Lunch Product Reviews: Packing Lunches that Pack Punches
By June Santini
Once I decided that I was going to make lunch for my kids each and every day rather than succumb to early morning oh-just-let-them-buy-today meal planning, I found that stuffing a sandwich into a Ziploc each morning was starting to get to me. I needed (and certainly, so did my kids), something to liven up both the lunch making and lunch eating process.
So I started making bentos. (If you don’t know what a bento is, read my article Make a Nutritious Lunch Fun for Your Kids.) Bento-making led me into a whole new world of collecting various conveyances for transporting lunches. Now, I think I may have a problem: Other people shop for shoes, or books, or handbags. I shop for lunch containers. I may have to join Lunchbox Collector’s anonymous.
Why am I obsessed with lunch containers? Well, there are a couple of reasons.
I don’t do a good job at reducing and recycling in general, and boy do I have a lot of guilt about that. One way I have found to assuage that guilt is to pack "waste-free" lunches for my kids. Now by waste-free, I don’t mean that your kids will become members in good standing of the clean plate (er, lunchbox) club, but rather, there will be little or no trash generated from their lunch. I also really like to cook, and collecting kitchen stuff in general is a bit obsessive compulsive of an occupational hazard.
Once I started really looking for ways to pack great lunches, I found a dizzying array of options for fun and easy ways to pack school lunch. All of them offer convenience; all of them reduce the amount of paper bags, sandwich and snack baggies and food packaging going into landfills. I'm reviewing some of the best options below. But first, when deciding which system will work best for your family, keep a few considerations in mind.
The Time Factor
1. How much time do you want to spend thinking about what to pack? If the answer is “no time,” consider containers with lots of flexibility, perhaps ones in which there are individual containers into which you can pack whatever jumps out at you from the fridge or cupboard, and stuff them into a reusable lunch bag. If, on the other hand, you like to plan your lunches, you may want to choose a “system” in which the containers all fit together into one nice, neat package.
Type of Food
2. Consider the type of food you will be packing. If food safety is a concern because of the climate in which you live, make sure you get some type of bag or tote which can fit reusable ice packs or buy containers with built-in ice packs. If you want to send hot food, make sure you get a vacuum jar or container that fits into an insulated bag.
3. How much flexibility do you want? If you’re like me and you want to pack a hot lunch one day and leftover cold pasta the next day, get more than one lunch system! Your kids will be the envy of their peers. Believe me, my kid’s friends ask them if their mom can pack them lunch, too.
4. What materials are you comfortable with? Almost all of the containers listed below are made of BPA-free plastic; there are some that are made of stainless steel if you’re trying to avoid plastic. The Zojirushi lunch set has both plastic and metal components.
5. And last, are your kids willing to give up their Finding Nemo or Spiderman traditional lunch pails? They probably will when you whip out a really cool container, but then again, some kids are stubborn and don’t like change. If you usually buy new lunch boxes each fall at the supermarket, try shopping for some of these options instead.
Here are some of my favorite products, along with suggestions on how to fill them with deliciousness:
EasyLunchBoxes are BPA-free and are, as their name implies, super-easy. These have become my go-to container for packing lunches. Easy lunch boxes have three separate food compartments; I can line them up on the counter and plop in healthful foods in a jiffy. If my son doesn't like the pasta salad I am packing for my daughter and husband, I just slip a sandwich into the main compartment and then they all get mixed cut up fruit and a cookie. They stack easily and are dishwasher safe, freezer and microwave safe. Though not leakproof, the lids are designed to be easily opened by small children. Best of all, you can also order a cooler bag into which EasyLunchBoxes fit very nicely, flat, so that your lunch isn't all jumbled up from being tossed around on its side. There is also room in the bag for an icepack and thermos, or a bag of chips or another snack. You can even pack up to three EasyLunchBoxes into one cooler bag. In this easy lunch box, I made a Cobb salad, cantaloupe, and a banana muffin. I packed the dressing in a small plastic container.
If you’re going to toss some chips or another snack into your child’s lunch, you might want to consider using one of the reusable lunch baggies from Reuseit.com. Reuseit.com carries a huge variety of products designed to replace disposables, as well as most of the lunch system options outlined here. It is a one-stop shop for lunchtime fun. They have their own line of reusable products. The reusable lunch baggies and snack baggies are strong, close securely, and won't spill. They rinse out easily and air dry in a jiffy. Try reusit.com for replacements to paper napkins; they have some fun ones made of hemp and organic cotton, stitched with “I am not a paper towel”-as well as paper bags-made from recycled materials, screen printed with “I am not a paper bag”.
I also got an “eco lunch box” from reusit.com. It is great for those wishing to avoid plastic, although the side container does have a plastic lid. In this lunch, I made a steak salad with balsamic vinaigrette for my husband to take to work. Because he has a fridge in which he can keep his lunch, I didn’t have to worry about packing it in an insulated bag. He did, however, take his super green, earth-friendly lunch and put the whole thing, including the reusable lunch bag, into a plastic grocery sack. Sigh. I think he missed the point.
