Today, children (and adults) can go to school or work armed with zombie apocalypse lunchboxes, Star Wars-themed Darth Vader heads, Angry Birds boxes and even superhero dual chamber backpack/lunch bag two-in-ones. And that's just the beginning.
Inside those fancy bags is where the real innovation lies. Food science has given us a wealth of new containers perfect for keeping hot food hot, cold food cold and wet food separated from dry. As you're looking for inspiration for what to serve this school year, start with some of these amazing new containers.
You may be thinking that a thermos isn't really an innovation. You may even be thinking that thermoses have been around for decades, and you'd be right. However, the real innovation isn't the thermos itself, but how it's made. Today's thermoses are about as perfect an insulator as you're going to get. If you prime them properly (in other words, pour hot water into a thermos for hot food and ice cold water into a thermos for cold food), you'll be amazed at how long it takes the items inside the thermos to come to room temperature. In fact, given a well-primed, well-made thermos, milk can stay cold enough to be consumed hours later. Soup, spaghetti, chili and even chicken nuggets can stay warm enough to eat at lunchtime even though they were heated up before school. (Thermos, $33)
Now that a thermos can stay hot or cold, there are a number of large-mouth thermoses perfect for storing soup or milk for cereal. These containers also come with a tight lid that has a collapsible spoon built into the top and compartments to hold small items like crackers, cereal or fruit slices. However, be careful. Most of these containers are plastic, which can contain a hazardous chemical called BPA. Most companies are making BPA-free food containers, but still be sure yours are BPA-free. (Amazon, $9)
A Japanese classic finding its way into lunchboxes across America, the bento container is one way Japanese diners historically transported single-serving meals. Today, adult bento boxes can range anywhere from mass-produced plastic containers that would look at home in a frozen dinner to handcrafted, lacquered boxes intricately painted and designed. Of course, most people packing a lunchbox don't need anything as fancy as one of the handmade boxes. But they can still have the joy of eating from a tradition-inspired, modern bento tray. Made from BPA-free plastic and featuring a lockable lid, school-lunch-friendly bento boxes are really just divided trays you can use to store food. Still, the fact they look cool and harken back to Japanese tradition makes them more fun than a soft padded lunch bag. (Pottery Barn Kids, $17)
A mixing bottle looks like a water bottle with one extra detail. Inside the bottle is a small ball that is too large to fit through the bottle's mouth. When shaken, this plastic ball mixes any ingredients that have been added to the water. Perfect for adults who want to make their own protein shakes or children who like powdered mixers, these bottles make the drink at lunch a little tastier. (Blender Bottle, $15)
Dip containers, which are basically small, round BPA-free plastic containers, are perfect accompaniments for many a lunch. Instead of mixing parts of a dish, like celery and dip, peanut butter and jelly, salad dressing and salad, marinara and breadsticks, etc., you can store each separately. This keeps the dipped items from being soggy and prevents the dip from getting all over the inside of the lunchbox. While it's true that small containers have been around for a while, there has been a recent trend among food containers to offer these mini-containers in a variety of colors, which makes them fun, and selling them by themselves, which means you don't have to buy multiple plasticware sets to have more than one. (Amazon, $8)
Again, the spillproof and leakproof container has been around for some time, but what makes these containers revolutionary is their improved efficiency and their fun factor. Every school year, it seems there is some new locking mechanism that makes the container a little harder to open and a little harder for food to seep out. Of course, this can make these containers more difficult for young eaters, so be careful what you send with your child. Make sure they can open a screw-top lid, a lid with a latch or just a very tight lid. If not, consider a different lunch container option.
Also, not only are containers getting more functional, they're more fun, too. Today, containers come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors and even materials. You can find stainless steel cylinders, purple plastic squares and even superhero-themed containers. (Bed Bath & Beyond, $35)
Not every child can be bothered to eat salad, but those who do will often find their lettuce has gone limp and kind of icky if it gets mixed with the dressing in the morning and then sits until lunchtime. Enter the leakproof salad container. This food container is actually two separate chambers. The bottom, larger chamber is roomy enough for a soul-satisfying salad while the top chamber can carry enough dressing and wet ingredients (for instance, tomatoes) to top the salad. Add in a slot for a fork, and you have an amazing portable salad lunch solution. (Rubbermaid, $11)
The Isobag 3 Meal System and other similar products are like a combination cooler and spill-proof container. They feature three, separate containers that stack on top of each other like drawers in a filing cabinet. These drawers are then surrounded by an insulated layer that holds a pair of ice packs that can keep food cold for hours. Throw in several pockets for holding items that don't need to be kept cold, and you have a stylish, simple way to carry around a meal, or two, and keep it perfectly temperature controlled.
Bento box, thermos or Isobag, however you do it, have fun with school lunch. Keep those meals nutritious and delicious, but most of all, good luck with the new school year. You've got a lot of challenges ahead. Don't let school lunch containers be one of them. (Amazon, $60)
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