Plan First, Shop Later
There is no shortage of choices when it comes to lunch boxes, bags, and accessories. Before you purchase, it’s helpful to figure out what will be eaten before deciding what to eat it out of. Working from the inside out narrows down the best options for you and your lunch eater.
STEP 1: Figure Out What and How Much Will Be Eaten
1) Know Your School
- How many meals and snacks will be required? My daughter’s school requires a lunch and 3 snacks.
- Does your school offer lunch? Will you be using the program and only need to provide snacks or only need to provide lunch just a few times a week?
2) Know Your Lunch Eater
- What do they like to eat and what do they not like to eat. Leftovers? Sandwiches? Do they prefer to pick at a variety of things? Will you need to include dips or dressings?
- Appetite: how much food will be required? This will impact the size and number of containers.
- What will they be drinking?
STEP 2: Pick Your Lunch Boxes, Snack Containers, Drink Bottles, and Accessories Based on Step 1
1) Know Your School
- Is a microwave available or will a thermos be needed if hot lunches will be eaten?
- Will the lunch and beverages be stored in a fridge or will you need an insulated lunch box or bag and ice packs as well as an insulated water bottle? To try to keep things even cooler, do you want containers that have ice packs built into them?
- The school requested that we provide a placemat (it would not have occurred to me to provide this).
2) Know Your lunch eater
- What do they like to eat out of?
- Do they prefer bags or containers? For bags, Stasher and Blue Avocado offer some great reusable options. For pictures and a detailed review, see Replacing My Ziplocs: Stasher & Blue Avocado Review
- One bento or multiple smaller containers?
- Choose containers they can open and close by themselves.
- If you are going to be packing liquid items like soups/dips/yoghurt, check to see if the containers you like are leak-proof .
- Will cutlery be needed? Spoons, forks or both? How many? Is a cover/holder needed? Do they need to be fold-able or a particular size (in the event that you want to fit them into a particular container)?
- If adding ice to beverages that need to be kept cold, you may want to include a straw if your drink bottle doesn’t have one (like the S’well bottles). When my daughter drinks beverages with a lot of ice, it tends to rush up to the mouth of the container and splashes the beverage onto her face.
3) Lunch Maker, know thyself
- Maintenance: lunch boxes which offer some unique or fun features may be appealing but maintenance is often a bit more demanding. Even though the product description says dishwasher safe, there are usually “hand washing recommended” or “remove before drying cycle” disclaimers. There may also be parts which should not be washed in the dishwasher such as seals which need to be removed, hand washed, dried and replaced. Is this in the cards for you? You usually pay more for these products but if you find the washing up a pain, you could be wasting your money by not using them because you find it annoying to clean. A simple, throw-it-in-the-dishwasher lunch box (e.g. EasyLunchboxes) may be a better option. What materials do you like? I tend to shy away from anything that is cloth when it comes to snack bags/containers, sandwich holders, and cutlery holders because when it comes to cleaning I prefer silicone, PEVA-like materials, tritan, or stainless steel.
- Consider the lunches and snacks you are actually willing to make: Will you really do themed lunches with sandwiches cut into shapes and fruits carved into characters? If you are not sure, start with a few items first and then build your collection as you get to know what you like and what you enjoy preparing. If you are going the bento route, how many compartments is ideal for you? For lunch, I find 4 or less compartments to be my ideal. Three to four elements is about as much variety as I want to prepare for a single lunch. At one lunch plus three snacks, I need to spread the variety throughout the day. I also find that the compartments start to get quite small when you go above four but more compartments may be ideal for you if your child likes to eat a little bit of many things.
- Still not sure? Ask friends and family what they like and why. If possible, borrow some lunch boxes to test drive and see how your kids like them or purchase from stores that have good return policies so you and your kids can have a good look at and feel for the products before you commit. Links to a video and comparison charts of lunchboxes have been included at the end of the post.
- Keep in mind that you may not know what works best for you until you actually start so it may be good to trial a few things first before going nuts with the shopping (this may sound dramatic – but I really like lunchboxes and lunch gear and can be tempted to go overboard).
STEP 3: Pick Your Lunch Bag
- Does the school have particular requirements? I started shopping before I received the list of school supplies and had intended to go for a single lunch bag with two compartments – the top for lunch and the bottom for snacks so that my daughter would only have one food bag to manage. However, the way the school runs their lunch and snack times requires two separate bags as they will be kept separately at the school.
- Knowing what lunch/snack containers, drink bottles, and other accessories you will need to house, will make it easier to choose a lunch bag that will fit your needs and your gear.
- Labels will be needed for all your gear.
A Look At Our Gear
A snapshot of my lunch eater: she will need a lunch and three snacks. Her preference is for leftovers with fruit and/or veggies on the side. She does not like cold cuts/chicken salad/tuna salad; condiments like mayo or mustard; or dips. Snacks will be predominantly fruits (fresh and dried), veggies, yoghurt, cheese, or crackers with WowButter (her school is nut-free). Beverages will be milk, water, drinking yoghurt, or smoothies.
