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Posted on Sep 15, 2008 in Equipment, For Kids, Organize, Parent Hacks, Tips | 47 comments

Six ways to make sure your lunch gear comes home

Six ways to make sure your lunch gear comes home


Labeled bento boxA common concern I hear from parents is, “How do you make sure your kid brings back all of those cute bento containers? I’m afraid to send anything expensive to school as my child would lose his own head if it weren’t attached to his body. I’ve lost so much stuff!”

I hear you! Even my husband sometimes forgot to bring lunch containers back home when I was sending lunch to work with him during his celiac disease misdiagnosis. Unwashed containers would age in his desk, until I asked him to start washing (or at least rinsing) them out after he ate. Even then, if he brought a large lunch container such as a Mr. Bento-style thermal lunch jar with him, he’d put it under his desk or in a drawer and forget about it when he came home. Out of sight, out of mind.

I think there are both hardware and behavior approaches to the problem, and came up with the following six ways to ensure that your lunch gear comes back home. Have you come up with any creative ideas? Let us know in comments! (Read on for the full list and an expanded section on labels.)

  1. Label everything (bento box, utensils, lunch box or bag, oshibori hand towel case, side dish containers) with durable dishwasher-safe labels that’ll stand up to repeated washings. This won’t prevent someone from accidentally throwing away a container, but it might help you recover something misplaced or taken by accident. Many lunch bags look the same! More on labels is below.
  2. Pack a 100% waste-free lunch so that there’s no trip to the trash can at all. No trip to the garbage, less chance of lids, sauce containers, or utensils getting thrown away by accident.
  3. Go cheap. Use cheap containers for everyday school lunches if your child tends to forget lunch gear. Losing a $1 box from Target, Ichiban Kan or Daiso is going to hurt a lot less than losing a $25 Totoro box you special-ordered online.
  4. Send a lunch with fewer moving parts to lose. If you notice a problem with lost lunch gear, multi-box sets such as the nesting/stacking bento boxes may not be the best solution for you. Put everything into a larger one-tier box instead, and use edible dividers instead of plastic food cups to keep dishes separate. Look into sauce containers with flip-top caps instead of screw-top to reduce the number of parts, and use a single fork or pair of chopsticks instead of multiple cute food picks if you want to get the picks back.
    • Lidded containers for the absentminded lunch-packerUse containers with attached lids for the truly forgetful. My friend Virginia with three children swears by these, as her kids tend to lose lids at school. Although they’re small and not watertight, the lids on the containers shown at right won’t come loose and get lost in the lunchroom (source: plastic containers US$1.50 from Daiso, tiny metal Smarties candy suitcase US$1 from Target in their specialty candy section). If you’re crafty, you could fashion a DIY method to attach separate lids, or use regular tape to create a temporary leash connecting lid and base. Regular tape might not be durable, but it would serve as a loose reminder to keep the lid nearby. For the crafty among you, how would you propose making a little “leash” that would attach to a bento box/lid, be attractive and durable enough to withstand washings? Let us know in comments!
  5. Involve your child when choosing their lunch gear. Take your children with you to help pick out their own lunch containers and insulated lunch bags, and give them input within reason. If they’re so excited about the fire engine lunch bag they can’t see straight, odds are good they’ll try harder to remember to bring it home. When I was a kid, I remember being tempted to conveniently “lose” a lunchbox that I didn’t like…
  6. Use a minor reward system with your child to get them vested in bringing everything home. Make a chart with stickers, let them earn a piece of gum or their choice of music in the car if they remember everything for a week, etc. — whatever works for you and your family. Give them an incentive to bring everything back.

Label maker and bento box


When I was new to school labeling, a friend had her mother send us both pricey custom-made labels from Japan that had a drawing of your choice on the label as well as the child’s name, so even a pre-reading child would be able to recognize their own label. Of course there are English-language sources for customized labels too, including one that I tested out: Lovable Labels. They’ve got stick-on labels for lunch gear, iron-on labels for clothing, no-iron stickers for clothing, shoe labels, bag tags, metal tags, medical & vital ID wristbands, etc.Lovable Labels A good one-stop shop for back-to-school labels.

This reminds me of something REALLY clever that I ran across recently. Evidently there are colorful temporary tattoos for kids that you can customize with your cell phone number or other information for any number of alerts: a lost child (think amusement parks or school outings), food allergies, medical alerts, etc. The website is I’m not affiliated with them, but think that this is an excellent idea, especially following the scare we had with my mentally disabled relative who went missing for a while in San Francisco this past spring.

