Packing a brown bag lunch is a healthy and cost-saving option for school or workdays. But when it comes to perishable items, a lunch box cooler is a wiser pick. Lunch box coolers keep perishable foods cold all day so you can safely enjoy your packed lunch.
The best lunch box cooler is durable, easy to clean, and has excellent temperature control. A lunch box should be comfortable to carry for commuting, and a fun design is an added bonus. Here are the best lunch box coolers for bringing food on the go.
- BEST OVERALL: PackIt Freezable Deluxe Large Lunch Bag
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Coleman 9-Can Soft Cooler with Removable Liner
- BEST BENTO BOX: Healthy Packers Bento Box
- BEST LARGE CAPACITY: MIER Insulated Lunch Bag
- BEST FOR KIDS: PackIt Freezable Classic Lunch Box
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Lunch Box Cooler
The most important feature of a lunch box cooler is to keep perishable food cold until lunchtime. Most high-quality lunch coolers will keep food cold for many hours. The best lunch box coolers should also be simple to clean and easy to carry. Lunch box coolers come in several designs and sizes to suit a range of different needs.
There is a range of lunch box options from heavy-duty, hard coolers to soft, insulated bags. Lunch box coolers can be hard- or soft-sided and are available in different shapes and sizes. Compact coolers are designed to slide into a workbag or backpack, while larger coolers are built to be carried on their own. Both soft and hard coolers can come in structured styles to keep containers upright. Pouch-style insulated bags are also a popular pick for their compact and flexible design.
Many lunch box coolers have an insulated lining to keep foods cold but work best with an ice pack or two for longer storage. Other lunch bags have an insulating layer with freezer gel or insulation built in. Individuals can stick these types of lunch bags in the freezer to keep food cold without an ice pack.
Hard lunch box coolers are often made from plastic because it’s durable and easy to clean. There is also a range of options with an outer fabric layer. The outer fabric layer can add style and allows the addition of pouches to hold other items.
Soft lunch box coolers often feature plastic fabric, like nylon or polyester, that is durable and simple to wipe clean. Both hard- and soft-sided lunch coolers have a smooth inner lining to make them water resistant and, again, easy to clean. A leak-proof design is also ideal.
To keep food cold, lunch box coolers often have a dense inner material. This insulation layer helps maintain the temperature and keep food or drinks cold.
Lunch box coolers come in a range of different sizes, from small bags that fit a Tupperware container to large bags that resemble a portable cooler. It’s best to choose a cooler that holds all the meals and snacks one needs for the day.
A small lunch bag is easier to carry in a workbag or school bag for commuting. Large lunch bags or portable coolers can be carried alone. They can fit a large amount of food, like several containers or dozens of cans, and may be useful for those taking multiple meals for shift work or traveling. The larger models can also double as a cooler for day trips and picnics.
Lunch box coolers can have an insulated lining or a built-in ice pack. An insulated lining contains a middle insulating layer and an outer moisture-resistant lining. The middle layer includes an insulating material to keep the cold, often a dense foam. Coolers with an insulated lining need an ice pack, frozen bottle, or another cold source to ensure contents stay chilled.
Other lunch boxes have a built-in ice pack for insulation. The entire lunch box can be placed in the freezer to cool the insulation layer, allowing you to keep the contents refrigerated without an extra ice pack. An extra ice pack can be added to boost the cold temperatures.
Storage and Portability
The lunch box cooler size and shape affect its storage and portability. Large, hard-sided lunch coolers take up the most storage space, but some are collapsible to make them easier to store. Soft coolers are more likely to be pliable and foldable for easier storage.
Lunch box coolers can have a range of features to improve portability. Some coolers are compact, enabling them to easily slide into a workbag or backpack. Others, with handles or shoulder straps, are designed to be carried on their own. Adjustable or padded shoulder straps make it easier to bring a lunch box on a long commute.
Soft-sided lunch box coolers can feel more portable. But a major benefit of hard-sided lunch coolers is that they can protect soft foods from being squashed.
Lunch box coolers have a wide range of features to make it easier and more convenient to bring a meal on the go. Many coolers have extra storage compartments, such as bottle pouches and zippered snack pockets. Separated inner sections can help ice packs and containers stay upright. Some coolers have a removable liner for easier cleanup. Others feature functional clips, zippers, and handles to attach the cooler to a bag or make it easier to travel.
Freezable insulated lunch coolers are a great way to keep food cold without the need for additional ice packs.
Lunch box coolers can come with a range of accessories like ice packs, cutlery, food storage bags, and containers. One popular example is a bento box cooler set, which may include a bento box, utensils, and an insulated carrying bag.
Two benefits of included accessories are that they fit perfectly into the lunch cooler, which helps prevent loss, and they match the overall style. Removable features, including removable shoulder straps and plastic inserts, can make a cooler easier to carry and clean.
