can Soft Cooler is a small, soft-sided lunch container that really earns the “cooler” title. Its carrying strap, removable hard liner, and extra storage options make it a great lunch bag for adults.
After being packed full of frozen ballast and an extra ice pack (and using the hard liner), this cooler maintained temperatures below 40°F for about six and a half hours, which is nothing to sneeze at; it will be enough to preserve the integrity of your turkey sub until you can dig into it at lunch time.
This cooler, both with and without the hard lining, is big enough to store an adult-sized lunch. It fits at least two or more plastic containers, and more than two sandwich bags. The concave nature of the top of the cooler means that you can sit a plastic water bottle upright without squishing it. Additionally, if you need slightly more room, you can remove the hard liner, and the soft-sided cooler will have enough give to squeeze in a few more items. If you don't need all of the space, though, the hard liner acts as a form of crush protection.
This cooler is probably too big to be packed inside a backpack; it’s meant to be carried by its short, padded carrying strap.
While the carrying strap is very convenient, it is not actually long enough for the cooler to be carried on your back. The strap is so short so that it can really only be carried by hand or thrown over one shoulder.
Another neat feature of this Coleman cooler is the multiple storage options. The elastic side-pockets and bungee cord on top that are perfect for cutlery or napkins, and the front zippered pocket and elastic pocket on the inside of the top of the cooler are ideal for an additional ice pack or two.
When using the Coleman, be sure to keep it upright: user reviews have reported that any liquids inside will leak out if it's tipped over. Also watch out for crumbs and liquids that get stuck in or absorbed into the wrinkly liner material.
The bottom line: The Coleman 9-can Soft Cooler is a versatile lunch bag with a ton of storage options that can keep your sandwiches and salads cool for more than six hours.
Stanley 16 Qt Adventure Cooler
Stanley 16 Qt Adventure CoolerBest for Temperature Control
Best for: small family picnics, a day at the beach, lunch at work if you’re outdoors all day.
If your day at school or work involves spending long hours away from a refrigerator or air conditioning, then you really need a lunch container that can keep its cool like the Stanley Adventure Cooler.
With its superior temperature protection, this cooler was still maintaining temperatures below 40°F after more than 24 hours of testing outside during a hot summer day. The credit for maintaining cold temperatures is split between the strong rubber seal at the top of the cooler and the cooler's “roto-molded” construction, which was popularized by high-end Yeti coolers in the early 2000s.
Roto-molding creates cooler walls that have a more uniform thickness, which increases its durability and insulation ability. The downside of this manufacturing method is that the cooler weighs about six pounds when it’s empty. While that doesn’t sound like much, it’s a noticeable weight difference compared to similarly-sized (non-roto-molded) coolers, which typically weigh about four pounds. Those extra two pounds made it awkward and cumbersome to carry around an office environment, especially when it's filled to capacity.
The small bungee cord included on the top of the cooler lid is a neat storage option. It's designed to allow you to quickly store small items such as cutlery and napkins. The bungee itself is adjustable, and can be arranged to tie down a variety of objects, but make sure you don't attach anything too heavy: if you do, the cooler can tip over while being carried.
The bottom line: If you like meat or cold cuts in your lunch, then you really need a cooler like the Stanley Adventure Cooler that can keep your food chilling all day at safe temperatures.
How We Tested
Hi, I’m Julia MacDougall, the Senior Scientist at Reviewed. I’ve been bringing my lunch to work/school for a long time, so I had lots of feelings and opinions about this topic. I’ve tested a wide variety of items in the past, including smart thermostats, backpacks, and fire extinguishers, so I’m used to helping people navigate through tons of products to find the one that is the best fit.
What do I mean when I say “lunch coolers”?
