The 8 Best Lunch Boxes of 2023
A packed lunch can provide a pause and nourishment during a hectic day. Compared with eating out, it can also be healthier, time-saving, and more affordable. A lunch box should be durable, easy to clean and carry, and hold enough food to satisfy your appetite. Ideally, it should also make a meal feel like a pleasure, not an obligation. We’ve been reviewing lunch boxes since 2016, and we’ve found that different meals require different vessels. In 2021, we focused on bento boxes, lunch bowls, and insulated lunch boxes. After testing 28 of them, we chose eight that fit a range of lunchtime needs.
You can pack multiple meal components into this chic, stackable bento, which comes with a plastic divider and a small fork. It’s not leakproof, though, so it’s best for solid foods.
What we’d use it for: The Takenaka Bento Bite Dual is great for carrying a small sandwich and a few sides, like fruit or chips. It’s also ideal for carrying a meal that includes discrete components, such as rice, a rolled omelet, salad, and dumplings.
Why it’s great: Among the bento boxes we tested, the Takenaka Bento Bite Dual was the best size and shape for packing bigger lunches with multiple fixings. It comes in a rainbow of trendy colors. And with its clean lines and simple design, the Takenaka strikes a good balance of being cute without being too twee. This company makes bento boxes in several styles, and the Bite Dual was the roomiest we tried, thanks to its two tiers and deep top compartment. These sections are perfect for packing a lunch with various foods that you want to keep separate until it’s time to eat. The Bite Dual is solidly built, and it survived our drop tests.
A good bento box should have distinct sections for packing different types of foods, and the Bite Dual delivers. The roomier top tier has a removable divider that you can use to partition toppings or sides. Since the divider doesn’t seal or suction to the bottom, it’s best for non-liquidy items. In the top tier, we envision packing a noodle dish with toppings, like dan dan noodles: We’d nestle the noodles on one side and use the divider to separate the garnish of peanuts and scallions (which you can add just before eating, for extra freshness and crunch). In the bottom layer, we’d pack a refreshing vegetable side, such as this cucumber salad.
The sleek Takenaka bentos come in a range of sizes and styles. With their rounded corners and shiny, pastel hues, the boxes gleam as enticingly as a pile of jelly beans, and there are nearly as many colors to choose from. Compared with other models from the company, the Bite Dual has a deeper top compartment and generous width, so it can fit a sandwich or a bigger portion of your main course. It’s also deep enough to fit a whole plum or small peach, whereas the Takenaka Bento Snack Dual was too narrow and shallow to fit either. If you want to pack a smaller meal or a light snack, you can also use just one tier of the Bite Dual.
Though it has a toy-like appearance, the Bite Dual is solidly constructed: It seals well, so it’s satisfying to stack and pull apart, and because it fits together so well, the individual pieces don’t rattle around. A thin gasket helps the tiers suction neatly on top of each other, and an elastic band fits snugly around the set to keep both boxes together. We also tested the Bentgo Classic Lunch Box, which is similar in size and shape to the Bite Dual. We liked the Bentgo Classic as a budget alternative to the Bite Dual; it was less than half the price at the time of writing. (The main flaw we found with the Bentgo Classic was that the tiers didn’t stack as neatly—the compartments shook a bit.) The choice between these two bento boxes will likely come down to price and aesthetics. The Bentgo Classic doesn’t come in as many colors. And we’re also just utterly charmed by the Takenaka’s whimsical look and sturdy feel—it makes eating lunch more fun.
The Bite Dual is dishwasher-safe (the company recommends removing the inner lid that separates the tiers), and you can detach the gasket for easy cleaning. The Bite Dual was one of the only bento boxes that didn’t break in our drop tests. In contrast, the Takenaka Bento Munch Dual’s locking tabs popped off when we dropped it from waist height.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: Despite the gasket, the Bite Dual isn’t leakproof, but it doesn’t promise to be (nor do most of the other bento boxes we tested). If you’re packing solid foods without sauces (which we recommend), we don’t think leaking will be an issue. To err on the safe side, you could pack the Bite Dual in a water-resistant bag. The Bite Dual also comes with a plastic fork. Though it will work in a pinch, the small tines aren’t strong enough to spear hard foods or scoop up a large bite, so you may want to pack your own fork. Unlike the companies that make some of our other picks, Takenaka doesn’t offer a warranty.
