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Back to School, Back to the Cafeteria

By Katy Killilea

img_0603Managing children’s lunchboxes is an interesting chore: What will they eat? Will it get smushed? And why do bananas get disgusting so quickly when traveling by backpack? Over the years, Kidoinfo has tested and reviewed many lunchboxes and reusable containers. Many are beautiful to behold and all cut down on waste and the cost of baggies.

Two new dazzlers have moved into our backpacks this fall. Both utilize the ever-popular Laptop Lunch or bento box format–packing lots of little containers into a tidy package. Lunchopolis is a soft, insulated shell with color coordinated BPA-free plastic containers–big enough for an adult’s lunch–and with a few studied unsnappings, Lunchsense‘s case morphs into a placemat. High-quality containers–including a tiny one for dip or a few jelly beans–and a perfectly-sized ice pack are nestled inside. Both of these sets have been spotted locally at Whole Foods stores. And if you’re satisfied with the state of your container collection, and need only a new holder, check out the graphic punch on these washable bags from Dabba Walla. They’re amply sized, comfy to hold,  keep foods cool, and are machine washable.




When you’re forking over the initial dollars for lunch accessories, an additional purchase to consider is strong waterproof labels. Many companies offer customized labels that advertise an allergy and/or a love of mermaids, and they’re tough enough to withstand the dishwasher. You can find them in all kinds of kicky designs, even Pucci-inspired prints. Labeling your child’s containers–masking tape and a Sharpie can be just as handy here–will help them make all 180 return trips. Hang tags or dog tags are perfect for looping through the handle of a lunchbox, and will work better than a sticker if said lunchbox is not hard plastic or metal.

Meanwhile, eating lunch in a school cafeteria has its own challenges. The classmate who chews her tuna salad sandwich with her mouth open. A long wait in the milk line. And lunch envy: Did you know there’s someone who gets a mini bag of Doritos and an entire box of lemon-lime TicTacs in his lunch every day? Kidoinfo polled some experienced parents, and here’s a list of some of the things their children are happily eating–remember that these are packed in hard containers (not plastic bags) to prevent smushing, crushing, and other deal-breakers:


  • Cream cheese and black olives sandwiched between Seven Stars Bakery’s pain de mie
  • Triscuits with whipped cream cheese
  • Mini Baybel cheeses (red wax-coated circles)
  • Cold pizza, cut into bite-sized pieces, accompanied by a toothpick


  • Almond butter and jam sandwiches
  • Pita pocket with peanut butter and shredded carrot
  • Graham crackers with peanut butter
  • Peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches
  • Nut butter sandwiched between rice cakes (the parent noted rice cakes are very sturdy)
  • Salty cashews


  • Deli turkey and cheese slices rolled together and sliced to make spirals
  • Corn muffins baked with chunks of ham and sharp cheddar mixed into the batter
  • A tortilla or lavash, spread with cream cheese (which acts as glue) and covered with a thin layer of roast beef, rolled tightly and sliced into spirals


  • Mini bagel with hummus and shredded carrot
  • Frozen petite peas or shelled, cooked edamame
  • Carrot sticks or other dip-able veggies with a side container of Annie’s Green Goddess dressing
  • Customized “Lunchables” with lots of little containers of ingredients that can be combined: crackers, cucumber slices, hummus, veggie pepperoni, cheese…
  • Vegetarian chicken nuggets, baked on Sunday, stored in the fridge and doled out throughout the school week with a side of ketchup or honey mustard
  • Sliced Tofu Pups with a side of ketchup for dipping
  • A tortilla with hummus or any kind of mashed beans and any veggies, rolled up and sliced in half–on the diagonal, to make it look more professional
  • Cucumber maki with a side of soy sauce and training chopsticks

Hot (toted in a pre-heated, squat thermos):

  • Soup: favorites mentioned were miso, tomato, and chicken noodle. The importance of packing a soup spoon was noted–some schools only offer dinky sporks
  • Baked beans (with or without hot dog or veggie dog slices)
  • Black beans and rice
  • Leftover sauced spaghetti


  • Frozen cups or tubes of yogurt
  • Frozen mango or pineapple hunks
  • Frozen berries
  • Frozen juice box (any frozen items can act as ice packs in the lunchbox and will have thawed enough by lunch time to eat)
  • Blueberries, grapes, strawberries, clementines, and diced kiwi were all mentioned as good travelers
  • Black bean brownies (Several parents mentioned these, and many versions were suggested. These are especially tasty if the eater is not also a witness to the creation)
  • Trader Joe’s blueberry barsbananaguard
  • TLC oat and honey crunchy granola bars
  • Craisins
  • Mini marshmallows
  • If you have a dedicated banana lover, you may wish to look into the Banana Guard (also available in  quasi-spherical shapes, so you can sheath an apple, peach, or plum in perforated armor as well)