In my opinion, there are three major types of lunch coolers:
Small coolers – these are hard- or soft-sided coolers that have a maximum capacity of about 20 to 30 cans (about 15-20 quarts). They’re meant to sit upright, and typically do not fit in backpacks or other luggage. They are typically used in conjunction with ice or ice packs. Examples: Stanley Adventure Cooler, Clevermade SnapBasket 30-can Soft-Sided Collapsible Cooler, Coleman 9-can Soft Cooler with Hard Liner, Yeti Hopper Flip 8, Igloo Playmate Elite
Insulated lunch bags with freezer gel built in – these are bags that have insulated walls and can be put into the freezer overnight to activate the built-in freezing gel. They may be used in conjunction with ice packs, although the freezer gel typically works well enough. They do not have to sit upright, and can fit in backpacks and other luggage (but may be crushed in doing so). Examples: Packit Freezable Lunch Bag, Rubbermaid LunchPak Insulated Freezable Lunch Bag
Insulated bags – these are bags that have insulated walls that will provide more temperature protection than a regular brown paper bag. If you are trying to keep food cold, they must be used in conjunction with ice packs. They do not have to sit upright, and can fit in backpacks and other luggage (but may be crushed in doing so). Examples: L. L. Bean Lunch Box
From testing refrigerators, I know that products that are meant to preserve cool temperatures can cool more efficiently when they are packed with frozen material. Basically, if there’s lots of empty air, it’s harder for a lunch bag to keep food cold because it has to fight against the ambient air trapped inside the bag, which is typically much warmer (i.e. room temperature) than the food that just came out of the fridge/freezer.
With that knowledge, and after freezing the two freezable lunch bags overnight, I packed each lunch cooler up to (or nearly up to) capacity with ice ballast (basically, ice in plastic containers) and a temperature data collector, which resides in methylcellulose goo. This goo is a proxy for lean meat; by placing a temperature data logger in the methylcellulose, we can get a good read on how food temperatures would change over time.
If some of the coolers still had major air gaps to fill, I threw some ice or some ice packs. Otherwise, I let the bags/coolers themselves do the heavy-lifting, temperature-wise.
Then, I left the bags outside overnight, where they experienced a day/night cycle on a hot summer day here in New England. During the course of testing, I opened and closed each cooler twice in rapid succession. Afterwards, I collected the temperature data, and looked to see how long it took for the temperature inside each lunch cooler to surpass 40°F.
This temperature is the beginning of the "danger zone" for bacteria; it’s the point at which eating cold cuts starts to become a dicey prospect.
Apart from the raw temperature data, I also opened, closed, lifted, and carried these coolers around. I wanted to get a feel for how user-friendly and portable each lunch cooler was.
Other Lunch Coolers We Tested
YETI Hopper Flip 8
YETI Hopper Flip 8
Best for: outdoor adventures, times when you can’t afford to have a leak.
Yeti's reputation as a company that makes durable but expensive products is well-deserved. Its Hopper Flip 8 should make any person braving the elements with food and beverages (and with some disposable income) a happy customer.
In my experience, the Hopper Flip was able to keep the contents of the cooler below 40°F for just over six and a half hours, despite not pre-chilling the cooler (one option mentioned in the user manual). That’s plenty of time to keep some adult beverages or some sandwiches cool during a day hike or a workday in the concrete jungle. To prolong the cooler’s cold conditions, Yeti also recommends block ice, rock salt, and/or Yeti ice.
Between the Hopper’s stiff insulation and tough fabric, it’s rigid enough that it can survive being bounced around on the back of a four-wheeler, and will provide a decent amount of crush protection if it happens to get lost at the bottom of a luggage pile.
With a carrying strap, handle, and tie-down options, it's clear that Yeti wants you to be able to take this cooler with you wherever you go, in whatever way is easiest to carry. I personally found the strap to be really useful; it’s long enough that it can be thrown across your back, and has a thick shoulder pad with textured fabric that will prevent it from sliding off of your shoulder.
One of the biggest selling points of the Yeti Hopper Flip is the zipper. Unlike other zippers, it’s not stitched into the lining of this soft cooler; it’s embedded into its fabric. This combined with the lack of stitching on the inside of the cooler essentially makes this cooler leakproof. If you’re ever afraid that your cooler is going to fall into a river, or worried about leaks from the cooler ruining the rest of your stuff, the Hopper Flip will give you peace of mind.
On the other hand, the zipper’s strength can be problematic at times. While Yeti provides zipper lubricant to make the zipper easier to operate, it’s really tough to pull, and you’ll need two hands to open it. If you expect to be opening and closing your cooler constantly, this may not be the cooler for you.
