After 30 hours of researching 50 lunch boxes and testing more than a dozen—packing soft sandwiches, dousing the bags with tomato sauce, spilling liquid in them, and repeatedly tossing them around—we think the L.L.Bean Lunch Box is the best for packing small to medium lunches for kids or adults, while the Coleman 9-Can Soft Cooler works better for heartier meals. Both of these easy-to-carry lunch boxes keep stains and smells from lingering, and they’re the easiest we’ve found to clean. They’re also constructed well enough to withstand a few years of abuse.
If you need room for a sandwich, a banana, and juice with a little room to spare, or if you want a lunch box for a child, we recommend the versatile L.L.Bean Lunch Box. Its compact, rectangular shape fits nicely into a backpack or tote and has mesh pockets for holding snacks or an ice pack. Unlike roll-top bags or large, bulky lunch boxes, the L.L.Bean container’s streamlined shape fits easily in a crowded fridge. It also has fewer interior seams compared with the competition, which makes cleaning easier. Adults might prefer the solid color options, while kids can choose from a range of fun prints (see here and here).
If you tend to pack a hearty lunch—say, a big sandwich or a quart-size container of soup with lots of snacks and a couple of drinks—the extra-large Coleman 9-Can Soft Cooler offers plenty of room. It’s a good choice if you work in a remote location with no means of refrigeration, because it will fit several ice packs. It’s also tall enough to accommodate 20-ounce bottles. The wide shoulder strap makes it easy to carry, and the bag’s hard-plastic liner keeps it from sagging under the weight of a hefty lunch. And because the plastic liner is removable, this lunch box was easier to clean than all the other insulated boxes we tested.
If you have preschool-age kids, we recommend the Bentgo Kids Lunch Box. This bento-style kit has a tight-fitting lid that seals off individual compartments. The interior tray comes out in one piece, so it’s easier to clean than most bento boxes, which typically have several loose containers that need to be washed individually. Grippy material around the perimeter of the box makes it more durable than any other bento box in our test group. And thanks to its slim design, it slips easily into a crowded refrigerator.
Aside from lunch boxes, many people prefer to use regular glass or plastic containers to transport their lunch to and fro. We’ve covered that subject in depth in our guide to the best food storage containers.
To get a sense of what makes a great lunch box for kids, we interviewed Cassie Hollmann, assistant children’s programming director at Citibabes in New York’s Soho neighborhood. We took an informal poll of Sweethome staff to see which lunch containers were the most popular among office workers. We also consulted reviews from Consumer Reports and Good Housekeeping. Finally, we looked for highly rated sets from retailers such as Amazon, Macy’s, Target, The Container Store, and Walmart.
I’ve reviewed glass and plastic food storage containers as well as other kitchen gadgets for The Sweethome. I packed my own lunch from third grade through high school, and I spent dozens of hours researching and testing lunch boxes for this guide.
If you or your kids have a lunch box that is difficult to clean and is beginning to smell a little funky, it’s probably time for a new one. If you’re an adult who works in remote locations, or if you have kids in grades K–12, access to refrigeration for packed lunches is unlikely. A durable, insulated lunch box is a must for holding ice packs and keeping foods at safe temperatures.
Young kids who go to daycare or preschool could benefit from a bento-style lunch box because such designs are easy for caretakers to label, clean, and stack neatly in a crowded refrigerator. Small food storage containers are another great option for parents to easily portion and separate foods for placement inside an insulated lunch box.
For this guide we tested lunch boxes for both adults and kids, covering insulated lunch boxes, bento boxes, and metal and plastic food storage containers. Regardless of the type of lunch container you use, it should be break-resistant, stain-resistant, and easy to clean and store. Food storage containers should also be leakproof.
Since insulated lunch boxes are intended to keep food cold without refrigeration, they need to be large enough to hold a substantial lunch and multiple ice packs (ideally, they should have a mesh pocket on the interior lid for holding an ice pack in place). A shoulder strap is a must if you’re an outdoor worker, especially if you’re carrying other equipment to a jobsite. Though we had difficulty finding waterproof lunch boxes, an exterior material that’s slow to absorb liquids is a nice feature for keeping rainwater out, especially when you’re working outdoors.
