So, the story is similar here for cold foods than it is for warm: strict temperature guidelines, this time recommending food be kept at 40 degrees or below. That, and no more than two hours at room temp, or no more than one hour if that room temp happens to be above 90 degrees.
You could conceivably use the same stainless steel insulated container you use for hot foods, if all you want to do is maintain the temperature of one item. However, the non-hot-foods section is typically where I send the bulk of my kids’ snacks and lunches, and then I just tuck the entree into the hot container. Any fruits or veggies, side items, snacks and nibbles, and any cold entrees, they all go into this container. So, ice packs and insulated lunch boxes are the way to go.
Predictably, I have high expectations of my containers. I don’t usually go all cutesy-bento-y on my lunches (no rice cakes in the shape of Wall-E, and no hand-carved cheese bite resembling the Mona Lisa), but I do require solid high-walled dividers in my containers. Because everybody knows that food touching other food will melt your insides.
I’m an ENORMOUS fan of dipping sauces, so if my containers don’t offer a perfect seal (which, I’ll tell you right now, most cold containers don’t, simply because they’re meant to be opened easily by little hands and those high-walled dividers are not water-tight), I do require that they provide an option that does. By the way, though, there are easy solutions if you happen to be packing items that are solid, but on the “juicier” side (think cut up fruit, or hummus) – CLICK HERE to see what you can do to stop leaking in either one of the lunch systems I propose below.
(Note: I’ve owned both these systems for awhile, and have put them to the test extensively. However, both companies sent me new samples of their products this week for comparison in this post. Which is super nice, because the whole reason I’m reviewing them for you guys in the first place is BECAUSE I’m already familiar with them and in love. They gave no other compensation for this review, and all my squirmy, fuzzy, feel-good-y gushing is due to my actual lunch experience with the systems).
This system has been our go-to for almost five years now. It’s ridiculously economical (four containers for $13.95 – FOUR, people!), impressively sturdy, and incredibly practical. Obviously, BPA-and-other-nastiness-free. It’s no-muss-no-fuss, rectangular divided containers, reminiscent at first glance of your standard Tupperware/Glad/Ziplock containers.
Be careful, though! A Tupperware/Glad/Ziplock container doesn’t come close, and there are TONS of copycats out there. I myself have been fooled, and I have the pictures to show the different outcomes between my genuine EasyLunchbox item and a remarkably similar knockoff that tricked me into thinking I was getting the right item at some point. DO be careful with this! If you decide to buy this system, make sure you follow the links I’m providing throughout this blurb, because it’s way too easy to buy the wrong brand. One set of cracked, chipped, and discolored boxes later, I was absolutely convinced. Check it out.
The real EasyLunchboxes are incredibly hardy, completely dishwashable (top rack), microwaveable, freezable, *much* sturdier than any other plastic container I ever (EVER!) used, and in almost five years of constant use, not-a-one has ever warped, or stained, or absorbed weird food odors from all the random glop I send my
poor guinea pigs darling children. We have had a couple of the lids crack around the “lift to open” tab seven or eight months into the school year after daily abuse and washing, but that has not compromised the fit of the lids to the containers, and all the lids fit all the containers. And, at that price point, I haven’t minded picking up an extra set to start the year. But you’ll notice in a minute, I still use many of my old ones.
They stack beautifully for storage, which was not initially one of my requirements, but has really become essential in my everything-must-have-a-place-so-Mommy-doesn’t-get-ugly kitchen. Check it out! That’s a dozen containers right there, tucked into their discreet little corner. Their lids stack as well (those would be the bright, colorful ones in my “Tupperware” basket).
What makes these containers a no-brainer for me, however, is the system they make up with their lunchbox. Easylunchboxes has a very simple, sturdy, wide-enough-for-large-children-to-fill-with-an-acceptable-amount-of-food insulated fabric Cooler Bag that fits the containers like a glove. Absolutely no awkward forcings-in of lunches. And it’s cheap. $7.95 apiece – we typically buy a couple per year to cycle with the older ones, since the outside of the bags gets stepped on and set down in water and covered in questionable stains – happily, they are fully machine-washable. The bag is small and light, and our kids could use it easily in kindergarten, but large enough so that you can stack two separate containers without any fear of tipping or spilling (we never have the need for sending two containers, but you certainly can do it). Or, you can do like I do, and send the plastic container itself, two ice packs, a yogurt push-up pop, plus a full steel insulated food jar (see my Hot Foods containers recs), plus a water bottle of your choice, and a reusable spork, and smaller container filled with something dip-related, and a napkin.
And what’s even better, you don’t have to jigsaw it in, so your kid doesn’t have to have to be a member of MENSA (even though I’m positive she/he could be if she/he wanted!) to put it all back in easily before running out the door to recess.
The system has (true to my requirements!) small perfectly-sealing Mini-Dipper containers. Here, I can send yogurt for the granola I packed, or maple syrup for the carrot-cake pancakes (again, it’s all coming in the next few weeks!), or ketchup for the corndog muffins, or marinara sauce for the hand pies. Again, you get a whole stack (8) for $7.95, so unless you have more than four kids, you could conceivably cover them all with just one set of containers, and one set of Mini-Dippers. Here’s a picture next to a standard 1/2 cup Ziplock container, just for reference.
