Finding new and interesting ways to pack a nutritious school lunch is not easy. Whether you're hoping to inspire your picky eater to try new foods, or you're a parent who prefers to pack elaborate lunches, the right lunch box can make it easier.
We tested 11 different reusable lunch boxes and insulated lunch bags over the course of six weeks, and the LunchBots Large Trio(available at Amazon) was the winner for packing the perfect lunch. We love the LunchBots Large Trio for many reasons, but most of all because it offers kids variety, which makes lunch exciting, and because it's crafted from sturdy stainless steel which is long lasting and—unlike plastic—doesn’t leach chemicals into the food.
For a less expensive option, we like the Cal Tiffin because it's lightweight and washes well in the dishwasher.
Here are the best lunch boxes and lunch bags we tested ranked, in order:
LunchBots Large Trio
LunchBots Insulated Container
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The bento-style presentation makes those little foodies swoon and even catches the interest of the most discriminating eater. Essentially, it makes lunch fun. My daughter has been using the LunchBots Bento for two school years, and when we started testing, we didn’t realize that it would end up being the top choice.
It’s hard to beat this box, which allows for food variety and is also lighter and easier to transport than others. Foods stay separate thanks to the cute compartments, and the durable stainless steel stands up to heavy use without seriously marring the mirror-like shine. I want products to last and get super frustrated when things become trash bound for the landfill, so I loved that this could easily be in our family for many years.
One drawback to the LunchBots Bento is that it doesn’t come with an insulated carrying case, but I hand-stitched a drawstring pouch for use with an ice pack. If you’re not crafty, you can purchase separate pouches, but there’s also a good chance that this lunch box will fit into an insulated bag that you already own.
I really like the simplicity of the LunchBots Bento box, but there are some things to consider. Even though they are designed for easy dishwasher cleaning, there are some areas of the LunchBots Bento that need deep cleaning—the dividers are soldered to the interior and therefore edges are exposed and collect particles over time; I use a wooden skewer on those hard-to-reach spots. The lid is not attached so it could easily be left behind by a distracted child, and it's not leak proof. Lunches like meatballs with sauce will need to be put into a separate insulated container.
This carrier with its Indian-inspired style is reasonably priced, and it's durable. You can slip it into a cloth drawstring bag, add an ice pack, and be on your way. It is far from leak-proof and we found that juicier fruits and sauces made a mess—but it carries dry food well and it’s light and easy to use. The double-layer tray is perfect for separating foods: For example, cheese and fruit at the bottom allows the crackers on the top level to stay crisp. It’s also large enough for a sandwich, with carrot sticks or chips on the bottom and fruit on the top. It’s light enough for my daughter to carry easily, and cleans up wonderfully well in the dishwasher.
Hi, I’m Lisa Lawrence, Mom to Isla, age 8, and a freelance photographer for Reviewed. I’m on a mission to find fun, easy-to-use, non-toxic and eco-friendly gear for busy families who barely have time to order the products—never mind research them. A well-made product has the potential to be passed down to family and friends, or re-sold. Could it become a family heirloom? That’s pushing it but you never know! I like to find products that will not find their way to the landfill too soon.
First, we tested each of the lunch boxes in the Reviewed lab to see how long they could maintain hot or cold temperatures. We filled each lunch box with a few items including a sandwich with an ice pack on top and a temperature sensor in between the slices of bread. We let them sit overnight at room temperature and then looked at how long it took for the temperatures to rise above 40 degrees, which is the lower end of the bacteria danger-zone. The warm containers were tested with hot tomato sauce and meatballs, and temperatures were measured to see how long the lunchboxes maintained a safe, above 90-degree temperature.
