If I’ve packed over 400 lunches in bento boxes, do I get to be an expert yet? (Maybe 500?)
That’s two years straight for one child plus a month for two children, plus many odd days for summer camp, road trips traveling with the whole family, and excursions like zoo trips and baseball games.
It feels like a lot of lunches, and I have some pretty strong opinions about the bento style lunch boxes, both stainless steel and plastic, that I’ve been able to run through the gauntlet the past few years.
I hope you enjoyed last week’s reusable sandwich and snack bag reviews, and today we’ll finish up equipping you for a no-waste lunch.
Bento Lunch Box Reviews
When I first reviewed my initial bento style lunch box three years ago, I got crabby about the fact that one of them wasn’t quite tall enough to fit a large, stacked sandwich made with my thick and inflexible homemade sourdough bread – so I think it’s pretty ironic that I never have bread in the house anymore and don’t really “do” sandwiches. The box is now perfect for us.
I’m listing these more or less in order of preference, favorite to least favorite. It turns out the two I’ve had for a few years rate higher in my book than the others. I’ll be honest and say that certainly there’s a chance familiarity plays a role in my favoritism, but it could also be that I already had the good ones and shouldn’t have branched out.
Bento Style Lunch Box: Lunchbot
Found at: Lunchbot, Amazon, Life Without Plastic
Current price: $17-21.50
Material: 18/8 stainless steel
Number of compartments: 1-4; we have the trio (pictured above, linked to Amazon) and quad, 20 fl. oz. or 600 mL
How it works:
Stainless steel is fastened together (soldered?) to make dividers in these rounded rectangular boxes. The lid fits on tightly, but not watertight, and I’m sure if you dropped the whole thing it would go flying off (we luckily haven’t had that problem yet). I find it hard to decide sometimes between the two larger sections in the trio and having one more section numerically with the quad.
- No plastic at all
- Longevity – ours are still in perfect shape, as nice as when we started using them three years and one year ago (I added the trio last fall).
- Dishwasher safe – why I would choose the stainless lid without paint, every time (the paint coming off is the only sign of wear)
- I enjoy the structure of having a certain number of boxes to fill and actually really like when they’re all the same (no decisions on which is the better place for which food)
- Very easy to open and close fully
- Fits well in many shapes and sizes of lunch box
- Deep enough to fit a whole muffin
- Liquids or liquid-y things like mustard, juicy tomatoes, etc. run under the divider walls, which are not soldered to the floor of the box.
- They don’t “nest” in the cupboard (although with lids on they stack nicely)
- Not much flexibility in size of compartment if you just have one box (but this does not bother me, hardly ever! I like four squares…)
Star Feature: Uncomplicated eco-friendly option, just the right size for my K-3rd graders with a yogurt on the side.
Major Drawback? Not being water tight would bug some people, and the inner corners can be tough to clean with some foods, but the dishwasher does a pretty good job.
Bento Style Lunch Box: ECOlunchboxes 3-in-1
How it works:
There’s one large rectangular compartment on the bottom and a matching size on top, then an optional small rectangular box with a lid that can fit in the top compartment (but not the bottom). The top is the lid for the bottom, and its lid is secured in place by two large clips on either side that hold the whole thing together.
- Eco-friendly material, no plastic at all
- Dishwasher safe
- Longevity – after 3 long years of lots of use, everything still is going great. For the first time, just a few days before I wrote this post, one of the clips fell right off. I just about freaked out, but it slid right back in and seems to be in fine shape now – woo hoo!
- Super easy to open, except the little box is sometimes tough for small fingers. Kids also know with 100% certainty when it’s closed properly, so no leaks in the lunch box between lunchtime and home.
- Flexibility – you can use just the large top portion, just the small box, both of those together, just the top and bottom, or all three. That’s cool and very handy sometimes.
- The bottom of the top compartment has been the lid for the base during the travel to school…so it can be messy to set aside on the table.
- It drives me nuts sometimes when I realize I put something in the bottom that would go well with the little box and then it won’t fit. If I could redesign it, I’d give the base another half inch to allow the extra box container to fit in either top or bottom.
- Doesn’t quite fit humongous sandwiches on homemade bread – but that doesn’t really matter to me anymore around here!
- Not leakproof, although darn close. I trust the small box with applesauce or dip.
- Lots of pieces to keep together and store; don’t “nest.”