Anyway, I finally plunked down the cash for a reasonably priced label maker at Costco so that I could print my own labels for my son’s school supplies going forward. Have you seen the lists of back-to-school gear that parents are expected to buy and label? It’s endless! I used a cartridge of laminated label tape to print a test label for one of Bug’s bento boxes, and ran it through the microwave and dishwasher numerous times to see if it could stand up to the punishment. No problem — the label stayed on. I figure this is a more economical way of labeling the mountain of Bug’s lunch gear that I’ve accumulated for the website. Your mileage may vary! Much neater than Sharpie marker, anyway, which rubs off of lunch gear with repeated use.

By the way, my son’s actual clothing and lunch gear labels don’t say “Bug” on them. They have his real name, but I printed out a “Bug” test label for photos for his online privacy. (Disclosure: The Amazon and Lovable Labels links are affiliate links that support Lunch in a Box at no additional cost when you use them to shop.)



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  1. hi, i live in the east bay area. if i come into the city what store has the best selection of bento stuff? thanks heather

  2. Oh I want one of those label makers. For more things than my bentos ;). Labelling should help with ORDER. I’m organising at the moment. A label maker should help. I got a totoro box (yep couldn’t help myself - someone smack me) came with a label neatly noted namae in japanese (name in english).
    Also got a man’s bento box. Why is it that women’s and children’s bentos are in neat colours and men’s are in black, dark blue and just, well, plain boring?

  3. Label makers = lifesavers.

  4. Yay Ichiban Kan! I have no more fear of losing my cute gear (which I did several times last year with the first-grader) because I know I can replace it fairly easily and cheaply.

    Of course, I now have much more bento gear than I know what to do with, also.

  5. Jessika, my thoughts will be maybe because men wouldn’t want a ‘neat’ bento box. My bf have to personally approve his esky (cooler box) items after I bought him a bright red lidded insulated mug. It was so neon it almost glowed. I thought that was the coolest thing ever! Apparently he didn’t think so. In fact, I have been banned from cutting veggies into cute shapes when packing his lunch. So now I’m stuck with packing my man just ho-hum masculine lunches. =(

  6. We love Lovable Labels. They hold up really well.
    Muffin is ADHD, we’ve just discovered, so we’re totally experienced with years of “lost item” syndrome. The other thing we do is she has one insulated shoulder strap lunch bag that all the bento stuff goes in — everything including water bottle. Then at lunch everything goes right back in. It’s a brightly colored bag that’s instantly recognizable as hers. Shoulder strap means one less thing to set down and forget to pick up. She just tosses it over her shoulder and her hands are free for other things.

  7. WOW! I need these lovable labels for me! I am always losing things.

  8. I thought the putifresh bentos at ichiban were so cute and there was one of each for my kids assigned colors (oldest has red everything, next green, next blue, youngest yellow) but I didn’t want them to have “putifresh” written big on their box because around here puti isn’t a good word (I won’t elaborate).
    So, I got out my labelmaker (same one you pictured) and made a nice large label to go over the “putifresh”. We can still see that if we eat these we will become fortunate all together! That’s what my kids thought was cute anyway.
    The labels do stay on very well.

  9. Another good custom label maker — — mabel’s labels

    I like Mabel’s b/c there’s no ironing with the clothes stickers (iron? what’s an iron?) — and they do stick thru the washing machine, dishwasher - they even have shoe stickers that haven’t come off the kids’ shoes - despite repeated dunkings in the lake/stream, pool, etc. But there is an exchange rate charge on the credit card b/c they’re out of canada.

  10. It’s not the nicest of solutions but I’ve learned that the ONLY way to be sure that the kids stuff comes home is to encourage them to use their lunchbox as a trash recepticle on the way OUT of lunch - Since they don’t feel a need to hit the trash can [though the 10yo often does without a problem] they just shove everything in their lunchbox when they’re in a hurry - so occassionally I have to clean out a lunch bag with a little leftover yogurt stickiness, or toss out a little food they’ve leftover, it still works out better for me [although they do each have one spare lunch bag to use in case I need to REALLY wash theirs out and it's still wet next day!]

  11. We love the labels from They survive the dishwasher! I have labels that have been on tippy cups for ten years!

    But I do love my label maker too!

  12. We don’t have kids, but we’ve been packing bentos. I find that having a “kit” makes it easy to remember things. We use the Nissan Thermos version of the Mr. Bentos, and you can’t put them back together unless all the lids are on and all the parts are there. We haven’t lost one yet. My pre-bento tupperware, on the other hand, was a lost items disaster.

    The way I remember to bring it home with me is to loop my keys through its strap. If I can’t drive my car, I must be missing something…

    My husband, though, has banned me from labeling things after I wrote his name on his cooler lunch bag last year. I’m SO unhip…

  13. Just a follow up to the comment on Mabel’s Labels…. Lovable Labels also has a no-iron Clothing Dot! Check them out!

  14. They have label makers in the target back to school clearance!

  15. For labelling I use no-name bandaids — the plastic kind, not cloth — and a Sharpie. I cut the sticky part of the bandaid off and affix it to the lunch container, write the name on it with a Sharpie and we’re done.
    The bandaids last forever and go through the dishwasher and steam sterilizer. The Sharpie ink usually lasts for a few months, and if it fades I just write on the bandaid again.