My 17-year-old daughter absolutely loves the Zojirushi Mini Bento Stainless Steel Lunch jar system. It may be designed for little kids, but it holds enough food to satisfy her for lunch. If you like to send a hot lunch with your kids, this is the one for you! All you do is fill the metal bottom with hot water while you’re heating the food (you can even microwave the food right in the insert), then empty the water and place the insert into the bottom. If you like to send cold leftovers, stick the bottom in the freezer overnight instead. Perhaps the coolest (literally) thing about the Zojirushi kit is the drink thermos. It is small, but will hold what I consider an adequate portion of milk. Without any precooling whatsoever, fill the thermos with cold milk in the morning and it will still be icy at lunch time. My kids said it was colder than the milk they could buy at school. And cheaper. And they’re not throwing out an individual milk carton. In this lunch, I packed cold soba noodles with sesame sauce and cucumbers, cheese bits and crostini, and peaches and grapes. The plastic containers are microwaveable, although if you had access to a microwave for lunch, you probably don’t need the Zojirushi Mini Bento kit.
Another contender for the no-plastic crowd is To-Go ware’s tiffin boxes. Styled after the lunch pails delivered by bike messenger in India, they are a fun and different way to transport your lunch. The tiered, stainless steel, round containers don’t work for hot food unless you have access to a microwave and even then you’ll need a ceramic plate onto which to transfer the food. For cold lunches, you’ll want to get an insulated cooler bag. The snack size tiffin is the perfect size for lunch, even for my burly husband. In this lunch, there is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a half a small apple, some grapes, and a mini raspberry and pistachio verrine. The verrine is tucked inside a mini plastic container from the dollar store. The bottom layer contains a salad with red peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomato, and a hard boiled egg. Basil-buttermilk dressing is tucked into another mini plastic container.
Fit and Fresh
The great thing about the Fit and Fresh lunch containers is how incredibly versatile they are. Reusable ice packs fit right inside each lid, keeping your lunch super fresh. Fit and fresh come in a wide variety of sizes, including sandwich sized, one and two cup portions, and my personal favorite, the Little Dipper; fruit or vegetables go in the bottom, a platform with a dip container sits on top and the lid with built-in ice pack goes over that. I often bring one of these to the office for a snack; it holds just enough dip for the carrots and red pepper sticks that fit into it. Fit and Fresh also makes a fun salad pod; the dressing is held in the lid and dispensed onto the salad with a twist. Kids can then shake it up before removing the lid and enjoying. In this lunch: fruit salad, carrots and red bell pepper strips with homemade buttermilk ranch, and celery stuffed with green olives and cream cheese.
Laptop Lunch boxes are one of the most popular American bento boxes around. Four individual containers fit snugly into a plastic case, which fits snugly into an insulated carrying case with a strap. The kit looks a little like a small laptop case, hence the name. It comes with a spoon and fork and a plastic drink bottle. It is great for a standard American type lunch of sandwich, fruit, chips, etc. It is not so great for things which might slide around when tilted on their side, like a yogurt or salads. Two of the inside containers do not contain lids, the other two do. There is also a small sauce container which can be slipped into any of the other inside boxes. In this lunch: turkey, bacon, cheese, and avocado wrap with a pickle; gazpacho; cookies; cantaloupe and cashews.
Last but not least, there is an amazing variety of traditional Japanese bento boxes. You can find them on eBay or just do a google search for Bento Box. Here are some of my more interesting lunches; in the blue bento box: carrots and celery stuffed with peanut butter and golden raisins, ham and cheese sandwich, hardboiled egg zombie, and grape tomatoes. In the pink box: sugar snap peas, carrots, stuffed celery, and caprese pasta salad.
With the huge variety of ways to transport lunch these days, there is no reason to resort to brown bags and plastic baggies. Your kids can have a great lunch and be proud that they are not creating more waste. Don’t you just love a win-win situation?
©2011, June Santini
Napkids Make Lunch More Fun!by Mandy Baldwin
I aspire to be the kind of mom who sends heartfelt notes in her kids’ lunchboxes every day, but I'm not there yet. My daughter has even told me about how her friend's mom always sends along a little note.
So I was so excited about these new Napkids napkins, which come in 50-count packs. I tried the games pack, which includes double-sided napkins with tic-tac-toe on one side and four-in-a-row on the other, and the quotes pack, which offers a blank space to fill in with a special message. In fact, I couldn't wait for the school year to start, so I packed them with lunch on a trip to the museum. We played games and I put questions about the museum on the quote napkins, and it sparked some great conversation. Plus the Napkids did quite a nice job of cleaning up spills, much better than the flimsy napkins that I used to send with lunch.
I love that the quote napkins are cute enough to inspire, but they offer creative space so that my message (or quote or compliment) for the day will be really personal. Maybe the kids will be inspired to actually tidy up with the napkin and won’t come home with lunch leftovers on their face! But more important, they'll get a little mid-day boost of love from me.
Napkids are available at Kroger, Publix, Meijer, Albertsons, Wegmans, and more!