School is coming… Time to Gear Up! (Part 1)

Back-to-school sales have been going on since… something like May. But the sad truth is, it’s time to start paying attention to them.

And for families whose kids brown bag it, gearing up for another year in the classroom also means getting the goods needed to serve another 180 days in the lunch box trenches.

So here’s a quick primer on what’s needed to get lunch prepped and packed in a flash.

Lunch gear can be divided into four main categories. This is what you need to know about each.

  • Lunch boxes
  • Thermoses
  • Food containers
  • Water bottles
  • Next week — Part 2: Tips on how to use all this great gear!

A while back, lunch boxes came in two main varieties: brown paper bags and hard boxes. For kids, those hard boxes generally were festooned with various movie or cartoon characters.

It’s been a long time since lunch boxes were that simple. Today, they are made in numerous shapes, styles, sizes and substances. They can be hard plastic. Or metal. Or neoprene. Or vinyl. Insulated or not. Decorated or not. Many are inspired by Japanese bento boxes (many small compartments). Others are the size of coolers.

So how do you decide? For most lunch packers, a soft-sided insulated bag is the way to go. They come in many sizes, colors and designs; they are inexpensive; and most are rugged enough to withstand the sort of daily abuse kids dish out.

When selecting a soft-sided lunch bag, there are a few things to consider. First, make sure it is insulated. This helps keep foods — whether packed warm or cold — fresh and safe to eat.

Second, make sure it’s roomy. Nobody liked squashed sandwiches. So give yourself the space you need to pack an adequate lunch. This requires that you think about the sorts of foods you are likely to pack. A thermos takes up more space than a sandwich in a bag.

Third, aim for a lunch bag with two compartments. This makes it easier to pack hot and cold items (think a thermos of hot soup and a cup of cold yogurt) in the same lunch.

Thermos technology is way better than it was even just 10 years ago. Manufacturers not only have improved the designs (allowing foods to be kept hot or cold longer), they also got much better at telling consumers how the gear works. This is important information for keeping the lunches you pack safe to eat. We’ll get into that in more detail in Part 2 of The Lunch Gear Diaries (next week).

For now, what you need to know is that thermoses generally come in two shapes — tall and narrow (the traditional design), and short and squat. Ideally, you will want to get one of each.

Tall and narrow thermoses are best for thin liquids, such as smoothies or soups. Short and squat thermoses (sometimes called “food jars”) are great for thicker items, such as chili or meatballs or warm sandwich fillings.

When selecting a thermos, try to get the right size for the amount of food you will pack in it. You don’t want a cavernous thermos with just a bit of food inside — it won’t keep it as warm or cold. Also, buy only thermoses that include a thermal rating (an indication of how long they keep items hot and cold). Get as high a thermal rating as you can.

These are the containers you actually put the food in (and which, in turn, are packed inside the lunch box). The cheapest and most convenient choice? Plastic bags.

Trouble is, the cost of those bags adds up over the course of the year (and the year after that and after that…). There also is the unpleasant environmental aspect of dumping all those bags into landfills. And the bags have their limits (ever try packing pudding in one?).

For an inexpensive upgrade, plastic food storage containers (the sort sold at grocers) are a solid choice. They come in all manner of shapes and sizes, are dishwasher safe (essential for just about any lunch gear), and are easily replaced when Junior inevitably loses one. The downside? They don’t last forever (they should be replaced at least every school year) and some people aren’t thrilled with plastic.

Ready to go high-end? Stainless steel. The web is awash in stainless steel food containers. They are pricier, but they will last forever. They also are available in more sizes, shapes and configurations than you thought possible. And they can really take a beating. My favorite brand? LunchBots. They are awesome. My dangerous and generally destructive 8-year-old son has never managed to do any harm to our collection.

Whatever variety you select for food containers, having multiples is key to keeping your sanity. That way forgetting to wash yesterday’s lunch containers doesn’t become a dishwasher crisis in the morning.

Like everything else, it’s best to have a spare. The headaches this saves on the mornings when you realize your kid left his at school… Well worth the cost to have an extra.

When it comes to water bottles, plastic isn’t always cheaper than stainless steel. Many stainless bottles are less expensive than plastic. And I find they last longer.

Plus, plastic water bottles usually aren’t insulated. And while not all metal bottles are, it’s easy to find plenty that are. Does it matter? Not always. But insulated bottles won’t sweat on hot days.

J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He blogs about the trials and tribulations of his son’s lunches at His upcoming cookbook, Beating the Lunch Box Blues, will be the first to be released by Rachael’s new publishing venture, Rachael Ray Books. Hirsch’s previous books include High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking and Venturesome Vegan Cooking. He lives in New Hampshire with his son, wife, and too many cats.

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