Ready to pack a few bentos and not sure what type of lunch box to use? My main sentiment is that any food-safe box with a lid (preferably leak proof) will do the trick.
But there are also plenty of good reasons to get a “real” lunch box–I put a high premium on convenience and cuteness! There are lots of lunchbox guides and plenty of product reviews for choosing the perfect bento box. JustBento provides a thorough article with a few exercises to help you figure it out. Here are my 2 cents which I’ll continue to update with feedback from test users aka the fam.
LUNCH BOX GUIDE
A sleek container designed expressly for packing a healthy and visually appealing lunch?!? Yes please. These are lightweight and compact–can fit easily into a backpack or cupboard. Like little kitchen Transformers, bento boxes can adapt to the situation by stacking for transport or nesting for storage. Japanese are truly the masters of beautiful space-saving design.
Real bento boxes are my go-to choice for packing lunch because of the flexibility when arranging meals. Each box is like a blank canvas which I can fill with the type, amount, size and shape of whatever food I choose.
Bento boxes are usually plastic and come in a variety of designs and price points. While I’m a hoarder and have quite a variety, you really only need 1 set for each bento-goer in your family and can find very affordable ones online.
KIDBIT: There are 2 main closure types on bento boxes: lid w/ belt and hinged latch. My little guy is 5yo and still has some difficulty with the traditional belted type of bento box. I bought a few hinged ones at Daiso. He’s really happy with these and can easily/eagerly tear into his lunch right away now. We’ll save the belted bento boxes in my stash for another couple of years.
Containers with a fitted sealing lid are also great for making bento. Most of the Japanese ones I find seem to be rather small and I need 2-3 to pack a hearty snack or small meal for my 5yo. You can find larger containers from the kitchen organization section of Target or IKEA. In a pinch, I’ve also used used clean deli meat packaging!
Stacking compartments with a latching handle are commonly seen in India (The Lunchbox is a surprisingly entertaining movie!) but also gaining popularity in the US. I don’t have one of these, but seems like a really portable and convenient option when you have foods with strong flavors and possibly sauces which should stay separated. Come in a variety of materials and designs.
KIDBIT: Most of these hold too much food for a K-3rd grade child. Also managing all the containers in the lunchroom could be a challenge. Some types of latches could be difficult for smaller kids too. I might try this in middle or high school when they are eating machines.
I don’t usually pack a whole bento in these thermal containers, but they are still a great part of my lunch-making kit. Designed to keep food & drink hot or cold the Zojirushi, Thermos, and Stanley food jars use vacuum and/or foam insulation while the EZ Freeze Stay Fit system has a lid with coolant that requires pre-freezing. Thermal containers allow us to pack some yummy stuff for lunch even when school doesn’t accommodate refrigeration or “warmups”:
- Soup, stew and chili
- Curry rice
- Mac & cheese
KIDBIT: If packed with hot food, a vacuum seal can get really tight and hard to open for a child so don’t overdo it when screwing on the lid. Also these are pretty hefty even when empty and get very heavy when filled so not really something I grab for daily use. Just special treats.
These lunch containers from Zojirushi are a mashup of the tiffin + the thermal food jar and are AMAZING! We have 2 Mr Bentos for the hubby and me and 2 Ms Bentos for the kids. These bento boxes hold alot of food–enough for lunch AND snack. You fill the bowls with food (one is specially designed for liquidy items like soup, stew, chili etc) and then cover and tuck them inside the insulating jar to keep hot or cold for hours.
You’ll notice I mention soup alot. As a Japanese & Chinese family, no meal really feels complete without soup.
KIDBIT: I usually pack these for kids when we’re headed somewhere as a group (soccer/dance, roadtrip, outdoor event) rather than for school lunch. The bento box is pretty heavy and all the containers and lids are a bit much to manage on their own in a hurry.
As mentioned before, I’m a hoarder so of course I’ve got a few specialty lunch containers too! You’ve all seen the very specific banana keeper at the supermarket. I don’t actually have one of those, but I do have sandwich, cupcake, and onigiri cases! The sandwich cases are actually very flexible as a container for bento foods and I can put a variety of other treats in the onigiri case besides rice. But does anyone have suggestions for the cupcake/muffin holder?!?
I also have a woven bento box which is great to keep some wrapped onigiri rice balls for picnics. It’s lightweight and pretty, but not really strong enough to withstand the wear & tear of carrying lunch daily. And for entertaining, I have a lacquerware bento box for special meals like osechi and sushi parties..and if wrapped up carefully in a furoshiki cloth then also taken to picnics.
There are various lunch systems with predesignated compartments so that you don’t have to use cups & dividers. (I see Easy Lunchboxes the most on Pinterest.) Personally I like having the greater flexibility to arrange food within a traditional bento box and some of these seem like they’d take up alot of my limited storage space, but I can see the appeal of not having to think about how to arrange everything and clean separate dividers.
Wendolonia has a comprehensive comparison of popular lunchbox systems with a chart. I’m personally looking forward to receiving my omiebox which I backed on kickstarter. Will keep you posted on how well it works out!
While finger foods are great, we just can’t resist yummy things that require tools. So don’t forget the spoon, fork, and/or chopsticks! These often come in their own case, either separately or all together in a set. If dirty dishes pile up at your house the way they do at mine, it doesn’t hurt to stock up on a variety. Some bento and lunch boxes are designed with a compartment to fit smaller utensils. We also love travel utensils which are specially designed to be compact & portable (some fun meal-time assembly required).
KIDBIT: I have a bunch of plastic mini spoons too which my 5yo loves to use for scooping & spreading peanut butter himself during lunchtime.
Have fun and share thoughts on your favorite lunch boxes here!