Dimensions and capacity: 4.3 by 6.8 by 4.2 inches; 39 ounces
This stainless steel bento box is one of the only leakproof bentos we tested. It’s wide and shallow, with just one tier, and it fits neatly into a bag or backpack. You can’t microwave this metal bento, so it’s best for cold and room-temperature foods.
What we’d use it for: The sturdy, leakproof, single-story Bentgo Stainless Steel Lunch Box has one divider, and it’s best for packing bigger sandwiches or simple, composed meals. It’s also a great choice if you want a bento box with less plastic (the divider and accents are made of silicone).
Why it’s great: For a stainless steel bento box option, we like the Bentgo Stainless Steel Lunch Box. The silicone divider did the best job of keeping saucy foods from mixing together in our tests. You can pack a large sandwich and a handful of carrots or chips in this box, or carry a bean-and-corn salad with a side of guacamole. It was also one of the only bento boxes that didn’t leak when holding drippy foods like salsas or cooked vegetables. Of the metal options we tested, the Bentgo Stainless Steel looks and feels the nicest. It’s sleek, lightweight, and slim enough to tuck in a bag. It was also one of the easiest to clean among those we tested, since it has fewer pieces. And it comes in several metallic colors, a nice departure from the plain stainless steel of the other metal boxes we considered. (We also recommend a similar version of this lunch box for kids.)
In contrast to the other stainless steel options we tested, the Bentgo Stainless Steel Lunch Box had the most flair. The brushed stainless steel and silicone-ringed lid and accents are smooth to the touch and less tacky-feeling than plastic. The colors are muted but include options that are a step above plain silver, like rose gold and carbon black. Unlike a traditional food-storage container, the Bentgo has corners that are more dramatically rounded, so it’s easier to scoop out every last bite. Although this bento is pretty leakproof, we still wouldn’t fill it with something like broth. There is a fine line between saucy foods and straight-up liquids. If you have a dish with a creamy sauce, you can feel confident that it will stay contained. But when it comes to soups and stews, we'd play it safe by packing them in a food thermos (a thermos will also keep these foods warm, whereas you couldn’t reheat them in the metal Bentgo).
Other stainless bento boxes we tested didn’t perform as well as our pick. We liked that the simple, three-tiered EcoLunchbox can hold multiple foods and has a separate inner sealed container for dressing or dips, but water leaked from the edges of the container in our tests. (Though the company notes that this model isn’t leakproof, we did a leak test for all containers to see how they fared. EcoLunchbox does make a leakproof bento, the Bento Wet Box, but since it doesn’t have dividers, we skipped it during this round of testing.) We also tested the round, shallow Onyx container, which has four loose dividers, but the triangular compartments made it hard to fit different-size snacks.
Compared with other bento boxes that have many small pieces to clean, the Bentgo Stainless Steel Lunch Box has a streamlined design: just three solid pieces (the base of the container, the lid, and the divider), with no gaskets to pry off and wrestle back on. Other models, like the PackIt Bento, had more parts to keep track of and clean. It’s easy to press the silicone lid onto the Bentgo Stainless Steel and set or release the leakproof valve. This box didn’t stain in our tomato sauce tests, but silicone may retain smells (which you can remove by baking it).
Since this Bentgo model is made of resilient stainless steel, it didn’t break in our tests (the corners were slightly scratched from falling on concrete). Bentgo also offers a two-year warranty.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: You won’t be able to microwave food in this metal lunch box, so it may be best for packing cold snacks, salads, or sandwiches.
Dimensions and capacity: 8 by 6 by 2 inches; 32 ounces
This was the roomiest bowl we tried, and it comes with a removable, compartmentalized top tray for packing toppings or extra snacks. This model is quite bulky, so even though it’s great for packing larger meals, it may not fit into a commuter bag.
What we’d use it for: We’d use the Bentgo Salad Stackable Lunch Container for large composed salads with multiple toppings and dressing, or for meals with last-minute add-ons that you want to keep crispy or fresh before eating. This bowl is microwave-safe, so you can also pack a lunch you’d like to reheat.
