In one of our most brilliant moves yet, we spent four months testing out seventeen different lunch boxes in rigorous real world conditions like… carrying someone’s lunch. Through all of it, the most beloved ended up being the Coleman 9-Can Soft Cooler.
The Coleman 9-Can Soft Cooler was our favorite of the lot, boasting great insulation, generous capacity, and the durability you’d expect from Coleman. The lining is even antimicrobial and removable, making cleaning a breeze. It’s pretty much a win all the way around.Buy Now
Table of Contents
How We Selected the Products
This time around we decided that it was best to just check online reviews through major retail establishment. Everyone has their own needs when it comes to carrying their lunch so we decided to test those that seemed to appeal to the greatest amount of people.
From there it was just a matter of convincing people to ditch whatever they were using for a couple of weeks to see how well things worked out for them with those which passed our initial testing. In most cases the switch was a welcome one, since the majority of our reviewers were using unbranded, budget boxes.
Depending on your tastes, that may even be the right way to go. Access to a fridge and enough storage capacity can help make some of the more expensive features like
We were looking for a few things primarily: high rated reviews, sturdy outer linings, insulation, and organization. We also looked at the current cost of each, eliminating those we felt were too expensive for most people to justify purchasing.
Eventually we made a list of seventeen different lunch boxes and decided to test them out and see which one ended up being the reigning champ in the end.
How We Tested the Products
We decided that testing was needed to narrow down our selections a bit before we put them into real world use. The first thing to do was sort them by capacity, intended use, and note any special features which were included.
Then we needed some short tests to weed out the real problem children.
We tested each lunch bag or box for the following:
- Durability- Bags were filled to capacity with fishing weights. We then tied them off and hung them for a total of twenty four hours to see how good the stitching was. Those which were primarily made of hard components were subjected to a drop test from three feet while filled. Enough failed we had to load them a few ounces at a time to see where the breaking point was but only two failed at a point where the weight was anything close to real world conditions.
- Insulation- Two tests for each bag or box with insulating qualities were performed. In the first they were filled to capacity with ice and checked on periodically. We then placed an “ice cold” soda in each that met our standards, just a couple of degrees above freezing and used a laser thermometer to periodically measure the can’s temperature.
- Ease of Cleaning- Spood fills sometimes, and while not every lunch box is going to have marinara scattered over the internals and left to dry for two days… we felt it was necessary to see how easy each of our bags was to clean.
- Leak Testing- We filled the lunch boxes halfway with water and agitated, spun, and generally abused them to see how much of the water escaped.
- Condensation Testing- While completely dry we threw a couple of nearly ice cold cans of soda into the boxes for four hours and checked the condensation. After leaving them open for another hour we checked to see how well things had dried out.
- Drying Test- We allowed most of our coolers and boxes to air dry, as well as wiping them out in between some of our tests. Hard liners and soft liners weren’t directly compared, since the former dry much more quickly and thoroughly.
Ten of the boxes made it through our tests and were then placed in the hands of our trusted reviewers who were instructed to use them through three weeks to pack their lunches for work or whatever they may happen to be doing.
Afterwards, we surveyed them to see if there were any problems. Our quick questionnaire asked the following:
- Did anything start to break down during the tests?
- Did the insulation remain effective for your work day?
- Was the lunch box subjected to extreme conditions?
- Did the lunch allow for easy organization of your meals?
- Did you use the special features?
- Were there any problems minor or major?
Unsurprisingly, we received few negative comments about those which had made it into our final round of testing. After sorting through them we were able to pick five of them as our top lunch boxes.
One of the big things we noted: extra features often meant extra expense… and remained unused for the most part.
Our tests concluded the following:
- For most people the Coleman 9-Can Soft Cooler is a great choice. It’s middle-of-the-range in price, has a large capacity, and great insulation. It was also quite durable.
- For those who don’t need insulation the Tabkoe Bento Lunch Box was our favorite. Easy-to-clean, well organized, and in the “bento box” style it was a clear winner in this category.
- We found the Vapos Large Capacity Lunch Bag to be a well organized, soft lunch box with a large capacity.
