You’ve made a resolution to stop spending so much money eating out, and you’ve turned your attention to one of the biggest culprits, your lunch. Sure, it’s nice having fresh food every day, but have you tried the feeling of a fatter savings account?
Lunch looks a little different for everyone, so choosing the right cooler can be tricky. You need to consider how much food to take, how many snacks, if you need storage for other things, and how much arm space you have to carry everything in the first place. You want a cooler that’s small enough to be portable for you, but not so small that you can’t get everything in without using your ice pack.
We’ve chosen our top favorites for best lunch coolers and given you some options for special circumstances that could fit your situation better. Plus, we’ve answered a few questions about how to choose the right lunch cooler in the first place. Let’s take a look.
How Do I Choose A Lunch Cooler?
Lunch coolers are different than your tailgating, camping cooler. They have to straddle the line between portability and storage. You’re carrying them into your work with all your other gear, so lugging a hard-sided cooler that requires both your hands probably isn’t going to work.
Soft-sided coolers are going to be your best bet because they’re automatically lighter than hard sided coolers. Soft-sided coolers that use high denier nylon or polyester fabrics for the exterior material are tear resistant and can withstand a lot of abuse you might give them if you commute with public transportation, for example.
Inside, closed cell insulation such as rubber, keep contents cold for hours or even days but can be more expensive. Cheaper insulation is lighter and more budget-friendly, but you may only get a few hours before everything is room temperature again.
Other features such as zippers and straps should be reinforced, but you may not need the expense of a heavy duty, watertight zipper if you’re just driving to and from work in your car. On the other hand, if you work outside, that extra expense could be worth it.
The interior should be heat sealed to prevent leaks and be made of food safe lining. Liners that have antimicrobial properties help resist mold and mildew plus stave off any lingering odors from food or moisture.
Capacity And Storage
Lunch coolers aren’t usually meant to be filled with ice, so you’re working with cooler packs. These packs are less messy than ice, but you don’t have as much leeway with how you pack, so you should make sure you have plenty of logical space to get all your food in alongside the pack.
Many lunch cooler companies sell cool packs specifically designed to complement their lunch coolers. While this isn’t necessary, it may make packing a lot easier if your cool pack fits perfectly with your lunch box.
Since you don’t have as much weight to consider with the cooler itself, you could go to a slightly larger size just to be sure you have enough room. You also have to consider how much storage you have on the outside of your cooler because everything you might need (a water bottle perhaps?) will have to go on the inside without any exterior storage.
Exterior storage is convenient because it keeps things accessible. You know you’ll be drinking from your water bottle all day long, so having a pocket for it keeps it within reach. Likewise, with any snacks you may want during the day that don’t need to be cold, they can go in exterior pockets to stay warmer and drier.
If you commute through public transit or by bike, having a waterproof cooler could help on days when the weather is less than ideal. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, having a cooler with more extreme insulation, could keep your lunch from disappointing you every day (at least, keep it from disappointing you in temperature. We can’t help your leftovers.)
If you take one meal during the day and you work in an office, your meal is probably protected, and a basic cooler is perfectly suitable. Shoulder straps are great features for almost everyone because whether you commute in your car, on public transit, or you spend all your time outdoors, you probably have things you’re doing with your hands that doesn’t include carrying your lunch around.
If you want your cooler to pull double duty as an ice bucket and a lunch cooler, some coolers include removable hard liners that can wrangle ice on the weekends when you need something to hold your cans.
How Do I Clean And Care For My Cooler?
You should never use harsh cleaners to clean out your lunch cooler. These cleaners can strip the lining from either the interior the exterior, leaving it more susceptible to degradation and wear and tear.
The best way to keep your cooler clean is to remove all food and ice packs each day and leave the lid undone so that moisture can safely evaporate without causing any odors or mildew. If something you pack for lunch happens to leak, wiping the spot clean with a paper towel or with a wet rag helps prevent staining and odors.
You shouldn’t throw your cooler in the washing machine either. Instead, spot clean with a bit of gentle dish soap and allow to air dry after you get everything taken care of. That goes for any staining and grime on the exterior of your cooler as well.
Be gentle with the zipper each time you open and close the lid of your cooler. Be sure to pull the zipper evenly in the direction it’s sewn and don’t yank the top open without opening the zipper first. Zippers are common weak points in lunch coolers, and although they keep cold in better than simple Velcro or buckles, they need extra care.
Do I Need To Prep My Cooler?
Standard lunch coolers need no preparation beyond remembering to put your cold packs in the freezer the night before. Some higher end soft-sided coolers or hard-sided coolers may need some prep work if you want to get the maximum expected ice retention.
Prepping a cooler involves bringing down the temperature of the insulation before you need it. The night before, add some ice to your cooler and seal the lid. In the morning, drain any excess water and top off with ice or add your ice pack. The insulation is already cold and ready to hold in temperature for the maximum amount of time you need. If you carry your cooler every day, you won’t need much prep work because it won’t ever be without something cold, but if you’ve stored it for longer than a day or two, you may want to prep it first.
Best Lunch Coolers
Our favorite lunch coolers are suited to carrying your lunch, a cold pack or two plus maybe some snacks. We chose based on capacity, durability, and overall weight, plus the ability to make sure your lunch stays cold for as long as you need it to. Let’s break everything down to find your perfect lunch cooler and start those savings rolling.
Our Top Pick – Yeti Hopper Flip 8
Go big or go home, right? Yeti’s legendary cooling comes to the lunch scene with this serious upgrade to your classic lunch cooler. It has an eight-can capacity and keeps food cold for up to 24 hours using a closed cell rubber foam, so you don’t worry about working overtime.
