The Best Kids’ Lunch Gear, According to the Experts
When I first started packing lunch for my preschooler, I was also in school working on a degree in food sustainability and dietetics. The amount of thought I put into how and what I was packing for a toddler was perhaps a little over the top.
This was also before the existence of Pinterest and Instagram. Lunchbox content was kept to the confines of pretty niche blogs. I wasn’t inundated by a feed full of aspirational bento boxes. I didn’t have any sort of aesthetic to mentally live up to, but I also didn’t have a ton of outside inspiration. Now that my kids are 10 and 15, it’s all second nature, but that comes from years of trial and error.
Lunchbox gear and the way we consume food and content has changed dramatically over the years. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. I spoke with experts to cover different styles of lunch containers, lunchboxes, water bottles, and other accessories to help take the stress out of lunch.
There are so many points to consider when thinking about the products we buy for our kids, even simple things like lunch containers. Everyone’s priorities are different, and it’s worth thinking about what’s important to your family. Take a moment before browsing Amazon or impulse buying something from an Instagram ad to think about what you’re solving for when you’re packing lunch. Perhaps my favorite piece of advice comes from mom of 11-year old twins and program specialist at StopWaste, Jeanine Sidran. “How do I make lunch a joy?,” she asks herself. How to answer that question with a sandwich may seem daunting, but it comes down to serving up good food that they can easily eat. (And maybe a few stickers.)
What does my child like to eat?
If your kiddo favors hot food, an insulated container should be at the top of your list. A grazer? A bento-style box with lots of little compartments may be the way to go. Don’t be afraid of packing the same thing every day. Chopped cooking show winner and executive chef of Seattle Public Schools Emme Ribeiro Collins got tired of packing her kid turkey and cheese every day, but it’s what her daughter wanted. “As long as they’re fed, you really just don’t need to be pressured into being an amazing food-blogger-chef-foodie,” she says. Remember—you’re packing for your own kid’s preferences. Mornings are stressful enough as it is, you don’t need to add on impressing their best friend, their teacher, or your Instagram following.
Can my child open this container to serve themself?
A simple but important question. Some preschoolers may have help from teachers. Lucy Bennet, marketing director for a Montessori school, notes that her three-year-old outgrew the bento-style box he used for daycare to a larger capacity container when he moved up to the Montessori school. The curriculum expects him to serve himself out of his lunchbox and onto a plate, which is tricky to do with the system that previously worked for them. And once kids graduate to the cafeteria they’re likely on their own. Leakproof, tight fitting lids ensure zero spills, but can be tricky for still-developing fine motor skills.
What sort of longevity am I hoping to get out of these products?
Consider portion sizes and materials. The lunch needs of a toddler and a teen can vary wildly. Overpacking can be overwhelming and lead to food waste for littles. A too-small serving for a teen can be frustrating between biology and English classes. Ribero Collins’s three kids all use stainless steel bento boxes, but her teenager uses a different one from her 6 and 7 year old sisters. Sidrian’s twins have been using the exact same bento style box since they were 2 years old.
What’s my budget?
Gear can get expensive quickly, especially for the first time packer. Many brands have full “systems,” including containers, ice packs, and lunch boxes that are designed to work together. Consider cost per use if you have the ability for a higher upfront investment, but also don’t get too bogged down by the numbers. Purchase what is reasonable for you right now, not after ten years of lunches. Even with the best of intentions, it can be impossible to predict what will end up working long-term.
How much flexibility do I need?
Bento-style lunch containers were far and away the most popular style of containers mentioned. Personally, I find it stressful having to fill each section every day and prefer to stick with an assortment of smaller containers to fit whatever I’m packing that day. But many appreciate having the same format to work with every day, and report it teaching their kids how to pack lunch for themselves.
Get the kids involved.
Ribeiro Collins’s 13-year-old specifically asked for a bento after years of brown bagging it. She happily complied, working with her teen to figure out a system that would work well for her.
Start small and use what you have.
You don’t need to buy everything at once, and likely have quite a bit of what you need to get started. Take note of what you’re missing as you get the hang of packing and fill in the holes as needed.