- The High Sierra Stacked Compartment Lunch Bag was the best insulated design we looked into. If a couple of degrees in food temperature matters, it’s what you’re looking for.
- Lastly the cheap MAZFORCE Original Lunch Box lacked any extra features but performed it’s core function extremely well during both the initial and “real world” tests although capacity may be a concern for some.
Top 5 Lunch Boxes
|1. Coleman 9-Can Soft Cooler||Soft Box with Hard Liner||1 Main 1 Side Pocket 1 Mesh Drink Pouch||Check Price|
|2. Tabkoe Bento||Bento Box||3 Main 1 Cutlery Tray||Check Price|
|3. Vapos Large Capacity||Soft Box||1 Main 1 Side Pocket 1 Mesh Drink Pouch||Check Price|
|4. High Sierra Stacked||Soft Bag||2 Main 1 Side Pouch||Check Price|
|5. MAZFORCE Original||Soft Bag||-||Check Price|
1. Best Overall Lunch Box
Coleman 9-Can Soft Cooler
This one was a soft cooler with a great plastic interior liner. The liner was also reputed to be antimicrobial but with it being so easy to remove and clean we doubt it would ever be an issue.
It’s not the best organized box out there, but it can definitely be paired with some tupperwares to allow for you to keep everything together. The main section is well insulated and kept our ice packs alive much longer than expected as well.
Coleman is known for their camping gear… that is to say their stuff is known to be tough and this bag lives up to their reputation. It’s hard to see how anyone could manage to kill this bag short of a tragic accident involving a piano and a fourth story roof.
We also dug the shoulder strap. While it’s not really necessary for lunch if you’re primarily using it as a cooler it’ll get weighed down a bit and the strap makes it easy to carry for long distances or in rougher terrain.
Living up to the brand’s reputation, we feel this soft cooler is perfectly sized for the average person and will live up to any expectations you might have in a lunch box. It’s priced great and we can’t recommend it enough.
- Hard interior liner
- Easy to clean
- Great capacity
- Shoulder strap
- Lack of internal organization
- A bit limited in capacity for some
2. Best Bento Box
Tabkoe Bento Lunch Box
A Bento box is a bento box for the most part. What differentiates them is the materials and the styling and if you’re looking for a sleek, high-quality lunch box in this vein you’re in lock.
The trays consist of three relatively large sections and the smooth plastic makes them remarkably easy to clean. The third tray contains an area for cutlery, which we felt was a nice touch. The whole thing has a really stylish, classical look.
It won out by a function of being great looking, well organized, and having a relatively moderate price point. Bento boxes are “hot” right now and you can do a lot worse than this one from Tabkoe… while spending a lot more.
There really aren’t any downsides to this one that aren’t inherent to the Bento box design. They’re meant for a single meal and you don’t have anywhere to hold a drink.
But if you’ve been looking for an awesome Bento box which won’t break the bank then take a closer look. It’s the best of all worlds in this realm.
- Stylish design
- Cutlery tray
- Holds a considerable amount of food for a Bento box
- Easy to clean
- No inbuilt drink storage
- Not insulated well
3. Best Large Capacity Lunch Box
Vapos Large Capacity Lunch Bag
Need a big lunch but aren’t willing to fill up an entire cooler just yet? Then Vapos has you covered with this large, well-insulated lunch bag that we found to be the right point between price and size to bring to you.
This is a big one compared to the others on our list. It’s not particularly well organized, internally, but we’d venture to say you could probably fit most of the average 8-piece Tupperware set in one without any problems.
It’s also well-insulated, holding heat or cold better than most of the bags we tested. There’s also room for phones and credit cards in the exterior zippable pocket, which we felt was a nice touch since the bag itself is pretty enormous.
It’s also a bit more difficult to clean than many of our other favorites due to the liner being stuck in there but it’s a solid pick.
For those looking for a bigger, but still better, lunch box for their daily life… this is the ticket. Honestly, it carries enough for more than one person as well, making it a welcome picnic companion as well.
- Enormous capacity
- Great insulation
- Superb build quality
- Exterior pocket for essentials
- A bit difficult to clean
- No internal organization
4. Most Insulated Lunch Box
High Sierra Stacked Compartment Lunch Bag
This bag performed the best in our insulation testing, maintaining a difference that was actually noticeable from the other insulated lunch boxes which we placed on our list. High Sierra is a camping company and once again we’re impressed with how well that transfers to something like this.