Star Feature: Flexibility of sizes, no plastic, and knowing for sure that it’s closed all the way
Major Drawback? Can be a little tall for flat lunch boxes (but still fits fine), the gooey bottom thing. Somewhat pricey.
Note: You can also buy other styles (not stacking) and even the little rectangular inserts a la carte. It would be very handy to have more of those around, come to think of it…
Bento Style Lunch Box: Ziploc Divided Containers
Found at: Amazon, Target, other retailers
Current price: 2 for $6.78
Material: BPA-free polypropylene plastic
Number of compartments: 3 (small 4 fl. oz/100mL, medium 6 fl. oz/175 mL, and large 22 fl. oz./650 mL)
How it works: Classic Ziploc container lid, but all three compartments are individually leak-proof – unique among the containers I tested!
I picked these up at Target last month because folks reminded me that not everyone can afford the up front investment of stainless steel, and I wanted to see how they compared. You can find a very similar style under the Easy Lunchboxes brand (at Amazon, currently 4/$13.95 – 7 colors, but the description says they’re not leakproof!).
- 3 leak-proof compartments
- Very roomy
- Easy enough for even kindergarten fingers to open
- Dishwasher safe (top rack)
- Only two pieces – simple to put together and anyone can put them away without being confused
- Stack nicely in the cupboard “nested”
- UPDATE: Reader notes that they’re inexpensive enough to replace if kids (or, ahem, husband) forget to bring them home. Good point!
- I question the longevity – in my experience with Ziploc containers, within a year to a few years, the lid will start to crack. Dropping can be a disaster. UPDATE: My 5-year-old daughter, who is an incredibly careful little girl, came home with a big chunk missing from the main compartment one day. That was 2/3 of the way through the first school year, and I’d estimate that I use these only once every 2 weeks. Not a good track record!!
- Cleaning – they might be dishwasher safe, but they take up a lot of space and always come out wet, so you have to hand dry or find a place to air dry anyway. We generally default to hand-washing plastics to prolong their life.
- A bit large for all 4 lunch boxes we happen to own (but this is obviously debatable depending on your lunch box style) – readers say they fit in most standard kids’ lunch boxes perfectly.
You can see relative size of the Ziploc container here: it’s about as big as the Planetbox Shuttle plus its open lid (right column center) – meaning total space for food is about twice as much.
The way we pack lunches, with a yogurt always included, makes these a two-edged sword: on the one hand, it’s so cool to be able to put the yogurt right in the box. On the other hand, it’s harder to make yogurts for a few days “assembly line style” because these are so huge, and also there’s only two compartments left after the yogurt takes one, which kind of cramps my style. Silicone dividers (found on Amazon) for the big section are handy if you’re not packing a sandwich.
That said, this format is still my favorite after the two stainless ones I enjoy most.
Star Feature: The leakproof compartments can’t be understated. Price is great.
Major Drawback? Longevity and size.
Get the whole premium package with bonus printables and Kindle/Nook files right HERE.
Other “Bento Boxes”
After a few years of packing lunches and sharing occasional photos and ideas, people began to ask me this summer if I would do an official comprehensive bento box review. I contacted a few companies that came up when I searched for other “bento boxes,” and I got some new lunch kits and bento boxes to test out.
A friend was visiting soon after I received all the goodies, and I spread them out and showed them off. After every one, she came to the conclusion: I don’t see how they’re any better than the hinged lunch boxes with the thermos inside that we used to use in elementary school!
And she was right. With all of these, you still have to find a place for your drink outside the box. You still need an additional carrying case for most of them, one that will fit an ice pack and a drink. If you had little containers to populate the old-school lunch boxes, lunch would actually be more contained in one box and still just as “reusable.”
Sometime, new and improved/eco-friendly isn’t always actually better. I’m not crazy about any of these styles – even though they’re just fine as lunch boxes go – but I really have to list them randomly because I’m not sure any are above the others. UPDATE: Readers disagreed with me about one in particular; see the comments for more discussion! Let’s take a look:
Bento Style Lunch Box: Laptop Lunches
How it works:
One large rectangular lunch box holds four small compartments of various sizes, two of which have lids and two don’t, plus a smaller dip container with a lid. There’s a slot along the edge for utensils but nowhere for a drink. The lid is hinged and latches by sliding one piece of plastic under another strip of plastic until it hooks together.