Most die-hard Yeti fans who try out the Hopper Flip maintain their status as loyal Yeti customers, whether they used this during a fishing expedition or a lunch cooler for a day at the office. However, with a cost of about $200, some customers felt as though they’d paid too much, and that the cooler didn’t keep its cool any better than a regular cooler did; others mentioned the fact that the thick insulation significantly reduced the available storage space.
The bottom line: The Yeti Hopper Flip 8 is a very expensive cooler, but consider it a sound investment if you need a cooler that can take a lot of damage, doesn’t leak, and still keep your perishables cool.
CleverMade SnapBasket Cooler, 30 Cans
Where To Buy$20.01 Amazon Buy
CleverMade SnapBasket Cooler, 30 Cans
Best for: picnics, lunch and one or two beverages, cookouts.
If you want all of the capacity of a regular cooler without the arm strain of lugging it around everywhere, then the Clevermade SnapBasket is for you.
This cooler was able to beat the summer heat by maintaining interior temperatures below the bacteria “danger zone” of 40°F for nearly seven hours, with the help of the frozen ballast we used for testing purposes, and a couple extra ice packs.
The major selling point of this cooler is its collapsible nature. The sides of the basket easily snap into place; then, by pressing gently on the side of the cooler, it collapses down into a relatively flat profile that makes storage a breeze. On the other hand, some user reviews report that the cooler sometimes collapsed when it was bumped accidentally or when something heavier was placed on top of it.
With carrying handles or a strap that’s long enough to be thrown across your back, you can easily carry this cooler for long distance without wanting to drop it. While its soft-sided nature may not be the best for the beach, it’s great for hiking or camping. As a lunch bag, it may be a bit on the larger side of what the average person needs, but if you are bringing food and multiple beverages, or lunch for more than one person, this cooler easily accommodates those needs. The bottle opener sewn into one of the carrying handles is also a nice little bonus.
One downside is that there’s no additional storage anywhere on the outside of the cooler. While it’s true that there’s plenty of room inside the cooler, it’s always nice to have a few pockets on the outside in case you need to pack something small at the last minute.
The bottom line: This Clevermade cooler is portable, easy to store, and has more than enough space to fit a single person’s lunch needs.
Igloo Playmate Elite 16 Qt. Cooler
Igloo Playmate Elite 16 Qt. Cooler
Best for: a day at the beach, those who work outside, picnics.
The Igloo Playmate Elite cooler is a variation on one of the oldest (and most nostalgia-inducing) coolers on the market. Its straightforward design and impressive cooling ability make it an easy choice to bring along on a day at the beach.
Over the course of a day, the Igloo Playmate Elite was able to maintain cool temperatures below 40°F for over seven and a half hours.
The cooler is spacious, and its angled top means that it can also fit taller drinks. By pressing the button on the handle, the cooler’s top smoothly slides to either side, making it easy to open with one hand. Compared to the other coolers I tested, though, the Igloo feels a bit less durable and more breakable; the top of the cooler felt particularly rickety at times. When full, the cooler can also be awkward and heavy to carry for long distances, since the only carrying option is by its handle. In my opinion, it’s also just a bit too big for an office setting, but it’s perfect for those who work outdoors.
As for other people who’ve used this cooler, most were very happy with their purchase, especially considering its low price of ~$20. Others had problems with the button on the handle; its location means that it is easy to open the cooler accidentally. The other major complaint about this cooler is that the cooler isn’t sealed, so if it tips over, any liquids can easily leak out.
The bottom line: There’s a reason why this is a staple of construction workers everywhere: this cooler gets the job done with its long cooling time and easy open.
PackIt Freezable Lunch Bag
PackIt Freezable Lunch Bag
Best for: adult lunches, bottle storage for babysitting/day care.
As the name implies, the Packit Freezable Lunch Bag has freezer gel built into the lining of the back that, when frozen the night before, can keep your food cold on the go.
After freezing it overnight, and supplementing it with an additional ice pack, the Packit maintained temperatures lower than 40°F for just over five hours.
In its “storage” configuration, the Packit can be folded in half and kept in the freezer overnight (where it takes up about as much room as a clutch purse); when it’s being used, it unfolds, and is about the same size and shape as a textbook. The bag zippers shut, and it also has a flap that fastens shut with Velcro. You could definitely fit an adult-sized lunch in here, but lunch AND a beverage AND an ice pack might be a tight squeeze.