It’s a two-compartment lunch box with an exterior pocket for essentials. Overall it was kind of “dumpy” looking compared to many others we tested, but in practice it remained a favorite among our reviewers.
In addition to that, it’s well padded which means your food will be much better protected than with most soft bags. While none of our reviewers actually used the buckled strap for attaching to a backpack in the real world, in testing it worked quite well and we could see it making a welcome companion on a hike.
Design aside, it came in more colors than most of our picks as well.
For those who need a rugged, well insulated lunch box for hiking and other applications High Sierra has produced a winner with their stackable box. It’s also on the cheap side, so give it some serious consideration.
- Best tested at holding temperature
- Rugged design for outdoor use
- Two main compartments with separate insulation
- Strap for attaching to backpacks
- Somewhat limited capacity
- A bit hard to clean properly after spills
5. Best Cheap Lunch Box
MAZFORCE Original Lunch Box
The price point to performance ratio is why this excellent little bag from MAZFORCE hit our list. It comes in a ton of colors and has a simple design that will let you carry your lunch.
It was also surprisingly durable considering the price. All of that added up to it being our favorite of the low cost lunch boxes which ended up in our testing.
There’s no frills here. Just a bit of insulation, a good handle, and a surprisingly smooth zipper. It’s nothing to write home to mom about, but it’s a lot better than any of the “generic” soft lunch boxes that we tested out.
We did notice the interior seemed to stain quickly, which is irritating but not a deal breaker since the function isn’t interrupted. It’s also a bit hard to clean, not prohibitively so but compared to the Coleman it’s a task.
If you just need a cheap, functional lunch box and aren’t worried about accessories or internal organization, you’ll love this little guy. So will your wallet.
- Cheaply priced
- Available in many colors
- Well insulated
- Easy to carry design
- A bit hard to clean
- Internal material stains easily
Types of Lunch Boxes
You’ll notice that most of these designs don’t fall along the lines of what older people would consider a lunch box. Traditional boxes were made of hard materials and often lack insulation or organization. Essentially a smaller tool box.
As tempting as the old-school route was, we avoided them. In the majority of cases you’ll end paying for branding rather than real world function.
Instead, we were able to seperate all of the boxes we tested into the following:
- Bento Boxes- These are, perhaps, the closest to a “traditional” lunch box. Most of them are uninsulated and merely plastic containers but they allow for organization that can’t be had with a simpler box.
- Hard Insulated Lunch Boxes- These had a hard plastic outer shell and some form of insulation. While bulkier than the other types they’re also more durable by their very nature, making them a great option for blue collar work places or those who just have a tendency to smush their lunch at some point.
- Soft Insulated Lunch Boxes- Coming in both bag and box styles, these have a fabric outer layer and some form of insulation on the interior. We found them to be the most common “modern” type and they also had the largest variance in quality.
We found that, in practice, most people preferred the latter. Hard boxes were popular among the blue collar crowd, while bento boxes were a bit niche but the people who really fiend for organization and minimizing their trash loved them.
Limitations On the Chosen Boxes
As a general rule, we didn’t have super high standards for our tests. While a double-walled steel coffee mug may keep your drink(or soup) warm or cold for a full day we really weren’t expecting the bags to still have ice in them at the end of the testing.
Indeed, our temperature differentials at the end of the day were all within a few degrees of each other after a few hours of the can test. Smaller bags insulated better as a general rule but among similar capacities it seemed to be a non-issue.
Unfortunately, in the realm of lunch boxes finding an exceptional product was pretty hard.
In the end your preference is the important part. The differences, apart from type, were relatively minimal for the most part. There were some key differences, however, that let us pick the ones we liked the best.
So What Do I Look For?
Real-world use dictated our final results, of the ten which made it to real world testing we found a few things that seemed to matter to people more than the rest.
We shouldn’t have been surprised, but even in many compartmentalized lunch boxes we found that the internal seals were often open. It makes folding the box or bag down when it’s empty much easier.
