Bento or Bust: Why This Is the Perfect Lunch Box for My Kid (and Maybe Yours)

updated Sep 30, 2020
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(Image credit: Pottery Barn Kids)

In theory, a lunch box only has a few specific jobs: It has to transport food from your kitchen to your kid’s cafeteria, it should keep a meal reasonably intact and possibly cold, and a nifty design on the box or bag itself carries serious importance for most little eaters.

But more matters than whether Batman or Elsa stares up at you each morning — think parental sanity, environmental consciousness, and crucially, whether your child actually eats what’s inside.

After spending my son’s kindergarten year testing more boxes than one parent should reasonably buy in a school year, we found one straight out of lunchbox heaven: the bento box. Typically packed inside a regular soft-sided zip-closure lunch box (but sometimes carried on its own), a hard-sided bento lunch box has multiple compartments for different foods, like the traditional bento boxes used for traveling meals in Japan.

This year, I’ll steer every grade-schooler parent that asks toward a lunch box with a separate bento-style container inside. Here’s why:

(Image credit: Pottery Barn Kids)

Morning Brain Relief

I would be lying if I said packing my son’s lunch was the hardest part of any day. But sometimes (say, early in the morning, in my pajamas, when the coffee hasn’t yet done its job), bleary-eyed lunch-making can feel like taking an SAT test with a bad hangover: Did I complete all the parts? Did I fill the holes in correctly? Yesterday he took something with a green lid. Where’s the lid? Did I wash the lid? Am I actually feeding my child today?

The advantage of the single-container bento approach is that the container itself guides you through the process, which some of us still need at 7 a.m. despite our thorough college educations. It tells you what’s missing so you don’t have to think as hard — there’s often a big space for a sandwich-like thing, smaller spaces for accompaniments, and a tiny space for something sweet. Thank you, bento. Now I can finish my coffee.

Save Sanity and the Planet

I’m all for earth-friendly packaging, but between rinsing gently used plastic bags washing environmentally friendlier cloth snack bags, and finding and losing and finding the tops to 10,000 small plastic containers, packing lunch for even one kid can drive a parent crazy. Having one reusable container per child as a vessel for all lunch parts removes the proverbial last piece of straw from the environmentally conscious lunch-making camel’s back.

From a functional perspective, whether your bento box is plastic or metal is immaterial (unless, like me, you both tend to melt things in the dishwasher and hate how old plastic smells — in which case, the metal version wins). You just want a divided, dishwasher-friendly inside container that’s all one piece, that you can use over and over again without the hassle of multiple reusable-but-fragile containers.

Let Them Eat Everything!

The most maddening part of packing a child’s lunch is that no matter how tasty or beautiful you might make it, your darling daughter’s midday meal is no match for the conversation around her — or for the clock that dictates how much time she has to eat at school. Minutes are precious, especially for the youngest kiddos. Requiring my six-year-old to open just one container to access everything — instead of opening four or five separate things — means he eats more of his food and a wider variety of foods each day.

So there you have it — at our house, united we stand, divided we haul. What is your favorite lunch box setup, and why?