Why it’s great: The Bentgo Salad Stackable Lunch Container was the roomiest lunch bowl we tested, with the most extra compartments for stashing salad toppings, from fruit to nuts to croutons. The partitioned top tray is a highlight of this bowl: We were even able to fit larger sides in the compartments, like chips or carrot sticks. It has one 10-ounce compartment and two smaller, 5-ounce compartments, with a 3-ounce sealed dressing container. You can remove the tray if you want more room for your main dish, too.
With all of its extra features, like the divided top tray and unique pattern and color options, the Bentgo Salad Stackable Lunch Container feels more like a dish than regular food storage. The bowl’s rounded corners make it easy to catch any remaining bits of nuts or shreds of cheese that might otherwise get trapped in the corners of a square container. It comes with a small fork, which is nice to have in a pinch (though a larger metal utensil may be better for spearing leaves and firm vegetables like cucumbers or carrots).
The Salad Stackable Lunch Container comes in a range of color options, so you can find one you like. Unlike other bowls we tried, the Bentgo’s lid latches firmly to the bowl, and the locking tabs didn’t break in our drop test. There are several components to this container, but it’s easy enough to hand-wash or pop them in the top rack of the dishwasher. You can remove a gasket on the lid to make sure no gunk lingers. Even though this bowl is designed for salad, it is microwave-safe. We can picture ourselves packing a meal like pasta in the main container, with sauce, herbs, and grated cheese in the top tray, and assembling everything after reheating the noodles.
Bentgo offers a two-year warranty, should anything happen to your container. The Bentgo Salad Stackable Lunch Container also comes in a glass version, which we didn’t test.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: The compartments on the top tray won’t prevent saucy foods from sloshing around. This deeper bowl may be more awkward to fit in a bag or tote.
Dimensions and capacity: 7.25 by 7.25 by 4.15 inches; 54 ounces for the main compartment
Dishwasher-safe: yes, in the top shelf
This minimalist, shallow bowl is delightful to hold and use, and it comes in trendy colors. It doesn’t have a dressing container or compartments for toppings, so you may need to pack those separately.
What we’d use it for: This bowl would be best for packing a mixed salad, simple leftovers, or composed dishes like noodles or curry that you want to reheat.
Why it’s great: We can’t get around the fact that the W&P Porter Bowl is lovely to look at and eat from. No, it doesn’t have as many compartments or features as other bowls we tested, but sometimes a simple bowl is all you need for packing leftovers that you can look forward to eating the next day. The Porter Bowl’s smooth matte plastic base and soft silicone lid make this model feel light-years nicer than a stained reused quart container, and it comes in a variety of appealing colors. The Porter is an accessory in its own right, and it makes eating a packed meal a little more enjoyable.
With its flat top and svelte container, the Porter fits easily into a bag or tote. It doesn’t hold as much food as the Bentgo, but for all-in-one meals like a grain bowl or stewy situations like curry or ratatouille, the Porter is perfect. Unlike the stainless steel Bentgo, the Porter bowl is also microwaveable, so you can reheat foods for a deliciously hot meal. The lid seals firmly and satisfyingly: It has a flat silicone strap that wraps around the base of the bowl and loops through a notch on the side. Like all bowls we tested, the Porter isn’t leakproof, and it isn’t supposed to be. We did a leak test with both water and tomato sauce anyway to see how well the bowl held liquids. Although water dribbled out, sauce didn’t leak from the lid. We’d be comfortable transporting a stew in this bowl, though we’d likely pack the whole container in a water-resistant bag for an extra layer of protection against leaks.
The compact Porter Bowl didn’t break or explode open in our drop test, whereas other plastic bowls did. A removable gasket on the lid makes the bowl easy to clean; there are fewer parts to wash since there isn’t a top tray. We’ve used this bowl for several years, and though the plastic base has a few scratch marks from years of fork contact, the bowl still looks and works great. The silicone strap and lid are intact, and they haven’t stretched out or absorbed any strange odors.
W&P also makes a ceramic version of this bowl, if you want to avoid plastic. The ceramic option is quite heavy and also more expensive. It does have a silicone sleeve that fits around the bottom of the bowl, but unsurprisingly it still broke in our drop tests.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: The Porter Bowl is slightly smaller than the Bentgo Salad Stackable Lunch Container, and it doesn’t have separate compartments or containers for add-ons or dressing. (W&P does sell a dressing container and utensils separately, but we didn’t test these.) Like most lunch boxes we tested, this one leaked.