    I’ve had my cheap-o bandaid labels last for years, through 2 kids and hundreds of dishwashing cycles.

  16. I’m not sure if it’s still popular, but decorating with duct tape use to be all the rage. If you have an unattached lid on a cheap plastic container, you could always just duct tape the whole box, with lid on, either cut around or leave untaped three sides of the lid, and then open it and wrap a thin piece of duct tape around the sticky part of the “hinge” tape. They make all sorts of coloured duct tape now, too, so you could even do it up in the kid’s favorite colour, provided their favorite colour isn’t something overly specific, like sea foam green or something.

  17. I’m not sure how well this would hold up, but I think that plastic lanyard lace and heavy duty epoxy (the kind meant for plastic to plastic gluing, I think that crazy glue wouldn’t hold) might work to make “lid leashes.”

  18. I’ve been looking for a good reliable label maker for awhile, so I’m totally adding that machine you pointed to my wishlist. ;) Don’t need it for bento labelling YET, but I do want it for other organizing projects in the kitchen and whatnot. :)

  19. The label maker is awesome and I could not live without it. I’ve been labeling for a very long time in some form or fashion.

    Bento… My life as a lunch packer revolves around Bento. Enjoyable post. Thanks!

  20. This may sound silly, but I just talked to my kids (and continue to reinforce) about being waste-free. Kids today are really tuned in to the environment, and completely “get” the idea of being earth-friendly. So far, both my 10-yo boy and my 8-yo girl haven’t lost a thing, and they are not necessarily the most careful of kids.

    Our school lunch program is absolutely horrible - even the trays are disposable, so the trash that builds up during lunch is eye-popping.

  21. @3 from Jessika: Hmm, I should probably refrain from commenting graphically about why Japanese men’s bento box colors are so boring… I do know that my husband isn’t crazy about colorful containers, but he does like the boring men’s colors and the stainless steel of the Nissan Thermos thermal lunch and food jars. The one cute thing he’ll stand for occasionally is the white collapsible sandwich case with Shinkansen on the top lid — he likes the bullet train.

  22. @5 from Wendy: Ichiban Kan and Daiso have had that effect for me as well — I don’t care if a cheapo container gets lost at school as I know I can replace it for under US$1.50.

  23. @6 from Gloria: I think I’d be a little concerned if my husband suddenly wanted “fabulous” and cute containers/lunches. Maybe he’d start giving me fashion and makeup advice too? ;-)

  24. @7 from snappiness: Nice tip on the brightly colored shoulder bag with a strap, snappiness! We’ll see how much of a problem Bug has once he’s in kindergarten (you know, the real world).

  25. @9 from Danika: Golly, now that you mention it, “Putifresh” would be a TERRIBLE thing in Latin cultures, wouldn’t it? Puti anything — fresh or not. Good use of your label-makers!

  26. @11 from Kathy Proctor: Thanks for the link to Mabel’s Labels, Kathy! I’ll have to check that one out. Lovable Labels has the no-iron clothing labels and shoe stickers too, BTW.

  27. @12 from cherie: Nice idea on using the lunchbox as a trash can if you’re sending along disposable wrappers. Similar to packing 100% waste-free lunch — eliminate the trip to the garbage can.

  28. @13 from Stephanie: Thanks for the link to Label Once, Stephanie! I’ll have to check it out. Both the labels from my label maker and Lovable Labels have survived the dishwasher so far too

  29. Hi Biggie, completed unrelated to this thread…

    I saw a post a while ago about takoyaki and that you had an electric takoyaki grill. Was this an appliance from Japan, and if so, how did you reconcile the voltage/wattage issue? I have an appliance (takoyaki) from Japan, but all the step down transformers I see online are huge, heavy, and impractical! What did you use?

  30. 6, Gloria & 26, Biggie, well, we are not talking pink glittery miss Kitty here. I want a bento box above 700 ml which isn’t pitch black. I’ve had problems finding them too, the bento boxes, I should say. I live in Sweden, they’re not entirely easy to come by. Recent purchases were on ebay.
    ANd as I said, I don’t have any big demands. I got one which was green bottom and white top with some pictured leafs on the top (560 ml). I would say that my coloured bentos are not over cute. The bottom colours can be green or something, then I have leaflet boxes, “tiered cord” boxes etc. But the ones for the higher contents are the ugliest. I need higher calory intake at times (gee, who’d have thought that you’d need something like that?!? ;) ). I like colour too though.
    Anyway, I’ll get over it.

