The yogurt crime scene, or, why spending $70 for a lunch box no longer seems insane [Review of the PlanetBox]


Call me a curmudgeon, but I hate it when consumer products are designed to fail.

For me there is a certain quiet pleasure in having well-made things in my everyday life. You know, things that work well for their purpose, feel right in my hands, and are worthy and capable of being repaired, rather than just cast into the landfill. And so when I encounter things that don’t have those qualities–are badly made, badly designed for their purpose, and incapable of being repaired, I start to sputter with anger. Is it right that I feel personally insulted by poorly done products?

Probably not; my condition probably has a code in the DSM V. In any case it flared up this year when confronted with the subject of lunchboxes. Before my kid went to school I had no idea how revolting lunchboxes could be. I had visions of him traipsing along with one of those classy stackable things like in Eat Drink Man Woman (go to 1:55 in the video below).

Of course that wasn’t going to happen. Little kids want pictures, colors, logos, characters. So last year (kindergarten) we tried two kinds of lunch boxes that ended up raising my hackles.

First, one of those sewn nylon and vinyl lunch bags (perhaps $10 at the grocery store). We put the kid’s sandwich in a wax paper baggie in the bottom, and the added some fruit and yogurt and stuff in little plastic cups with screw lids. The yogurt was important to him; he eats a lot of it.

The result, by the time he came home, was a yogurt crime scene. The inside of the bag was splattered with the remnants of his yogurt, mixed into a kind of stinky stew with fragments of sandwich, apple, wax paper shards, etc. All that leftover food needed to be thrown away. And though in concept the bag could be washed out, it was a deeply unpleasant process, because the yogurt smell never quite went away.

Which led me to ask: what kind of kids do the people who design those lunchbags have? Maybe they are genetically engineered to be… superclean? and quiet to boot? with a taste for Merchant Ivory films instead of cartoons?

We soon switched to a conventional metal lunchbox (about $20 postpaid) which had the same problem of providing the perfect milieu for a mess, but was easier to clean. It lasted until the end of the school year, but just barely. There were rust spots on the unpainted inside. The rivets that held the sides to the back were failing, and one hinge of the plastic handle was hanging loose.

Now in concept this lunchbox was fixable. I could have used tiny machine screws to replace the rivets, and perhaps epoxy glue to re-attach the hinge. Those are the kind of things that plastic consumer products are usually too frail to stand, but even the cheapest metal usually has some repair route.

Still, I couldn’t see anyone wanting to eat a meal out of a frankensteined lunchbox. So my spouse went hunting on the Internet for something better, found it, and after spending a while disoriented by the price ($70 for the package described here, postpaid), ordered one. Several months later, I’m glad she did.

The Planetbox is a sturdy stainless steel clamshell, with compartments sized for sandwiches and other typical lunch items. It closes fairly neatly, and as a consequence most nonliquid foods will stay within their designated region without any need for wax paper, saran wrap, etc. For liquid foods (yogurt, applesauce, etc) the kit includes two “Dippers,” which are gasketed stainless steel tubs which fit into the compartments, and can seal when the clamshell is closed. (The picture above shows only the smaller Dipper.)

For decoration there are assorted magnets to apply to the outside, and for insulation and protection the whole thing gets placed in a soft laptop-like case, with pockets suited to a few additional items and a small thermos.

All in all I’d say it works well. Though I am skeptical of the environmental value of small lifestyle decisions like choice of lunchbox (housing, transportation, political, and utility choices are far more effective ways to reduce your environmental footprint), as a product and a design this is a good thing. The compartments provide an intuitive suggestion that lunch should include a variety of foods, and everything looks pretty good against the stainless steel material. There’s no need to keep waxed paper or other wrapping materials like that around. And cleaning is easy, as expected.

The most unexpected benefit has been wasting less food. The uneaten stuff arrives home neat and clean enough to use for snacks later on, and the spare yogurt is neatly contained in the Little Dipper. I would say the thing will pay for itself within a few more months, on that basis–but the kid just lost the Big Dipper, so if we replace it, the amortization period will have to be extended.

Anyway, the PlanetBox is a fairly satisfying product that has clearly been designed to last. Now I can spend my curmudgeonly energy on some other crime at the corner of Commerce and Design, and believe me, there are a lot of them. 🙂

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