The very first posts that I shared on my Instagram account were those of my oldest's lunchbox when she started Moms Day Out in the Fall of 2015. At that point, I was a young mom, feeding my first kid, and still very much figuring out the ins and outs of not only packed lunches but also feeding an apprehensive eater.
Since then, I have packed thousands of lunches and learned a lot along the way. I have found products I loved, realized which ones are unnecessary and which are essential, and come up with an arsenal of the best lunch packing supplies.
So if you are doing some back to school shopping for items to use in your child's school lunch, check out my recommendations below. You'll quickly see which are essential, as well as get a bit more insight on the extra special product additions we enjoy.
The Best Back to School Lunch Packing Supplies for Kids
Disclaimer: Please note that some of the following lunch packing supplies include affiliate links. These do not cost you more money, but help Veggies & Virtue continue to grow and offer you fun free resources like this post. For more on my disclosure policy, please visit my legal page here. Additionally, although I have purchased many of the below products myself, my family has also been gifted several of the following bento boxes as part of the work I do on behalf of Veggies & Virtue. As always, all opinions are my own.
Lunch Boxes and Bento Boxes
To pack a lunchbox, you don't actually have to have a bento box or lunch box (although I highly encourage that you do). While other approaches to packing lunches have worked for generations, I have to say I am 110% on the bento box band wagon.
Bento box systems or compartmentalized tupperware containers are seriously sanity savers. Instead of opening up, filling, and sealing several little containers or bags for your child EVERY DAY, bento-like systems allow you to pack lunches in one single container and call it lunch. Not only does this minimize waste, but it gives you an obvious platform to pack a lunch from.
Newer to the market are stainless steel lunchboxes. Many families are choosing to invest in lunch packing solutions like these that have no or less plastic. I have shared a variety of options from those that are entirely plastic to those that are made entirely of stainless steel. This is a personal decision which you choose to use, and I hope the pros/cons outlined below will help you and your family choose the one that most fits your budget and values.
I am not including any glass options due to the potential breakable nature with kids. Additionally, from my experience, many of the glass bento options are quick heavy for small kids to realistically carry on their own. That said, these are an option that is similar to an EasyLunchbox but in glass and may be one your family wishes to try for at least the adults (while evaluating if it is a realistic fit for your child or not). I have also sampled this option from Bentgo, which is a similar concept to their other bento but in a 3-compartment glass option. Again, this is an option I like for adults but has not worked for my family, partially due to the ages and feeding stages of my kids (currently 5, 3, and almost 1 years old). You can read more on my favorite options for lunch-packing adults below.
A note on opening bento or lunchboxes
If you have a child three or under or with more developing fine motor skills, I HIGHLY encourage you to practice opening their lunchboxes with them. Just as I encourage parents to “pre-tear” or “start” wrappers on bars, string cheeses, and other packaging to optimize the time your child has to eat, it is just as important that your child is able to open their own lunchbox. This might take a week or so of working on at home to help them develop the skills to do independently while they have your attention and assistance versus that of a busy, new teacher at school. Once they get the hang of it, being able to do this will give them that much more time to actually EAT rather than wait their turn with the teacher to open their lunchbox for them.
If this is a concern you have, my favorite lunchboxes for small kids to open are the Bentgo, Yumbox, EasyLunchboxes, and PlanetBox. While I love LunchBots for a variety of ages and the versatility of bento boxes for a variety of stages, I find them by far the most challenging to open (including for my five year old).
Pros: The Yumbox Original (shown here) has six compartments and has been our most favorite lunchbox option since my oldest (now 5) was 18 months old. It holds a good amount of food as her appetite has increased but didn’t leave excessive space when she ate less (than she does now). This system also seems to be the most leak proof of any we have used over the years without having to add separate “sauce-like” containers. There are other configurations of compartments in the standard-sized Yumbox as well, which is nice for when we send larger items like a sandwich or a wrap. Of note, we have also used the Mini Snack and Tapas bentos from Yumbox and loved those as well for a smaller snack-sized and larger more teen or adult-sized lunchbox option.
Cons: It does get a little grimy in the underside of the clear insert and between the leak-proof sections on the lid after repeated use, especially if washed in the dishwasher where it collects residue. I use a straw-cleaner (that come when you buy any water bottle or straw cup) to run in these areas, so it hasn’t been a big deal but something to consider. Because of these nooks and crannies in the insert, I find this takes a decent amount of time to air dry also. With this, I leave it out overnight once hand-washed, but this prevents me from being able to wash then immediately repack the night before for tomorrow’s lunch.
