Lunch Boxes 101: How to buy them, how to fill them

By: J.M. Hirsch The Associated Press
August 14, 2013

Selecting lunch gear used to be simple. Stuff your lunch into a paper bag or pick the box decorated with the latest movie, television or toy character. Done.

Things are a bit more complicated today. Lunch box styles vary from soft-sided cooler bags to Japanese-inspired bento boxes, even Indian tiffin canisters. They can have built-in ice packs. They can be microwaved. They can be forged from 18-gauge stainless steel. So how do you choose?

Much depends on the types of foods you pack and how you pack them, as well as when and where you eat them. But here are some general tips:

- Dishwashers rule

If it isn't dishwasher safe, don't buy it. Even if you don't use the dishwasher, this tells you something about the quality and durability.

- Multiples matter

Get more than one of everything. This makes life easier on those days when you forget or don't have time to wash the gear used the previous day.

- Lunch boxes

Soft-sided insulated cooler bags are the way to go. They are affordable and come in all shapes and sizes. They also are durable and easy to clean. Look for one with two compartments. This makes it easier to segregate items.

- Drink bottles

Even if all you pack is water, an insulated drink bottle is a good idea. They also give you the flexibility to pack warm or cold drinks.

- Food containers

These are the jars, boxes and other containers in which the food goes. Be sure to get a variety of shapes and sizes to accommodate different foods. At least some should be watertight for packing liquids.

For a budget option, go with plastic food storage containers, which are cheaper to replace if lost. If you don't care for plastic, there also are plenty of stainless steel options.

- Thermoses

It's best to have two: a conventional thermos for soups and other easily spilled items, and a wide-mouthed jar for larger foods, such as warm sandwich fillings. When selecting a thermos, be sure to check its thermal rating, which indicates how long it will keep items hot or cold.

Perishable cold foods must be kept below 40 F. Hot foods should be held above 140 F. Once the temperatures go outside these ranges, the food is safe for another two hours.

- Utensils

This is not the time to break out the good silverware. But I'm also not a fan of disposable plastic, which breaks easily and has a lousy eco footprint. Instead, grab some inexpensive stainless steel utensils at the bargain or secondhand shop.

- Ice packs

Even if you're using an insulated lunch bag, an ice pack is a good idea. Get several so you always have one ready. I prefer rigid packs rather than soft. The soft ones puncture more easily and can freeze in odd shapes.

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