How to keep food warm until lunch time
October 3, 2014 8:35 AM   Subscribe

My oldest son is in elementary school and he and I are already sick of sandwiches for lunch. In daycare he could bring leftovers and reheat them there, but there is no microwave at this elementary school. So I need something to keep food warm for him until lunch time (~12:30).

So when I think of "keeping food warm in lunches" I think of thermoses, but, I also think of those as mostly for soup (which he has an odd dislike of). Plus the couple I've seen in stores seem small. Though he's young, he can eat, and will often eat almost a full size adult portion for lunch, so I would want something big enough to hold enough food, but also small enough fit in his lunch box (preferably). Also, I'm leery of just buying any brand, because I know from my travel mugs that the amount of time they keep things warm for is very very variable. Additionally, he tends to have an ice pack in his lunch box to keep his milk/other foods cold, so I'm not sure hot to balance the cold/hot aspects within the lunch box and not have them cancel each other.

So, I'm turning to you all. What do you use (either for yourself or your children) to get hot meals at lunch without access to a microwave or other cooking appliances?
posted by katers890 to Food & Drink (27 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Thermos jars! This is a whole thing!

Thermos FOOGO Stainless Steel Food Jar is 10 oz.

Thermos Stainless King 16-Ounce Food Jar is 16 oz. Might be a bit harder for little hands to open.

Bonus tip: fill the thermos with boiling water while you're heating his food in the morning. Then dump out the water, and put in the hot food. The water helps to pre-heat the container so there isn't as much heat loss.

Food will definitely be hot at lunchtime.

Hand-washing is recommended to keep the thermos insulation intact.
posted by barnone at 8:39 AM on October 3, 2014 [8 favorites]

Mr. Bento works perfectly for this. You can keep hot food hot and cold food cold, there are separate containers designed for each. No ice packs needed.
posted by Bretley at 8:39 AM on October 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just buy the elementary school a Microwave. They're cheap. And it's probably tax deductible.
posted by jeffamaphone at 8:41 AM on October 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Mr Bento is pretty great but there are a lot more parts to it than there are in a regular kiddie lunchbox/thermos combo, so I would only go this route if your kid is good at keeping track of his possessions.
posted by poffin boffin at 8:52 AM on October 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would avoid trying to keep things hot, and instead go with other creative things that aren't sandwiches and can be eaten at room temperature. I will actually eat many leftovers at room temperature very happily -- things like pizza, many pasta dishes, roasted vegetabes, etc. can all be good. There are also lots of excellent cookbooks with creative lunch ideas that aren't plain old PB&J that you might check out--Best Lunch Box Ever is one I like, but you could also stop by the library and check out a selection of them to see what appeals to your taste/cooking preferences/etc.
posted by rainbowbrite at 9:09 AM on October 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

What kinds of foods are you thinking of? For what it's worth, my son eats leftovers almost every day at school and they're always cold or room temp. Some foods are gross cold, and we do have a wide-mouthed Thermos we occasionally use, but the room temp thing works for us. I was a bento box geek before I even had him so I had some choices to hand to start with, but regular leak-proof containers come in a variety of form factors, some of which should fit in his lunch box.

(Lunchtimes are so short at my local elementary school that I wouldn't want the kids spending a single extra minute reheating their food.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:14 AM on October 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

My kid likes pasta/sauce/meatballs in his thermos jar. Doesn't have to be soup.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:30 AM on October 3, 2014

Response by poster: So not to threadsit too much, but just eating leftovers cold isn't going to work. So far we've only managed to convince him that pizza can be eaten cold and everything else he won't go for. And as far as being creative with cold food, we are trying that, but that takes effort and time, both of which we are running short on currently. Leftovers are the best of all worlds because they take no extra time and we know he likes them.

