The Lunchbox Lowdown
Back to school time is fast approaching….are you ready?!I know a lot of families still have 2 more weeks of summer to enjoy, but I just dropped BOTH my boys off this morning at brand new schools (sniff sniff)! With one starting Preschool and the other starting Kindergarten, it was an emotional morning for mama to say the least, but they both did GREAT!
Naturally, I’ve been busy meeting teachers, getting organized and “playing school” with my boys to help that dreaded first day go smoothly. One thing I quickly realized is that gone are the days of brown bags and metal lunch boxes as your two options for packing school lunches. It seems everywhere I turn there is chatter about which of the myriad of choices of lunch boxes is the best!
What is your criteria?
Are you looking for ease of use? Something spill-proof? Do you want something your child will think is cool, or do you care more about it being practical? Are you trying to leave the smallest possible footprint?
I know I am.
I think back to my childhood and I cringe at the volume of waste I alone must have created. Brown bags, ziplocks and paper napkins day after day. Yikes. In her awesome book, Undiet, the inspiring rock-star nutritionista Meghan Telpner cited a study showing that if everyone on the planet created and consumed the waste we do in North America, we’d need 3-5 planets just to manage it! Blech. We need not look any further than the creepy trash vortex in the Pacific, which covers hundreds of miles, to understand the magnitude of the mess we’re in. Literally.
But that rant is a whole other post! But it’s certainly puts the often forgotten about Reduce & Reuse in their proper place before Recycle!
So lunch boxes. Reusable and easy for my kids. I think that’s my top criteria. So here are the 4 most popular systems I found from interviewing experienced mamas and reading reviews:
In my research, hands down the most raved about lunch box has been the PlanetBox. It’s stainless steel, which separates it from the many plastic bento type boxes. There are a few different options in terms of size of the compartments. The Rover seemed to be the most logical for kids lunches. I LOVE these lunchboxes, although the price tag is pretty hefty at $60! That does include the divided container, the soft carry bag, 2 small stainless steel dipping containers and some fun magnets that I know my son would love. I did hear that even though the carrying case is designed in such a way that the food will tip when you carry it, the food stays in place. That’s another important criteria of mine, because who wants their food all mashed together?!
The PlanetBoxes definitely look like they’re going to last for a long time, so if you have a kid that you know won’t lose it and won’t be begging for whatever his best friend has, then this looks like a very worth-while investment. I have heard some moms say that the size of the compartments sometimes feels limiting, and it takes extra work to create meals that will fit in each section. The other con I heard a lot was that the case will inevitably get filthy by the end of the year, so that becomes a $20 replacement.
Another popular stainless steel option is Lunch Bots. They have 3 varieties of containers, the uno, duo and trio, with you guessed it 1, 2 or 3 sections. 😉 They run between $18-35, and then the set of 3 dipping containers runs you an additional $20.
Like the PlanetBoxes, I heard about the the size of the containers being limiting. I’ve also heard they’re not the easiest to open, and that there apparently are some jagged edges on the metal that could possibly cut your little one. Yikes! On top of that, many reviews I read spoke about the paint chipping off the lids easily. Lunch Bots does also make this nice looking thermos that is $27.
You’ll also need to buy your lunch bag separately, and the one I heard about best working with the Lunch Bots is the Pack It. They run between $15-$25 depending on your design. What I really like about these bags is that you can keep them in the freezer until you’re ready to use them, and the built in freezer system will keep your food cool. Where I live in Austin, TX, that’s pretty important! According to Pack It, you’re food will keep cool for 10 hours, but reviewers say it’s more like 4-5 hours, which would work just fine for school lunches. I did read many reviews of leaks from the cooling system and the bags tearing easily. But my friend who recommended this system RAVED about it, so I’m sure there are many happy customers.
That being said, I personally feel that if you’re going the pricey, stainless steel route, the PlanetBox is the standout winner.
Even with all the great feedback I heard, I decided to go the affordable route for this year, while I assess what works and what doesn’t work, as well as what other kids in his class are doing (because while that doesn’t matter to me, we all know it matters to them!).
We are so happy with the system we found. It’s affordable, spacious, leaves room for a thermos and/ or water bottle and keeps the food upright (unless you’re child decides otherwise, that is!). We are using the Easy Lunchboxes. They are plastic, but they are BPA, PVC, and phthalate free. For $14, you get 4 of the containers, which have 3 sections. One is very large, so can fit a full-sized sandwich for an older kid, or a good amount of leftovers from last nights dinner. You can get 8 dipping containers for $8, and then the Insulated Lunch Box Cooler Bag that fits nicely with these containers is another $8. A pack of 4 Cool Cooler Lunch Ice Packs is another $8. I’ve also heard some moms skip the ice packs and pack a frozen drink.
As a mom packing 2 lunches, this system covers them both for $46, where 2 PlanetBoxes would run me $120! The Lunch Bots fall roughly in the middle of those options, price-wise.
