What Is an Electric Lunch Box?

A Guide to Buying and Using an Electric Lunch Box

Hot lunch in a container

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Anyone who works in an office knows that what to have for lunch is always a matter of great interest. Will you bring your lunch from home? Eat out? Reheat last night's dinner leftovers in the microwave?

All of these are fine options, and if your company provides lunch or has an on-site cafeteria, you have still more choices. But for most folks, unless you want to spend a fortune on lunch every day, you've got to bring your lunch from home.

These days there's a wide array of bento-style lunch boxes available, as well as all sorts of insulated containers that make it possible to keep hot food warm for a few hours. But the one thing these products don't let you do is to take cold food and heat it up, right in the container. For that, you need an electric lunch box.

What Is an Electric Lunch Box?

An electric lunch box is a portable container that you fill with food, plug in somewhere (like at your desk at work), and somewhere between 30 minutes and two hours later, the food inside is piping hot.

Some of them are like tiny, desktop crock pots. In fact, the company that makes the Crock Pot also makes an electric lunch box. But the most common style is something that more closely resembles a bento box that you plug in, with one or two separate compartments inside. The food trays are removable with the heating element situated underneath. The trays themselves are either plastic or stainless steel, and some of them come with their own eating utensils. 

How Does an Electric Lunch Box Work?

It so happens that quickly heating up the inside of a container that's about the size of a Kleenex box (and then maintaining that heat) is a relatively easy thing to do using a wall outlet. And that is exactly what an electric lunch box does. Some of them will also plug into the 12V socket in your car.

Some higher-end models will heat up to a temperature of 300 F, which means they will actually cook frozen meals (or so they claim). But these are bigger units, about the size of a small camping stove, and they do seem like they're more designed for car camping as opposed to eating lunch at work.

The more common variety heats up to between 170 and 180 F, which is enough to warm up your food and keep it in a safe temperature zone so that you shouldn't have to worry about foodborne illness. You'll want to read the manufacturer's instructions to make sure you're using it correctly.

Using an Electric Lunch Box

For the most part, electric lunch boxes are for anyone who has access to an electrical outlet, like at a desk or in an office. If all you have is a locker, you'll want to stick with insulated containers. However, some models will plug into your car. This also makes electric lunch boxes an option for someone who works at a construction site or drives around all day in their car.

Pros and Cons of the Electric Lunch Box

The pros of using an electric lunch box are the convenience of having a hot lunch at your fingertips without having to leave your desk and that they are also easy to assemble. Just pop your items into the tray, close the lid, and turn it on, and your food is hot within an hour or so.

But there are disadvantages, too. For instance, everyone in the office is going to smell your lunch all morning. Depending on your office configuration, this might not be appreciated. Also, you need to plug it in. This is obvious, but if you don't have access to an electrical outlet or if it's inconveniently located (imagine having to crawl under your desk every day to plug it in and unplug it), this might be an issue. 

Plus, electric lunch boxes are a tad on the bulky side. They generally come with a handle, but if you're already juggling a lot of stuff on your way to and from the office, or if you commute on public transportation, this might be one too many items to lug around. And you do have to worry about leakage, so carrying it sideways or upside down is probably not a good idea either.

An electric lunch box does encourage you to eat lunch at your desk, which, if you're especially busy, might be necessary, but can also be a somewhat bleak prospect day after day. But even if you only use it once or twice a week, that can still be a welcome change from cold salads and sandwiches, the lunch line, or the microwave. After all, when it comes to workplace lunches, it's all about having options.