- Leakproof compartments (the 2 with lids)
- Can move containers in different layouts
- Dishwasher safe, top rack only
- Lots of space for food
- Easy to stack if you have multiples
- Microwave safe if you need that for work – but mic’ing plastic still is not okay in my book! I send 2-cup Pyrex glass containers with my husband.
- You have to stay on top of which lids go with which containers so you don’t pour yogurt into one that doesn’t have a lid.
- Very difficult for young children to open the outside container: We had a training session where my 8yo taught my 5yo how to open the box. After many tries she finally got it, but she still couldn’t open the box once she got to school with it. The inside containers can be tricky too.
I worry that the plastic hinge on the exterior box won’t last very long, but I don’t have anything to back that up. It just looks sensitive and thin.I stand corrected! Multiple readers in the comments let me know that their Laptop Lunches have lasted a very long time – that’s great!
- Coming out of the dishwasher, everything is wet and needs to be laid out to air dry anyway – all potentially EIGHT pieces of interior containers and lids, plus you already have to wash the outer box separately since it would take up far too much space in the dishwasher.
- Lots of pieces to keep track of and
no nesting possible.Corrected by readers again – you can nest if you have more than one. Great!
- Large box but still no room for a drink or ice pack, so you still need an insulated lunch box, and a big one at that. Laptop Lunches does sell a few styles of lunch boxes that will fit a drink and ice pack with the box.
Star Feature: The volume/space for food is nice and big, and the four compartments are good sizes and easy to use – although not appropriate for sandwich packing.
Major Drawback? If you’re going to store and wash all those plastic pieces anyway, you might as well have a lunch box that can hold your beverage, so I’d just use a bunch of plastic Ziploc or Glad containers and a big lunch box instead. UPDATE: Readers totally disagreed with me on this because Laptop Lunches does sell great lunchboxes that hold the drink, and folks really like them especially for adults and older kids. That makes a lot of sense since my kids are still younger, so perhaps that’s why I liked the other options better. If you’re cool with plastic, you might really like Laptop Lunches.
Bento Style Lunch Box: Leaflet Tight Box
Found at: Allthingsforsale.com
Current price: $8.99
Material: poplypropylene BPA-free plastic, ABS plastic (lid)
Number of compartments: 3, removable (500 mL total)
How it works:
The box has 3 small dishes that can only go in one way but are removable. The lid has two flaps that click down on the sides, and the box itself is watertight – I just tested it to make sure – but each individual cup would not be.
- Easy to open and close
- Watertight – if you wanted a small rectangle box for something fluid (but not with the inserts)
- Fairly easy to clean – dishwasher safe top rack, although we don’t wash the lid
- So small! Notice that this has less capacity than just the one large compartment of the Ziploc container. It’s just perfect for my 2-year-old, but comes close to inadequate even for my kindergartner with a yogurt on the side.
- Plastic is always a concern over stainless steel. The lid is made of ABS, which is an acronym for Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, a copolymer thermoplastic manufactured from the polymerization of Styrene and Acrylonitrile in the presence of Polybutadiene. Hmmmm. The Wiki article on it never mentions food uses. Not crazy about that.
- Lots of pieces to wash and keep track of; won’t nest but will stack for storage.
- The boxes only fit in exactly one way because of the rounded edges, so it’s just not as quick to put together for storage as it could be.
- I worry about the longevity of the moving parts on the lid. When I chatted with Shaina of Food for my Family after reading her lunch reviews with interest, she mentioned that her kids had easily broken a few lids of that style.
- Comes with a fabric bag that is next to useless for actual lunch packing – we need an insulated lunch box and room for a drink, at least, if not supplemental containers.
Star Feature: The locking lid is nice.
Major Drawback? Did I mention this is too small for anyone over 3 or 4 years old? If I wanted a box that had 3 compartments, I’d go with Lunchbots stainless steel in a second.
Note: Allthingsforsale.com (Bento USA) has quite a number of other options, including some stainless steel versions that I would have preferred to test out over the plastic box I received, and this plastic one or this one (affordable plastic version of the Lunchbot in my estimation) would negate most of my negative reviews of the small one while retaining the positives. Between that and the fun accessories, it’s worth browsing.