Dimensions and capacity: 7.5 by 3 inches; 34 ounces
You can pack a hearty lunch and snacks in this roomy yet compact insulated lunch box. Though you may associate the design with that of a school bag, this lunch box is a tried-and-true pick that will keep food cold for hours (with the help of a few ice packs).
What we’d use it for: This lunch box is ideal for carrying a meal and a few snacks somewhere that doesn’t have access to a refrigerator.
Why it’s great: The classic L.L.Bean Lunch Box has been one of our lunch box picks since 2018 (and we love it for kids, too). Its streamlined design makes it a good choice for those who commute by bike, subway, or bus and need a lunch box that fits in a bag or backpack. Though the lunch box is on the smaller side, it’s roomy enough to hold a drink, a sandwich, multiple snacks, and a few small ice packs. Small food-storage containers or a food thermos with last night’s leftovers can fit inside the bag, too. Note that the lunch box is meant to be carried upright but zipped open while lying flat. So you’ll want to carry soups or other liquids only if they’re in a leakproof container, like a thermos.
We found that the smooth lining on the L.L.Bean Lunch Box was easier to clean and more durable compared with other boxes we tested, which had liners that ripped while cleaning. The bag’s exterior mesh pocket is great for holding more-fragile snacks like chips or a granola bar, and the interior mesh pocket on its lid helps keep an ice pack in place. Since the bag was able to keep milk cold for over four hours in our tests, we think this lunch box is great for using somewhere that doesn’t have refrigerator access.
The L.L.Bean Lunch Box comes with a one-year satisfaction guarantee, should anything happen to it. There are few style and size variations on this box, if you want something that expands or has a flip top (we didn’t test these styles). For $8 more, you can have the lunch box monogrammed, if you’re into that, and there are several color options. Senior editor Kalee Thompson uses the L.L.Bean Lunch Box for her kids and said she’s had no problems with it. She appreciates that it’s affordably priced so she wouldn’t be upset if it got lost and had to be replaced.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: In our most recent tests, tomato sauce stained the box’s interior—leaving a light stain on the white liner—but that happened with most bags we tested.
Dimensions and capacity: 9.5 by 7 by 3.75 inches; 160 ounces
With contrasting color accents and rounded curves, the Hydro Flask lunch bag is a step above basic. But it’s also big, so it’s best for those willing to carry a lunch box on its own or those who can throw it in the backseat of a car.
What we’d use it for: This larger, taller lunch bag can fit a hearty meal, along with multiple drinks, snacks, side dishes, or pieces of fruit. Or it can fit small food-storage containers, if you want to pack leftovers. It’s insulated to keep food cold, and it will fit several small ice packs.
Why it’s great: The Hydro Flask 5 L Insulated Lunch Bag has a flip top and a wide, deep compartment. So it’s easy to load up this lunch box with snacks of all shapes and sizes, or even stack small food-storage containers for a multi-component meal. The Hydro Flask’s fabric, colors, and rounded curves make it a step above the basic lunch boxes we tested. This lunch box comes in a 5-liter and 8-liter size, but we think the 5-liter version provides plenty of room without veering into personal-cooler territory. This model hits the sweet spot between the L.L.Bean model and our larger lunch box picks.
Perhaps the aesthetics are what make this lunch box feel more “adult.” Muted earth tones like burnt orange, dusky navy, and light and dark gray stand out from the standard rainbow palettes or flashy prints on other lunch boxes we looked at. Contrast stitching on the outer pocket and pockets lined with ripstop and rubbery-feeling fabrics all lend the bag a hip and sporty vibe.
This bag doesn’t have large outer pockets or drink holders like our large lunch box picks do, but it still fits a lot of food. The top-opening lid and flat bottom made it one of the easiest bags to fill and clean—the bag stays put, and you can reach inside easily to wipe down the inner liner. The insulated bag was able to keep food cold in our tests, should you need to store food but you don’t have access to a fridge.
Although the Hydro Flask bag doesn’t have a shoulder strap, we like that it has a handle on both the top and side to grab onto. It’s lighter than the hard-shell Hydro Flask Large Insulated Lunch Box, and it can pack or fold down if you need to store it. This boxy lunch bag is likely too large to cram into a backpack or canvas tote. It might be best for people commuting by car, or those who are fine with carrying the bag as is.