For kids, we looked for insulated lunch boxes that were roomy enough to hold an average-size lunch yet compact enough to fit in a backpack. We tested lunch boxes with mesh pockets on the side, which are convenient for holding additional snacks.
Some parents feel uncomfortable using plastic food storage containers. For this reason, we decided to try a couple of metal containers, which are a good alternative to glass because they weigh less and won’t break. However, they can’t go into a microwave to reheat your lunch, and they aren’t leakproof. (We do recommend several glass options in our guide to the best food storage containers).
We also looked for bento-style boxes for young kids and adults that have either separate compartments with individual lids or a single lid that seals the entire box. Bento designs with a single lid need to be airtight to prevent the contents from spilling over the compartment walls and to keep food odors from mingling. Cassie Hollmann, assistant children’s programming director at Citibabes in New York, who works with kids from 2 months to 6 years old, told us, “A good seal might be the most important thing.” A tight seal is especially important for little kids who store their lunches in their backpacks or cubbies. “Many times backpacks, lunch boxes, and shoes end up upside down and haphazardly put away,” Hollmann said.
Although bento boxes with removable interior containers or trays allow for easier cleaning, all bento boxes generally require a little more work to keep clean. Hollmann said, “While I like the compartments of a bento box, it does tend to be more difficult to clean. However, the pluses greatly outweigh an additional scrub needed!”
No adult bento boxes did well in our tests. If you prefer packing your lunch in separate compartments, we’ve found that nothing works better than glass or plastic food storage containers.
For this guide, we tested 12 lunch containers:
We tested the lunch boxes by evaluating how well they held a heavy packed lunch and how comfortable they were to hold. We also looked at how easy the containers were to seal, and whether they remained closed during a long commute. To test for leaks, we filled the plastic and metal containers with water and shook them at different angles. To test their durability, we dropped the bento boxes and the metal and plastic food storage containers from waist height. We filled the insulated lunch boxes with soda cans and tossed them around to see if they could take a beating. We splashed a tablespoon of tomato sauce inside and on their surface and let them sit overnight before attempting to clean them. We also poured water over the insulated lunch boxes to see how effectively they repelled liquids.
Finally, using a food thermometer, we tested how long the insulated lunch boxes kept milk at safe temperatures. We followed the USDA’s recommendation for keeping cold foods safe and placed Fit & Fresh Cool Coolers ice packs above and below a plastic container filled with ½ cup of milk. Most of the insulated lunch boxes kept the milk below 40 degrees Fahrenheit for up to two hours, but they let it rise to under 44°F after four hours. (Good Housekeeping had similar results in an extensive test of 43 lunchboxes.) To be within safety standards, the USDA recommends keeping food under 40°F if it will be left out for more than two hours. If you’re concerned about your child’s lunch spoiling, pack shelf-safe milk (ultrahigh temperature—or UHT—pasteurized milk in aseptic packaging) or have your child buy milk at school, and opt for nonperishable foods like PB&J instead of a ham sandwich.
If you need a compact lunch box for school or the office, the L.L.Bean Lunch Box is the ideal size for placing in a backpack or stowing in a fridge. In our tests the inner and outer linings were easy to clean and didn’t stain or smell as badly as the competition. Since this lunch box is available in multiple colors and patterns, it’s versatile enough for both kids and adults.
Though the L.L.Bean Lunch Box is on the smaller side, it’s roomy enough to hold a drink, a sandwich, and multiple snacks with ease. If you’re planning to bring last night’s leftovers to work, you can place them in small food storage containers that will fit inside. We think the lunch box’s streamlined design makes it a good choice if you commute by bike, subway, or bus and need a lunch box that fits in a bag or backpack. Note that the lunch box is meant to be carried upright but zipped open while lying flat, so you’ll want to carry soups or other liquids only if they’re in a Thermos or some other leakproof container.
Our testers found that the seams on the L.L.Bean Lunch Box were easier to wash than those on the Wildkin Lunch Box, which trapped more crumbs, stained, and proved difficult to clean. According to the L.L.Bean website, the sealed-seam lining on the lunch box is “BPA and PVC free and tested safe for lead and phthalates.” (You can read more about the relative safety of BPA and the plasticizers that have replaced it here.) The exterior mesh pocket is great for holding snacks or a granola bar, and the interior mesh pocket on the lid helps keep an ice pack in place. For less than $10, you can even have the lunch box monogrammed, which is a great option for kids.
