Buying the Perfect Lunch Bag

Finding the right lunch bag can be an investment of time. It's frustrating to buy a lunch bag or lunch box and then later find out it's not the right one for you. In this article, I review the factors to consider when shopping for a lunch bag, and the bag that's my personal favorite.

After you find your right lunch bag, be sure to visit "The Art of Packing a Lunch Bag" to help you keep your food nice and hot (or nice and cold!).

Which lunch bag is right?

The right lunch bag depends on your end need. Soft-sided lunch bags are popular to place inside of backpacks. A hard-sided lunch box is more durable for more harsh work environments, like construction sites or tossing on the back of pickup trucks.

Is your lunch bag for school, work, or travel? Maybe your lunch bag or lunch box will be used for a picnic outing. Your lunch bag might only be used to transport food to work, where you will heat your food in the office break room. 

If you're a parent, your "right" lunch bag probably has nothing to do with how well it insulates. Your child's favorite cartoon character, super hero, or animal featured on the lunch bag side will determine your purchase.

Read on to find out the best lunch bag or box for your needs.

Shopping for a lunch bag

I have a strong opinion about lunch bags. As a lunch packer for several years, I've finally found the winner. But before I get to that, here are some things to consider when shopping for a lunch bag.

Lunch bags come in many shapes, materials, and sizes.

Lunch bags come in many shapes, materials, and sizes.

How to choose a lunch bag or box

Factors to consider when choosing the right lunch bag or box:

  • Size. Will the lunch bag provide enough space to contain what I typically pack? Will the shape of the bag fit standard size plastic lunch containers or will they only hold containers that come with the bag? 
  • Materials and construction. Are the materials washable? Will the interior withstand spills? Is there enough insulation to keep food cold for a sufficient number of hours when ice packs are added?  Does the lunch bag hold its shape well, or is it hopelessly "floppy?"

    Is the material a good quality, or is it cheap vinyl that will crack and ugly out later? Is the material flexible and stretchy enough to adapt to an expanded lunch load? Will I be able to close or zipper shut a bag properly if the bag is bulging?
  • Opening. Is the opening large and wide enough to take out and put in containers? Is the zipper strong enough to withstand daily opening and closing? If using Velcro® closings, are the fasteners strong enough to hold the bag closed? 
  • Extra pockets. Are there external pockets for eating utensils and napkins? Is it possible to separate hot food from cold food?
  • Handles and straps. Are the handles sturdy? Do I want a lunch bag with straps so I can carry it over my shoulder, especially if already carrying other bags?
  • Design. Do I like the design? Is it different enough to tell it apart from others bags? Is it easy to find back or does it blend with dark colors which makes it difficult to see? Does it come in a variety of designs and colors? Are there designs that are appropriate for professional work settings?
  • Cost. Can I afford the lunch bag? Do I want to invest in a bag and get many years of use out of it?
  • Bonus accessories. Does the bag come with its own ice packs? Does it come with its own specially-fitted dishes?
Features of lunch bags include interior material, insulation type and thickness, quality of zipper, pockets for napkins and eating utensils, durability and type of handle, and interior compartment size.

Features of lunch bags include interior material, insulation type and thickness, quality of zipper, pockets for napkins and eating utensils, durability and type of handle, and interior compartment size.

What materials are lunch bags made of?

Regardless of your situation, an insulated lunch bag is the right tool to keep and transport food.

A insulated lunch bag is designed to insulate the food inside. When food is properly insulated, it can retain food temperatures for a longer time period. An insulated lunch bag or thermos prevents harmful bacteria from multiplying, a factor that contributes to food-borne illness. Insulated lunch bags keep food safe.

Soft-sided lunch bags

Soft-sided lunch bags or boxes usually contain an outer layer made of vinyl, nylon or polyester, designed to be tough and washable. The inner layer is water-resistant and can consist of plastic, vinyl, nylon or foil liners. Insulating the lunch bags or coolers is achieved through multiple ways: polyurethane, polyethylene plastic or thermal batting made out of polyester fibers.

Freezable lunch bags

These lunch bags have pockets specially designed to put ice packs in. Some of them contain gel packs that are part of the wall of the lunch bag and cannot be removed. In theory, it sounds like a neat idea, just toss the entire bag into the freezer and pull it out for packing the next morning.

There are three reasons that I don't like these types of lunch bags:

  • Restricted to surface washing the bag if the gel packs can't be removed. I suppose you could submerge in water, but treating stains might be difficult, especially if needing more aggressive cleaners that might harm the gel pack.
  • Ice packs bulge when frozen, making it impossible to squeeze food containers into the bag.
  • Size is ineffective. The design I bought was tall and narrow, like a typical brown lunch bag. Since that purchase, I still don't see other sizes offered. I find this size restricting to the containers and food I typically pack in my lunch. I'm not a fan of the size.
Freezable lunch bag.