Once the lab testing was finished, I tested each of the lunch boxes for six weeks and also took the So Young insulated bag, Cal Tiffin box, Monka containers and PlanetBox dippers on vacation. I packed a regular lunch into each lunch box, which included a sandwich, a snack and one or two freezer packs. I checked for leaks by pouring one cup of water inside each lunch box, then I closed it, and tipped it from side to side in an effort to mimic the jostling a lunch box would get in a busy grade schooler's backpack. I also got my 8-year-old involved in the testing by packing a full lunch in each box, which she took to school in her backpack—if it fit—or she carried solo.
What to Consider Before Purchasing a Kids Lunch Box or Lunch Bag
Ice packs are not a substitute for refrigeration
While parents may not think about the food safety aspect when purchasing a lunch box, it’s vital for lunch containers to have enough insulation to be able to maintain cold temperatures for a few hours, especially when lunch involves some sort of meat or other food item that spoils quickly. An insulated bag does not act like refrigeration, nor does it bring the air temperature inside to the food-safe level, even with an ice pack.
Insulated bags let heat escape quickly
An insulated soft bag does not protect the lunch’s heat. If you want your child to be able to enjoy warm foods for lunch, you'll need to invest in an insulated lunch container that's better equipped to keep foods hot.
The age of your child(ren)
Reusable lunch boxes, especially if they're metal, can be really heavy for little kids to carry. Preschoolers have smaller appetites and don't need to be weighed down by a giant, unwieldy lunch box, but older children may need one of the larger options that can hold more food.
If it fits in a backpack
Kids who commute on subway trains or city buses need to be able to have their hands free to scan Metro cards and hold on to rails. Choosing a lunch box or lunch bag that fits inside their backpack will help keep their hands free—and reduce the risk that they'll leave their lunch sitting on a bus seat or subway turnstile.
Real talk: kids are prone to losing things. If you have a child who consistently misplaces their lunch box and you find yourself buying replacements on a bi-monthly basis, it probably doesn't make sense for you to spend a lot of money on a lunch box. Opt for a more affordable choice that you're comfortable (possibly) having to replace a few times.
Other Lunch Boxes and Lunch Bags for Kids We Tested
LunchBots Thermal 8oz
For transporting hot food, you can’t beat the LunchBots Thermal container. When combined with the LunchBots Bento this makes the perfect reusable lunch box wardrobe.
The LunchBots Thermal container outperformed all the other lunch boxes for keeping hot foods at a safe—and tasty—temperature. One thing to note is that you do have to plan ahead and prepare the container with hot water; I boil, fill halfway, and let it stand while preparing the lunch. I then dump the water out in order to fill the container with food and place the lid on.
We love this container for use with warm-lunch options, and it's great for serving leftovers at school. It's also dishwasher safe and holds up to hard use without issue.
If you follow Weelicious, you’ve likely seen The PlanetBox Rover all over her Instagram. Filling the small spaces with charming bites is awesome and the sturdy stainless steel is long-lasting.
My 8-year-old really looked forward to eating lunch out of the PlanetBox Rover. The bento-style, with minimal effort, allows you to create food-as-art whether you are opening a bag of popcorn or cookie cutting heart-shaped slices of cheese. Made of stainless steel, this container has five squares to fill, and although the spaces look shallow, my daughter’s chicken sandwich, chips, sliced peaches, berries, and a green salad or green beans fit with extra space for a chocolate treat. The volume of each square increases with the extra space in the lid and the depth is actually perfect for holding the food in place. The set comes with two leak-proof “Dippers” that make carrying salad dressing painless and kept the fruit from tasting like vinegar. The lid is connected to the base with a durable stainless hinge, so the tray will make it home in one piece. Rover is easy to open and close with a sturdy metal fastener that slides into a groove.
However, there are a few drawbacks to the PlanetBox. The insulated lunch bag has to be purchased separately which brings the grand total for this lunch box to almost $70. The PlanetBox bento is a generously-sized rectangle, so it does not fit into other mass market insulated bags, and it's way too heavy for preschoolers. When I poured water into the PlanetBox to test for leaks it lost every single drop. There is nothing waterproof about the bento tray, but the two round containers with silicone rubber lids did not leak, so as long as you can pack a relatively dry lunch with all sauces, dips, and dressings in the small containers, your child shouldn’t end up with a soggy sandwich.