The Hydro Flask bag is expensive, but it comes with a five-year warranty. Again, you can also get this bag in a larger, 8-liter capacity, if you want to upgrade.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: The outer pocket on the lunch bag is deep, but it doesn’t have a zipper, so take care when packing snacks or doodads in here (so they don’t fall out). The liner stained ever so slightly in our tomato sauce stain tests, but not as badly as on some bags with white liners, including the L.L.Bean Lunch Box.
Dimensions and capacity: 8.7 by 9.5 by 5.5 inches; 160 ounces
This durable, insulated bag can hold a large lunch and multiple drinks. It comes in basic colors, and it isn’t as sleek as some of our other picks. But it’s affordably priced, will keep food cold for hours (with a few ice packs), and has a sturdy inner liner.
May be out of stock
What we’d use it for: This is one of the largest lunch boxes we tested. So we’d use it to pack food for multiple meals to tide us over throughout the course of a day, plus two drinks, ample snacks, and ice packs. Alternatively, you could use it to pack a meal for two.
Why it’s great: If you need to bring enough food to fuel you all day long, but you won’t have access to a fridge, we recommend the extra-roomy and affordably priced Coleman 9-Can Cooler. The Coleman’s removable hard-plastic liner offers better structure and makes cleaning a cinch, compared with the other large insulated bags we tested. We’re confident that the Coleman’s well-sewn, hardy construction will provide you with years of use.
This cooler is best for people who need to pack an ample lunch. It will fit a large sandwich or a quart-size container of soup or salad, several snacks, a couple of drinks, and ice packs. It’s too large to fit in a backpack or a crowded fridge. But the wide shoulder strap allows for easy carrying, which is a nice feature, especially if you have to lug other bags or equipment to your destination. Drinks won’t fit in the bag’s smaller mesh side pockets, so we recommend using these pockets for more (always more) snacks. The mesh pocket on the interior lid holds an ice pack in place, to help food and drinks stay cooler for longer.
The removable plastic liner is easy to wash by hand (it’s not dishwasher-safe). We were able to wipe tomato sauce out of the Coleman more easily than from larger bags like the Built Lex Lunch Bag and the Fulton Bag Co. Upright Lunch Bag (these had baggy liners, which bunched up and collected crumbs and water when we tried to wipe them down). The Coleman’s hard-plastic liner also offers more structure compared with other boxes, which sagged when fully packed. It comes in a basic color palette of red, blue, gray or green.
Wirecutter engineering manager Justin Yost said his wife uses the Coleman 9-Can Cooler. She likes that it’s roomy enough to hold frozen dinners, which she packs when she’s too busy to prepare a lunch. Yet she doesn’t like the lunch box’s aesthetics. Also, the Coleman 9-Can Cooler doesn’t come with a warranty. However, because it’s so highly rated on Amazon and usually costs around $20, we’re willing to forgive that drawback.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: The drink pockets on the Coleman are a little small. We struggled to fit 12-ounce cans or bottles in them. This cooler isn’t as design-forward as some of our other picks.
Dimensions and capacity: 9.45 by 6.7 by 10.24 inches; 144 ounces
This dual-compartment bag is great if you want a larger carrier that isn’t as bulky as a cooler. It’s slightly smaller than the Coleman, but it lacks a hard plastic inner liner to keep food from getting smushed.
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What we’d use it for: Though the Built Prime Lunch Bag is slightly smaller than the Coleman, you can still fit enough food for multiple meals or one meal with ample snacks, plus one drink. If you remove the divider on this lunch box, you can fit in more food, though you may appreciate the extra organization this bag provides.
Why it’s great: Although the Built Prime Lunch Bag holds about the same amount of food as the Coleman, it’s more customizable and undeniably cuter, though it has fewer color choices. The Built has a two-compartment design, so it’s easy to fit a variety of foods or containers. And the firm foam structure means the bag won’t collapse in on itself. With a short carrying handle and a longer, adjustable (and removable) strap, this bag is versatile and easy to hold. Like the Coleman, it’s closer in size to a personal cooler, and you’ll likely want to hold this on its own, instead of trying to fit it into another bag.