So, if you’re hoping to keep a flask of hot soup on one side and keep your soda cool on the other you may be in for a big surprise with many compartmentalized bags. If mixing hot and cold, you should pay special attention to whether the individual components are actually separated or if the internal organizer is just a “drop-in” to keep things separate in the main compartment.
Hard boxes performed the best in this regard.
We tried some DIY fixes but found them to be more trouble than they’re worth when you can just buy a different lunch box with a minimal price difference.
We found a big difference between the real world applications of “soft” insulated liners and hard ones. Not quite in the effectiveness of the insulation materials but hard liners are quite practical when it comes to cleaning and protecting your lunch from mechanical damage.
We recommend them, unless you’re really looking for a budget lunch box.
While it didn’t come up during our testing, a box which has a soft liner and remains closed while moist can pick up mold which will then be in close proximity to your food. If you’re absent-minded consider a hard liner: they air dry readily and aren’t as porous as fabrics like Nylon.
For some people, longevity is a requirement of a lunch box. We found that durability varied very little in the short term, but looking over the stitching and the way the lunch bag or box was put together we could tell there’d be some variability over the course of time.
Of course, hard lunch boxes will win out every time in this scenario, be they bento boxes or those that are closer to a cooler in style.
We found the common points of failure to be handles and zippers. Check both thoroughly if you’re buying one in person, since they’re going to be the big issues in the long run.
Like backpacks, people will often ignore features and quality in favor of aesthetics. It’s not even that big of a deal here when it comes to the price point differential.
Something which you’re happy to use is always going to win out over a couple of novelty little adjustments to the utility of the lunch box or bag that you decide to use. We judged on strictly utilitarian testing measurements in this case, but if a Dora the Explorer hard lunch box is all your kid will take with them to school… well, it’s worth a lot more being used than having a ton of promise but being relegated to a back shelf.
Lunch Box FAQ
Alright, we stepped a bit out of character for this one but we had plenty of questions when we were putting together our lunch box list. We had a few big questions while conducting our testing, and we answered them. Here they are for you.
Q: What ice packs work best for lunch boxes?
A: For our testing we either used included packs, or went with Cooler Shock Reusable Bags since we were able to quickly get them frozen. Truth is… as long as they fit you’re probably in good hands.
Q: What about stainless steel lunch boxes?
A: We didn’t test any stainless steel boxes. While some are double-walled and provide insulation, we didn’t think they’d appeal to most people. Those that aren’t double walled area great way to “cook” lunch in a hotter climate however.
Q: Where did the term “bento box” come from?
A: “Bento” is a Japanese term for single portion meals. It goes in a box. There’s not a whole lot more to it, they’re mostly just boxes with separate compartments in a single tray. If you were thinking of the associated art form, that would be kyaraben and galleries of cute and creative meals can easily be found online.
Q: So, about that kyaraben…
A: Way ahead of you. We found a great little guide right here if you’re interested in learning how to make hyper cute lunches for your kids or significant other. They even go over the tools you might want, if you want to step out of the usual realm of just molds and simple shapes.
Q: What’s the best way to keep food separate in lunch boxes without containers?
A: We may bring you a guide to Tupperware at some point in the future, but for right now we recommend using appropriately sized containers with locking lids. For most people, a set like this gives a good range of sizes for different foods but if you’re serious about it then glass containers offer better insulation, durability, and ease of cleaning. The important part is that they’re BPA-free and locking to prevent spills.
Q: Should I worry about mold in a soft lunch box?
A: We didn’t notice any in our testing, but we’d recommend checking your liner once in a while. If it’s removable, pull it take a look at the back as well, a small leak can cause moisture to gather where you won’t notice. In general, regular washing will keep you safe from anything nasty which might develop.
Making sure you have the right lunch box for your lifestyle might not seem like a big deal, but you’d be surprised at the standout construction and features of the best lunch boxes.
We still recommend the Coleman 9-Can Soft Cooler with Removable Liner for most people. It’s lightweight, durable, and easy to clean in addition to packing enough capacity for most people, but we assure you that no matter how you’re living there’s a perfect box, bag, or cooler to make carrying your food and drinks a snap.