Remember the metal lunchboxes of yesteryear? The ones with Blondie and Dagwood, Holly Hobbie, the Flintstones or Strawberry Shortcake?
The kind that by the end of the school year had a thin layer of rust on the hinges and scuffs on the outer edges?
Lunchboxes have come a long way since then, baby.
Wander down any retailer's back-to-school aisle and you'll be met with a dizzying array of lunch sacks, totes, boxes and bags. There's insulated, recycled, upcycled, BPA-free and phthalate-free. They clip onto or tuck into backpacks; some can even be rolled up.
Yahoo! searches for "best kids lunchboxes" are spiking as some parents and children get a head start this back-to-school season. Top lunchbox searches on Yahoo! include Hello Kitty, Star Wars and Justin Bieber.
Two continuing trends are eco-friendliness and safety, and Japanese bento-style boxes also are huge, said Yahoo! Shine parenting expert Charlene Prince Birkeland.
And while some parents bemoan shelling out money for totes that could easily be replaced by a bag of brown paper lunch sacks for a fraction of the cost, the lunchboxes and bags of today are worth it to many others.
"They're more durable," said Birkeland, a Bay Area mother of two. "The more durable the lunchbox, the longer they're going to last in your kids' school cycle."
Given the bevy of lunch-carrying bounty to choose from, I struck out to find some of the coolest and cutest options this back-to-school season.
For tips and ideas on what to pack for lunch, check out my story in Wednesday's Food & Wine section.
Now, let's do lunch.
Two Lumps of Sugar lunch sack, $5.95
The insulated sack, made from nonwoven recycled material, functions like a brown paper bag food can stack upright, easily shoved into a backpack but it is infinitely more sophisticated. It includes a carrying handle and a clever little holder inside the flap closure to hold identification information or a business card. Perfect for all ages.
Find here: Mixed Bag, 405 K St., Sacramento; Bed, Bath and Beyond locations; Foothill Mercantile, Grass Valley; Hollywood Hardware, Sacramento; www.twolumpsofsugar.net.
bobble lunchbox, $12.99
Last year, bobble launched a mini version of its signature water filtration bottle with a multicolored filter specifically designed to encourage children to drink more water. The bobble lunchbox, which comes with a mini bobble, was the logical next step, wrote Stephanie Smiedt, the company's creative director, in an email interview.
"We wanted to produce a beautiful and sustainable lunchbox alternative for kids," she said.
There are two versions: a soft-cooler pack made with insulated lining to keep food chilled, and a hard-case lunchbox inspired by a bento box.
The futuristic look of the hard-case bobble lunchbox is appealing and the compartments would easily fit a crustless sandwich and cut-up fruit, but we think it's too confining for children with bigger appetites.
Find here: Target.
Skip Hop Zoo Lunchies
These insulated lunch bags made to resemble cartoon-esque depictions of animals are so cute your kids may want to play with them more than carry a lunch in them. Options include bee, dog, elephant, frog, fox, owl, monkey, mouse, penguin and zebra.
The bags have a clever netting on the inside to hold down an ice pack or whatever else you may want to separate, and a space to write the child's name.
They also correspond to backpacks in parallel animal designs.
Find here: www.skiphop.com/product/ zoolunchies.html
Jane Jenni Cabin Fever insulated lunch bag, $18.95
Could there be anything cuter than a young child toting his lunch in a log- cabin lunchbox? I didn't think so either.
My soon-to-be-kindergartner begged me to keep this lead-free, PVC-free, phthalate-free bag as soon as he saw it. The only drawback is that it has a zipper top, so if your child has trouble with zips, you may want to pass. Otherwise, it's a clever, cute addition to any lunch table.
Find here: Mixed Bag, Sacramento, or online at www.janejennishop.com
Yak Pak plaid lunch bag and skull lunch case, $17.99
Plaids and conversational hearts are hot for girls' back-to-school fashion. For boys, it's all about colorful graphics and skateboard-inspired styles, according to Kohl's buyers.
And why not incorporate those popular styles into lunchtime? Yak Pak did. Its plaid lunch bag looks more like a cute girls handbag than a lunchbox, and the paint-splattered skull lunch case is quite cool.
Find here: Kohl's.
Goodbyn Original, $24.95, and Goodbyn Bynto, $15.95
Given that an average household spends $190 on plastic bags and drink boxes per child each school year, it's easy to see the appeal of the Goodbyn Original and Goodbyn Bynto. The sectioned sealing compartments eliminate the need for plastic baggies and can definitely come in handy if you have a child (or adult for that matter) who doesn't like different foods to touch.
"There really is no other lunchbox that you can fit a full apple inside of and a banana as well, and keep the flavors separate," said Erin Franczyk, co-founder of Goodbyn, based in Naperville, Ohio.
Goodbyn Bynto is simply a smaller version of Goodbyn Original. Both versions are dishwasher safe; free of BPAs, phthalates and lead; and can be recycled. They also come with hundreds of stickers, so children can personalize them.
Find here: www.goodbyn.com; Me Gusta Baby, 895 Lincoln Way, Auburn; The Wooden Spoon, 12066 Nevada City Highway, Grass Valley.
TerraCycle Capri Sun rectangular lunchbox, $14.99
Those Capri Sun juice pouches your kids have been sucking down all summer long are the makings of a lunchbox.
TerraCycle recycles or upcycles, as it's come to be known traditionally nonrecyclable waste (drink pouches, chip bags, toothbrushes and more) into a variety of consumer products.
Children and youths can also start a TerraCycle Brigade to collect trash, send it in, and earn cash for their school. For every piece of packaging the company receives, the brigade will get two points, which can be used toward a charity gift or converted to money and used for a charity or the school (www.terracycle.net). Win-win, right?
The lunchbox itself is surprisingly aesthetically appealing, and has ample space for food and a small ice pack. It also squishes down nicely to fit in a backpack once the lunch is gone.
Find here: www.terracycleshop.com.
Envirosax Kids eco-friendly bags, $8.50
These lead-free reusable polyester bags can be used to tote lunches, and when lunch is over, they can be folded and rolled up into a roughly 3-inch tube. The bags can hold up to 44 pounds.
"It can go into their backpack and take up no space, plus they'd have an extra bag if they needed to carry books or other things home," said Susan Larson, owner of Mixed Bag in Sacramento.
The cute prints are made by sublimation, meaning they won't fade and are hand-washable.
The kids line comes in an array of colors and styles. The boys designs, which include a robot and a rocket ship, are especially cool.
Find here: Mixed Bag, Sacramento, and www.envirosax.com