So, if you’re keeping track, supposing you have 2 children, the entire system for your family would be less than $38, and that would buy you four containers (two per child, so you can skip the daily need for washing), eight Mini Dippers (again with the no washing), and two Cooler Bags. The system is compatible with practically any ice pack you have, so feel free to get the Elsa-Anna/Batman/ …
Two more notes about this system:
First, the cooler bags are straightforward and solid-colored. No prints or designs. Which was fine with my kids, since they liked to pick their own colors and color-code them with the containers (the lids come in different colors, and it’s something my kids enjoy). But when our friends discovered the lovely lunchbox system, their Cooler Bags were no longer that unique. So I purchased some $1 fabric patches, blinged out the boxes, and Bam! We had instant flair.
Second, their customer service is AH-MA-ZING. Kelly Lester is the freaking-fabulous Mom/CEO behind these products, and in case you’re not sufficiently impressed with the quality and ease-of-use of the system itself, get ready to be impressed with her. She left her career initially to take care of her family, then became an entrepreneur. But (this is my favorite part!) she then decided to give the finger to the notion that “there are no second acts,” and went back to work to pursue her love of acting and singing – AND PEOPLE, SHE’S A FREAKING ACTRESS AND SINGER NOW! I swear I want to buy all her stuff just because she’s out there being awesome and doing such awesome things for the world!
This is my other “finalist” from the many systems we’ve used over the years. Hands down, it’s one of the most visually-appealing (SO RIDICULOUSLY GORGEOUS!) and complete systems out there. It’s also one of the most expensive. But bear with me before deciding it’s not worth it!
They offer three sizes of boxes: the Shuttle (small), Rover (medium), and Launch (large). My tween/teen kids have the Rover size, since they’ve all got healthy appetites but enjoy variety in their lunches . The Rover consists of four larger compartments, plus a tiny middle compartment that’s meant for a tiny treat, or love note from Momma, or fake spider, if you’re just a horrible (though totally winning!) person like that. Here’s a pic of mine.
It holds about 4 1/2 cups of food, all in all. For perspective, EasyLunchboxes holds about 3 3/4 cups, the PlanetBox Launch holds 6 1/2 cups, and the Shuttle is more of a snack size with only two compartments (I fill it with fruit for myself when on call at the hospital, for example, in addition to my actual meal). Like all non-insulated food containers (ie “cold” food containers), the compartments are not leak-resistant, so not immediately great with yogurt or juicier items, but you can CLICK HERE for an easy solution to that.
The box itself is made of stainless steel, so bottom-dishwasher-rack safe – because the gods of bento love us. And, again, being steel, it can take a ridiculous amount of abuse (my kids are perfect gummy-bear-hearted angels, but gosh-freaking-darn-it, those rugrats can abuse a lunchbox).
But I did say that one of my requirements is that my lunch systems have some water-tight capabilities for dips, remember? Each size of PlanetBox includes a different quantity and size of sealable containers for your applesauce, or honey, or BBQ sauce, or neon-green slime (if you’re still that weirdo that sent your kid a fake spider – you know who you are). The Rover includes a large dipper (think yogurt or hummus), and a little dipper (salad dressing). Now, this is where it does get tricky – despite how easy to use the main compartments are, the dippers can be pretty hard to open at times. And watching a little one spend five minutes of their eight-minute lunch break with their hand in the air, trying to wave down a teacher to open their snack for them, is difficult. Also, the silicone rings that make the seal work can fall out in the dishwasher, so should be removed before washing. Then again, you could always just get the Mini-Dipper containers from EasyLunchBoxes. They’re inexpensive and fit well.
The system has an optional insulated fabric lunchbox, in a multitude of colors and prints, which you can choose to buy or not. Like the other parts of the system, it is not cheap, but the quality is excellent, and you get a discount if you buy it in a set. And due to the awkward size of the inside container, the need for the lunchbox is almost a given – it won’t fit most other lunchboxes. This lunchbox has a built-in pouch inside for an ice pack (in this case, they sell their own ice packs that are made to fit the pouch, although you could certainly go looking for other similarly-sized ice packs to your liking), elastic straps for utensils, an external velcro-close pouch for extra accroutements, and an external separate pouch for a water bottle. Again, they sell their own water bottle, which fits perfectly, but not all water bottles are created equal, and it could take some trial and error to see whether the water bottle you already own fits the lunchbox. For reference, though, our Funtainer bottles (click here for my breakdown of water bottles) fit beautifully.
But, again, there’s that hot-dog-it’s-pretty factor. When you order your box, you pick a set of magnets to decorate the inside compartments – super cute, and pretty customizable. Some of them match the outside lunchbox, some are even just blank for your kiddos to decorate themselves.
And although not nearly as personable as the EasyLunchboxes crew, customer service is also prompt and pretty darn great.