Another school year is upon us, and parents everywhere are scrambling to get it all done before the first day — including making sure that summer reading is done and school supplies are bought. For kids who cringe at the thought of eating food from the cafeteria, packing lunch is a must. It’s important to note that lunch guidelines will differ from school to school — some may require that packed lunches be completely disposable, for instance — and this guidance can change as schools adjust their protocols.
If you’re in need of a lunch box that isn’t the usual brown paper bag, we talked to teachers, parents, and nutritionists about the best lunch boxes and containers for preschoolers, elementary-schoolers, middle-schoolers, and high-schoolers. We also tested a few of the options on our list. These items may make packing lunch this year a little easier (especially if you haven’t had your morning coffee). Below, we share our favorite lunch boxes, easy-to-open containers, and sturdy thermoses for kids of every age along with some tips for how to make school lunch more streamlined and sanitary during an ever-changing back-to-school season. And while we’ve noted which lunch boxes and gear are best for specific age groups, most of the items here can be used by kids of any age (and adults, for that matter — the bento boxes are pretty adorable after all).
Best overall | Best bento for preschoolers | Best bento for elementary schoolers | Best insulated lunch box for preschoolers | Best insulated lunch box for elementary schoolers | Best insulated lunch box for middle schoolers | Best insulated lunch box for high schoolers | Best reusable sandwich bags | Best for hot lunch | Best thermos
What we’re looking for:
Size: The right size of your child’s lunch box will be contingent on your child’s age and general appetite. Younger kids will do fine with smaller containers and lunch bags, while bigger kids will need more space to pack snacks and larger portion sizes.
Temperature regulation: Whether your kid is a fan of sandwiches or prefers eating last night’s dinner for lunch, keeping their meal at the right temperature is key. Since they won’t be able to store their food in a refrigerator or warm it up in the microwave, their lunch box will have to do most of the temperature-regulation work. Along with choosing a lunch bag that is insulated, adding a heat or ice pack to their lunch box can be helpful.
Maintenance: Much like their backpack, your child’s lunch box will take a beating throughout the school year. Food spills, container explosions, and mysterious stains are inevitable, so it’s important to take note of how easy the lunch box or food container will be to clean. While being able to pop the lunch box into a dishwasher or washing machine is a nice plus, some containers and lunch bags will require handwashing or spot-cleaning instead.
Best overall lunch box
10 x 7.4 x 1.5 inches | Dishwasher safe | Room-temperature food
PlanetBox was the brand we heard about again and again, for kids of all ages. “PlanetBoxes are stainless steel, so better for the environment, and they come in three sizes so you can pick one based on a child’s size, age, or appetite,” says childhood nutrition and feeding expert Jill Castle. Nutritionist and mom of three Lauren Antonucci like PlanetBox’s lunch boxes because they make a healthy lunch look more appealing. “You can make it look really fun to eat fruits and vegetables by putting different colors of fruits and vegetables in different little spots,” she says. And while the price may seem a little high for a lunch box, the nutritionists and parents we spoke to found that the container was versatile and enduring enough to be used over many years. Strategist senior editor Winnie Yang has used the PlanetBox Rover for her daughter for three years and notes that, despite it being dropped on the ground and crammed into a backpack day after day, it still looks as good as new. Stacie Billis and Meghan Splawn, co-hosts of the family-focused food podcast Didn’t I Just Feed You, are fans, and so are their kids, one of whom has been taking this to school “ever since he was in kindergarten,” Splawn says. She uses them with her own kids, as well. Both thought that the PlanetBox would likely work well for lunches eaten in these strange times: “It’s especially easy to clean — no nooks and crannies and all parts can easily go into the dishwasher where they can be sanitized,” they told us.
Best bento box for preschoolers
8.5 x 6.5 x 2 inches | Dishwasher safe | Room-temperature food
This lunch box gets a gold star from Jessica Garza, a kindergarten teacher in Katy, Texas, who runs the blog the Primary Parade. She uses it to pack snacks for her 4-year-old preschooler. Garza praises how easy it is for kids to open and close on their own, which is especially important now with COVID “as well as with fine motor-skill development.” Plus, Garza says the outside cover comes apart and cleans up easily — for more time reading bedtime stories and less time spent standing at your sink.
Best bento box for elementary-schoolers
9.75 x 7.75 x 2.75 inches | Dishwasher safe | Room-temperature food
By the time your kiddo hits elementary school, their appetite might outlast their smaller bento box. With more space and an option to use three or four compartments, the Bentgo Fresh has all of the benefits of the Bentgo Kids — like being dishwasher safe, leakproof, and microwave safe — but in a larger format. Yang uses the Bentgo Fresh and says that it’s easy to fit into a backpack and simple to clean.
Best insulated lunch box for preschoolers and kindergarteners
7 x 3.25 x 9.75 inches | Hand wash only | Room-temperature food
And for carrying lunch gear to school, Ilona Zeltser, site director of the JCC Brooklyn Windsor Terrace, says that Wildkin lunch boxes are very popular among her program’s younger kids. Kristin Brady also mentioned Wildkin as a favored lunch box brand at her school, too. The lunch box comes in a wide range of patterns, which would appeal to kids of all kinds. We especially like this cheery yellow one.
