As of this post, I’ve packed over 1200 school lunches.
(Yes, I know you can teach your kids to pack their own school lunches, but I’m not ready to let this part of my job go just yet.)
I’ve packed for homeschool and traditional school, and I’ve even packed lunches for summer camps, hiking excursions, and 2500 mile road trips. I’ve packed for toddlers, elementary kids and adults (and have these 18 school lunch hacks to prove it!).
And I’ve tested A LOT of lunch boxes.
You work hard for your money, and there’s nothing worse than spending it on things you thought were great, but turned out otherwise. I’m sharing my experience today in what I consider to be the best school lunch box containers for a variety of age groups. The best part – they’re all affordable!
The Best School Lunch Box for The Early Years (toddlers & pre-K)
In this young age, the name of the game is functionality. Some kids are more advanced when it comes to fine motor skills and the strength it takes to open and close containers, boxes and bags. As you shop around for the best school lunch box for your family, consider these things:
- Can the child carry the lunch box? Is it too heavy? Or awkward when you consider the possible backpack and/or water bottle?
- Can the child open the container? Can they close the container? Are they strong enough? Do they have enough coordination to make it work?
- Does the entire lunch box assembly work for their meal/snack needs? Do they need fewer, smaller containers because they “snack” more often? Or do they need fewer, but bigger containers, because they tend to eat more “meals?” Does the lunch box easily fit several containers if that’s the route you need?
At the time, we chose re-usable sandwich and snack baggies for almost all of our packed lunches.
We were early on in switching to real food, and the idea of not using plastic sandwich bags was fairly new.
Also, as a mom to two young kids, I very rarely packed foods that would lead to spills (i.e. applesauce or yogurt) or ugly sticky messes (i.e. chocolate pudding). I only packed durable foods that I knew made for easy clean-up, like cut up fresh fruit, sliced cheese and homemade granola bars, and saved the messy stuff for meals at home.
Because of this, re-usable sandwich and snack baggies made sense for us.
- They were light enough for my kids to carry on their own.
- They close with Velcro, which both of my kids (even the younger one) was able to open and close on their own.
- My kids were familiar with “bags” in general, so the concept wasn’t new to them.
- I could use multiple bags for meals, and just one or two bags for snack time.
We used two sets of Lunchskins, and still have them to this day (although as you’ll see below, we no longer use them regularly). Be sure to choose patterns with longevity, as cute little dinosaurs might not be so cute in a few years!
In the early years, we used these on a near daily basis and they held up just fine. Although admittedly, I didn’t wash them EVERY single day. If I packed crackers in one bag one day, I just shook out the crumbs before packing the next.
I only washed them when a PBJ overflowed or the juices from the fruit made the bag sticky. They are dishwasher-safe, but I found it faster in the long run to turn them inside out and hand wash. We also only had enough to prepare one packed lunch at a time for each child. Hand-washing made sure I didn’t lose any bags and that they were dry for the next day.
If you’re willing to pack messy foods for little ones’ lunches, I highly recommend these silicone molds.
They’re leak-proof, much easier for little hands to open than the typical containers with lids, and you can eliminate the need to pack a spoon!
When the kids get older, re-use these to make homemade ice pops!
The Best School Lunch Box for Early Elementary (K-2nd grade)
When we reached early elementary, functionality was still important, but in a different way.
- Can this container keep hot foods hot, or cold foods cold?
- Will this container bust open and spill over everything else?
- Is the container big enough to hold larger portions?
My kids are 22 months apart. We homeschooled until my son started 3rd grade and my daughter started 1st grade. It was about this time that we switched from using re-usable sandwich bags almost exclusively, to using actual containers with lids.
Part of the switch was because my kids would be toting their lunch box from point A to point B to point C… and I didn’t want anything inside to get broken or squished-beyond-edible along the way.
At home, I knew I wouldn’t sit on their lunch. At school though? Well, anything is possible and nothing would surprise me!
We officially switched from re-usable baggies to containers similar to these for sandwiches.
Over time, as we started incorporating more leftover dinners into lunches (instead of making lunch a completely separate meal), those containers became the “main meal” portion of the lunch. Granola, granola bars, homemade lunch meat… we’ve packed it all!