  31. I need a higher calorie count also, and I either use my metal tiffin (bigger than a bento box) or just take along a large sidecar with my bento. Lots of bento sets can be found with two-tier box and matching single-tier — the two combined make a perfect larger bento set.

  32. Today I put a big post-it on my americanized sandwich-bento box with a note: I NEED THIS BACK, PLEASE.

    We’ll see how that works ;) Not returning boxes was how the boyfriend lost bento privileges before.

    I love labelers, too. Labelers, labelers, OCD-enablers :D

  33. @36, Snappiness. Now enter forgetfulness on my part. If I had kids I’d probably leave them around town ;). I am just searching for the perfect bento box and if it just boils down to colour, well then that’s an industrial coutry problem of high range isn’t it?? I have too done the extra jar thing and then found really good zip-lockies, so that I remember everything rather than piling and forgetting one jar in the fridge.

  34. Great tip on the Brother labelmaker, Biggie. I have a few containers that still have Brother labels and a faint but legible name from when I sent babyfood to daycare with my little huckleberry-and he’s almost 5 now! They survive the dishwasher very well, but might blacken in the dishwasher. My other favorite tool is a fine-point paint pen. Works great on metal, plastic and glass bottles & dishes and lasts way longer than a Sharpie. Survives the dishwasher and microwave fine. And you can use to label nylon lunchboxes too!

  35. Thank you so much for the information on the SafetyTats! My son is non-verbal autistic and we’ve be waffling over what to do when we go to Walt Disney World with the extended family in a few weeks. Now I have one less thing to worry about!

  36. @34 from ssb: When I bought my takoyaki maker off of eBay, it initially said that it was compatible with U.S. current. But when I actually got it, it was a regular Japanese model. I wound up just using it as is, keeping a close eye on it. I think it runs a wee bit hot, but not enough of an issue to go get a step-down transformer or anything. I did this with the rice cooker that I brought back here from Japan, but that was a little more sensitive and wound up burning the bottom of the rice a little. I’m more picky about rice, so after a few years (!) I replaced my rice cooker with a better model.

  37. @39 from tonik: Excellent tip on the fine-point paint pen, tonik! I’ll have to try that out for some of the soft-side lunchboxes we have.

  38. @40 from HezmanaGirl: So glad to hear you’ll found the SafetyTat link useful for your autistic son. That’s exactly the sort of thing that I worry about too!

  39. What about using zip ties? You’d need to punch holes in the lid and box, but that’d keep them together.

  40. So far, the labels I’ve loved most are the ones that come with Sanrio bento gear.

    They use a special 2-layer label: the bottom layer is white and you can write the name on it and then remove the wax paper on the back of the top layer, which is clear plastic. Smooth the top layer over the bottom layer and it seals in the writing, then remove the backing from the bottom layer and stick the finished label onto the box.

    These labels have survived rigorous washing for 2 1/2 years without fading at all. Unfortunately, you get ONE with each Sanrio item (which aren’t cheap to begin with). I’d love to get extra labels.

  41. everybody’s entry was so interesting I let my girl play a little too long in the tub (pruned fingers) oops!
    I needed the ideas though she will start Head Start (as we do not have preschool here) in 2009.

    I do agree about the bigger bentos they are not very colorful. I have a Mr. Bento, which is a Lovely grey on grey. I figure you have to sacrifice for more food and I will always know if something is missing since it doesn’t close right.

    I think I will need a labeling method just to make what she’ll have is hers. She already come home with weird things such as extra pair of socks. I had not figured out whose just yet. I also wanted to say I love the safetytats! I also thought that would be great for amusement parks and such. We have had several talks about wondering off away from mommy or walking too far away from the car when going to the store. Anyway, great advise!

  42. I forgot to say I love my labeler too! I have recently burnt out my screen (I think someone might have dropped it) but still works great!

  43. Jessika, I just ordered a bento from Amazon that is pretty big. It’s the Vivo kids size, with two layers. Each layer is 4.75 inches square, and 2 inches high, and comes is blue/green or pink/orange. One of the reviewers said it holds about 950 mL, but I don’t know for sure. That’s the kids’ size though, they also have a bigger one, three or four layers. Hasn’t arrived yet, so I can’t tell you how I like it, but it’s big!

  44. The labels are also great for freezing food. Unlike my handwritten masking tape labels which run or fall off, they are sure to last the season.

  45. I use Velcro to keep the lid and base together. I buy velcro strips, cut 2 squares of the rough side and use superglue to attach them to the base and lid. Then I use the soft strip as a leash between the lid and base

    • That’s an interesting approach, Katrina — you’re guaranteed to get all parts back that way!