Best insulated lunch box for elementary-schoolers
7.5 x 4 x 8.5 inches | Spot-clean only | Cool and room-temperature food
By the time your child hits elementary school, they are ready to express themselves through all of their school gear, including their lunch bag. The medium-size lunch bag has the right amount of space to accommodate a bento box, a compact thermos, or a couple of small food-storage containers. You can easily wipe up any spills from the vinyl-lined interior, and the spacious mesh side pocket is the perfect spot to hold a water bottle. Our favorite feature is the option to add your child’s initials, which is cute and a good way to quickly identify your kid’s lunch box in the lost and found when it inevitably lands there.
Best insulated lunch box for middle-schoolers
12.4 x 10.98 x 6.22 inches | Handwash only | Cool and room-temperature food
The older your child is, the more they will likely want to add to their lunch box. The extra-spacious, lightweight lunch bag by Hydro Flask is a favorite in my house. Aside from having more than enough space to fit a bento box and extra snacks, the bag also has an interior zippered pouch that is the right size to hold utensils and napkins. I was convinced that handwashing was not going to cut it, but the abrasion- and water-resistant fabric was a breeze to clean. We tossed, threw, kicked, and basically put this lunch bag through the wringer, and the material held up through an entire school year and can be used for future school seasons.
Best insulated lunch box for high-schoolers
7 × 8.5 × 6.25 inches | Spot-clean only | Cool and room-temperature food
If your high-schooler is down to take their lunch to school, they will definitely require a cool lunch bag, like this one from Baggu. Fully insulated so that their sandwich and LaCroix stay cool, the Puffy lunch bag comes in several fun designs. Strategist senior writer Liza Corsillo loves how adorable the pattern options are. “I have gotten a lot of compliments from friends since getting it just about a month ago. Because of that and how functional and lightweight it is, I would be very excited to carry my lunch to work in it every day,” she says.
Best reusable sandwich bags
7.5 x 7.25 inches | Dishwasher safe | Room temperature food
“For older children in middle school, who find lunch boxes too ‘childish,’ I love Stasher bags as environmentally friendly alternative to sending single-use plastic,” says Silber. “They’re reusable, resealable, silicone-based bags that come in different sizes from smaller snack bags that would fit a sandwich.” Silber notes that while these might seem a little pricey for a snack bag, Stasher bags are dishwasher-, freezer-, and oven-safe, so they can be used for cooking and storage beyond packing lunches. Antonucci seconds the silicone pouch recommendation. “You could put a banana in a silicon pouch so it doesn’t leak in the backpack — the crackers can go in there, the grapes, the cheese, and they have tiny ones that you could put a smaller serving size in. I use them all the time,” she says. The bags were also recommended to us when we asked sustainability experts about the best eco-friendly kitchen items.
Best for hot lunch
8.5 x 7.5 x 3 inches | Hand wash only | Room temperature food
For the design-minded tween, Silber recommends Omie’s “flexible” lunch box, which can hold hot and cold foods at the same time. That’s why Garza uses it for both her preschooler and her 12-year-old — packing everything from spaghetti to soup in it. Nutritionist and Little Eats & Things founder Andrea Mathis is a fan of the OmieBox, too, especially for our current moment. “These boxes are so cute which makes lunchtime a lot more fun,” she says. “The compartments help to eliminate waste by allowing you to put everything in one container instead of using plastic bags to sort food — they’re also dishwasher safe, which is super convenient.” Mathis also offered some useful general advice: “Try packing lunch at night and keep the menu simple,” she says. “Also, be sure to clean and sanitize lunch boxes every day.”
12 ounces | Dishwasher safe | Hot or cold food
Whether they’re taking last night’s chili or a yogurt parfait, the Hydro Flask insulated jar will extend the life and freshness of their food for up to three hours. My son’s favorite lunch to take is a meatball sub, and I use this jar to hold his meatballs, sauce, and cheese so that he can build his sandwich at lunchtime. He always says that his food is still warm by the time he heads to lunch. One tip that helps this dishwasher-safe thermos work better is to fill it with boiling water and let it sit for about ten minutes before filling it with warm food. Conversely, if you want to fill it with cold food, pop it in the freezer the night before to boost the cooling insulation.
• Lauren Antonucci, nutritionist and mom of three
• Stacie Billis and Meghan Splawn, co-hosts of the family-focused food podcast Didn’t I Just Feed You
• Jill Castle, childhood nutrition and feeding expert
• Liza Corsillo, Strategist senior writer
• Jessica Garza, a kindergarten teacher in Katy, Texas, who runs the blog The Primary Parade
• Andrea Mathis, nutritionist and Little Eats & Things founder
• Winnie Yang, Strategist senior editor
• Ilona Zeltser, site director of the JCC Brooklyn Windsor Terrace
The Strategist is designed to surface the most useful, expert recommendations for things to buy across the vast e-commerce landscape. Some of our latest conquests include the best acne treatments, rolling luggage, pillows for side sleepers, natural anxiety remedies, and bath towels. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change.