The L.L.Bean Lunch Box held up well in all of our drop tests, but if you encounter any issues, it comes with a satisfaction guarantee. Contact L.L.Bean if you’re not satisfied or need a replacement.
If you work remotely with no means of refrigeration, we recommend the affordably priced Coleman 9-Can Soft Cooler. This extra-large lunch box is perfect for packing a big lunch with plenty of room for ice packs, drinks, and snacks to get you through the workday. The Coleman’s removable hard-plastic liner offers better structure and makes cleaning a cinch in comparison with the other large insulated bags we tested. We’re confident that its well-sewn, thoughtful construction will give you years of use.
Available in four colors (gray, blue, green, and red), the Coleman is best for people who need to pack a hearty lunch; it will fit a large sandwich or a quart-size container of soup or salad, several snacks, ice packs, and a couple of drinks (such as 20-ounce Gatorade or bottled water and a can of soda). It’s too large to fit in a backpack or a crowded fridge, but the wide shoulder strap allows for easy carrying, a nice feature especially if you have to lug other equipment to your jobsite. Though the side mesh pockets are too small to hold a drink, our testers found that the bag has more than enough room inside for multiple drinks. The mesh pocket on the interior lid holds an ice pack in place to help food and drinks stay cooler longer. Overall the Coleman 9-Can Soft Cooler is just the right size for a large lunch, unlike some of the other boxes we tested, which were far too big for practical use.
The removable plastic liner makes it easy to wash by hand (it’s not dishwasher safe), and the soft polyethylene vinyl acetate (PEVA) lining contains “product protecting antimicrobial additive to resist odor, mold, and mildew.” Some insulated models we tested, such as the Ramaka Solutions Insulated Lunch Bag, were plagued by the lingering scent of the previous day’s lunch. The hard-plastic liner also offers more structure compared with the Ramaka Solutions or the Herschel Canteen Lunch Pack, which sagged when fully packed. Additionally, the Coleman did a better job of repelling water and didn’t stain as badly as the competition.
The Coleman 9-Can Soft Cooler doesn’t come with a warranty, but since it’s so highly rated on Amazon and costs less than $15 at this writing, we’re willing to forgive that minor drawback.
If you have kids in preschool or daycare, where perishable lunch items often go in a fridge, you may prefer the Bentgo Kids Lunch Box. Many daycares require parents to label individual food packages with their child’s name to prevent mix-ups. The Bentgo’s all-in-one design means you need to label only one container. It’s slimmer than most bento boxes, so it will fit better in a crowded refrigerator, and it’s also easier to clean and more durable than the competition. The Bentgo compartments are notably small and shallow, and the overall container doesn’t fit into the L.L.Bean Lunch Box, so you’ll need to get a larger bag if you also want to pack a sippy cup. The individual compartments, however, are a great option for picky eaters who hate having their food touching.
The single removable tray on the Bentgo was easier to clean than the Bentology Bento Set, which had several loose containers and lids that needed to be washed individually. The rubbery seal on the lid of the Bentgo leaked slightly when we filled the box with water and shook it on the side, but it still sealed in liquids better than any other container we tested. Grippy rubber material around the outer edges of the box makes the Bentgo more resistant to breaking from a fall. It suffered no damage when we dropped it several times from waist height onto a hardwood floor, the rubber material helping it to bounce instead.
Available in three colors (green, blue, and purple), the thin, compact Bentgo Kids Lunch Box stacks well and takes up minimal space in a crowded fridge. It also has a recommendation from Cassie Hollmann, the assistant children’s programming director at Citibabes, who told us, “Hard-sided rectangular lunch boxes are the easiest to store, like a Yumbox or the Bentgo.”
The removable tray is top-rack dishwasher safe, but the company recommends hand-washing the outer box to preserve the seal. The rubber seal isn’t removable, and some reviews indicate that mold can develop over time. Although we didn’t experience this issue ourselves during testing, we’ll continue to test the box over the long term to see if we encounter any problems. The Bentgo Kids box comes with a two-year warranty, and the customer service representative we spoke with said you do not have to provide a receipt or proof of purchase for a claim; simply contact Bentgo for a replacement.
