Are you gearing up for the new school year and not sure where to even start for school lunch packing? I'm here to help!
I've been packing school lunches for 8 years now and I've pretty much tried it all - so here is my complete list of everything you need for easy school lunch packing.
I think one of the most important aspects of easy lunch packing is to have products and containers that are consistent and reliable. While it is fun to have a nice variety of accessories, if you want to be quick and efficient in your lunch packing, choosing a reliable set of stuff that you can use day in and day out is going to be your best bet.
The containers here are all tried and true - I've used these things for years and absolutely stand by them.
I have a few important criteria for choosing the products I use to pack lunches:
- They need to be durable. The stuff we use gets put through its paces, so it has to hold up and last through daily usage and daily trips through the dishwasher.
- They have to be dishwasher safe. I am NOT hand washing lunch boxes every day.
- They need to be a reasonable price, or a least what I consider to be a good value for the money. I'm willing to pay a little more for quality, I am a big believer that you get what you pay for. But I don't want to spend my money on unnecessary extras, or features I won't use, or a fancy brand name.
- They need to be easy to store. We have a lot of stuff and a small amount of space. Containers that nest and store together easily are mandatory for us.
- Containers need to be easy to open. I have one child with fine motor delays, so easy to open containers are important for him to have independence at lunch time.
And a final, not mandatory, but very nice to have feature for us is if they come in different colors. I know this sounds like a silly extra, but for us it's not. With four kids it is much easier for me if I can have similar items but color coded for each kid. It just adds to the efficiency of my system, if I pack slightly different contents, it's easy to know which container to put in which bag, and it makes it easy for the kids to just grab their packed lunch.
So if you're looking for lunch packing products that will stand the test of time, I've got the best list for you.
If you look at any of my lunch posts, these are the items you will see the most often, they are the things I use over and over again.
If you are just getting started, this is what I recommend as a minimum for daily lunch packing:
- A durable bento style reusable lunch container. If you are on a budget, these containers can't be beat. They have been my favorite for many years. If you want a container that will not leak, then these guys are amazing and have recently become my one of my new favorites. If you prefer to avoid plastic, this one is my favorite metal container.
- A few smaller leak proof containers that fit inside your lunch container, either plastic, or these ones are metal.
- A few silicone cups, for dividing the sections. Square works best for most uses, but I also have a set of heart cups that I use all the time, and I am loving these jumbo muffin cups.
- A leak proof water bottle
- Flexible ice packs
- A bag to carry it all in
If you want a bit more flexibility or just a few more options, the things I would get are:
And finally, if you want some extras to add fun little touches or get a little creative, these are the items I use the most:
So those are the short lists - now for the detail. Keep reading for detailed overviews of everything I use on a regular basis for quick and easy lunch packing!
EasyLunchboxes are where it's at! They are super versatile, very durable, and reasonably priced. There are lots of other lunch containers out there, but when you are packing for four (and sometimes five or six) people every single day, you need value. I like to have several sets for each person, so I can pack lunches ahead of time and not have to wait for the boxes to be washed. These are affordable to buy multiple sets. But if you are just packing for one or two, the pack of four is a great value. I also love how they nest for storage, so they don't take up tons of space. And my kids love the fun colors of the lids - they each have their own color, so it's easy to know which lunch to grab. You can read my full review of EasyLunchboxes here.
If you prefer to avoid plastic - these Blue Water Bento Splash Boxes are my favorite metal lunch containers. They are stainless steel with a silicone lid. These containers fit all of my criteria above - they are easy to open, they nest for storage, they are durable. A metal lunch box is definitely more expensive than plastic, but like I said, you get what you pay for. Metal is going to be even more durable, and if the benefits of avoiding plastic are important to you then the additional price might be worth it. I think these containers are reasonably priced for what they are, compared to other metal lunch boxes.
The EasyLunchboxes Mini Dippers fit perfectly in the EasyLunchboxes and are great for when you need something with a lid. We use these for sauces and dips, yogurt, applesauce, sour cream, nut butters. Basically anything a little liquidy that you want to make sure doesn't leak, or anything that you want to put in its own little container to keep separate from the rest of the lunch. They also nest and wash really well, and the lids come in four colors.
For a no plastic option - these little Blue Water Bento Splash Pods fit perfectly inside the Splash Boxes I mentioned above. They are also leak proof and they also nest together.
Our favorites are the Nalgene kids water bottles. You don't see these too often in my lunch posts because my kids all keep their water bottles at school during the week. I love that the teachers let them keep a water bottle on their desk to sip on throughout the day. As with everything else, we have gone through just about every brand of water bottle their is, and these are my favorite. They do not break. They do not leak. They go through the dishwasher like a charm. There are only three parts - the bottle, the lid, and a valve - so they are very easy to clean and you don't get any of that gross mold buildup. No straws to get clogged up, no hinges to fail. They are basic, and nearly indestructible with normal use. One of my kids did manage to crack hers, because apparently they aren't designed for use as a rock breaking hammer, but that is the only time we have had one break.
There are a million different kinds of ice packs out there, and most of them work great. But these are my favorite because they are flexible. You can trim the blanket to fit your particular lunch bag, or you can use them to wrap around a container that you want to keep extra cool. They seem to last a long time too. I have several that are at least 4 years old, and the only time we had a 'leak' was the time my daughter decided to see what would happen if she punctured it with her fork.
We've been through lots of different bags, and have passed on many. There are plenty of great bags out there, but this year we have a new favorite! Thirty-One finally came out with a thermal bag that I think is just perfect for school lunch packing. The Going Places Thermal holds any of the lunch containers I have recommended above, and a drink bottle, and another snack container. There are even a couple extra little pockets for a napkin or utensils or a little note.
These are great for when you want to make more of a "lunchable" style lunch. With four of the square ones in the big section of the EasyLunchboxes, you can divide it perfectly into equal squares. I've tried several different shapes and sizes and these are by far the ones I use most. They are slightly taller than some of the other brands I've found, so they fit in the container close enough that the food doesn't spill out over the edges.
I also have set of the heart shaped cups that I use all the time - the are great when you want to just separate out one item from the rest of the lunch. And this past year I added these jumbo muffin cups which make a really great divider if you want to add one larger item - they fit absolutely perfectly into the EasyLunchboxes.
For the occasional lunch when I send hot food, we love the Thermos Funtainer Food Jar. It's a great serving size for most appetites, and when preheated with hot water and filled with hot food, it stays nice and warm until lunch time. They also work great to keep cold foods really chilled - I've used them for yogurt, cottage cheese, even milk for cereal. And they also come in lots of fun colors, and they even have a lot of your kids favorite characters.
If you want to send a cold beverage, the Thermos Funtainer Bottle is my top choice. I use them for smoothies and milk, or they are great if you have a kid who just wants their water or juice to be ice cold. If you start out with a very cold beverage, and even pre-cool them by filling with a little ice water for a few minutes, they stay nice and cold until lunch time and well beyond. If I put ice water in it, there will still be some ice frozen by the end of the day. These also come in lots of color and character choices. They are leak proof, and also super durable. We have had ours for years - I have a few that we've had for at least 5 years and they still work great.
I like to keep a supply of smaller sized containers for those days when I need to just pack a snack, or send a little something on the side. I use these a lot when I pack oatmeal or some other warm food in the thermos container, it's nice to have another smaller container for the rest of the lunch.
Containers for dips and sauces
Fun little extras:
These are all definitely in the "nice to have" category, but they sure do make lunch packing more fun. I think it's nice to have a few things to help you add some special little touches to the lunch. They really take minimal extra time, but they kick it up to a whole new level of special and kids love it.