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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Lunch containers that help make food-safety easy


NEW YORK — It's entirely likely I spend too much time thinking about the lunches I pack for my 7-year-old son. After all, he probably spends all of five minutes scoffing my hard work.

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Making space for lunch: PlanetBox's stainless-steel Launch lunch box, shown here with the company's carry bags, has compartments to separate foods. AP/PLANETBOX

But this is a different era from the days when I proudly toted cheese-and-mustard sandwiches on whole-wheat bread in my metal "Empire Strikes Back" lunch box. For generations, lunch boxes had been just that — boxes that food got shoved into. And frankly, those boxes were better suited as weapons and shields in schoolyard scuffles than as food-storage containers.

Today, parents have choices. Lots of choices. Lunch-box styles vary from utilitarian soft-sided cooler bags to epicurean bentō boxes or even more worldly tiffin canisters. Lunch boxes can have built-in ice packs. They can be microwaved. They can be made from bisphenol-A-free, lead-free, phthalate-free, PVC-free plastic. They can be forged from 18-gauge stainless steel.

And those changes and choices reflect not just better lunch-box technology, but also social changes. What parents pack is different. In the day, my whole-wheat was just rebellious enough to have the nuns who ran my school aflutter (good boys ate Wonder bread). Today's lunches of sushi, soy-nut noodle salads, nachos and samosas make it seem pathetically pedestrian.

So how does a busy parent make sense of an era when brown bagging it almost never actually involves brown bags?

In my case, I turned it into an obsession and blog: LunchBoxBlues.com. I researched the many (many!) lunch-box options, the many containers that can go inside those lunch boxes (plastic sandwich bags are so passe), the many ways of fitting foods into those containers, and the many ways of keeping the foods in those containers warm or cold.

Along the way I've spied some winning trends and products, and discovered some handy tips for making the most of them. The following are among my top choices:

Stainless steals the show

Metal boxes went out of fashion when soft-sided bags came on the scene. And those insulated bags (some of them startlingly large) are still de rigueur. But for the stuff inside the bag — from thermoses to food containers and even drinking straws — stainless steel is where it's at.

Stainless is easy to love. It's eco-friendly and won't stain or leach anything into food. It can handle hot or cold, goes through the dishwasher, and is nearly indestructible (even for kids). Stainless items are pricier upfront, but think of all the plastic sandwich bags you won't be buying.

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Wrapped up: Lunchskins' reuseable sandwich bags are made from dishwasher-safe fabric. AP/LUNCHSKINS

For food containers, LunchBots rock. Available in a wide array of shapes, sizes and colors, including multi-compartment divided containers, LunchBots (www.lunchbots.com) products offer an easy way to pack everything from sandwiches and salads to fruit and dips. The multi-compartment containers even make it easy to create bentō-style lunches.

For an all-in-one approach, the PlanetBox (www.planetbox.com) looks like a bentō box crossed with a lunch tray. These clamshell-style containers have multiple compartments into which a surprising amount of food can be packed. Plus, because the covers are integrated into the one-piece design, there are no lids to lose.

Another cool stainless-steel lunch item — drinking straws. They are exactly what they sound like: drinking straws made out of stainless tubing. They are made by various companies (an online search will pull up dozens of choices) and come straight or with a slight kink toward the top. If your kid is a straw fanatic, these are awesome.

No heavy metal

Stainless not your style? Laptop Lunches (www.laptoplunches.com), makes a plastic snap-shut case that contains a variety of food containers. The whole thing then fits snugly inside an insulated bag. It's rugged and made without any of the aforementioned chemicals.

The size of the Laptop Lunches system makes it ideal for younger kids. If you're looking for something a bit larger or with more flexibility, check out Newell Rubbermaid's new Rubbermaid LunchBlox kits (www.rubbermaid.com), available in snack, salad and entree sizes.

Each modular kit contains a variety of bisphenol-A-free containers that can be stacked in various configurations. Each also includes a customized freezer pack that stacks and interconnects with the food containers.

It's about time

That's what food safety all comes down to — time. Knowing how long food will stay hot or cold in a lunch box or thermos is the best way to know that the food you pack will be safe to eat.

As a general rule, perishable cold foods must be kept below 4 degrees Celsius. Hot foods should be held at above 60 C. If those temperatures aren't held, you have a two-hour window to consume the food before it becomes unsafe to eat. That sounds scary, but — if you do your homework before shopping for lunch boxes and thermoses — it turns out to be very helpful.

By homework, I mean figure out what time of day you or your child will eat the food you pack. Now count backward to the time you pack the lunch. This is how long you need to keep the food hot or cold.

Not so long ago, that information wasn't much help. Parents could do little more than guess how long a thermos would keep soup hot or a lunch box (even with an ice pack) would keep food cold. That has changed. Today, a growing number of manufacturers are rating their products so consumers know how long they can hold a temperature.

Lands End (www.landsend.com), for example, says its soft-sided lunch boxes maintain refrigerator temperatures for five hours (with an ice pack). The Foogo stainless-steel food jar from Thermos (www.thermos.com) keeps things cold for seven hours and warm for five.

One tip about thermoses — before putting food in them, always prime them to be hot or cold, depending on the temperature you want to maintain. Packing soup? Fill the thermos with boiling water for a few minutes to heat it up, then dump the water and add the soup. Filling it with yogurt? Toss the empty thermos in the freezer for a few minutes.

Go organic

I'm not talking about the food. If you don't like plastic but don't want metal, don't worry. There is a buffet of lunch-box gear made from all manner of earth-friendly substances.

ReUseIt.com, for example, sells cloth napkins woven from a blend of hemp and organic cotton to help you have what it calls a "litter-free lunch." Just think of all the paper towels and napkins you won't need to buy (or put in a landfill).

To goware (www.rei.com) sells a set of bamboo utensils — fork, knife, spoon and (of course) chopsticks, as well as a recycled carrying case. The benefit here isn't just that the utensils are eco-friendly. Bamboo also happens to be very lightweight and perfect for kids' little hands.

If you prefer bags over boxes, there's an eco option for you, too. LunchSkins (www.lunchskins.com) is one of many companies that sell reusable sandwich bags to help you avoid the disposable plastic variety. Their bags come in snack, sandwich and sub sizes, and are made from dishwasher-safe, food-safe fabric. They also come in a variety of funky designs.

J.M. Hirsch blogs about his son's packed lunches at www.lunchboxblues.com.

Shopping in the land of bentō boxes

For those looking for lunch-box items in Japan, here are some outlets that offer similar products.

Kobo Aizawa has a range of stainless-steel containers with compartments and stainless-steel bentō boxes (including some handy stacking ones) at www.kobo-aizawa.co.jp.

Bento&co offer all manner of stylish, cute and novelty bentō boxes at www.bentoandco.jp. You can find containers made from plastic, cedar wood, bamboo, stainless steel, even titanium, and it's also a great place for other goods such as chopsticks, wrapping cloths, bentō bags and isothermal bags.

Endurance stainless steel straws are available in double packs of four at www.amazon.co.jp.

Thermos Japan has its own online store of flasks at www.thermos.co.jp. (Mio Yamada)

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