Bento Style Lunch Box: Planetbox Shuttle
Found at: Planetbox.com
Current price: $39.95 ($34.95 without bag)
Material: stainless steel
Number of compartments: two plus a round “dip” container with a lid
How it works:
The bottom is all one piece of stainless steel with a hinged lid that adds a bit of headroom to each compartment (which are not watertight from each other or the exterior). The dip container fits in either space and has a lid with a silicone seal. A large clip keeps the whole thing closed, and it comes with an insulated bag and magnets for the top.
- Safe materials, no plastic
- Easy to open and close (except the dip container can be tricky)
- Dip container can be super handy!
- Dishwasher safe, but a bit tricky to fit sometimes because the lid is attached (not dip container lid)
- Size – the Shuttle is Planetbox’s “snack” size, and it really doesn’t measure up for lunches, although I’ve been able to use it for my kindergartner with a yogurt on the side. I wouldn’t recommend this size though, and the larger size is holy-cow-expensive.
- The carry case is cute and insulated, BUT there’s not really room in it for anything else, and who needs an insulated snack bag only? If you do, Planetbox is perfect, but I need room for an ice pack, a drink, and more food!
- The magnets are distracting – they go under the clip a bit, which isn’t attractive, they’re not exactly fun to play with, and you have to take them off to wash and then keep track of them to store. I’d like to see a Planetbox with no magnets and no case and see if it competes better with the Lunchbot, which I would choose hands down over this version anytime. I’d also love to try the larger Planetbox to see if I like it better – it does have a leakproof container that fits right in, so it may be the perfect all-in-one solution, but man, is it pricey!
- I hope the longevity of the hinge would be acceptable, but I can’t be sure…
- We just realized this week that water gets under the silicone seal of the dip container while washing, and although at least you can take it out to dry, it’s one more little piece to bother with while hand-washing things.
Star Feature: Safe material, easy to open and close
Major Drawback? Too small, too expensive – the next size up can be purchased for $39.95 without any extra cups or a bag…but that’s still pricey in my book.
Bento Style Lunch Box: Monbento
Found at: Monbento.com
Current price: 28.90 (pounds? I don’t do much with currency exchange…)
Material: BPA-free plastic
Number of compartments: 2, one with a divider (34 fl. oz. total/1 L)
How it works:
Two long rectangular compartments, each with its own lid, stack on top of each other with one final lid on top and an elastic band around the whole thing. There’s a small divider that you can put anywhere you like in either of the compartments to create a second space to separate the food.
- Big enough to suffice
- Cool set up with the stacking
- Microwave-safe with vents, if you need that for work (but mic’ing plastic is NOT on my list of okay activities!)
- Difficult to open lids, even for me as an adult
- Lots of parts to keep track of; not all that easy to stack with the top lid being rounded (unless you store that one separately)
- Can be rather tall for some lunch boxes
- Mine has French words on the top – for kids for whom appearances are important, this one is pretty dated. BUT most of the styles are the same price and are solid colors, very attractive.
Star Feature: Roomy, unique stacking
Major Drawback? Plastic and hard to open; mostly I just don’t see a reason to go with this one over some of the others.
Options for Yogurt on the Side
As I’ve mentioned above, we have a homemade yogurt in the lunch box just about every day. Other than Laptop Lunches and the Ziploc containers, all the boxes need a little help sending something fluid like yogurt. Here are some we’ve used:
Life Without Plastic small stainless steel containers, shown above: Our ultimate favorite. They never leak, anyone can open them, and they’re just the right size. The bowl is dishwasher safe and the lid isn’t hard to wash. We’ve had the one I used almost every day for my son for 3 years and I just ordered a half dozen more, because my husband is sick of the glass containers leaking and he wanted the good stuff, too.
Pyrex or Anchor Hocking Glass One-Cup Containers (top left and right): These work okay, but every so often they leak and they’re certainly heavier than stainless steel. The lids will only last a few years before getting cracks in them, even without much dishwasher cleaning. They’re also quite difficult for a child to open the lid and often would urp yogurt out during the opening process. My son requested “no more!”
The newer Anchor lids (green, below) which I ordered from Mighty Nest are better, a bit easier to open and close. I would look for a stack of 4 of them at a local store, since the prices for a singleton online seem exorbitant!
Ziploc one-cup Plastic containers: Pretty much the same performance as glass containers but lighter and the lids break faster. Plastic is always a slight concern, even though it’s BPA-free. You just never know what will be the next issue discovered in plastics. These twist-on lids seem like they would cause fewer problems, if plastic is the best option for you.