Freezable lunch bag.

Neoprene lunch bags

Neoprene bags have become popular for soft-sided lunch bag use. The "cool" thing about Neoprene is that the material has its own insulative properties and they stretch to fit most containers. Neoprene lunch bags wash up well by hand or in a washing machine. I love my Neoprene lunch bag so much, that I've written an entire article on it, "Advice for Buying a Neoprene Lunch Bag." I have another article that covers best care and washing questions, "Care and Cleaning of Neoprene Lunch Bags."

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Collection of Neoprene lunch bags.

Collection of Neoprene lunch bags.

Hard-sided coolers

Traditional hard-sided plastic insulated coolers use an air gap between the inner and outer walls of the cooler to preserve food temperature inside. More expensive coolers use polyurethane foam in the air gap. As you can imagine, the additional foam significantly improves insulation properties.

I mention polyurethane foam coolers only in conversation here. Most people don't make a hefty monetary investment in these types of coolers for daily lunch bags/coolers. I'm proud to say that I live in northeast Iowa where American-made Grizzly® coolers are manufactured. If you're ever in need of a high-quality cooler, check them out. 

Many hard-sided cooler manufacturers offer smaller versions of their coolers for portable lunches. It's not common to see a hard-sided cooler in tow for office workers and school children. Hard-sided coolers are more often seen in outdoor excursions such as fishing, camping, or a picnic.

Wicker baskets still induce the romantic idea of what one would take on a picnic. Outside the fact that they don't insulate, wicker baskets are too easy for bugs and pests to infest, and difficult to clean. Hard sided coolers are easy to wash up. The bigger coolers can be hosed down with water from an outdoor faucet.

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Hard sided coolers are more durable and great for outdoor activities and rougher work environments.

Hard sided coolers are more durable and great for outdoor activities and rougher work environments.

Lunch bag accessories

A lunch bag by itself is often not enough. Two ice packs, placed on the bottom and top of the food, are best at maintaining cold food temperatures. Don't miss the article "The Art of Packing Lunch." When shopping for lunch bag accessories, make sure that they are good quality and seal tightly so no food is spilled. Look for containers that are well-insulated for soup and hot beverages.

More than likely, you will find these lunch bag accessories useful to have:

  • small containers
  • containers with lids
  • soup containers
  • ice packs
  • thermos for soup or hot liquids
  • matching insulative bag for beverage container

The very unusual lunch tote below is made of felt material, with an inside foil lining. A pocket on the side fits the utensil container. The insulated containers all screw into each other, with rubber seals to prevent leakage. This qualifies as a bento lunch box, though not a very traditional shape. The process of carefully unscrewing each section would likely prove to be frustrating on a daily basis. As attractive, fashionable, and well-designed as this lunch tote is, the user may lack the patience to continue using it.

Note: I do have the manufacturer's information of this lunch bag.

Round, felt lunch bag with pocket for eating utensils and insulated food containers that fit together.

Round, felt lunch bag with pocket for eating utensils and insulated food containers that fit together.

The perfect lunch bag

I bring my lunch to work almost every day. I have an opinion or two about lunch bags. Being the frugal person that I am, I have used free lunch bags. When those didn't work, I bought bags, but never found one that worked well. These were insulated cheap bags that didn't hold their shape, became ugly, worn out, and cracked. I was thrilled to treat myself to a new bag.

When I was shopping for the perfect lunch bag, I wanted a soft-sided one that would hold its shape well, not collapse on itself, stretch enough to fit different size containers, and wash well.

Guess what? I found the perfect bag. It was a Neoprene lunch bag. I love the bag because it stretches to conform to any shape and folds down flat for storage. If it's dirty, all I have to do is throw it in the wash machine and it comes out looking amazing. If you're determined to buy a Neoprene lunch bag, or just thinking about it, I encourage you to visit my article, "Advice for Buying a Neoprene Lunch Bag."

I am on my third Neoprene bag. They hold up exceptionally well, it's just that my kids have taken my bags for their lunches! Being a Neoprene lunch bag user, I have learned some important characteristics of the bags:

  • Not every bag is equal. My third lunch bag was a noticeably thicker material than my first lunch bag. Since the handles are integral to the material, the handles are more sturdy in the thicker bag version. The thicker version also keeps its shape and because it is thicker, it has a higher insulative value.
  • My second lunch bag was made from a thinner material, but still is an awesome bag. Actually, in some situations, its nicer to have the lighter version of the bag.
  • When washing Neoprene bags, you can easily wash by hand in the kitchen sink. I've swished it around in soapy dishwater and rinsed it off and let it air dry on the dish rack. No worries, you can wash it in the washing machine as well. However, wash on COLD and DO NOT PUT IN THE DRYER. I accidentally made that mistake, which caused the material to pull away from the insulated part of the bag. It uglied out pretty fast after that.