  • Cheetos, Smartfood “or some other processed thing” (one parent mentioned that these are an occasional MUST for children who would otherwise fixate and obsess)
  • Oyster crackers
  • Goldfish crackers
  • Popcorn
  • Puffins cereal
  • Wasabi peas

mylunchboxWe also love  My Lunch Box, Hilary Shevlin Karmilowicz’s chunky box set of recipe cards. (2009, Chronicle Books, $16.95) More user-friendly than a cookbook, it’s an old fashioned recipe file with mains, sides, and treats, all with kids in mind and perfect for mixing and matching.

Share your child’s favorite packed lunches with Kidoinfo. We need all the ideas we can get!

Banana Guard, Chronicle Books, and several lunchbox and label companies provided samples for this article. No company nor Kidoinfo has received any monetary compensation for this and we have no undisclosed relationship with the companies who provided review samples.

  • I love that this topic is getting a 2nd life today. Not that I needed it; my kids chose to buy lunch, getting me off the hook until tomorrow!

    I am in the laptop lunch cult. I haven’t needed lids, or if there is food that needs one, there is the one container that has one. Mostly, my kids bring a sandwich kind of deal (which we often just put in the plastic laptop lunch case without its own container), a snacky thing, a fruity or veggie thing, and a couple of cookies. sometimes they bring leftovers and for that, we use the container with the lid. for nongloppy items, the case is enough to keep everything intact and very unmessy.

    okay, just had to share that as part of my cult member status. my main gripe w/ laptop lunches is that they don’t fit a standard size yogurt container and I have yogurt fiends for children. oh well.

    these are great ideas, thanks, Katy!

  • Why do people love Laptop Lunches so? I don’t get the no-lid thing. How on earth does no lids = cult-like following? I don’t get it.

    Wrap n Mats are proving to be very long-lasting as is the wrap n mat type thing from Kids’ Konserve.

    Reusable lunch bags at Craftland?! Could there be a more perfect union than those bags & Kidoinfo? I smell synergy. But have no idea what it would look like.

    I wish Karen W. was my mom. Yum.

  • Our new fave is humus and cheddar on a tortilla/lavash roll-up. Protein for my vegetarian pre-teen! Thinly sliced red peppers, raw baby spinach, and cucumbers are other optional add-ins.

  • Only one of the individual containers for the Laptop Lunch brand lunch box has a lid, or two if you count the dip container. You are supposed to fit them into the overall container, then close the lid, but I don’t think I ever did it right and it was a mess.

    Our nursery school’s fundraising company, Greenraising.com, has those great wrap-n-mats for sandwiches and super snack sized stainless-steel containers–great for lunches. Except that you have to decide what to put in them. Thanks for the help, Katy!

  • Wow, thank you for that shout out!

    Katy this is really a great list. My kid favorites, tomato soup in thermos with cheeses and crackers. Salami, cheese, cucumbers and nori (they make it into a nori wrap at lunch time)

    A small treat goes a long way, one small cookie or sliced srawberries topped with 3 chocolate chips…

  • We recently picked up a couple reusable sandwich bags at Craftland (http://www.craftlandshow.com/directions.html).
    Even though my wife does like to draw sketches on paper bags for lunches, our kids got new tin lunch boxes for their birthday (2 different Harry Potter’s from Newbury Commics: http://www.newburycomics.com/rel/v2_home.php?storenr=103&deptnr=60)
    And soup thermos (Clone Wars are holding up from last year), Unlike the paint on their liquid containers is wearing off. I guess whoever bought the license from Star Wars probably had to ensure that it never wears off.

  • Hannah’s Harvest has the best kids’ lunch advice I’ve ever heard: pack a small amount and not too many different things. That way the child can concentrate on eating what’s there instead of making decisions. Since I’ve made their lunches less confusing (often just a sandwichy thing, a drink, fruit, and a cookie or crackers) they eat much more.

  • I am printing out this list of lunch ideas and hanging it on my fridge – I so needed some fresh ideas. Maybe my kids can star what they like so I do not have to hear at the end of the day, “Mom why did you pack this?”

  • Love having it all here in one place. Great ideas!

    And will take a closer look at the boxes–we were early adopters, then dropouts of the laptop lunch boxes, they got so messy with the whole no-lid thing! Glad to see lids on these.

    Still absolutely need to try the black bean brownies.