Unlike the Coleman, the Built doesn’t have just one deep well to fill. There are two separate compartments to this soft bag (which gets its structure from a foam layer). That makes it easier to organize your meal: for example, lunch on the bottom or snacks on top, or more-delicate foods (like a tender peach or crispy-crunchy snacks) on top, where they won’t get smushed. You can also remove the middle shelf to create more space, if you’d prefer. The drink compartment will comfortably fit a 12-ounce can, though you can also fit one inside the bag itself.
The Built Prime Lunch Bag comes in three classic colors. The softer corners and lack of utilitarian elements, like a bungee cord, make this lunch box feel more like a tote or purse than the strictly functional Coleman.
In our tests, the Built bags were the only ones that didn’t stain from tomato sauce. The wide openings of the bag also make it easy to reach inside with a towel or sponge to wipe it clean. With its two compartments, there’s lots of room for additional ice packs, even though there isn’t a dedicated pocket for them. Though this bag doesn’t have a hard-shell liner, it’s fairly solid, so it may be harder to pack down flat into another bag or backpack.
The Built is a stylish option for a relatively affordable price. It’s just a few dollars more than the Coleman, but it’s half the price of the Hydro Flask bag. The Built has a limited lifetime warranty.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: It would be nice if the Built bag came in additional colors.
Dimensions and capacity: 10.3 by 7.5 by 8 inches
For this guide, we tested lunch boxes for adults, focusing on bento boxes, lunch bowls, and insulated lunch boxes and bags. What makes these lunch boxes “adult” is mainly their larger size, but of course, anyone can use them. We also have a guide to the best kids lunch boxes.
Regardless of the type of lunch container you use, it should be durable, stain-resistant, and easy to clean and store. For our 2021 update, we also looked for lunch boxes and containers that make eating lunch feel a little more special. That’s subjective, of course, but we appreciated lunch vessels that came in a range of fun and classic colors and that had extra touches like built-in utensils. We also appreciated thoughtful design elements, including rounded corners, which make containers easier to eat from and make them feel more like a dish than a container. That said, many people prefer to use regular glass or plastic containers to transport their lunches to and fro, and the distinction between “what is a container” and “what is a lunch box” isn’t always obvious. If you prefer a container, we’ve covered them in depth in our guide to the best food-storage containers.
Over the years, we’ve learned that lunch vessels come in all shapes, sizes, styles, and materials. And the best one for you may vary day to day, based on the type of meal you want to pack. Whether you choose a bento box, a lunch bowl, or an insulated lunch box depends in part on what you want to pack and whether you have access to a fridge. Because the categories are so different, they each merit their own criteria. This is what we looked for in the models we tested:
Bento boxes and lunch bowls
Insulated lunch boxes
For the 2021 update, we tested 28 lunch boxes, bento boxes, and bowls against our picks. We evaluated how well lunch boxes fit a packed lunch with multiple components, including a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, yogurt, carrots, chips, a peach, granola bars, cheese sticks, and 12-ounce drink cans and bottles.
To determine how comfortable bags were to hold, we tried out the adjustable straps and handles. We also noted how easy the containers were to seal and whether they remained closed during a long commute or when jostled in a bag. To test for leaks, we filled the plastic and metal containers with water and tomato sauce and shook them at different angles. We also inverted boxes and bowls that had dividers and compartments, to see whether saucy foods like tomato sauce and applesauce mixed together. Though most containers we tested did not claim to be leakproof, in a perfect world the juices from your salad would not leach onto your laptop. Our tests confirmed what most companies warned us about: Many bento boxes can leak water, and some will also leak liquidy foods. This may not be a problem if you keep your bento upright when transporting it or simply pack drier food items.
As a durability test, we dropped the bento boxes and bowls from waist height onto asphalt. To test for stain resistance, we splashed a half-cup of tomato sauce inside all of the containers and bags and let them sit overnight before attempting to clean them. (All bento boxes generally require a little more work to keep clean, due to the multiple compartments or trays inside. But we think the all-in-one convenience outweighs a few extra minutes of scrubbing.)