For people using the thermos jar, that 10oz seems so very small, especially when you think of putting chunkier things like pasta in it instead of soup. He really does eat a lot (and is not overweight at all, actually he has no fat at all, so I want to keep giving him all the food he wants)...
posted by katers890 at 9:33 AM on October 3, 2014

I would personally be very, very skeptical about the bacteriological soundness of single-serve food portions kept warm for a few hours in a lunchbox-sized container.
posted by flabdablet at 9:41 AM on October 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

When I was a kid I hated school lunches. My grandmother would pack leftovers in a thermos and they would be nice and warm for lunch. Not soup either. Rice and chicken or whatever. I don't remember eating cold food.
posted by mokeydraws at 9:46 AM on October 3, 2014

If the 10oz is too small, maybe pack two of them? And here's a 16oz that seems like a slightly smaller form factor. It's a pound of food, surely that and a piece of bread or fruit or crackers will hold him from lunch until after school.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:53 AM on October 3, 2014

Best answer: My kid uses the Fogo 10oz thermos. Just to give you an idea, it fits about 2/3 of a can of soup. Or I put pasta or beans in there and apparently they're still hot by lunchtime. If you're kid is older than mine (10), you may want the king size but I do soup or pasta, fruit, bread and a cookie and that seems to be a big enough lunch.
posted by biscuits at 9:55 AM on October 3, 2014

And as far as being creative with cold food, we are trying that, but that takes effort and time, both of which we are running short on currently.

I'm really lazy and short on time, and also hate sandwiches - what works for me is making a meal out of a bunch of snacks that don't need to be prepared. Little creativity required and most things can be bought in single-serve packages. Just grab a bunch of them out of the fridge and/or pantry. It's really minimal effort to assemble - I do it every morning in less than 5 minutes. Plus then you can adjust for different appetites, and leftovers can easily be reused the next day.


-baby carrots or other chopped raw veggies, with hummus or creamy dip, or just on their own. Can be bought in ready-to-eat sized pieces.
-boiled eggs
-nuts or seeds (may not be allowed at his school)
-dried fruit (apples, apricots, dates, pears, prunes, anything really)
-fresh fruit
-packaged fruit or applesauce cups
-cheese with crackers, or baguette slices, or on its own
-meat jerky
-cottage cheese
-yogurt and granola (or on its own). Can buy individual sizes or portion out a big tub.
-granola bars
-etc etc (lots of good askmefi threads on this topic, for more ideas)

Cold salads are another leftovers option, although they may not work for kid tastebuds. Things like bean salads or quinoa salads can be hearty and tasty even served cold.
posted by randomnity at 10:01 AM on October 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I've got a 16 oz food jar from Thermos, which works well for a large portion. There's also Ms. Bento, a slightly smaller and cheaper version of Mr. Bento, which contains a decent amount of food when fully packed.

I'll also recommend the blog Lunch Box Blues, which is by an AP food editor who packs lunches for his son daily, some hot, some cold. He often uses the Thermos for part of the meal: heats up meat and puts it into a thermos for his kid to use to assemble into sandwiches or tacos with tortillas or taco shells packed with it. He's also got a post about how to pick a Thermos.
posted by telophase at 10:53 AM on October 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The thermos jars go up to 24 oz.

I have one of the 16 oz. jars that I use to bring leftovers for lunch each day because I hate standing in line for the microwave. The 16 oz. fits the portions of pasta or chili or whatever that I eat, but my appetite might match your son's. The only downside is that even though the mouth is quite wide, maneuvering hot foods into it can get a bit messy.
posted by capsizing at 11:00 AM on October 3, 2014

My mother used to put a cooked hot dog and its cooking water in a thermos along with a bun and small containers of condiments in my lunchbox. I'm 46 years old old and, to this day, it's one of my favorite childhood memories.
posted by _Mona_ at 11:10 AM on October 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My kids use the 16oz thermos in barnone's comment. We've had them for two years and they are still going strong. At first I thought they were a little small, but they hold a surprising amount. I put leftovers in them at least 3-4 times a week for the kids and they work well to keep things hot. I warm the thermos with boiling water before putting the food in. My kids love the little folding spoons that come with the thermos and, amazingly, haven't lost them.
posted by Cuke at 11:13 AM on October 3, 2014

My son uses this 9.6 oz Crocodile Creek thermos and although it sounds small it seems to be plenty of food for him, he never reports being hungry. (I also pack chopped veggies and other stuff with his lunch to supplement.)

