Eco-novice's Top Picks for Reusable Lunch Gear (based on 3 years of rigorous testing)

I have children entering the first and third grades and after packing four-years' worth of school lunches (plus innumerable snacks and lunches for summer and weekend family outings), I'm ready to tell you my very favorite reusable lunch products.

When it comes to reusable lunch gear my top priorities are: toxin-free (or in other words, mostly plastic-free); durable; and dishwasher-friendly. There is no way I am going to hand wash my two kids' lunch gear everyday, so I put a very high premium on dishwasher-friendly containers. I also want some products that are truly leak-proof, and able to maintain temperature (so that I could send hot and cold foods).

Stainless Steel Food Containers

Hands down my favorite reusable lunch containers are stainless steel. Plastic-free, dishwasher-safe, and virtually indestructible, stainless steel is a parent's best friend. In addition, stainless steel keeps soft and smushable items (sandwiches, strawberries, chips, etc.) from getting smashed. This is a serious consideration when you are dealing with a school lunch.

Now for the downsides. The biggest drawback to stainless steel is that it tends to be pricier than other options. Obviously, I think it is worth the investment. However, if you are sending a child to school for the first time with reusable lunch gear, I would use less expensive products first. Once your child reliably brings home all containers you send her with, then switch to stainless steel. Stainless steel is also bulkier and heavier than other options (such as reusable food bags), but I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages enough that I choose to carry stainless steel containers on four-hour hikes. One other downside, particularly for stainless steel containers with stainless steel lids (my favorite type): they can be challenging for little fingers to open. Nevertheless, my kids have both managed to do it as young as Kindergarten. We did practice many times at home taking off and putting on lids before sending them to school.

My favorite stainless steel containers are LunchBots because they have both stainless steel bottoms and lids. The company recommends hand washing the painted lids, because in the dishwasher the paint will scratch off. I still put them through the dishwasher though, but now only buy the unpainted ones.You can buy containers that are a single compartment or divided into 2, 3, or even 4 compartments. The Duo (two compartments) is perfect for a half sandwich plus additional snack. Nothing sneaks over the divider. You can also buy giant bento-size LunchBots. I also have several Kids Konserve stainless steel containers. The plastic lids are top-rack dishwasher safe but I try to hand wash all plastic. A few of my lids have torn a bit, but I have been using them for many years and they are still usable.

Freezable Sandwich Bag

I bought my daughter a freezable lunch bag so that she could take turkey sandwiches to school without me worrying about food poisoning. Unfortunately, she did not appreciate all of her lunch (particularly the almonds and crackers) being refrigerated. So we stopped using the bag after a couple of months. It was also a little on the heavy side for a 5-year-old with all the freezable material in the lining.

But I liked the concept of a freezable bag (no ice packs to keep track of) and was thrilled to find that PackIt also makes freezable sandwich bags. Perfect! The generously-sized sandwich bag will fit around a LunchBots container without problem. It also works great for juice boxes, yogurt pops, or string cheese. Actually, it's kind of incredible what you can fit in one of these: on hikes I have stuffed it full with multiple string cheeses, yogurt pops, and juice boxes. It's like Mary Poppins' carpet bag!

On a recent hike, I fit 3 juice boxes, 2 yogurt pops, and
4 string cheeses inside the PackIt freezable sandwich bag.

And, by the way, I don't regret buying the PackIt refreezable lunch bag. It gets plenty of use as a mini cooler. We fill it up and use it all the time on road trips, beach days, and other long outings.

Insulated Stainless Steel Bottle with Straw

Love, love, love this Thermos FOOGO stainless steel straw bottle. I used to send my son to school with an Organic Valley milk box daily (I send my daughter with water in a Klean Kanteen water bottle, but I feel my son needs the protein), but that seemed so wasteful! I finally invested in this bottle and now I can send my son with organic non-ultra-high-temp pasteurized milk from a local dairy without any additional waste! And the milk is still cool when I pick him up, so that on the rare occasion he has milk left I can make him drink it instead of throwing it away. Each day after school, I simply rinse off the straw and lid and run the bottle through the dishwasher. I run the straw and lid through the dishwasher maybe once every week or two. On the times my son has left his lunch box at school over the weekend (or even over a full week off), the sour coagulated milk was still contained in the bottle, and then cleaned out by the dishwasher with nary a smell left behind.

Insulated Stainless Steel Leak-proof Jar

I bought the Thermos FOOGO stainless steel food jar for my yogurt-loving son to give him a little break from his usual PB&J. I give him a little stainless steel container full of granola to go on top. This container would also work well for hot foods. My son's lunch box definitely gets turned every which way while at school, so I can attest to the fact that this container is indeed leak-proof.

Lunch Bags

I don't care that much about lunch boxes, except that they are free of lead, BPA, vinyl and other harmful materials and also not terribly difficult to clean. I don't even think an insulated bag is particularly important if you are using insulated food containers and ice packs for foods that are temperature-sensitive. We have used and liked fabric bags, which have the bonus of being machine washable (Fluf and U Konserve are good toxin-free options that have linings and can easily be wiped clean between washings). My son's Crocodile Creek insulated lunchbox is definitely durable (it's held up over 3 years of school lunches) and affordable, and it can be wiped clean, but it has more nooks and crannies in the seams than I would like. Other toxin-free insulated lunch bags include Wildkin (cute and affordable); SoYoung, Beatrix New York, and Zippee Lunch Totes (nifty kid-friendly designs but a little pricier) and LunchBots (more adult-ish looking)

A Note about Reusable Food Bags

I used to be a major reusable food bag aficionado. But then I had a few that got moldy and gross and I had to toss them. The problem for me is that they generally need to be hand washed, and I did not always get around to hand washing my bags in a timely manner.

I still use reusable bags for lunches and snacks but almost entirely for dry snacks (crackers, bread, cereal, etc.) because then they don't really need to be washed after each use, and they also don't get moldy if you accidentally leave food in them or are too lazy to wash them for a week. I also still use my Reuseit double-walled nylon bags regularly for cheese and other products in the fridge. Although what I really want is one of those beeswax wraps to try for this.

Still, if you are a more fastidious housekeeper than I am (not hard), reusable food bags can be a very affordable and useful option for school lunches. I had a friend whose son wanted see-through bags like his other friends at school (who were all using disposable Ziploc baggies), and you can even find that type of reusable food bag (made of FDA-grade PEVA) now.

Random Tips:

  • Reuse cardboard raisin boxes! For whatever reason, my kids enjoy eating out of those little boxes. I just buy a large-size bag as well, and refill the boxes until they are falling apart.
  • Use smaller size cloth napkins for school lunches. They are cheaper and take up less space and are a good size for kids.
  • Pick up inexpensive stainless steel silverware in thrift stores to send in school lunches. 

What is your favorite reusable lunch gear?

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  1. Very helpful. I still use sandwich wraps which I toss in the washing machine. I use reusable bags for crackers and the stuff you mention but the sandwich wraps are a lifesaver here. Not a big fan of the beeswax stuff. I think I must be doing it wrong.

  2. Great list! I use most of these brands too! Interesting that you mentioned the PackIt bag - we found it to be too heavy as well. Glad to know they have a sandwich size - that might work better for us.

  3. LunchBots are my favorite lunch containers! They are awesome. When my husband was still teaching I'd send him his lunch in LunchBots.

  4. We bought similar lunch containers when our first child entered kindergarten. He's in 4th grade now and most of the containers are still in use. We also mix in the zip up snack bags for things like grapes.
    A Green Leaf Home.


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