The best kids' lunch boxes

  • Although onsite learning is an uncertainty for many students this fall, some schools and colleges are reopening, so you may need certain supplies, including a lunch box. 
  • Our picks give you the best lunch boxes for kids ranging in age from preschool to college and everything in between.
  • You can also check out our guide on how to pack a school lunch in a few steps and find every article we've done on back-to-school essentials.

The back-to-school season may look a bit different this year, but if you or your student is returning to onsite learning, they may need a new lunch box.

Lunch boxes are sometimes an afterthought, but they are one of the most important school supplies. A good lunch box that can hold a variety of foods will keep your kids full and give them the brainpower to do their best in school every day.

According to Jennifer Hyland, RD, a pediatric dietitian at Cleveland Clinic, lunches should include a variety of nutrients to get kids through the day. Hyland recommends getting kids involved in packing lunches.

If you can swing it, you can save time on packing lunches by buying a few lunch boxes and batch prepping them at the beginning of the week. See more of Hyland's tips on packing a school lunch at the end of this guide. 

Choosing the best lunch box can be difficult, and the features you need vary based on your situation. We put 12 lunch boxes through rigorous testing, which included drop tests, "smush" tests, leak tests, and more. We received each lunch box as a sample to test. 

Here are the best kids' lunch boxes:

  • Best lunch box for preschool: Bentgo Kids Lunch Box 
  • Best lunch box for elementary school: Wildkin Lunch Box
  • Best lunch box for middle school: Pottery Barn Kids Mackenzie Dual Lunch Box
  • Best lunch box for high school: PlanetBox
  • Best lunch box for college: LunchBots Large Trio Stainless-Steel Lunch Container

The best for preschool

The Bentgo Kids Lunch Box comes in a variety of colors and designs, has multiple compartments for different foods, and didn't pop open in our drop test. 

Bentgo offers bento boxes in different sizes, but one of its most popular boxes is the smaller Bentgo Kids Lunch Box. The box has four main compartments and one smaller compartment that's perfect for dips and sauces.

This is the only box on our list that didn't fit a full sandwich. We were able to get half a sandwich in the biggest compartment. For most preschoolers, this isn't a problem. The bento tray can be removed from the box itself, and the tray is dishwasher- and microwave-safe. 

The outer box has rubber edges and a drop-proof design, which is perfect for younger kids. In our drop test, the Bentgo box stayed shut — something that can't be said for many of the other boxes we tested. It was also one of the few bento-style boxes that my two-year-old was able to open herself. 

Unlike many other bento boxes, the compartments in this box are leak-proof, making it much more convenient to pack any food without worrying about it ruining the other foods in the box. In our water test, water did not leak out of individual compartments. It took an ice cube 2.5 hours to melt in our temperature test. 

This is a smaller lunchbox, with just the right amount of space to pack a filling meal for a preschooler, but it will be too small for older kids. We also tried the similar Bentgo Fresh, which is bigger for older kids.

Pros: Multiple color options, leak- and drop-proof design, dishwasher- and microwave-safe, stayed closed in our drop test

Cons: Small compartments might be too small for kids with big appetites, pricey

The best for elementary school

The Wildkin Lunch Box comes in more than 30 unique prints, and it has a simple design that's user-friendly for elementary school students.

Sometimes, simple is best, and that's certainly the case with the classic design of the Wildkin Lunch Box. It has one main rectangular compartment, an internal mesh pocket, and an external zipper pocket. The top carry handle is the right size for little hands.

Elementary school kids will love that there are several designs and colors to choose. From pink glitter to construction vehicles, there is a Wildkin Lunch Box to match every style. The material inside the lunch box can be wiped down and the seams are covered with the same slick material for easy cleaning. 

The Wildkin Lunch Box is also the cheapest option on our list, making it great for families on a budget. It's a good size for elementary school, and if you need to stretch your money, it could easily work for preschool through middle school. The bag easily fit our full meal with room to add a water bottle. 

This lunch box fared well in our smush test. It has the thickest insulation of any bag-style lunch box we tested, which helped it hold its shape when we piled books on top of it. That thick insulation kept the ice cube from melting for two hours in our temperature control test. 

The main drawback of this bag is that it cannot be personalized, which is something many elementary school students enjoy.

Pros: Over 30 prints, simple design, inexpensive, held shape in smush test

Cons: Personalization not available

The best for middle school

The Pottery Barn Kids Mackenzie Dual Lunch Box is spacious, has multiple carry options, and offers fun prints and personalization.  

