The last time I carried a lunchbox was probably in 1992, when I adhered strictly to a uniform of Patagonia fleeces and sweatpants and had a tragically abbreviated set of bangs. Every day, I'd throw away the nutritious meal my mother packed for me and use my allowance to purchase white chocolate, macadamia nut cookies and French fries from the school cafeteria. The lunch was expendable, but the lunchbox itself—that was no less than my personal calling card. Made of molded blue plastic, it featured an image of Donatello (not the Renaissance artist but the scientifically-inclined, bo staff-wielding mutant turtle). I had carefully chosen this lunchbox to represent my brand. It proclaimed: I sit with the boys and play football at recess, but also, I am smart and into science class, and I like the color purple. Furthermore, it secretly said, I have a crush on Donatello, and I wish I were good at martial arts.
Few of us in the over-10 crowd use lunchboxes, let alone depend on them to telegraph crucial information about our identities. But recently, something occurred to me: Since more and more of us are feeling more and more guilty about spending money and throwing away plastic, the time for adult lunchboxes might just be upon us. Luckily, several manufacturers and stores already market lunchboxes to the post-collegiate, pre-retirement, moderately crunchy demographic. For your sake, and for the sake of the planet, I decided to test drive a few.
I tried out five adult lunchboxes—one for each day of the work week. In four of the five cases, I brought the same meal: a fresh turkey sandwich on whole wheat with lettuce, tomato, onion, and mustard, a cold carton of Dannon all-natural vanilla yogurt, and a cold bottle of POM juice. In the last case, I had to improvise a totally different lunch, for reasons that will become obvious. I evaluated the lunchboxes on the following criteria:
Aesthetics: All adult lunchboxes are somewhat nerdy, but just how nerdy is this lunchbox in particular? Does it evoke a specific style? Would I rather eat at McDonald's every day— hastening the apocalypse—than carry this box? (10 points)
Utility: How well was this lunchbox able to keep my food cold/warm/fresh? How much food was it able to accommodate? Was it comfortable to carry? (10 points)
Perks: What special something is this lunchbox bringing to the lunch table? (10 points)
Value: How much does it cost? Provided I clean it and don't allow it to grow spores, will I be able to amortize its cost over time? (10 points)
The results, from worst to best:
Safari Lunch Bag $13.95 on lunchboxes.com
Although I requested the Hamptons model pictured on the Web site, Lunchboxes.com sent me instead the slightly-jauntier Safari. They're identical, except that the Hamptons is a distinguished forest green whereas the Safari is a yellowish khaki. The Safari also has a handle on top, in addition to the adjustable strap both share—presumably because those who safari enjoy a bit more variety than those who summer in Long Island. Both are outfitted with faux leather trimmings and a faux-buckle that hides the dual zipper and Velcro closures.
Sadly, for all its affectations, the Safari reminded me of the refrigerated bags used to transport organs on medical dramas. Adding to that impression, the interior is lined with some sort of formidable aerospace-inspired silver Thermos insulation. Because the bag has a stiff, flat bottom, and is carried upright, I thought it might be able to handle a carton of soup from the deli, in addition to my standard lunch. Unfortunately, not only did the soup spill everywhere, but it also transferred its heat to the other elements of my lunch. I ended up with tepid soup, a soggy sandwich, and warm pomegranate juice. But lest we fully write off the Safari as all faux-style and no substance, I'm guessing that if I hadn't introduced the soup, the Safari might have handled the standard lunch just fine, and for $13.95, it's a pretty good deal.
Mr. Bento Stainless Lunch Jar Set $67.95 on lunchboxes.com
Mr. Bento is like a matryoshka doll with a confused cultural identity. He's part Indian Tiffin, part Japanese Bento Box, and part American soup thermos. He comes with four round microwaveable containers of different sizes, which are meant to help with portion control. Two of the containers are basically shallow pieces of Tupperware and are intended for cold foods. The other two containers have thicker, twist-on lids and are meant for hot foods. All four containers nest inside in a larger thermos, which bears a resemblance to Oscar the Grouch's garbage pail. Obviously Mr. Bento was not engineered for my very American turkey sandwich, so I veered eastward and packed hot miso soup and tofu, plus cold rice and greens.
Mr. Bento's exotic charm is mitigated by his hideous black carrying case—a mono-strap backpack necessary because Zojirushi, the manufacturer, cruelly forgot to outfit Mr. Bento with any sort of handle. Unless you want to carry Mr. Bento football-style, under the crook of your arm, you have to load him into the bag—which also unexpectedly comes with a metal spork—through a flimsy-looking side zipper. The whole contraption feels unnecessarily complicated and unwieldy. To make matters worse, Mr. Bento weighs 5 pounds, and that's before you put any food in him.
It's a shame that Mr. Bento is so poorly designed, because his containers actually did a great job keeping food warm, and I like the variety that he inspired. But for $67.95, I expected more.
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.