I also think using the “sandwich” containers for non-sandwich main meals also helped the kids to associate the “eat this first” rule. (We have a “you have to eat your meal before you can have dessert” rule in our house, so this helped reinforce that at lunch when Mom and Dad aren’t there to monitor.)
At this point, we also added in these small stainless steel containers.
These were great for main meals like homemade spaghetti-o’s and macaroni and cheese, but we also used the smaller sizes for delicate items that would get squished otherwise, like grapes and strawberries.
I love that these containers are dishwasher safe and that they nestle into each other for easy storage. Unlike the Lunchskins, I did run these through the dishwasher – mostly because we used them for messy food AND they fully dried after the cycle was done. (Not being able to get the Lunchskins fully dry was my biggest reason for not running them through the dishwasher.)
While the stainless steel containers weren’t technically thermoses, they kept hot foods warm enough and cold foods cold enough when I packed an ice pack.
Quick tip on packing hot and colds foods: If you warm the food right before you put it into the container, it will generally stay warm enough until lunch. I’d do this at 7:45am or so, and lunch was still warm 3 ½ hours later. For cold foods, pack it in the container the night before and store in the fridge. Pack an ice pack underneath and it will be fine until lunch!
These containers weren’t designed to be leak-roof, but we found that using the smallest container for a few tablespoons of homemade ranch dressing for dipping or chocolate hummus for dessert worked just fine. I wouldn’t recommend filling it to the top though with soup or anything else with a high liquid content.
The Best School Lunch Box for Upper Elementary (3rd – 5th grade)
This is where we are currently, as my youngest just started 3rd grade and my oldest is in 5th grade. Just like years prior, functionality is still the most important (notice a trend?). With
- Is this a lunchbox the kids will enjoy taking to school? Is it embarrassing? Are the containers too babyish?
- Is it large enough to hold the bigger appetites that come with growth spurts?
- Does the container support the various types of foods and “meals” the child will take to school? We’re no longer in the toddler finger food phase and much more into “full meals” instead…
When my son started 4th grade, we chose stainless steel bento-style containers and invested in Planet Box LAUNCH lunch boxes.
I actually had my eye on these the prior school year, but our system was working and I didn’t see the need to spend the money. Plus I also wasn’t sure which of the Planet Box lunch boxes was best for us.
(In the end, I thought the SHUTTLE was too small, and wouldn’t hold enough for my kids as they got older. I also thought the ROVER had too many compartments and wouldn’t allow the flexibility I needed for packing lunches. That’s why I chose the LAUNCH box, pictured above.)
Looking back though, I wish I had made the switch as soon as we hit early elementary.
The containers we had at the time satisfied our purpose, but the Planet Box containers were functional for both kids AND parents. This was was seriously lacking in our early school age years.
A few of my reasons for loving these containers so much:
- there’s only ONE container for each kid, making it easier on the child to eat and easier on the parent to pack
- they’re plenty big enough room to cover snack time and lunch, even for the big kids
- the lid is attached, so pieces don’t go missing at school or the kitchen cabinet
- they’re dishwasher safe and dry fully when the cycle is done
- stainless steel keeps hot foods warm enough for lunch
- the bento-style compartments help us meet our real food goals (i.e. at least 50% of meals are fresh fruits and vegetables)
- they come with a small “dipper” that is leak-proof AND fits inside the lunch box itself
- comes with a carrying case and a pocket for water bottles (there’s an option to choose a matching water bottle, but we just re-used the ones we already had)
- 5 year warranty gets us through all the elementary school years
Now, I’m sharing my experience with Planet Box because that’s what we bought. However, they’re not the only brand on the market. Definitely take these reasons under consideration and find a box that best suits your needs and your budget.
In addition to the functionality needs for the various ages of packing lunch, you have to think long term.
If you have kids, you’re going to be packing lunches for awhile. Be sure to not waste your money on lunch containers that only suffice for right now. You want to invest your money in containers that will serve you now and for several years to come!
If the price tag gets in your way, consider asking grandparents to give these as a birthday or Christmas present. Also, sign up for Swagbucks to earn free gift cards you can use on Amazon. (Learn more about Swagbucks HERE.)