The Pottery Barn Kids Dual Lunch Box comes in many different print options and can be personalized. Middle school can be a time of great self-expression and independence, which is why a bag with so many options will work for a wide range of middle schoolers. Kids can carry it with a handle, a longer shoulder strap, or they can hook it onto the Pottery Barn Kids Mackenzie Backpack. 

The dual lunch box is a bigger bag, suitable for kids who need a lot of food as they experience rapid growth during their middle school years. We packed a full lunch in this bag and still had plenty of room to add a water bottle and some snacks to eat during after-school practice. 

In our temperature-control test, an ice cube took 2.5 hours to melt in this bag, which was longer than most. It held up well in our smush test as well; the bag held its shape and didn't smush food when we piled books on top. 

The interior of the bag is lined with food-safe vinyl that's easy to wipe down. The vinyl even covers the interior seams. 

This is a pricey bag, especially when you consider that it's only a bag. If you want reusable food containers or bento-style boxes to go in the bag, you'll need to purchase those separately. 

Pros: Multiple print options, holds temperature well, very spacious

Cons: Pricey

The best for high school

The PlanetBox bento-style boxes are made of stainless steel, feature unique designs with interchangeable magnets, and they didn't pop open in our drop tests. 

We recommend PlanetBox's stainless steel bento-style boxes, which come in two sizes: Rover and Launch. I tested the smaller of the two: the Rover Box. I was able to fit a full lunch, but I had to squeeze the sandwich a bit. The Launch box is best for bigger appetites. The Rover has five smaller compartments while the Launch has three larger compartments. 

Usually, by high school, kids ditch the cute lunch boxes in favor of simplicity, but they don't want to completely give up their individuality. This is one of the reasons PlanetBox is our top pick for high school. Each box is plain stainless steel, but kids can choose unique magnets at no additional charge to add some personality. 

The box itself is not leak-proof; water dripped right out in our test. You can buy leak-proof containers designed to fit into the compartments of the box. In our drop test, some of the magnets fell off, but the box did not pop open. In our temperature control test, ice took 2 hours and 45 minutes to melt, second only to PackIt, which has built-in ice packs. 

I highly recommend pairing the Rover or Launch box with a carry bag. It includes internal elastic straps and pockets, as well as an external water bottle pouch and snack pocket. The bags come in many colors and patterns, some of which might even match school colors, like red, red and blue, purple, or green and yellow. Cleaning is easy: take off the magnets and pop the box into the dishwasher. It's also easy to wipe the bag interior.  

PlanetBox isn't cheap, especially when you add on the carry bag and leak-proof containers. However, with such a durable stainless-steel design, this box can transition into college or serve as a solid hand-me-down. You can even purchase new magnets for less than $5 if you pass the box off to someone else. 

Pros: Stainless steel, stayed closed in drop test, can add personality with magnets or leave plain
Cons: Rover might not be big enough for larger appetites, expensive

The best for college

The LunchBots Large Trio Stainless-Steel Lunch Container has a professional design and is big enough for college students to pack a whole meal or a full day of snacks. 

A lot of people don't think about lunch boxes when they're headed off to college. Most college freshmen are focused on the all-you-can-eat dining commons for their meals, but you shouldn't underestimate how much a lunch box will come in handy in college. Meal plan points run out, sometimes there isn't time to go to the dining hall between classes, and when students move off campus, they usually don't have a meal plan.  

We love the LunchBots Large Trio Stainless Steel for college because it's simple, durable, and versatile. The lid didn't budge in our drop tests. The plain design won't have college students feeling like a middle-schooler toting around a lunch their mommy made, and it transfers well to professional life. It can also be used to carry just a few snacks for a long day on campus. 

It's a stainless-steel bento box that's ideal for a large main dish and two sides. The main compartment is large enough to fit a sandwich and then some. If you're lucky enough to have a dishwasher in your apartment, it is dishwasher safe.

In our water test, water didn't leak out of the box like it did with the PlanetBox, but it also didn't stay contained in each compartment. Don't plan on packing runny or watery food without an upgrade to a bundle with silicone leak-proof containers.  

You might want to buy a bag as well, especially if you need to add an ice pack or if you won't be able to get back to your dorm or apartment all day. The box fits neatly in the bottom of the bag, and the top leaves plenty of room to add extra food. Like PlanetBox, LunchBots can get pricey with all the add-ons.

You can also read our full review of LunchBots here.