Average Price: $27.99
Pros: Similar to the Yumbox (above), the Bentgo has preset compartments that help take the mental energy out of coming up with variety and different options to send. The Bentgo has one main configuration with five spots, which takes away the guesswork of which size to get since there is only one option and you can adapt the larger space as needed to fit bigger foods or split to include multiple smaller items. This system also is a more leakproof options for items like dressing or yogurt compared to others. It is also often on sale through sites like Zulily and Groupon, so you can get two for the price of one Yumbox if you time when you buy it right.
Cons: There is a little more “wasted space” on the Bentgo than the Yumbox I feel for otherwise being similarly sized. The insert also removes, so it is a similar concern with grime build up with the Yumbox. That said, at often almost half the price, I would buy two Bentgos per child so that you always have one clear/dry to pack the night before while the other one air dries.
Average Price: $27.99 (but often on sale)
Pros: These are my go-to when packing everyone in the family a lunch. They’re easy to streamline and efficient when packing several lunches at once (be it for several family members or packing several days lunches in advance). They’re an economical option and nest well, so they don’t take up a lot of space to store. They also have a smaller, four-compartment option that is great for younger kids and smaller appetites or storing a hearty after school snack.
Cons: They changed the containers ever so slightly a couple of years ago, so if you have “old ones” and “new ones” the lids don’t lock as tightly when used interchangeably.
Price: $13.95 (per 4 pack)
Pros: This is an excellent option if you want to be able to keep cold items cold (without the need of an additional ice pack) and hot items hot. It has tons of space for children with larger appetites and a partition that adjusts as needed in the side areas. Also, with a handle, this can be a stand-alone lunch packing option that doesn’t require a lunch tote or ice pack (if stored in the temperature-regulated space). OmieLife is also rolling out some new accessory items for this school year (2019) that you can attach for it to further be a stand alone bento box.
OmieBox has an awesome meal planner printable you can access here.
Cons: This could be a pro or a con, but as a parent with kids who don’t always eat a lot at school (or in general), this box is HUGE! For us, the compartments feel excessively deep, which creates a lot of movement of the food within it (tossing around in the open space when in transport). Also, the two side compartments are not leak proof, so you really only have three main areas to put foods unless you can put two items together in one (when leaking is not an issue). This option is also on the more expensive end, so it may be a bit of an investment if you are wanting a lunchbox for each child in your family or want multiple boxes.
Pros: What I like about LunchBots is how many configurations they have to meet your family’s lunchpacking needs. We have the small, medium, and large sized options and enjoy them all for different applications (usually my 1 year old uses the small, three- and five-year old use the medium, and my husband and I use the large). As a single system, they are easy to wash out. Their shape and size is conducive with the other boxes above and has fit standard lunch totes from my experience.
LunchBots has an awesome meal planner printable you can access here.
Cons: Previously, I would have said the lack of a complete seal between each compartment was a deterent to me in using LunchBots. This school year (2019), they have rolled out bundle kits with their bento boxes so that the silicone liner or sauce/dip container can be inserted in to any of the lunchboxes to lessen or prevent leaking. While they do create another thing to clean out (or potentially lose if the dip container is not put back), we have loved using these and the solution they provide. If you have a small child, this lunch packing system is the most challenging to open independently in my experience.
Price: $35.99 (for the medium bento + bundle)
Pros: The PlanetBox was one of the first stainless steel bento boxes to become popular on the market. With a higher price tag than any of the other options shared, it is more common among families who prioritize a stainless steel option and are ready to make an investment that they can keep throughout their child’s schooling. These are built to last and don’t break or wear quite as quickly as the plastic ones (particular in the area of getting grimy over time). These are also larger in sized so more ideal for older children or children with a larger appetite (unless you opt for the Shuttle style, which is smaller).
Cons: The price makes these prohibitive for many families who have several bento boxes to buy or what two per child to rotate through (so there is always one clean to pack the night ahead). Also, these are a larger style and may not fit every standard lunch pail, requiring you to buy a new lunch pail that fits or one from PlanetBox.