I also spend about an hour on Sunday getting lunch box "things" ready to go - so, like 5 different veggies in 5 containers; 5 fruits selected and washed or otherwise made ready to go (except if they need cut; I always cut them the morning of), 5 snacks set aside (we have to send both snack and lunch), etc. Then I make a list of what's available and post it to the fridge, and my kid and I decide each morning what's going in his lunch box, then he packs the "sides" (and crosses them off the list) and I pack the main meal (sandwich, reheats, whatever). It goes a lot faster on school mornings, and he has more say about what's in his lunch.
posted by anastasiav at 11:28 AM on October 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

I wonder if there's a way to do some kind of Sous-vide thing?

But then there's also this:
posted by doctor tough love at 11:30 AM on October 3, 2014

I think this might be too big, but Crock-Pot make what a mounts to a mini-version. If the school would be okay with the housing sticking around, the actual food container comes out for toting back and forth. But if it doesn't work for him, maybe someone with similar lunch-time needs looking at the question might find it useful.
posted by Su at 11:46 AM on October 3, 2014

Best answer: I send my kids with Thermoses all the day. I put in fillings for tacos (which they assemble). Hot dogs or hamburger patties (also need to assemble). I send stew, casseroles, Shepherd's pie, quiche, frittata, pasta. I have even put in hot mini doughnuts or pancakes for a child who has allergies and was in a class that was having all those.

I have not sourced it yet, but I have been thinking of investigating whether those pizza delivery bags that pizza shops have could work for larger amounts - maybe there is a smaller version? And a friend wondered if maybe I could use those hand warmers you use in the winter on occasion. (I am not looking to generate waste, but managing my kids' emotional health sometimes reduces strain on the public system in other ways.)
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:58 AM on October 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Maybe not for an everyday thing, but how about self-heating meals? (MRE's)
posted by Sophont at 12:23 PM on October 3, 2014

I have used a Klean Kanteen thermos for years, and it keeps coffee piping hot nearly all day (like, will scald myself at noon if I don't let it cool with the lid off first thing in the morning).

They now sell vacuum insulated food canisters that might work for you: . The website says it keep contents hot up to 3 hours. My experience with the thermos is much longer than that.
posted by slipthought at 12:46 PM on October 3, 2014

I am going to second the suggestion of buying the school a microwave. Maybe mention it at a PTA meeting. That way, you can store the meal cold, and heat it up just when he is ready to eat.
The biggest stumbling block with this may be cleaning: the school be hesitant to accept it because no one wants to take on cleaning duties.
posted by troytroy at 5:44 AM on October 4, 2014

My mom routinely sent me to school with a thermos of hot pasta when I was a kid. It was not quite enough food so I also had some sides like carrot sticks, string cheese, etc. I know you'd rather send a large enough serving of hot food, but this seems to be a very easy and accessible second best solution.
posted by telegraph at 10:11 AM on October 4, 2014

Depending on the school district, they may not be allowed to accept a microwave due to food safety and handling issues. In our district kitchens that are used to prepare student food must meet the same kitchen standards as restaurant kitchens. That's expensive and won't fly in our school.

10 oz servings are a reasonable size, considering your child will have max 20 minutes to eat it. I always put cold sides such as bread and butter to supplement lighter calorie meals. Fruit is also included as a side for a snack. You may also find a school compatible Clif bar to be a good supplement to lower calorie leftovers. This allows variety in the leftovers, a small pack if you use sandwich bags for the sides, and an appropriate amount of food every day.
posted by crazycanuck at 1:24 PM on October 4, 2014

If you're using a thermos and want to avoid the danger zone, I'd definitely echo the advice in the lunch box blues article telophase linked: make sure that you heat the thermos itself, so the food doesn't cool down much when you add it too it, and put food in that is much warmer than 140 degrees F so that it has a longer thermal trip before it reaches the 140 mark and the 2-4 hour danger zone time limit begins ticking. You might also consider packing with a gel-based hot/cold pack to help keep it warm longer.
posted by Aleyn at 4:02 PM on October 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

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