Finally, using a food thermometer, we tested how long the insulated lunch boxes kept yogurt cold over four hours. We followed the USDA’s recommendation for keeping cold foods safe. We placed two Igloo Maxcold Freeze Block ice packs above and below a container of yogurt, checking the temperature before and after four hours. The highest temperature difference was 8 degrees, to a final temperature of 51 °F. But factors including the size and shape of the lunch box and the starting temperature of the refrigerator may have contributed to this range. The USDA recommends keeping food under 40 °F if it will be left out for more than two hours. But we still think the insulated lunch boxes we recommend will keep foods pretty cold with two ice packs. In 2018, we conducted a temperature test using a plastic container filled with ½ cup of milk, and we also concluded that our picks would keep foods cold. Only the Coleman kept the milk below 40 °F after two hours. But temperatures didn’t rise above 43 °F after four hours in any of the bags, which is still quite cold (Good Housekeeping had similar results in an extensive test of 43 lunch boxes).
If you’re concerned about your lunch spoiling, pack shelf-safe milk (ultrahigh temperature—or UHT—pasteurized milk in aseptic packaging). Or opt for nonperishable foods like PB&J, instead of a turkey sandwich.
When your lunch box is fraying at the seams or starting to smell less than fresh, or your bento box is becoming dinged or scratched, it’s probably time for a new one. But you can also get a nice lunch box just because you want one. Some of the lunch vessels we tested in 2021 look and feel like an accessory, such as a purse or a tote, or a well-designed dish that could be just as at home on a dining-room table as in an office cafeteria.
Ultimately, your lunch box of choice depends on your storage needs and what you’re eating that day. For adults who work in locations where access to refrigeration may be limited, a durable, insulated lunch box is a must for holding ice packs and keeping foods at safe temperatures. Smaller lunch boxes will be best for keeping meals like a sandwich or a container of pasta salad cold. And larger lunch boxes can act as personal coolers, holding enough food for a meal, as well as many snacks and drinks to consume throughout the day.
If you’re packing multiple prepared dishes, bento-like containers are ideal for keeping different parts of your lunch from mixing together. A roomy lunch bowl with a separate dressing container will ensure your salad remains crisp. And this type of vessel will allow you to add different elements of your meal—like crunchy seeds for salads or parmesan shreds for pasta—right before you eat, so everything stays fresh and vibrant.
You may also want to supplement your lunch box with food-storage containers. You can use these to pack separately the components you’ll combine later on (some smaller containers will even fit inside our insulated small and large lunch box picks).
We like the Bentgo Classic Lunch Box, and it’s most similar in design and size to the Takenaka Bite Dual. The colors aren't as compelling, and it doesn’t stack as neatly together—the tiers and utensils rattle around a bit. The Bentgo Classic is less expensive than the Takenaka, though, and if you want a basic bento option for half the cost, the Bentgo is a solid choice.
Zojirushi has several bento configurations, and they’re all unique and next-level. In 2021, we tested the two-compartment Ms. Bento Stainless Lunch Jar. And in 2018, we tested the four-container Zojirushi Mr. Bento Lunch Jar and the three-container Zojirushi Classic Bento. The Ms. Bento seems too small to carry a substantial meal, and the others feel too big and heavy to carry on a long commute (if you aren’t traveling by car); we’ve yet to find a Goldilocks Zojirushi option. All have an outer, insulated canister that houses stacking containers within, and the whole system fits into an accompanying bag or tote. These bentos can handle a lunch with many moving parts (perfect if, like us, you dream of keeping your coconut yogurt and lime-and-cilantro garnish separate from your turmeric pork curry leftovers). We think Zojirushi’s bentos are great for picnics or packing multiple meals to eat throughout the day, but they are not the easiest to carry for an everyday commute.
Bentos and bowls
Wider and shallower than our pick, the Takenaka Bento Munch Dual has locking tabs that rattle around, and they broke in our drop tests. This bento may be best for packing foods like sandwiches. Like all of the Takenaka bentos, it comes in a range of fun colors.
Slightly narrower and shallower than our pick, the Takenaka Bento Snack Dual will likely be best for packing snacky meals—true to its name. We couldn’t fit a sandwich in here. It’s similar in design to the Bite Dual, with two stacking tiers and a band to hold them together. And the Snack Dual comes in a similar array of cute colors as other Takenaka bentos.
You can also purchase the single-tiered version of our bento box pick, the Takenaka Bento Bite, to pack smaller amounts of food. This container comes with a divider but no fork.
