Selecting lunch gear used to be simple. Stuff your lunch into a paper bag or pick the box decorated with whichever movie, television or toy character your kid was most smitten with. 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 made from recycled bisphenol-A-free, lead-free, phthalate-free, PVC-free plastic. They can be forged from 18-gauge stainless steel. Some adult versions even come with their own cheese boards and wine glasses.
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 there are some general tips that can help you sort it all out regardless.
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 of a lunch box item.
• Multiples matter: Get more than one of everything. This makes life easier on those days when you forget or just don’t have time to wash the gear used the day before.
• 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, such as easily bruised fruit, or a thermos of warm soup and a cold yogurt cup.
Food containers: These are the jars, boxes and other containers the food goes in. Be sure to get a variety of shapes and sizes to accommodate different foods. And at least some should be watertight for packing sauces, dips, puddings and other 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. These tend to be pricier, but are indestructible, kid-friendly and dishwasher safe. My favorite is the LunchBots brand, available in every conceivable size and shape.
Plenty of companies also sell lunch “systems,” or sets of small containers that fit together and pack easily in an insulated bag. These sets offer less versatility than when you assemble your own collection of containers, but they work great. Laptop Lunches makes a wonderful food-safe plastic bento kit.
• Drink bottles: Even if all you ever pack is water, an insulated drink bottle is a good idea. Insulated bottles don’t sweat. They also give you the flexibility to pack warm or cold drinks, such as hot cocoa or smoothies.
• Thermoses: It’s best to have two: a conventional narrow thermos for soups and other easily spilled items, and a wide-mouthed jar for larger foods, such as warm sandwich fillings or meatballs.
When selecting a thermos, be sure to check its thermal rating, which indicates how long it will keep items hot or cold. This is important information you’ll need to keep the food you pack safe to eat.
Perishable cold foods must be kept below 40 degrees. Hot foods should be held at above 140 degrees. Once the temperatures go outside these ranges, the food is safe for another two hours. To use this information, figure out what time of day the lunches you pack will be eaten. Count back to the time of day the lunches are packed. This is how long you need to keep the food hot or cold.
One final tip about thermoses. They hold their temperatures best if you prime them before adding food. Packing soup or another hot item? Fill the thermos with boiling water for a few minutes to heat it up, then dump out the water and add the food. Filling it with yogurt or something that needs to stay cold? Place the empty thermos in the freezer for a few minutes first.
• 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 second hand shop.
• Ice packs: Even if you’re using an insulated lunch bag, an ice pack is a good idea, especially when packing lunches when it’s hot out. As with everything else, get several so you always have one ready to go. I prefer rigid packs, rather than soft. The soft ones puncture more easily and can freeze in odd, hard-to-pack shapes.
Easy, delicious lunch packing relies on leftovers. This is why there are certain dinner foods I always make sure to cook too much of: chicken, steak, pasta, rice, and grilled or roasted vegetables. They’re all easily transformed into something fresh.
That’s why dinner is the best time to start thinking about the next day’s lunch. If supper leftovers could be easily repurposed, you might as well make a little extra.
So the dinner recipes for America chop suey and bacon-cauliflower mac and cheese are intended to make too much. I designed them to leave you with ample leftovers to use for lunches.
This story is adapted from “Beating the Lunch Box Blues” (Atria, $18) by Associated Press food editor J.M. Hirsch, who blogs at lunchboxblues.com.