By J.M. Hirsch Associated Press
I spend too much time thinking about the lunches I pack for my 7-year-old son, and he probably spends all of 5 minutes inhaling my hard work.
But this is a different era from the days when I proudly toted cheese and mustard sandwiches on whole wheat in my metal “Empire Strikes Back” lunchbox.
For generations, lunchboxes had been just that: boxes that food got shoved into. And frankly, those boxes were better suited as weapons and shields in schoolyard scuffles than as food storage containers.
Today, parents have choices. Lunchbox styles vary from utilitarian soft-sided cooler bags to epicurean bento boxes.
Some have built-in ice packs. They can be microwaved. They can be made from bisphenol-A-free, lead-free, phthalate-free, PVC-free plastic. They can be forged from 18-gauge stainless steel.
And those changes and choices reflect not just better lunchbox technology, but also social changes. Today’s lunches of sushi, soy nut noodle salads, nachos and samosas make my cheese on whole wheat bread seem pathetically pedestrian.
On my blog, LunchBoxBlues.com, I researched the many options and discovered some handy tips. The following are among my top choices:
Stainless steals the show
For the stuff inside the bag — from thermoses to food containers and even drinking straws — stainless steel is where it’s at. It’s eco-friendly and won’t stain or leach anything into food. It can handle hot or cold, goes through the dishwasher and is nearly indestructible.
For food containers, LunchBots rock. Available in a wide array of shapes, sizes and colors, including multicompartment divided containers, LunchBots products (starting at about $15) tote everything from sandwiches and salads to fruit and dips. The divided containers even make it easy to create bento box-style lunches. The new line has plastic lids that seal. (Locally, LunchBots are available at J. Matheson, 2615 Colby, Everett.)
For an all-in-one approach, check out PlanetBox, which looks like a bento box crossed with a lunch tray. These clamshell-style containers (available in small and large, starting at about $40) have multiple compartments into which a surprising amount of food can be packed.
Another cool stainless steel lunch item: drinking straws, made by various companies (an online search will pull up dozens of choices). If your kid is a straw fanatic, these are awesome. Sets of four cost about $10, Be sure to also get some thin bristle cleaners. I found a set of cleaning brushes for about $2.
No heavy metal
The bento trend has gone plastic, too. Laptop Lunches makes a plastic snap-shut case that contains a variety of food containers. The whole thing fits snugly inside an insulated bag. It’s rugged and costs about $24. (Storables at 18205 Alderwood Mall Parkway, Lynnwood, carries them.)
If you’re looking for something a bit larger or with more flexibility, check out Newell Rubbermaid’s new LunchBlox kits, available in snack, salad and entree sizes.
Each modular kit (priced from $10 to $20) contains a variety of bisphenol-A-free containers that can be stacked in various configurations. Each also includes a customized freezer pack that stacks and interconnects with the food containers.
It’s about time
Knowing how long food will stay hot or cold in a lunchbox or thermos is the best way to know that the food you pack will be safe to eat. Perishable cold foods must be kept below 40 degrees. Hot foods should be held at above 140 degrees.
If those temperatures aren’t held, you have a two-hour window to consume the food before it becomes unsafe to eat. That sounds scary, but — if you do your homework before shopping for lunchboxes and thermoses — it turns out to be very helpful.
Figure out what time of day your child will eat the food you pack, count backward to the time you pack the lunch. This is how long you need to keep the food hot or cold.
Today, a growing number of manufacturers are rating their products so consumers know how long they can hold a temperature.
Lands’ End says its soft-sided lunchboxes maintain refrigerator temperatures for five hours (with an ice pack). Thermos’ Foogo stainless steel food jar keeps things cold for seven hours and warm for five.
A tip about thermoses: Before putting food in them, always prime them to be hot or cold, depending on the temperature you want to maintain. Packing soup? Fill the thermos with boiling water for a few minutes to heat it up, then dump out the water and add the soup. Filling it with yogurt? Toss the empty thermos in the freezer for a few minutes.
There is a buffet of lunchbox gear made from all manner of Earth-friendly substances. ReUseIt.com sells cloth napkins woven from a blend of hemp and organic cotton (four napkins for $7.95) to help you have what it calls a litter-free lunch. And they will hold up to grubby kid hands and faces better than flimsy paper products.
REI sells a set of bamboo utensils — fork, knife, spoon and (of course) chopsticks, as well as a recycled carrying case — for $12.95. They’re eco-friendly and lightweight. Just make sure they come home every day.
If you prefer bags over boxes, there’s an eco option for you, too. LunchSkins is one of many companies that sell reusable sandwich bags to help you avoid the disposable plastic variety. Their bags (prices range from about $8 to $11) come in snack, sandwich and sub sizes, and are made from dishwasher-safe, food-safe fabric. They also come in a variety of funky designs (including a soccer ball pattern).