Like me, you've probably read or heard that taking your lunch from home is more economical and healthier than eating out (and school lunches are mixed bag, so to speak). As a wife and mother of two, I find myself in charge of packing not only my own lunch, but also those of my husband and children. This has sparked numerous dilemmas, such as whether containers that claim to keep foods cold really do so, which lunch bags to use, etc. Whatever you choose, I recommend labeling your bags, containers, and ice paks (when at room temp.) with a black Sharpie marker. Here's a brief summary of my findings - hopefully this will shorten your weeknight homework when it comes to making lunches:
Lunch bags and Containers
Love: soft-sided, rectangular, zipping lunchbags that allow containers a bit of wiggle room. They are also easy to wash out with a dishrag and dishsoap and let air dry.
I got our children's bags at Toys R Us: Helena uses a Disney brand princess one; James has a Cars one (caveat - James' lunchbag is actually shaped like a Car, which is cool to him, but means less room for his lunch). My husband has now acquired two lunchbags (since he inevitably forgets one at work): a Nintendo brand MarioKart7 bag, which even has mesh pockets on the outer sides - great for plastic spoons or napkins, and the mother of all lunch bags - a black and grey Embark lunch box from Target. I have to rave for a moment about this one - while it's recommended for your entire family only if you have ample fridge space for several of these, I love that the lid unzips so that you have a whole compartment within the lid - this means that you can easily fit a sandwich container, a lidded bowl, plus an apple, pretzels, and the whole shebang without straining the zipper! It also has an outer zipping pocket for spoons or other items you don't want to keep cold. It's also very deep so ice paks are no problem.
Regarding sandwich bags vs. containers - it's a matter of space, primarily. I can easily fit Brian's lunch in earth-friendly reusable plastic or glass containers (even a salad) in his Embark bag. However, with the kids' lunches, I usually have to choose between a bowl for their fruit or a sandwich keeper - both are a tight fit and impossible with some bowls.
A few I'm happy with - the Zak! brand sandwich-shaped containers, which at our house have either SpiderMan, Disney fairies or princesses, and Disney Cars on the lids. These BPA-free containers keep their sandwiches fresh, keep them dry from any ice-pak melt, and fit most breads (sorry, widepan loaves). For my hubby and me, I use the larger Fuel sandwich keepers, also hard BPA-free plastic and large enough for any bread (the brand is Home Presence).
Bowls - the Zak! ones, in the same line as their kids' sandwich containers, are great, though often too large to fit in their bags with a sandwich container. I find these helpful to fit larger fruits like pear or apple slices. My longtime favorites are the neon-colored (but still see-through) bowls (with animal shapes on sides) and lids from The First Years by Learning Curve. We've been using these BPA-free bowls since we were toting Cheerios in the stroller. They're a nice size to fit along with a sandwich container.
For ice paks - My kids love that the Thermos Reusable Ice square ice paks have their favorite characters (at our house, Star Wars and Dora) on them. However, I find that I need two squares to cover their food all the way across their rectangular bags. I personally like the Igloo Ice Max Cold light blue rectangular ice paks - they stay cold and cover most of your kids' food.
Not So Much:
While it seems strong to title this section Hate, I have to vent a little (and warn other lunch-packers) about a few booby traps that are out there.
The classic Thermos containers in bowl size did NOT keep my child's food hot enough - initially my son's day care teacher noticed that his mac n cheese was not still piping hot at lunch time. So I tested it out at home - sure enough, the food was cooling off too much (I even used a food thermometer) to be considered still a safe temperature to eat. With the Thermos built-in straw canister, we had an endless problem with the milk leaking - for a while I sent the Thermos encased in a Ziploc storage bag with a sliding zipper (my daughter hadn't mastered the zipping ones), but then she was dealing with a milky bag to get her drink out. I finally gave up and she now gets milk at school.
For a gift, I received some Fit Fresh green-lid/clear-compartment containers with ice paks that you could snap into the lids. They seemed great initially - they have measurements on the sides for the portion-conscious and would keep your food reliably cool. The bummer - while I got four containers and lids, the box came with only 2 ice paks. Also, it's not easy to snap in the ice paks, and I'm afraid that too much snapping and unsnapping would make the little tabs that hold the paks break over time. So I usually keep the lids and paks intact in the freezer - this does, however, limit them from being used for storage at home. Also, having the pak in the lid means you can fit less food in the container.
Salad dressing blues - my Rubbermaid tiny containers sadly leaked oil-based salad dressings (Thousand Island was ok; balsamic vinaigrette not so much). Having everything in your lunchbag oil-coated is not a fun surprise when you sit down to eat. I have had luck, however, with the Glad "disposable" plastic tiny bowls with lids, which I wash and reuse. No leaking!!
I'm not a fan of paper-lunch bag-shaped soft-sided lunch bags - they're a pain to reach down into to scrub out, and it's hard to stack containers with an ice pak on top and still be able to fold over the velcro top.
Hard-sided plastic rectangular lunch boxes (a la the Barbie and the Rockers and Rainbow Brite ones I had as a kid) that come with Thermoses leave you little room for any food, and provide no insulation to keep your lunch cold.
Soft-sided ice paks where you see the blue gel inside - I've had too many of these crack and leak - enough said!
I've tried the more earth-friendly folding sandwich coverings and pouches - to be honest, every kind I tried left my sandwich either stale or soggy from the ice pak in the bag. Sorry, no luck here. Thus I usually use containers as much as possible.
Be sure to check out my article on what to put in those lunches, now that you know how to contain the food...