The shallow, one-tier, stainless steel Onyx Divided Airtight Storage Container feels basic for the price. The removable metal dividers don’t provide much of a barrier to separate foods. If you’re set on a metal container, this will do the job. But we prefer the Bentgo Stainless Steel Lunch Box; it has fewer sections but a silicone divider, which provides a better seal to separate foods.
Though we appreciate the multiple tiers on the EcoLunchbox 3-in-1 Splash Box, the silicone lids don’t seal tightly—they loosely attach to the container by hooking onto a notch on the side of the box. We worry that different foods—whether soupy or solid—would quickly leak or even fall out from the edges of the container.
The Takenaka Bento Bowl is cute, but it doesn’t have extra compartments for toppings or dressings, and the locking tabs feel flimsy—they broke in our drop tests. This bowl doesn’t hold as much as the Bentgo Salad Stackable Lunch Container, and it doesn’t seal as tightly as the Porter.
Saucy foods seeped from section to section in the PackIt Mod Lunch Bento Food Storage Container—despite its three dividers. This bento is a little more tricky to use and clean than others, too. You’ll need to wedge the dividers into the grooves of the container, and each divider has its own removable gasket to clean.
The basic, stainless steel EcoLunchbox 3-in-1 Classic has a separate container for dressings or dips and multiple tiers to stack foods. It’s expensive, and though most bentos we tested weren’t leakproof, this one doesn’t have any type of gasket or lining on the lid to help the cause.
The Ceramic Porter Bowl is just as nice-looking as the plastic option, but we had a few issues with it in our tests. The ceramic shattered in our drop tests, which makes sense. But the ceramic bowl is also very heavy. It comes with an outer silicone sleeve, presumably to help protect the bowl. But the sleeve was difficult to get back on after washing—it wouldn’t lie flat.
Classic lunch boxes, bags, and totes
The Hydro Flask Large Insulated Lunch Box is the most like a lunch briefcase, with a hard shell and a short, sleek handle. Unlike our large lunch box picks, it doesn’t have a longer strap that you can throw over your shoulder for easy carrying. The fabric feels lovely, the design is minimalist and chic, and the box itself holds as much food as our classic lunch box picks. If you want to flaunt your lunch box and carry it in hand, this one may work for you. But if you’d prefer something that will be lighter and can pack down for transit or storage, you may prefer one of our other picks.
The PackIt Freezable Classic Lunch Box is bulky, heavy, and hard to fill—the bag folds in on itself when you try to add food or wipe it clean. Though the gel liner froze and kept food cold in our tests, this bag will take up valuable freezer space compared with a stackable, thin ice pack.
Although the Built Lex Lunch Bag looks nice, like a regular tote, the zipper was the hardest to open and close of any bag we tested. This lunch bag is just one large sack, without any pockets, drink holders, or extra features.
The Fulton Bag Co. Upright Lunch Bag is most similar to the L.L.Bean lunch box in size and features. But the liner on the Fulton bag ripped when we tried to clean it with a sponge, so we eliminated it.
Though we loved the design features on the Hydro Flask 8 L Lunch Tote—trendy colors, a smooth strap, taped zippers—this bag was the hardest to fill and clean of any we tested. The main compartment doesn’t open wide enough, and the larger size is 20 liters (cooler territory). Unlike those on our other large lunch box picks, the strap on this tote wasn’t adjustable, and it felt a bit short.
This article was edited by Gabriella Gershenson and Marguerite Preston.
Maangchi, author of Maangchi’s Big Book of Korean Cooking: From Everyday Meals to Celebration Cuisine and the recipe blog Maangchi, email interview, July 26, 2021
Max Halley, owner of Max’s Sandwich Shop and author of Max's Picnic Book: An Ode to the Art of Picnicking, email interview, July 26, 2021
Allison Day, author of Modern Lunch: + 100 Recipes for Assembling the New Midday Meal, email interview, July 22, 2021
Namiko Chen, author of the Just One Cookbook blog, email interview, July 28, 2021
Anna Perling is a former staff writer covering kitchen gear at Wirecutter. During her time at Wirecutter, she reported on various topics including sports bras, board games, and light bulbs. Previously she wrote food and lifestyle pieces for Saveur and Kinfolk magazines. Anna is a mentor at Girls Write Now and a member of the Online News Association.
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