Pros: Transfers well to professional life, durable stainless steel, fits plenty of food for a full meal or a whole day of snacks

Cons: Compartments aren't leak-proof, pricey

What else we considered

  • Yumbox: Yumbox was my front-runner, and I really wanted to name it best for preschool … until it popped open in my drop test. My favorite thing about this bento box is that each section is labeled with a different food group. As a parent, I know how much easier this makes lunch prep. Unfortunately, that doesn't matter if your pre-schooler drops it and their lunch scatters across the floor.  
  • OmieBox: This box holds the right about of food for younger kids, and it even has a built-in compartment for hot foods. It has a handle on the box, making it easy for kids to carry without a bag. Unfortunately, this one also popped open in our drop test.  
  • PackIt: This bag has built-in ice packs, so you can fold it up, pop it in the freezer overnight, and it's ready to keep lunch cold all day. What I didn't love is that it tends to stay in its folded freezer position even when you unfold it. Freezing it overnight also makes it impossible to pack lunches at night, unless you buy two that you switch out. 
  • Skip Hop Zoo: The Zoo bag has friendly animal designs for young kids, and this bag is very inexpensive. However, the structure is flimsy, and it didn't hold up well in our smush test.  
  • Sistema Klip-It Lunch Cube-To-Go: This is an inexpensive bento-style box that has three large main compartments. The large square shape doesn't fit well in many standard lunch bags, and it's awkward to carry without a bag. 
  • Garnet Hill Eco Lunch Pack: Made of recycled plastic bottles, this environmentally friendly lunch bag is sized well for middle school, high school, or college. It doesn't have as many print options as our top picks, and the lunch crushed easily in our smush test.

Our testing methodology

We considered the following qualities and conducted the following tests with each lunch box: 

Durability

As a former high school teacher, I've seen how students treat their school supplies, and it isn't pretty. A lunch box should be able to stand up to getting tossed in lockers, stuffed in backpacks, and dropped in the hallway. We conducted the following tests for durability:

  • Bento-style: We dropped lunch boxes from desk height and threw them against a wall. 
  • Bags: We piled books on top of each bag to see if the lunch got smushed.

Capacity and containment

You may be surprised how much variation there is in the amount of food lunch boxes can hold and how well they hold the food. When determining our picks, we packed an average-sized lunch in each box. 

  • With the exception of our pre-school pick, each lunch box in our guide fits the following meal: 1 sandwich, ½ cup strawberries, ½ cup carrots, some ranch dip, a string cheese, and a piece of chocolate. 
  • We tested how well each bento-style box contained liquids by putting water in a section of the box then threw the box around. 

Appearance

This can make all the difference. Younger kids might be more likely to eat their lunch if it's in a cool container with their favorite character, and older kids wouldn't be caught dead with a juvenile lunch box. 

Temperature control

Keeping food at the proper temperature is important for your kid's lunch to taste good and for it to remain safe. 

To test this, we put an ice cube in each box and monitored how long it took to melt. Without adding any ice packs or other temperature control items, the ice remained solid for at least two hours in each box.

How to pack a school lunch

Remember that a school lunch needs to get your child through their day, so it's a good idea to pack a little more than what you think they'll eat in each main food group. Hyland provided some ideas for what to pack in each category: 

  • Grains: whole wheat bread, whole-grain crackers, popcorn, wheat wrap, tortilla chips, cooked sweet potato, brown rice or quinoa
  • Proteins: lean deli meat (turkey, chicken, ham), hard-boiled eggs, packets of tuna, nuts/nut butter, beans/chickpeas
  • Fruits: apples, pears, mixed berries, oranges, etc
  • Vegetables: carrots, cucumbers, celery, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, snap peas, salad, cooked veggies leftover from dinner
  • Dairy: string cheese, yogurt (try greek), cottage cheese, low-fat white milk, milk alternatives like soy milk or almond milk

Don't forget to pack a drink, too! Avoid packing sugary drinks like juice or soda. Hyland recommends water, white milk, or naturally flavored sparkling waters.

Here are a few other tips to make packing school lunch a breeze: 

  • Follow your child's cues and communicate. For example, if your child never eats oranges at school but always does at home, ask why. Maybe he or she struggles with the peel or the temperature is too hot or cold.
  • Hyland suggests preparing some mixed dishes at the beginning of the week. "Try a cold pasta salad with meats, cheese, cut up veggies and Italian dressing; or a Mexican quinoa salad with black beans, corn, bell peppers, tomatoes, and a cilantro vinaigrette. These can help cover the grain and protein section of lunch and then all you need to do is add a few sides!" she said.
  • Involve your kids! When they help pack their lunch, they take more ownership and are more likely to enjoy and eat their food. "Set up a lunch packing station where you have options from each of the food groups. Then they can pick something from each group and mix and match to create their own lunch," Hyland suggested. 

Don't forget about temperature control. Try a Thermos container or OmieBox for hot foods. For cold foods, try PackIt or use two ice packs.

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