The most mentioned material when I asked what people are looking for. “Stainless steel has a really big footprint, but it’s what’s going to stay around for the longest and is recyclable,” says Sidran. Stainless steel also has the benefit of being easy to clean. It doesn’t stain or hold onto odors, but can be a little clunky.
Silicone is plastic free, durable, flexible, and lightweight. It is worth mentioning that it can stain and hold onto odors, and is “absolutely not recyclable,” reminds Sidran.
Zipper or velcro close fabric bags were mentioned often for snacks. Packing fabric napkins in lunchboxes also works better for messier kids—they mop up more and do a better job of wiping up than any flimsy paper napkin can. Fabric can be a little fussier to clean, but can often be reused several times before being tossed in the laundry pile.
Plastic can be durable and affordable. It can stain and hold onto odors and crack after long term use, but it is a lightweight option that works well for many.
Ideal for packing up soups or leftovers. Hot food can be such a comfort in the middle of a chaotic day. They can be pricey, but typically last for years.
Lunchboxes and Lunch Bags
If you’re concerned they won’t be into Paw Patrol or narwhals next year, sticking to their favorite colors or patterns can earn you a little more time. Kids can personalize with pins, stickers, and keychains. Like backpacks, lunchboxes are one of the ways kids like to express their personalities.
Consider size as well. All a preschooler likely puts in their backpack is their lunchbox—not so for older kids. A slim container may be all they have room for among the binders and textbooks.
The popularity and sheer number of water bottles available has exploded over the years. Parents and teens are often brand loyal, others recommend whatever is in stock at Costco. Styles and mouthpieces can be a personal choice. Personally, my children use whatever company branded gear my husband brings home from conferences. But I tote around a 32- ounce spaghetti sauce jar for my own water, so I’m a bit of an outlier.
Bamboo cutlery kits are popular with some, others mention disliking the mouthfeel. Sidran packs the random odd forks and spoons of unknown provenance that they have in their flatware drawer. (You likely have some as well.) Many pack plastic “kiddie” utensils they have on hand, or forks leftover from takeout. They’re easily reusable if washed by hand. I have a very cheap, very basic set from IKEA I use specifically for lunches and camping. I’ve lost pieces over the years, but still have enough for regular use.
Like lunchboxes, a lot of parents stick with the models made specifically for their chosen system. After years of losing them and forgetting to put them in the freezer, Ribeiro Collins stopped packing them. She notes that her kids eat their lunch within the four hour window that’s considered to be safe.
Things will inevitably get lost, but in my experience it’s typically snack containers and water bottles versus the pieces that stay in or near the lunch box. But labels are absolutely an easy form of insurance to help ensure your pieces come home. Sidran considers it “some of the best money spent” on school gear. Premade labels can be purchased online, or do it yourself with a label maker.
Diversify Your Shopping
The convenience of and sheer volume of choice on Amazon is incomparable. It’s a good place to start your research, and great place to end if you’re in a time crunch. But many of the name brands don’t come along with the discounts many of us are used to seeing on the big name retailer. This is the perfect chance to stop by a locally owned kiddie goods store to pick up the same products at the same cost. It’s also an opportunity to chat with a person there—they can fill you in on what’s popular, what they see working, and new products on the market you may not have otherwise been aware of.
Sidran also makes a big plug for shopping secondhand. She has several thermoses, and is awash in over 30 name brand water bottles like Kleen Kanteen and Zojirushi, all purchased at Goodwill. She recommends sticking with name brands to help ensure you’re buying quality materials, but she has found tons of perfectly functional goodies people have donated because they are dented or scratched. Soft pieces like straws or gaskets can often be easily replaced. She also notes it’s a lot less of a hit to the gut if/when your child loses a used $5 water bottle over a brand new $40 model. And they both function exactly the same.
More School Lunch Help and Advice
- I’m a Dietitian and My Kid Has Eaten the Same Lunch for 3 Years — Here’s Why That’s OK
- How I Pack a Week’s Worth of School Lunches for 5 Kids from $51 Worth of Trader Joe’s Groceries
- School Lunch Isn’t Free Anymore — Here Are 10 Ways to Plan for A Year of Sending Lunch to School
- 10 Super Easy (and Healthy!) Bento Box Lunch Ideas for Kids
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