The PlanetBox is incredibly durable and the brushed metal doesn’t show scratches, nor does it pop or bend. And cleaning is easy in the dishwasher. My daughter liked to design her lunch in this PlanetBox Rover, which means she actually wanted to help pack it.
If the lunch includes meats and needs to be cold, this bag is a good choice. You keep it in the freezer when not in use so that it’s frozen at the start. The whole bag is basically one big ice pack. It keeps the food quite cold, and was the top performer in our cold food-safe temperature test.
To clean the Pack-it, wipe it down with warm sudsy water but do not put it in the dishwasher or laundry. It has a generously-sized interior and accommodates reusable lunch boxes of various shapes and sizes.
My daughter and I both liked the design of this lunch box; the colors are bright and the shape is beautiful. The thing that sets the OmieBox apart is the removable insulated container. The idea of a hot & cold lunch within one lunch box is awesome. However, even though it was able to retain some heat, it cooled down more quickly than needed. What’s more, the Omie is primarily made out of plastic and even though it’s BPA free, I worry about chemicals leaching into my daughter’s food.
My sister-in-law bought this box but discontinued use after her kindergartener struggled with the bulk and the weight; the little one also had difficulty opening and closing the latch. Parenting Editor, Anna Lane, noted that her kids also struggled with unscrewing the top of the insulated container. The Omie Box is dishwasher-safe on the top rack, though it is recommend to remove it before the heat-dry cycle.
The Tavva stainless steel container has a leak-proof, non-toxic, silicone lid. On the one hand, this lid is great because not only did it pass the leak test with flying colors, the flexible silicone lets you stretch it over a round piece of fruit that is just a smidge too big to fit under a more structured material. At the same time, the lid is so floppy that it’s not easy to get back on the container and was difficult for my daughter to use. For an adult, I like this container. It’s simple, useful, pretty, and dishwasher-safe.
The SoYoung insulated bag is super light and has a pleasing design. I liked its eco-friendly materials and even though it’s on the smaller side, it easily fit the Cal Tiffin, one Monka and both the big and little dipper from PlanetBox—all at once. At $26 it is on the higher end of insulated bags. Cleaning is a cinch—it can be laundered in the machine on delicate and the removable insert allows for a daily wipe down.
The Yumbox insulated bag has a classic look, is generously-sized and fits a range of bento-type boxes. I wanted to test it because of its low price, and at less than $20 it’s a solid choice. While it's not machine washable, it is easy to clean with a simple wipe-down.
I loved the idea of this lunch box when I saw it online. An insulated metal container is filled with two or three separate containers, ideal for a warm and cold food lunch.
The Vayya Tiffin performed well in our food temperature lab tests, and while my daughter liked the artwork on the box she felt it was tricky to use. I don’t love that it has plastic lids, and the whole system is surprisingly heavy. There is an attached handle for carrying or you can put it in an insulated bag/mat, which is definitely cool—it unzips all the way and becomes a placemat. There are many parts which risk getting lost and many crevices and edges that are difficult to clean. Some parts are dishwasher-safe, but the base and outer shell can not be immersed in water and must be wiped-down by hand.
I was interested in the leak-proof tops and the nesting storage of these boxes, but in the end, I prefer not to use plastic if I can help it. Even if you are okay with the plastic lids, these are really difficult to open. My daughter struggled and pulled so hard that she almost dumped her entire container of lunch on the floor. The suction makes sense because they are leak proof, but the pull tabs don’t make it easier to open.
These are dishwasher safe, but the pull tabs create an obstacle to cleaning; all of the nooks and crannies collect dirt and germs.
Passionate about art and anything hand-made, Lisa Lawrence is a mother, photographer, & writer in Los Angeles. After graduating from UCLA with a Bachelor’s in English she worked at a middle school for two years helping kids to find their voice.
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