Price: $55.95 (for the Rover)
Lunch Packing Parents
A quick note I am adding after initially posting this and being asked over on Instagram about this. What are my favorite bento-style options for parents? Well, being a big bento-fan myself, here are my current favorites. These could be used for my children as well (and sometimes are), but they also pack plenty for myself or my husband:
Pros: We are avid Bumkins bag users. Since I don’t always want to send pre-packaged snacks to school (or even when I do!), they offer an easy, economical, environmentally-sustainable method for packing additional items in my kids’ school lunches. I stick their Mabel’s Labels on the outside of every Bumkins bag, then I don’t have to write their name on their snacks every day (as we are asked to label all foods). This cuts out on the effort, and allows me to easily fill the bags with homemade snack items (that don’t have a wrapper) or fresh fruits or veggies, plus tuck in any cutlery if say I am sending yogurt or need to include a dip container for something like hummus. We have the small and large and love them both, but if I were to pick one, I would probably say the large because then you always have the space if you need it (which from my experience, you will, especially if ever packing for several kids to enjoy as a snack out of one bag).
Cons: I love the playful, kid-friendly patterns but from the perspective of using reusable bags at home and in the pantry or fridge, I prefer Stasher to Bumkins due to the transparent nature of them. Also, I love that they are machine-washable (in the washing machine or dishwasher!) but do take a few hours to then air dry so I recommend having a few bags so you can always have one clean/dry.
Price: $16.95 for a pack with one large and two small bags
Pros: They are super easy to clean and transparent, so these are my go to instead of disposable Ziplocks at home in the fridge, short-term freezing, and pantry. I love being able to pull one out and use it for the reusable nature of something I only need in a bag short-term. I also love that storing our foods in these cuts down on waste AND my family’s exposure to plastics by using 100% silicone instead. They do run sales on occasion on Amazon or around Earth Day, so I try to stock up then.
Cons: These hold up well and are worth the value in my opinion, but they are expensive enough that I don’t own nearly as many as I wish I did - specifically for using to freeze (long term storage) or to send to school. I don’t send these in school lunches based on the premise that if it was lost or accidentally thrown away, I would be sad to lose it/have the money wasted.
Price: $11.99 per one, 7-inch bag
We love using Nutridashe food picks at home and have Pick-ease from back in the day, both of which you might see me still share on occasion. However, for sending to school, I stick to less expensive and more durable options since Nutridashe ones are handmade and less durable and Pick-ease no longer sells theirs. Instead, I have linked several alternatives to a standard toothpick (which work fine also in school lunches, if your child knows not to use it as a weapon) on my Amazon shop here.
When you want to create barriers between different foods (due to preference or to prevent something from getting soggy), using silicone muffin cups can be a great way to go. With a variety or shapes and sizes, these are an easy way to design your own bento box in any sized or shaped container.
The options for cookie cutters are endless but we have found a few that are our favorites for year round use shared here. You definitely don’t have to go to the added effort of using cookie cutters for any of the foods in your child’s lunchbox, but doing so can add a special touch when it fits for your family.
Lunchbox Love Notes
There are a lot of times I feel like I channel my mom as a kindergarten teacher, and adding in little lunchbox notes is no exception. I think to all the notes she wrote and tucked into my lunchbox as a kid and what a warm reminder it always was of her love, presence, and support during the school day. With sweet messages of encouragement, words of wisdom, and the very sentiments we would hope stick with our kids at school, these are another addition I love to keep on hand. There are several cards now out on the market, but we have long used these cards. They have fun facts on the opposite side too, so that makes them even more fun!
In being cheap, I admittedly have tried a few brands over the years to label my children’s clothes, lunches, waters, etc. Since, I have also learned of different styles of labels such as those that wrap around your child’s water bottle. For my family, Mabel’s Labels remains our favorite. They stick to any and all of the above items, stay on when washed, and are economical enough that I can label EVERYTHING with them (rather than labeling just one water bottle with other silicone slide-on ring options I have seen). We put them in our kids shoes, on their jackets, etc. too so I like that I can order one set and have it work for literally everything in our Back to School arsenal.
For 10% off your order, use code VEGGIES10 when ordering at www.mabelslabels.com.
Depending on what bento or lunch-packing solution you choose for your child to take to preschool/school, be sure to check the dimensions of the lunchbox to ensure that it will fit in whatever lunch bag you use. Pick a lunch bag that is ideally versatile enough to fit several sizes of bento boxes or lunchboxes so you have the option of what you are packing your child’s lunches in.
Lands End lunch bags match and fit in Lands End backpacks and have been a great option at a lower price point than Pottery Barn. My oldest daughter used her soft-sided lunch bag for three years before the liner started to bunch up in the lunch bag. Shop for this while on sale and you can get the backpack and lunch bag combo for under $50 (including embroidery). The soft-sided lunch bag fits the original sized Yumbox, Bengto, EasyLunchbox, LunchBots, and OmieLife (if you want it in a lunch bag).
