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For years, my parents sent me to school with the same lunch every day: a tuna sandwich on whole wheat, with an apple that invariably squashed the bread, all stuffed into a brown paper bag with my name written on the top.
Was the food nourishing? Sure. Was its container functional? Eh. Nowadays, the best lunch boxes for kids do more than keep food fresh and easily transportable. They’re an opportunity to transform routine drudgery into fun.
Now that I have a toddler of my own in preschool, I’ve spent more hours than I care to admit researching and trying out lunch boxes to find ones that will not only keep food fresh, but deliver some joy. There’s a dizzying variety out there that goes far beyond the humble brown bag, and the right pick will help make it just that much easier to get out the door in the morning and keep your kid happy and well fed.
A bonus to all this? The right gear can also come in handy if your kid happens to be home from school, camp, or daycare. Set them up for a “picnic” with their little lunch, and you’ve scored yourself a 10-minute reprieve while they feast. Now that’s what I call a lunch break.
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Bento-style lunch boxes pack a slew of advantages for kids and parents. Unlike lunches that are stuffed into soft-sided lunch bags, food in bento boxes tends to look more delicious when opened because nothing is squished. Easily distractible eaters will find the divided portions appealing, and grazers are more likely to find something to start nibbling on. The separate compartments in a variety of sizes make it easy to fill, too: No more hunting for a container lid or the last plastic sandwich bag. (Bonus: Some are even dishwasher-safe!)
Prefer the classic soft-sided lunch bags? Use an array of smaller containers to keep food squash-free in your totable bag. For younger kids, lunch bags that seal with a zipper (rather than a fold-over top) tend to work best to prevent leaks from spilling into backpacks. It’s well-nigh impossible to find insulated lunch boxes that are machine-washable, too, so picking up ones with smooth, wipeable inner surfaces is crucial. Ideally, you’re spot-cleaning these bags just about daily. A more thorough cleaning with a disinfecting wipe a couple times a week isn’t a bad idea, either.
1. Bentgo Kids Chill Lunch Box, $29.99
The leak-resistant lid and kid-friendly latches of the Bentgo bento boxes make this a parent-pleaser. This upgraded version of the classic Bentgo Kids model features a sleeker design with more capacity than the original Bentgo Kids and a removable, built-in ice pack that sits directly underneath the bento tray to keep food fresh. All Bentgos are covered by a two-year warranty and (very responsive!) customer service.
2. Planetbox Shuttle Lunch Box,
Made from high-quality stainless steel, Planetbox bentos are built to endure dings, drops, and wear and tear for years. (Each comes with an impressive five-year warranty, too.) The all-metal construction means you can throw the entire bento in the top rack of your dishwasher. The downside? The lack of a rubber seal means that saucier foods like yogurt and applesauce need to be placed in lidded containers (which, of course, Planetbox also offers). The Shuttle model holds 3½ cups of food—more than enough for toddlers and younger kids—in three compartments. Older kids might want to head straight for the larger Rover.
1. L.L.Bean Expandable Lunch Box, $24.95
Made of the same durable nylon as the Maine-based company’s famed backpacks, L.L.Bean’s lunch boxes are a classic choice for a slew of reasons. The lightly insulated interior is relatively easy to wipe clean, the outer pocket is handy for utensils, and a mesh inner pocket conveniently holds a slim ice pack. Go for the expandable version, and you’ll be able to throw in extra snacks and a water bottle, too.
2. State Rodgers Lunch Box, $48
These lunch bags are more stylish than most; they have a certain “Louis Vuitton, but for kids!” vibe, making them a nice aesthetic break for parents. But the STATE Rodgers bag delivers more than just looks. Its latest edition is water-resistant, helping to keep food and backpacks protected from mishaps. A removable Velcro divider helps give structure to a jumble of food, a handy zippered inner pocket adds functionality, and a see-through pocket for notes is just so sweet.
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Of course, kids have to be hydrated as well as fed at school, so you’ll want to pair the lunch box with an equally top-notch water bottle. The best water bottles for kids feature insulated food-safe stainless-steel walls to keep drinks nice and cool all the way to lunchtime, secure seals to prevent water from leaking into backpacks, and handles for easy grab-and-go. Soft silicone straws are especially friendly for younger kids, while older ones may prefer a more substantial bite-and-sip spout.
1. Thermos Funtainer 12-Ounce Stainless Steel Vacuum Insulated Kids Straw Bottle, $16.99
Durable and leakproof, this bottle opens easily with the push of a button, revealing a narrow silicone straw that stays covered and clean when not in use.
2. Camelbak Eddy+ Kids 14-Ounce Bottle, Stainless Steel
A slightly larger capacity and a sportier look make this bottle just right for older kids, and the sturdy double-walled insulated construction means it’s built to last.