Squooshis: I reviewed Squooshis HERE, and they’re really fun for my kids to have in their lunches. We freeze yogurt/fruit smoothies in them. (Also pictured above in the Laptop Lunches and Planetbox sections)
Kinderville silicone popsicle molds: Frozen yogurt smoothies are great in these, easy to eat, the kids can get them open (and closed, thankfully!), and they fit – just barely – inside a Ziploc divided container. My review is here. (Another brand many use: Norpro, found on Amazon)
I never thought I would enjoy having cutesy accessories for lunch packing, which already seems to take too long and be such a chore. My husband’s first comment was, “Looks like more dishes to wash to me!”
To some extent, he’s right. On the other hand, I’ve found I really appreciate having the little silicone cups, although the medium sized ones I reviewed are not a great size. The tiny ones are nice for dips but can still get a mess on the lids. I’d rather have something slightly larger to really separate foods. Having a package on hand will add a lot of versatility to whatever box you choose.
I enjoy the tiny cookie cutters and simply rinse and air dry, so they’re not much more work, although I do have to think about using them.
The food picks and toppers are fun and cute, and my 5yo daughter loves using them like a fork. (Here they are on Amazon.)We also coordinated the colors with the “color days” in kindergarten as they practiced their colors, a nice connection to the school curriculum.
I’m sad to admit that I haven’t used the CuteZCute Food Deco Cutter (found on Amazon) even though it is incredibly cute and looks fun. I forgot about it the few times I packed pancakes, rarely have cheese big enough, and really don’t do sandwiches. However, the reviews on Amazon are pretty positive, so if being cute is your thing – this is a fun indulgence to have on hand. (I did use the bear shape to separate foods in a bento box, so it’s still getting some use!)
What About Hot Food?
We do have a couple thermoses around and send a lot of soup in the winter. My son used this one all last year and my husband uses this one, which is bigger. The Kids Konserve brand is great for little hands because it’s so narrow:
I discuss a lot more about properly prepping the thermos and how to heat the food so it really stays warm in The Healthy Lunch Box along with tips on keeping food cold all day.
The Winners: What Would I Buy?
If I was starting from scratch, I’d get a Lunchbot brand or two for sure and consider an ECOlunchbox as a backup with a Life Without Plastic container for yogurt. I would get some food picks, one set of stainless steel food cutters, and silicone muffin cups, probably as stocking stuffers because they’re fun and I always need more little stocking stuffer ideas that aren’t completely junky. If I needed extras or didn’t want to invest in stainless, I think I’d go to Target and grab some Ziploc containers but keep the stainless ones on my own Christmas wish list!
You can survive with one of each, but having two per child is a lot easier so you don’t have to rush to get the dishes done every day AND so you can bulk pack or pack the next day’s lunch while the child is still at school.
What are your favorite lunch container options? Would you/do you use the cutesy accessories?
More Healthy / Green Lunch Packing Ideas:
- If you want to know what’s in the lunch box photos you see, you’ll probably find more details in my Facebook lunch box gallery.
- The Reusable Sandwich and Snack Bag Review
- The Healthy Lunch Box :: an eBook
- Packing a Healthy Lunch to Go :: ideas for lunches of all kinds, no junk
- Kids Unpack the Lunch :: learning responsibility
- Berry Good Wraps :: unique lunch idea
- 10 Bread-Free Packable Alternatives to Sandwiches
- Gluten-free Lunch Ideas :: food allergies at school
- Can’t do no waste? Packing a Reduced Waste Lunch
- Handling school lunch begging and community snacks :: wisdom from the KS community
- Fixing School Lunch in Two Easy Steps :: more veggies anyone?
- 10 Tips to Pack Brilliant School Lunches and Avoid Wasting Food
Are expensive gadgets and specialty foods really worth the cost? Read these super-thorough reviews to see if the item you have your eye on passed the KS tests and truly lives up to the hype.
Disclosure: I received some of these boxes free for review for the purposes of this post, although no money changed hands. Some were three years ago, and the Lunchbot trio and Ziploc boxes I purchased. A few links in this post are affiliate links, from which I will earn commission if you make a purchase, but it doesn’t cost you any more: ECOlunchboxes, Lunchbot, Monbento, Mabel’s Labels and Amazon. See my full disclosure statement here.