The con that seems to be the most talked about in reviews is that the Easy Lunchbox containers are not leak-proof. For me, that isn’t a big issue (I don’t think), because the container lays flat in the cooler bag, so *shouldn’t* tip. Again, that depends greatly on the child. Mine are the type that if I tell them their food will be all over the place if they tip it, will do everything in their power to make sure it stays upright! I also think that my runnier foods will probably be the stuff I’m using a thermos for, and if I do happen to put something leaky in the containers, I can always put some press-n-seal wrap over it. That does defeat the purpose of my waste free lunches, but as I said, I don’t think that will be a very often occurrence.
**Updated/ Added in August 2014, and the review are looking reall great so I wanted to be sure to add it. The Yumbox ($30) is a bento style lunchbox, that is leakproof for wet items like applesauce and yogurt, but not water. All food-safe materials, BPA-free and phthalates-free. Dishwasher safe, although handwashing the lid is recommended to preserve the seal. I really like that it fits with most regular sized lunchboxes! Their pinterest page has some great options: http://www.pinterest.com/yumbox/lunch-bags-we-like/
**Updated/ Added in August 2015: I’m adding this entry because I really like this design. My boys complained about how huge the easy lunch box cooler bags were, and wanted something that could fit in their backpack. My older son got the planetbox this year (and we’re one week in to school and SUPER happy with it!), and my younger son who is still in preschool got this set since the planetboxes are pretty heavy AND his backpack is pretty small.
This combo is another very affordable and appealing option. The sandwich kit ($8) consists of a sandwich size container on the bottom, a convenient ice pack that clicks in the middle, and one medium container and two small containers that sit on top. They conveniently snap together, and are apparently leak-proof. The containers are BPA-free, and are microwave, dishwasher and freezer-safe. The containers fit nicely in the insulated bag ($12), leaving room for something extra like an apple above the containers. There is a pocket for silverware and napkins and an outer pocket for a water bottle. I really like this design, and the size is perfect.
Lunchskins and Other Goodies
Another handy item regardless of what system you use is the Lunchskins. A set of 3 runs around $28, and includes 2 sandwich bags and one snack bag. Obviously you can use the larger sandwich bag for larger snacks too. Lunchskins seem very well made, and are are dishwasher-safe, certified food-safe, quick-drying, grease-proof, moisture-proof, lead-free, bpa-free, and phthalate-free. They do stain easily, and that is the one con I’ve heard frequently, but a stain doesn’t mean it’s not clean. Just colorful.
Lunchskins work great in any standard lunchbox, eliminating ziplock bags. For me, I’ll be using them to pack morning snack and after school snack on the days my older one has Martial Arts right after school.
I also find these food-grade silicone muffin cups ($8) to be a fun addition to the lunchbox. If my large section isn’t filled with the main part of the meal, I can toss one of these in and create another section for another side.
And if your kids eat yogurt squeezers, you might want to check out these adorable reusable pouches ($28) or silicone pop molds($6). I’ve saved a ton of money making my own, and I know they aren’t loaded with unnecessary sugar. I fill them with leftover smoothies, healthy pudding, etc. My kids love these!
The last thing I thought I’d share is related to preparing for school. For the past week, I’ve been making lunches how I will for school, in the Easy Lunch Box containers, and in the cooler bags. When I’m all ready, I have the boys collect their bag from the hallway, line up (taking turns to be line leader of course!) ;), and then going to the table. They are loving this!
I think it’s been helping my 2 year old get excited about the idea of school….we’ve also been practicing with his backpack and nap mat….but it’s particularly been helpful for my 5 year old. I’ve learned where he has hang-ups, like with the zipper of his bag. When he’s finished and zipping it back up, it’s getting stuck and he’s really frustrated. Knowing that’s the fast-track to it breaking (or him breaking down!), I’ve taken the time to show him how to back the zipper up, move the bag so the zipper is lined up, check to see if it’s stuck underneath, etc. After trouble-shooting, if he’s still having trouble, he can ask his teacher nicely to help. He’s had no problems with the lids or his thermos, so I think we’re good to go! Hopefully the practice will translate to a smoother start to school for both my boys! 😉
And if you want to get cutesy and make your little ones happy (while embarrassing your older ones!), you can throw in a little love note. You can make your own with a simple sweet I love you, or maybe include some stickers, a joke or a trivia fact of the day. Get creative, they will love it! And if you’re thinking yeah right, not in a million years….well they’re are adorable love notes ($24) you can buy. A bit pricey, but might be worth it if it means it actually gets done, right?!
As for lunch box ideas, I have quite a lot in my head already, but when I’m feeling like things are getting too repetitive, I’ve found 100 Days of Real Food, Weelicious, Momables, Laptop Lunches and Family Fresh Cooking to be amazing places to stir up some fun, new ideas!
And if you know of any other great systems or sites that I didn’t include in this post, please share them in the comments so we can all benefit!
I know I’ve shared a lot here, but my hope is to help reduce the amount of research you need to do yourself. We all have different criteria, and your job is to pick what will work best for you and your kiddos. Best of luck!
Happy Lunch Packing!
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