An assortment of lunch items, packed in various containers.

I want to keep things simple tonight.  I know lots of you are already headed into the back to school madness – ack! – and are probably looking for the whats, wheres, whys, and hows of lunch and snacktime.  I’ve received several messages, in fact, from parents with very specific questions about packing good lunches for their kids and selecting snacks that will represent a reasonable compromise between what the other kids have, and what they’re comfortable serving.  I’ve got lots of stuff up my sleeve for the coming weeks that will help, I promise; but tonight, we’re just going to deal with the gear.

You can’t pack a really good lunch without really good gear.  It’s true, I swear.  I used to think it didn’t matter what I used to pack the kids’ lunches; but I can testify right here and now that their food has gotten MUCH better with each upgrade I’ve made to our gear.  I think it’s part reality and part placebo effect, to be honest.  On the one hand, it is so much easier to branch out into all kinds of foods beyond the sandwich if you happen to have things like a trusty Thermos container in the cupboard; on the other hand, it’s actually more enjoyable and more inspiring for me, the parent charged with the chore (I mean, privilege) of packing all those darned lunches if I have nice containers laid out in front of me.  Strange, but true.

I’m STILL not going to be an all-out bento mom, and I’m not going to start making the kids’ lunches look like rocket ships and pirates and all that awesomeness.  I enjoy and appreciate that OTHERS do that, and the ideas are great.  But that’s not me and that’s not my role in life.  What I will do, and try to do on a daily basis, is pack lunches that are fresh, nutritious, and reasonably attractive.  My kids’ lunches look good because the food in them is good, not because I work hard at the presentation, but luckily, having the right products means you could approach things any way you want to.  If you’re itching to rock things out with fabulous bento lunches, you can do that with the right gear.  That same gear will serve you even if you DON’T want to do a major bento overhaul – because it’s designed well, holds up nicely, keeps food separate, and keeps things fresh.

What follows is my list of lunch gear recommendations.  There are so many systems, brands, and products out there that it can be overwhelming; but these are my top few, chosen because I think they’d be great for almost anyone and cover a variety of price points.  Also, while you can purchase each of them separately from their respective websites and various stores, every single item here is also conveniently available on Amazon, so you can shop around, compare them, and load up your wishlist for future orders.

LunchBots We own lots of Lunchbots, and we love them and use them regularly.
Pros: The stainless steel is durable, it doesn’t absorb odors, and it holds cold well so that the container itself works along with an ice pack to keep things extra-fresh.  Also, there are plenty of different sizes and configurations to choose from, and they’re compact enough that I can easily fit two Lunchbots plus a water bottle in my kids’ standard-sized lunchboxes.
Cons: They’re not cheap, so I tend to build my collection over time with one piece here, one piece there. Also, they’re not entirely leakproof (though a little juice from sliced berries, for example, probably won’t be an issue).

EasyLunchboxes.  I don’t own any of these personally, but I know the product and have heard from lots of enthusiastic fans – enough so that I was happy to be a contributor to the EasyLunchboxes Cooking with Trader Joe’s cookbook!  As the creator, Kelly Lester, says, these are not going to be right for everyone (no one lunch item IS right for all people).  They’re not right for us at the moment, but I bet they’d be PERFECT for lots of you.
Pros: BPA-free plastic, colorful lids, REALLY reasonable price point (like, insanely low!), and a fabulous lunch-packing community that will show you all the beautiful meals you can make in your EasyLunchboxes.
Cons: They’re not leakproof (though you can use some Press and Seal to help, if you’re okay with that solution), and they only fit in certain lunchboxes.  Kelly’s site helpfully sells her own special cooler lunchbags AND offers a list of other readily available lunchboxes that will house the containers, but if your kid really wants a specific lunchbox that won’t fit the container, you’ll have to make a choice.

Kids Konserve.  We have some of their products, though not as many as the Lunchbots, and we do use them frequently.
Pros: Stainless steel again, so again, they’re durable and don’t absorb any odors or flavors.  The containers we’ve chosen from them are also leakproof and have lids that are very easy for kids to pull off by themselves.  We also have some of their Food Kozies, which are BPA-free, lead-free, phthalate-free recycled plastic wrappers with velcro closures that can be used in place of baggies or plastic wrap.  They fold out totally flat so they’re easy to wash and dry, and have held up to tons of use for well over a year.
Cons: Just like Lunchbots, these are not cheap — at least not at first glance.  The food kozies, though, are about $20 for a pack of five, and if you figure that’s $4 each for an item you might use almost every day, I can’t say that I’m too disappointed with the way the math works out.  Better yet, you’re not going to have to buy sandwich bags, and that’s a huge plus not only for your wallet, but for the environment.

Thermos Containers.  Both Lunchbots and Kids Konserve make insulated thermos-style containers, but honestly, we just have the original Thermos brand stainless steel kind you can buy at any old store.  We got ours at Target and they have fun characters on them, which pleases the kids.
Pros: Keeps hot food hot and cold food cold.  If you use them properly, they really do exactly what they say they will — I’ve tested a thermos here at home before, and sure enough, five hours later the food was still plenty warm enough to eat.  They’re also quite cost-effective, leakproof, and just owning one of these will surely expand your lunch-packing options tenfold.
Cons: Not many.  I will say that I can see how these might be hard for little kids to open on their own; truthfully, I don’t know if my boys can do it, or if they get help from teachers.  Also, you’ve got to preheat the container if you want it to properly keep food warm for you, but that’s easily accomplished by filling it with boiling water while you heat up whatever’s going inside it, so I don’t count that as much of an inconvenience.

With the exception of the EasyLunchboxes, everything I’ve listed here will work with any old lunchbox you like.  We had rectangular cooler bags from Target for years, until we upgraded to some really cute Crocodile Creek lunchboxes with matching water bottles that L. and P. adore.  (In case you’re wondering, L.’s got the solar system design, and P. chose the fire engine.)  You can pack ANYTHING for lunch using some combination of this gear, and if you add a few extra touches — cute, inexpensive flatware that’s sized right for your kids, some colorful silicone muffin cups to hold small items and help keep things separate, even a cheap (possibly homemade) cloth napkin with a bright print — I can very nearly guarantee that you and your kids will feel just a little bit happier about the daily lunch routine.