The Packit also has a handle on top; with its built-in snap buckle, it is easy to attach it to a hiking bag or any other luggage. Unfortunately, the Velcro is not strong enough to continue to stay closed after the repeated bouncing it might experience on a hiking trail, so we recommend storing it in a backpack, rather than carrying it manually.
A fair number of user reviews reported that the Velcro came off of the bag or failed to keep the outside flap shut, which renders the Packit’s handle ineffective. Additionally, because some of the bag’s stitching is actually inside the bag and on the insulated lining, it may be more susceptible to retaining crumbs and smells from spills.
The bottom line: This freezable lunch bag is great for preserving your lunch for a few hours, but the unreliable Velcro means that it should be stashed in a backpack or bag, rather than carried by hand.
Where To Buy$12.99 Amazon Buy
Best for: kids’ lunches, small adult lunches/snacks, keeping drinks cool during car trips.
The Rubbermaid LunchPak uses the freezable gel inside its lining to help your kids keep their lunches cool on their way to school.
After freezing it overnight, and despite the fact that I didn't include an additional freezer pack (due to its small size), this lunch bag maintained temperatures lower than 40°F for about four hours.
In the freezer, the LunchPak can be folded up so that it's about the size of a Nintendo 3DS (albeit a bit thicker). When it’s unfolded and used for food storage, its capacity is ideal for kids’ lunches, where the food is stored in sandwich bags, rather than normal-sized plastic containers.
To optimize space, Rubbermaid sells a set of smaller plastic containers (the Rubbermaid Lunchblox Sandwich Kit) that are meant to fit the “small” LunchPak, and comes with a small ice pack. We recommend buying that Lunchblox Sandwich Kit, since it is difficult to fit a larger ice pack inside the LunchPak, in addition to food or beverages. Fortunately, there’s additional storage on the outside of the LunchPak, where a pocket attached to the main zippered compartment can fit a small water bottle.
You can carry the LunchPak by using the handles that Velcro together, or it can easily be tossed into a backpack. Unfortunately, there is little crush protection, so be sure that anything packed in the LunchPak can survive being squished.
In user reviews, many parents mentioned that they love the LunchPak for their kids because it is well-made, easy to clean with a damp cloth, and can endure any rough handling from little ones. However, it may be too heavy for small children to carry when the gel is fully frozen and it’s packed full of treats.
The bottom line: The Rubbermaid LunchPak is a freezable lunch bag that is ideal for kids’ lunches and for adults who want to keep some beverages cool for a few hours in the summer heat.
L. L. Bean Lunch Box
Where To Buy$19.95 L.L. Bean Buy
L. L. Bean Lunch Box
Best for: kids' lunches, as a packing cube for a trip.
The L. L. Bean Lunch Box is a classic for a reason: it’s simple, well-made, and comes in a variety of colors and customization options.
With the help of an additional ice pack, the L. L. Bean Lunch Box maintained temperatures lower than 40°F for about two and a half hours. To keep food cool until lunch time, we recommend using at least two ice packs.
L. L. Bean’s reputation for high-quality products is well deserved. This lunchbox is well-constructed, and has very few moving parts in order to minimize ripping or breaking. The lunchbox typically lies flat, and can comfortably fit two water bottles and an ice pack. It is just large enough to fit a flat, square plastic container, but you might have trouble packing more than one of those containers into the lunchbox. It is ideally sized for a sandwich in a sandwich bag, a few snacks, and an ice pack or two.
This lunchbox has a carrying handle, as well as two additional storage options: a zippered pocket on the outside that is best for flat objects, like cutlery and napkins, and a mesh pocket on the inside of the top of the lunchbox, which is a great place for an ice pack to be stored. However, some users mentioned that they had trouble fitting a full lunch and a beverage into the lunchbox because of it's low, flat profile.
While packing a big lunch may be problematic, many parents loved the fact that these lunch boxes were durable enough to last for more than one or two school years. Others also noted that the lack of seams on the inside of the lunch box made it easy to clean, with the exception of the white liner, which is easily stained by food or beverage spills.
The bottom line: With a few extra ice packs, this L. L. Bean Lunch Box can be your kid’s lunch co-pilot for years to come.