Our Top Picks
A quality lunch box cooler keeps packed lunches crisp and cold. Most options keep food cool for a few hours to last until lunchtime. The best insulated lunch boxes should be versatile, easy to clean, and keep food nice and cold. Here are the top lunch box coolers to keep meals cold at work or school.
The Deluxe Large Lunch Bag from PackIt features a stylish tapered design that comes in a range of patterns. Measuring 8.5 inches by 6.75 inches by 10 inches, this soft-sided lunch bag has a structured bottom to keep containers level. It can hold a large meal, snack, and a 24-ounce drink. This lunch bag has an adjustable shoulder strap for easy carrying and an exterior pocket for utensils and napkins.
The bag is lined with a freezable, nontoxic gel liner. The entire bag freezes when placed in the freezer overnight (for at least 12 hours). The liner chills contents from all sides and keeps food cold for up to 10 hours, and the zip closure is secure and keeps cold air inside. It is foldable and compact to prep in the freezer or to store in the cupboard when not in use.
This classic soft cooler from Coleman is an affordable and functional soft-sided cooler. It has a nine-can capacity to store lunch, snacks, and a drink. The large main compartment keeps food cold, and the front zippered pocket is ideal for storing utensils and snacks. Two mesh side pockets and two bungee straps on the lid add storage for bottles and small items. An adjustable shoulder strap is useful for hands-free carrying.
This cooler features a removable hard plastic lining that is ideal for storing ice or keeping the structured shape of the cooler. The inside of the cooler is treated with antimicrobials to resist odor, mold, and mildew. It has leak-proof, heat-welded seams to prevent leaks from melted ice or condensation. This cooler from Coleman offers a range of storage options for a budget-friendly price.
Bento boxes are a versatile lunch box option. This functional bento box from Healthy Packers has compartments and layers to keep meals organized. This design helps separate ingredients that don’t mix well together, like crunchy lettuce and wet ingredients. This bento box is made of BPA-free plastic. It is safe for the dishwasher, microwave, and freezer (excluding the cooler pack layer, which is not dishwasher- or microwave-safe).
A notable feature of this bento box is the included ice pack; one of the middle layers is a built-in removable ice pack, which helps keep food cold. The leak-proof design has the option for two or three compartments, depending on if the removable inserts are used. In total, the bento box measures 8.4 inches by 5.7 inches by 3.6 inches.
With a 24-can capacity, this insulated lunch bag is ideal for long workdays, shift work, and traveling. The lunch bag measures 11.4 inches by 8.3 inches by 10.2 inches to carry several meals and snacks. It contains a large main pocket as well as extra pockets to hold utensils, napkins, and snack foods. A mesh pocket in the top flap, zippered front pocket, and two mesh side pockets offer ample storage.
This lunch cooler has an easy-clean lining with heat-welded seams to make it waterproof and leak-proof. A detachable, padded shoulder strap and reinforced top handle make this large lunch box easy to carry. The tear-resistant outer shell has stitching reinforcement and a high-quality SBS zipper. The sturdy build makes this cooler a good pick for long workdays.
This classic rectangular lunch box from PackIt has a convenient twist—it’s another freezable lunch cooler with nontoxic, freezable gel walls on each side. The soft-sided lunch box flattens to fit into the freezer; just place the lunch box in the freezer overnight (for 12 hours) for the entire bag to freeze. Once frozen, there is no need to pack it with ice packs, meaning less hassle and less to misplace.
The lunch box is made from PVC-, BPA-, phthalate- and lead-free materials. A large zip opening makes it easy to load and unload, and it has an exterior zip pocket for cutlery and napkins. The buckle handle can attach to backpacks and sports bags. This lunch box cooler measures 10 inches by 4.25 inches by 8.25 inches, making it large enough for a hearty lunch and a couple of snacks. It is available in a range of fun patterns to suit kids and adults.
FAQs About Lunch Box Coolers
A lunch box cooler is a handy item to have in the kitchen. If you plan on using one every day, it’s ideal to choose an option that is durable and easy to clean. With proper cleaning, a lunch box cooler can help bring packed lunches to work for years. Here are some frequently asked questions about using a lunch box cooler.
Q. How do insulated lunch bags work?
Lunch box coolers have an insulating layer that helps maintain cold temperatures. A sturdy closure helps keep the cold in.
Q. Do insulated lunch bags need ice packs?
The USDA recommends using two cold sources, like an ice pack or frozen water bottle, in an insulated lunch bag to keep contents in the food safety zone, which is below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Q. How long does food stay cold in a lunch bag?
In a properly packed lunch bag, food can stay chilled for many hours.
Q. Can I put my lunch bag in the fridge?
When storing a packed insulated lunch bag in the fridge, leave the lid or bag open so that cold air can circulate and keep the food cold.
Q. Can you put hot food in a cooler bag?
It is best to use a cooler bag to store cold food. In a cooler bag, hot food can sit in the food “danger zone” (40 degrees Fahrenheit to 140 degrees Fahrenheit), where bacteria can quickly multiply. If the food is too hot, it can also cause damage to plastic linings.