It features a durable, high denier exterior material that’s waterproof, tear resistant, and UV resistant. Storage on the front is modular because of a loop system that allows you to attach carabiners or other attachments for personalized storage. Plus, reinforced, heavy duty zippers (that are watertight) and shoulder straps ensure that this is a cooler you have for life.
It’s a bit expensive for a lunch cooler but investing in a Yeti is a lifetime affair. It has the chops to go from your work to the beach to that weekend fishing trip where it can take a beating and return to action on Monday with none the wiser.
- extra durable exterior
- modular outside storage
- waterproof (including zipper)
- not much organizational space
Best Budget Alternative – Igloo Outdoorsman Hardtop Gripper
Igloo’s personal cooler has two separate containers, one for cold storage and one for dry storage in the top. It uses a ripstop fabric to resist tearing and water. Plus, a heavy duty zipper opens the flip top so you can find everything you need.
The interior is leak resistant and uses an antimicrobial liner to resist mold and mildew and hold odors at bay. It fits plenty for lunch plus some snacks and has exterior storage with a small front pocket and two netted pockets on the side.
It’s under $50 and is suitable for a regular work shift with one large meal and some snacks or several smaller meals. Make sure you get an ice pack that’s genuinely compatible, so you aren’t wasting your storage on something that doesn’t feed you.
- dual zone storage
- good exterior storage
- ice packs are tricky
- on the smaller side
Best Medium Lunch Cooler – Coleman 24 Hour 9-Can Cooler
Coleman’s 9-Can cooler keeps food cold for up to 24 hours, giving you plenty of leeway with your workday. It features an exterior ripstop fabric that resists tearing and is also water resistant. It has a zippered compartment for your primary storage and a smaller front pocket to wrangle accessories or snacks.
Inside, heat welded seams prevent leaks and help lock in the cold more efficiently. The liner is food safe and antimicrobial, which reduces mold and mildew that can cause odors. The insulation is enough to lock in temps for up to a day, provided you’ve got your cold packs, and the shoulder strap is padded and adjustable for a comfortable carry.
The best part is that it comes in under $20 for a large cooler, is solid enough to carry a meal or two plus snacks and that won’t fail if you end up working longer than you planned to. Those of you who work 12-hour shifts regularly won’t have gaps in your meal planning.
- very affordable
- 24-hour cold retention
- durable exterior
- no water bottle storage
- the zipper could be more durable
Best Extra Large – Otterbox LT 30
Otterbox makes some heavy-duty coolers, so if you’re packing a lot for the day or you often have a longer than a standard workday, this one could be the answer. It’s convertible from a standard shoulder carry to a backpack style and has a wide-mouthed opening so you can find everything you need quickly.
It’s a 30-quart capacity cooler made with TPU coated nylon that’s puncture, UV, and water resistant. The inside uses food safe material for the liner plus premium-grade thermal insulation that can keep ice cold for up to three days.
The base is reinforced to prevent snagging or abrasions, and there are exterior accessory mounts on the front to carry things like GPS or other carabiner accessories. There’s even a bottle opener for weekend use. It’s durable, large, and should be able to withstand shifts of 24 hours or longer, especially if you spend a lot of those shifts in your truck or the outdoors.
- large capacity
- shoulder and backpack carry
- three-day ice retention
- somewhat heavy for a soft sided cooler
Best Extended Temp Cooler – RTIC Softpak
RTIC’s Softpak line can keep your food and drink cold for up to five days with the right circumstances and preparation. That’s right, five. Those of you who never know where your work day is going to take you may find this cooler satisfies your needs.
The cooler has a rough and tough nylon shell that’s puncture resistant and waterproof plus an interior antimicrobial liner that resists mold and odors. Closed cell insulation provides highly efficient temperature retention with no leaks or weak spots. The zipper is waterproof and durable on its own, while the shoulder strap is comfortable and adjustable.
It has a wide flip top that gives you easy access to all your contents, and the exterior is sweat proof. The smallest version doesn’t have any external storage, you have to go up in size for that, but overall, it’s an efficient and long-lasting cooler.
- holds cold for up to five days
- no sweat exterior
- durable material
- poor external storage.
Bonus! Best Hard-sided Personal Cooler – Yeti Roadie
If you’re in your vehicle a lot, you may want a cooler that can stand up to the environment. Small hard sided coolers fit well in this situation, and you can use them as an extra seat or to stack things without worrying about crushing your food.
The Yeti Roadie can stand up to the abuse and keep coming back for more. It has a roto-molded exterior that holds insulation and is crack resistant even when dropped or banging against the tools in your truck. The interior has three inches of pressure injected insulation that can keep ice cold for up to seven days.
The handle and latches are reinforced and built to withstand a lot of handing. The hinges are molded to the body and lid and overlap to prevent slipping or failing. No slip feet help prevent slippage even when you’re on the move.
To get the most out of your cooler, make sure you prep it if it’s been a day or two since you’ve had ice in it. Fill it with some ice and leave it overnight, draining excess water the next morning and topping off with fresh ice. When you do this, you should get the maximum ice retention that can carry you through multiple work days.
- ultra tough exterior
- maximum ice retention
- hard sided to withstand some knocks
Your lunch cooler needs to fit your unique needs for your workday. Whether that’s an air-conditioned eight-hour day, a 12 to 24-hour shift with lots of rushing, or a unique situation that sends you outdoors, there are plenty of options that can satisfy those needs. Considering how much storage you need and how long you need things to stay cold prevent you from getting a cooler that just doesn’t work.
If you’re ready to invest for your lifetime, you can get a higher end lunch cooler that can last for years despite your circumstances. If you’ve got a reasonably uneventful job, you may not need so much firepower (so to speak) and a budget option could work just fine. Your lunch cooler can help you meal prep, save money, and avoid scrounging for donuts in the break room during a snack attack. Reinvent your lunchtime with the right cooler and take back your day.