5 Proven Tips to Get Your Child’s Lunch Box Odor- and Stain-Free

published Sep 6, 2021
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Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn

When my son started kindergarten a few years ago, he’d often come home from school with a dirty lunch box. I distinctly remember unzipping his insulated cloth Minecraft box, only to find the inside splattered in yogurt and covered in crumbs. Usually, a quick dump-and-wipe did the trick, but other times, cleaning and deodorizing required a little more time and strategy. 

Now that both of my kids will be attending in-person school (and eating cold lunches), I’m revisiting my favorite ways to keep their lunch boxes fresh. Here are a few of the methods I’ll be using this year (and probably for years to come).

Credit: Ashley Abramson

1. Tackle smells in the freezer.

This trick is really simple, but it works in a pinch — provided you have the freezer space. If your kid’s lunch box is smelly but doesn’t need a full-on wash-down, leverage the power of cold temperatures. Your freezer can help eliminate strong smells that just won’t let up. It’s easy: Open up the clean-but-stinky lunch box, and set it in your freezer overnight.

Credit: Cat Meschia

2. Remove super-stubborn odors with white vinegar.

The toughest smells might need a little bit more effort than a cold treatment. Luckily, you probably already have an excellent odor-fighting tool in your pantry: white vinegar. Just get a paper towel wet with the vinegar, leave it in the closed lunch box overnight, and rinse. For the worst smells, add diluted white vinegar directly to the inside of the lunch box, leave it for a few hours or overnight, then rinse and dry.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

3. Fight stains with baking soda.

Baking soda comes in super handy for zapping pesky food stains. Just make a paste of equal parts baking soda and water, apply it to the affected area, and allow the mix to sit for 10 to 15 minutes. Then, wipe the paste away with a damp microfiber cloth or paper towel. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

4. Hand wash the lunch box.

Yes, you need to wash lunch boxes. While many insulated lunch boxes are durable enough to handle the washing machine, hand washing allows for more precision in stain-fighting. 

Follow these steps when washing your kid’s lunch gear. 

  • Shake out crumbs and scrape off any easy-to-remove bits.
  • Fill a clean kitchen sink with warm water. 
  • Add a few drops of soap (it’ll be gentler on the lunch box than detergent). 
  • Put the lunch box in the soapy water so it’s completely wet. 
  • Use a dish brush to scrub away stains. 
  • Rinse the inside of the lunch box with clean, warm water. 
  • Hang the lunch box upside-down to dry after wiping it with a clean towel.
Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn

5. Prevent future lunch box smells and stains.

The best way to deal with lunch box odors and messes? Prevent them in the first place! Encourage your kids to toss scraps and empty bags or wrappers at school rather than zipping them up in the insulated lunch bag, which can trap smells — and show them how to wipe down the inside with a paper towel or napkin as needed. It’s also a good idea to leave your kid’s lunch box open when it’s at home to let it air out!

Do you have any strategies for dealing with odor-proofing lunch boxes? Tell us in the comments below.