It’s important to keep the contents of a lunch box within an acceptable temperature range for food safety. In an article for Foodsafety.gov, Bridgette A. Keefe writes, “Remember the 2-Hour rule: you must keep hot foods HOT and cold foods COLD.” Perishables last only two hours in temperatures between 40°F and 90°F before they spoil. If the temperature of food is between 90°F and 140°F, perishables will last only about one hour before you need to refrigerate or freeze them. Always keep cold foods under 40°F and hot foods above 140°F. If you or your child don’t have access to a refrigerator, the USDA recommends using two cold packs (larger than 5 by 3 inches each), one above and one below perishable items such as dairy or sandwiches.
Most insulated lunch boxes are not machine washable or dishwasher safe. Manufacturers suggest wiping insulated lunch boxes clean with a mild dish detergent and a damp paper towel. Be sure to dry an insulated lunch box with paper towels or a cloth and leave it open and unzipped to air dry completely before you use it. Your best bet is to clean an insulated lunch box once or twice a week to prevent it from acquiring an unpleasant, off scent.
For difficult stains, such as those from tomato sauce, removing the soiled area may take multiple attempts. If the exterior becomes stained, we recommend cleaning it immediately with a little soap and water for best results.
Most plastic and metal food storage containers are dishwasher safe (top rack only), but always read the manufacturer’s instructions for proper use and care. For some bento boxes with rubber seals around the lid, wash by hand to avoid possible deterioration.
The Rubbermaid LunchBlox Sandwich Kit 1806231 is a great storage option for young kids. These containers stack together nicely and lock into a plastic, freezable ice pack, which in our tests kept foods at safe temperatures for nearly four hours. However, since this set is so tall when stacked, it doesn’t fit into shallower lunch boxes like our pick from L.L.Bean.
For young kids, the ECOlunchbox Three-in-One is a nice, compact stainless steel option. The metal containers are easy to clean and dishwasher safe. This lunch box didn’t suffer any dents or permanent damage in our drop tests, but we ruled it out because it’s not leakproof and it’s too small for older kids and adults.
The Ramaka Solutions Insulated Lunch Bag is cheaply made and too big to serve as a lunch bag for a single person. The thin walls of this bag also lack structure, so it sags when fully packed. In our tests the exterior of the bag stained badly with tomato sauce, and the interior lining was difficult to wipe clean.
Since the Herschel Canteen Lunch Pack lacks a handle, it’s inconvenient to hold. In person, the color of this bag is neon orange, as opposed to the rust color depicted on the Herschel website. We found that the inner lining stained easily, and it was difficult to clean.
The Wildkin Lunch Box has an inner lining with a lot of seams that trap crumbs and make cleaning difficult. In our tests the interior stained badly with tomato sauce.
The Bentgo All-in-one Stackable Bento Lunch Box was a pain to use. We had trouble fitting the lids onto the containers, and the plastic cutlery was a nuisance. The elastic band stained badly with tomato sauce and was difficult to remove.
The Bentology Bento Set seems cheaply made. The lids do not fit the bases well (before or after dishwashing), and they’re not leakproof.
The Happy Tiffin Raja 3 Tier Tiffin Lunch Box is too large for a lunch portion; it’s more suitable for bringing to picnics. It’s also a bit tall to fit in a crowded fridge, especially if you’re bringing it to work. It dented in our drop tests.
Compared with the Bentgo Kids Lunch Box, the Yumbox bento lunch box has few reviews on Amazon, so we opted not to test it.
The PackIt freezable lunch bag has decent reviews on Amazon, but we’ve read customer complaints that the inside becomes covered in condensation and gets food wet. One of our editors has personally used this lunch bag and said it was difficult to clean. It needed to dry completely before refreezing, or else the zipper would get icy and fail to work.
We liked the Built NY Crosstown Lunch Bag’s rolltop closure and secure clip, but it was too soft to protect delicate lunch items from crushing.
The Built NY Gourmet Getaway Lunch Tote is very purse-like, with a bulky handle and playful patterns that might limit its appeal across all people, so we opted not to test it.
(Photos by Michael Hession.)
Originally published: July 18, 2016