Pottery Barn Lunch Bag
$10-$16.50 (depending on if you monogram) on potterybarn.com
Monogramming, as a rule, feels a bit aggressively bourgeois to me—but then again, so does Pottery Barn. Still, it's hard for me to imagine that even a die-hard Pottery Barn lover would want something so absurd as a monogrammed lunchbox. Sans monogram, which lowers the price to a very reasonable $10, the Pottery Barn lunch bag has a charmingly simple and utilitarian look to it. And, thankfully, whatever thin, unassuming material insulates this bag actually works pretty well—my lunch was remarkably cool upon eating.
Not so thankfully, this same thin, unassuming material also emits a horrible chlorinated-cat-litter smell, which immediately ruined my appetite and gave me a headache. Still rooting for this one, I looked into washing it, hoping that a spin cycle might resolve the odor problem. Pottery Barn recommends spot-cleaning only, so I did just that, using a bit of dish soap and some water to wipe down the inside of the bag. Once the thing dried out, I was disappointed to discover essentially the same smell, with a new set of faintly Palmolive undertones. The tendency to absorb and retain odors seems like a fairly large liability in a lunchbox—I cringe to imagine what the Pottery Barn lunch bag might smell like after doing its job for awhile.
L.L. Bean Turbo Transit Lunchbox $22 on llbean.com
From the outside, the L.L. Bean Turbo Transit looks like a travel accessory—the kind obsessive packers use for tightly rolled underwear. Judging from the inside (thick, white nylon insulation), L.L. Bean has tried to create a bona fide portable refrigerator. Alas, the Turbo Transit is a little too snug for my liking—I was just able to squeeze in my sandwich, yogurt, juice, and utensils. And it ranked only average in its ability to keep my food cold. I was also surprised to find that the Turbo Transit was designed with just a carrying handle, not a strap.
But never mind these practical details: The Turbo Transit is more than just a lunchbox. The product description on the Web site suggests that you keep your wallet and keys in one of the interior mesh pockets, and there's a strange little rubber sphincter on the outside for your iPod headphones. In addition, the outside zippers are outfitted with 3M Scotchlite reflective pulls, in case, I suppose, you'd like to alert passing motorists to your presence.
The Turbo Transit's ripstop exterior is durable as they come, and since you can easily wipe down the interior with soap and water, this bag will go the distance. At $22, it's probably worth the investment. After all, in a pinch you can use it to pack your underwear.
Built Gourmet Getaway Lunch Tote $22-$25 on builtny.com
I was not predisposed to like the Gourmet Getaway Lunch Tote, which resembles a squat winter squash dressed up as a clown. But the Gourmet Getaway won me over with some nice features and superior cooling abilities. If empty, the Getaway lies totally flat and can easily be thrown into another, more attractive, bag. When in use, the bottom folds out to create a rather large chamber that can accommodate plenty of food. My sandwich, yogurt, and juice, which were quite cool when I ate them, didn't come close to filling the Getaway to capacity.
Like the Turbo Transit, the Getaway has only a carrying handle (no strap), but the material is stretchy enough to fit over my wrist, making it quite comfortable to tote around. The neoprene fabric—used to make wetsuits and laptop sleeves—is machine washable, and seems like it'll hold up til the end of days. Best of all, I discovered after a more thorough Internet search that the bag comes in several less offensive outfits—like solid colors instead of polka dots. (Unfortunately there are only even weirder alternatives to the awkward, squashlike structure.)
Flexible, accommodating, generous, and comfortable, the Gourmet Getaway is a like a nice guy you aren't quite willing to call your boyfriend—you feel a bit too embarrassed by him in public. Yet when you shop around for fancier models, you learn to appreciate his simple charms.