My earliest memories of a packed lunch come courtesy of a precocious badger who was a very picky eater. In the classic 1960 children’s book “Bread and Jam for Frances,” by Russell Hoban, furry little Frances is so enamored of bread spread thickly with sweet jam that she refuses to eat anything else. But what especially captured my imagination was how the little badger children in the story ate their lunches at school.
Frances’ lunch, in particular, started with her placing a large paper doily on her desk, topped with a small vase filled with violets, followed by various cups, plates, cutlery and even a tiny basket filled with cherries.
Clearly, hers was no Sad Desk Lunch.
Maybe you don’t feel the need to bring in a set designer to dress your desk for lunch, but if you do bring food to work with you each day, it helps if the containers provide a little more pizazz than a cheap plastic deli container. But you’ll also want containers that are functional, eco-friendly and speak to your individual needs, from salads to soups to sandwiches. Whether you like to pack light or carbo-load, there’s a container that will give your lunch the respect it so richly deserves. Doily not included.
First, determine your luncher profile. No two lunchers are the same, so their containers shouldn’t be, either. If you’re carrying lunch to work each day, myriad considerations go into your choice of vessel; you don’t want a container that will leak balsamic vinaigrette all over your yoga pants, and you don’t want to find a crushed sandwich trapped beneath your e-reader. Other considerations: container size and weight, material and ability to keep food hot or cold. Once you identify your profile, you’ll find a container to match it.
The portion-control freak
We see you, measuring out exactly 11 pretzel sticks to go with 2 ounces of hummus. Whether you count calories or points, or have been dabbling in intermittent fasting, you deserve a petite container that matches your meal plan.
OmieBox ($39.50): Like other bento boxes, it provides precision and variety in a packed lunch; unlike most, it also offers both hot and cold storage. A 3/4-cup thermal insert holds just enough soup or pasta to whet your appetite — as well as flexible storage areas for snacks, fruit and vegetables. If you aren’t in the mood for a hot entree, simply remove the insert, and there’s plenty of room for a sandwich. Pros: BPA-free plastic with a leakproof food-grade silicone seal. Cons: It ain’t lightweight, clocking in at 1.7 pounds.
Frego Storage Container ($17–$21.95): If you like a hot lunch but are wary of microwaving plastic containers, opt for this simple square glass container (2 or 4 cups), wrapped in a food-grade silicone shell that stays cool even after you’ve heated up your food. Modeled after a classic Pyrex dish, the Frego can go from freezer to briefcase to microwave, all in a single compact package. Pros: Shatterproof, oven safe, leakproof. Cons: Heavy at 1.4 pounds.
The European luncher
Americans may just bolt down a quick bite or two, but lunchers across Europe take their noontime repast more seriously. If lunch is your big indulgence, these containers will do your meal justice.
OXO Good Grips Leakproof On-The-Go Salad Container ($16): Nothing could be more satisfying than the Big Salad, as popularized by Elaine Benes on “Seinfeld,” but keeping all those components separate until the last minute is key to preserving various textures. This nifty unit provides a wide bowl for your leafy greens as well as a dressing container, topped off by a plate that keeps proteins and other toppings separate until you’re ready to mix it all up. Pros: Leakproof and lightweight with a sturdy lid. Cons: The bowl might be a little shallow for those who like a really big salad.
PackIt Freezable Lunch Bag ($21.50): It’s a complete cold-storage lunch kit: Freezable gels are built into the walls of the bag, which folds into a small package for freezer storage until you are ready to fill it. PackIt’s Flex Bento Food Storage Container ($18) fits inside the bag, leaving plenty of room for drink bottles, whole fruit, yogurt cups and other snacks. Round it out with To-GoWare’s reusable Bamboo Utensil Set ($13) which includes a knife, fork, spoon and chopsticks. Pros: The built-in freezer gels negate the need for separate ice packs. Cons: The bento container is mostly designed for dry ingredients.
“Grab and go” is your mantra: You don’t want to carry around a bunch of containers, mix stuff up at your desk or have to wait in line for the microwave. You want to travel light.
Bee’s Wrap ($18 for two): If you’re a fan of PB&J or any other kind of sandwiches, ditch the plastic sandwich bags in favor of a more environmentally sustainable option. These squares of organic cotton that have been coated in beeswax, tree resin and jojoba oil; simply wrap a square around your sandwich and then clean it off in cool water (warm water would melt the beeswax). Pros: Naturally antibacterial and reusable. Cons: Not everyone loves the smell of beeswax.
Preserve Sandwich Storage Containers ($6 for two) and Vapur Anti-Bottle ($7–$16): Preserve’s hard shell keeps sandwiches intact, and filling a Vapur with water and freezing it solid will keep your sandwich chilled on the way to work. Drink the water as it defrosts, then simply roll up the empty reusable pouch at the end of the day. Pros: Preserve containers are made with 100% recycled plastic and are also 100 percent recyclable — a win-win. Cons: For a comfortable fit, sandwiches must be made with standard sliced bread.
Thermos 16-ounce Stainless Steel Food Jar ($25): Honestly, nothing could be more classic — read: retro — than carrying one of these full of soup for lunch. The jar even comes with a stainless steel spoon that folds neatly into the lid. Pros: Keeps food hot for up to nine hours, no microwave required. Cons: The built-in cup lid works a bit better for drinking than spooning.
The chronic snacker
You’re like that mom who always miraculously has something to nibble on tucked away in the recesses of her purse, from Froot Loops to beer nuts. Face it, you’re more of a nibbler than a serious eater.
ChicoBag Snack Time ($16 for three): The clever design allows the same bag to be used in either a snack or sandwich size, so add any amount to each bag to customize your snacking experience. Pros: Food-safe, water and stain resistant. Cons: You have to wash them.
Lunchskins Paper Quart Bags ($5.49 for 50): Lunchskins makes reusable sandwich and snack bags, but to be honest, it’s these bags that win the day. Available in both sandwich and quart size, they are unwaxed and toxin-free, meaning they can be both recycled and composted. Pros: You don’t have to wash them, and they’re recyclable. Cons: They’re paper, so they aren’t leakproof.