Don't miss the complete article "Care and Cleaning of Neoprene Lunch Bags." I cover all kinds of things like mold, odor, stains and best washing practices.

I LOVE my lunch bag. The Neoprene designs have hit the sweet spot for the best size - everything fits in there. It has a separate compartment that I can tuck in my napkins. The handles are sturdy and well-constructed. Honestly, someone sat down and made the perfect lunch bag. As with all of my lunch bags, I add small frozen ice blocks to my lunch bag. The bag keeps my food chilled until the noon hour, about 4 hours.

When I misplaced my lunch bag for a few weeks, I finally broke down and bought another one (Murphy's Law, I did end up finding the old lunch bag back). It was an easy purchase because I knew I would be satisfied with the Neoprene lunch bag. As I said, my college kids have nabbed my bags for packing their own lunch. They use them for on campus and summer jobs. They report to be pretty happy with the Neoprene lunch bags.

The cheap route: brown paper bags

Brown paper bags offer a cheap solution for packing lunches, especially for a mass group of people. In my college days, kids would go through the cafeteria to pick up a sack lunch in the morning when they couldn't make it back from campus.

Brown bags are popular because they are disposable and cheap. They still serve their purpose of large quantity lunch distribution. On an individual basis, it doesn't make sense. Investing in a reusable container that will be in service for years is best.

If your mother packed your lunch in a brown bag, she probably eventually ended up buying  something more permanent.

In addition, brown bags don't hold that much and tear really easy, to the point of real frustration (it was usually the banana that put it over the limit).

A word about quality. Brown sack lunch bags are designed to be disposable, for one-time use. The cheap paper lunch bags found in the paper goods section of stores are easily torn. They are only really good for a few light-weight items.

Brown bag sack lunch.

Brown bag sack lunch.

 The bag in the photo and the bags in grocery stores are thicker and better made. 

Paper has insulative qualities, that's why when given the option in a grocery story, opt for putting your cold food in paper bags. 

Lunch bag hack: if you're only transporting food that will soon be eaten, I buy the cheap fabric shopping bags (specifically, the Halloween bags that you can get on discount after the holiday). They are strong enough and are reusable and washable.

Construction worker with lunch box.

Construction worker with lunch box.

My earliest memory of lunch boxes was watching Fred Flintstone cartoons. Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble would carry their lunch box every day to the quarry where they worked. That "tough" lunchbox still holds true today for workers in construction. Plastic mini coolers have replaced these iconic metal lunch boxes as a more insulated way to keep lunches cold.

Did you know that the metal collector lunchboxes for kids started out as a way for kids to copy their working parents? I never grew up needing to take my lunch to school, so never had a need for them.

Vintage lunch box collection.

Vintage lunch box collection.

I have no idea how people kept the food cold in these metal boxes. Likely, temperature-safe meals were used, like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Another memory is of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and the little school kids bringing their lunch pails to school.

According to the website Mashed, the real boom of metal lunch boxes began in 1950 when Aladdin Industries created the first lunch box featuring a favorite television character: Hopalong Cassidy. Through the next four decades lunch boxes depicted hundreds of popular TV shows, movies, cartoon characters, and more. Metal lunchbox production declined in the 1970s due to cost and the replacement of cheaper plastic boxes.

What is a Japanese bento box?

As a non-bento person, all I really know about bento boxes are the cute bento lunches I see on Pinterest or the bento boxes in the lunch bag aisle at Walmart. If you asked me, I would say they are pretty little cubed up boxes that you divide food into. I'm not far off.

According to Japanese Objects, A Japanese bento box is comprised of single-portion meals usually composed of a carb (usually rice or noodles), a protein (usually meat or fish), and an assortment of pickled or cooked vegetables. The nickname "bento" means convenient.

READ "The Art of Packing Lunch"

Japanese bento box.

Japanese bento box.

Any packed lunch will help you save money and control your diet. It's a great idea to get started and join the many people who pack their own lunch everyday. 

Good luck with finding your perfect lunch bag!  - Renee

About the author 

Renee Matt

Renee is a former kitchen designer, home remodeling enthusiast (having lived through several DIY projects), and an Iowa farmwife. Renee is passionate about preparedness, garden skills, and knowing where her food comes from. Years of being a stay-at-home mom and supporting the family farm with hearty meals has been key to Renee's pantry readiness. She uses her professional IT background and expertise to bring the Everything Pantry website to life.

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