1) Lunch Boxes and Drink Boxes
- Yumbox: we had the Original with six compartments at first but switched to the Panino version with four compartments because it suited us better. This is a really great bento option for cold foods. It has a hinged lid with one clasp which is easy to open and close. It is good quality, has a fun design, and is available in a wide selection of colours. The seals make it suitable for wet foods like yoghurt and dips. The tritan inner tray is removable and dishwasher safe (top-rack). It is recommended that the outer shell be hand washed. For more information, see Yumbox FAQ. The Yumbox comes in a variety of sizes. Lunch bags are also available. They can be purchased through fenigo.com, lunchaporter.com, well.ca, (Canada); yumboxlunch.com and amazon.com (USA).
- OmieBox: for more pictures, a detailed review, and list of stockists, see Omie Oh My.
- S’well bottle: a really good choice to keep drinks hot or cold. We have four of them and have been using them regularly for a few years now. One of the things I like most about it is that cold drinks do not cause condensation on the outside of the bottle so everything else packed with it stays nice and dry. The lids can get a bit smelly so we soak them in bicarb, soap and hot water when this happens. Replacement lids are also available. Just a note about the finishing, while the bottles are well made, two of them became quite scratched up (Blackboard Matte and Wood) within a few months of purchase which was disappointing given the price point. Ironically, the two that I purchased for my daughters (Sweet Mint Glitter) have held up well and still look good. S’well bottles are available from fenigo.com, indigo.ca, lunchaporter.com, well.ca in Canada; and from swellbottle.com and amazon.com in the US.
- Drink in the Box: for a detailed review and pictures, see Drink in the Box – an Ideal Kid’s Water Bottle.
2) For snacks
- Fuel Snack ‘n Dip Container (available at Canadian Tire): this comes with a little spreader and is a good size for my daughter. She likes eating out of it and finds it is easy to open and close. It is dishwasher safe.
- Gel-Cool (available from fenigo.com and lunchaporter.com): these are of decent quality and very cute but I find them a bit on the expensive side. The lid doubles as an ice pack but because the container is not insulated, it does not keep food cool for very long. If you do purchase, I would suggest showing your lunch eater how to open it as the clasps are attached to the body and not the lid. My daughter is used to the clasps being attached to container lids and almost broke them off because she was trying to force them open.
- Blue Avocado bags in 1/2 C and 1 C sizes (not pictured): for a detailed review and pictures, see Replacing My Ziplocs: Stasher & Blue Avocado Review.
- Ice packs: I selected these Goodbyn ones because they are slim and do not contain gel (we have previously experienced cracked ice packs and blue goo leakages). I wish they stayed cold for longer (they are still cool to the touch after about two hours in an insulated lunch box but almost completely melted). If you can recommend slim ice packs which stay frozen for longer, please let me know in the comments section below (Thanks!).
- Cutlery: the stainless steel set (amazon.ca) fits in the long compartment of the OmieBox and foldable cutlery set (canadiantire.ca) fits into the shorter compartment of the OmieBox and fits in the Yumbox. The green cutlery in the holder will be used for snacks (available at Maxi and Provigo Le Marche).
- Lesirit Clouds Silicone Kids Placemat (amazon.ca): this is made out of food-grade silicone, is easy to clean, and can be rolled or folded up and slipped into her backpack.
- Labels (oliverslabels.com)
These bags are insulated, lightweight (our lunch boxes are a bit on the heavier side so I didn’t want to add more weight than necessary), compact (they fit inside the school backpack), and they fit our drink bottles, ice pack, and food containers.
- The snack bag is the yummie Snack Backer by Urban Infant (available from well.ca and amazon.com). The Snack Backer can also be clipped to the backpack if needed.
- The lunch bag is the one which comes with the Skip Hop Forget Me Not backpack (available from amazon.com and skiphop.com in Canada and USA; indigo.ca in Canada). The OmieBox along with the Drink in the Box and Goodbyn ice pack fit inside the bag as will the Yumbox when packed with the Drink in the Box and Goodbyn ice pack. I place the drink bottle and ice pack on top of the lunch box. There is not really room for anything else once the three items are packed in the lunch bag together but this is fine for our needs.
Further Reading and Viewing:
Sylnia Lunches put together a really good video presentation of 18 lunch box options:
Wendolonia put together detailed lunch box and lunch bag comparison charts complete with pictures.
For a few ideas of what to put inside the lunch box, check out these 9 Bento Box Recipes for Your Children’s Packed Lunch suggestions from positivehealthwellness.com.
What lunch gear will you be using? Please share in the comments below along with any tips you might have. If you have lunch gear or lunch idea pics, please share them by posting to the practicalmagic.blog Facebook page. Looking forward to hearing your ideas and seeing your pics!