Pottery Barn Kids
For years we have used Lands End backpacks and lunch bags because the quality is great and price is fair (especially with the Lands End 50% back to school sales). However due to style preferences, we do prefer Pottery Barn Kids to Lands End. While more expensive, we purchased ours on sale (30% off at Pottery Barn Kids, which is the highest I have seen) and opted to skip the embroidery (as PBK embroidery is not up to par in my opinion). We have locally embroidered the lunch bag before, but because many of the patterns are so busy, opted to use a Mabel’s Labels lunch bag tag (like a dog tag) instead this year (2019). This will clearly identify my girl’s bags without the added price or hassle of embroidery. We can fit the original sized Yumbox, Bengto, EasyLunchbox, LunchBots, and OmieLife (if you want it in a bag) in the Cold Pack Lunch Bag.
If you are looking to see which will fit your child’s bento or lunchbox, you can click here to see the dimensions of all Pottery Barn Kids lunch bags (under dimensions & care). In my experience, I like the cold pack best because it is the most versatile and leaves just enough wiggle room to fit most all of the lunch boxes we own (since yes, I am thankful we have received a collection!).
One year, my middle chose a random kitty cat lunch bag at Target and it has held up awesome. It was inexpensive, cute (to her!), and fit well in her preschool backpack. This to say, you do not have to buy a fancy nor expensive lunch bag. Just be sure to test the insulation so you know how well it keeps items cold. This will help you to adapt how many ice packs you need to put in the lunch bag as well, so that your child’s lunch stays a safe temperature until whatever time they eat.
These are my favorites. We have used these ones for going on four school years now and continue to be pleased. They work well, are a slim fit, and work in every lunch bag we've tried them in! We have never had an issue with them leaking, and they seem to stay cold for the course of our daughter's school day.
To make sure an ice pack works with your child’s lunch packing system, test it out before the first day of school! Pack a lunch to “pretend send” the time you would in the morning with an ice pack. Then, at the time your child would be set to eat, remove your child’s lunchbox and see if all of the elements (particularly those that require refrigeration/staying cold) are cold enough. If not, adjust accordingly and try adding another ice pack to the other side of the lunchbox or bento so that it is “sandwiched” between two ice packs.
Pros: I love that these are stainless steel. One, they reduce my kids exposure to plastic but living in Texas, these also keep my kids water the coolest when the weather is still hot out. These come in different volumes, which has been handy over the years so my infant’s water isn’t excessively large but also so my five year old can have a larger water to stay hydrated with during her now, longer school days.
Cons: These are a more expensive option, as tends to be the case when purchasing stainless steel versus plastic. The container itself holds up well though over time, with my needing to just replace the mouth piece and straw on occasion. We seem to lose Thermos straws the most of all our water bottles for some reason, so that is an added expense I have noticed with this water bottle. This option also seems to drip out of the straw at times if held upside down.
Price: Shop around as the price can vary widely from $10.99 to over $20 per bottle
Pros: These are an easy, economical plastic option that is less expensive than the other two options listed (particularly since I am not buying replacement mouth pieces or straws for this). I like that the straw is connected to the lid better than the other two options (i.e. a child can’t pull it out/apart easily), so we never have an issue with losing the straws for this. I like that these have a hard spout for developmental purposes and making it so my kids aren’t chewing holes in the mouth piece (the way they do/have with the other two water bottles listed here). This option is also entirely leak proof if, say, held upside down!
Cons: These are a plastic water bottle option, so if you are wanting to minimize plastics (particularly with beverage containers left in the car), you might want to choose the Funtainer option or an alternative stainless steel one. Contigo has a stainless steel option in this style, however it does not review very well and I have not personally tested if/how it works compared to this style.
Price: $9.99 per water bottle. These are often on sale or cheaper when purchased in a multipack.
Pros: These are an easy, economical plastic option.
Cons: The rubber mouthpieces on these seems to split more quickly than on the other two options from my experience, if you have a child who tends to chew on mouthpieces. You can buy replacements for this (which I have) as well as extra straws (which I also have), but that becomes an added expense and hassle when you first discover. I haven’t had the issue of mold or leaking with these, but that is a complaint I have heard from others with this water bottle.
Price: $12.99 per water bottle
Off to School They Go!
So there we are. All packed and ready for another school year! I hope this round up of some of my favorites was helpful to you and will get you set up for a successful year of packing school lunches.