How to Clean Insulated Lunch Boxes

Becky asked: How do I clean an insulated lunch box? It’s an insulated lunch box for a child. He has gotten peanut butter and goo everywhere. Can I just throw it in the washer, or do I have to hand wash it?

We send our kids to school each day with their lunch neatly packed and each item wrapped. Without a doubt, over time the contents leak, spill and leave an unpleasant surprise inside when the lunchbox returns home. Over time, these spills and leaks (and just having food in it all day) can leave a smell in the lunchbox. Here’s how to keep your little one’s lunchbox clean.

Can They Be Machine Washed?

Many have tossed these smelly lunch boxes right into the washing machine with no problems. However, it greatly varies with each type of lunch box. While some can tolerate the agitation of the washing machine, others may literally fall apart at the seams from all of the rough action in the washing machine. Check the care label/instructions if there are some. Typically, higher quality lunch boxes can tolerate the washing machine just fine and come out clean and in good condition. If you are unsure, try washing it by hand first. Or, if the lunch box can be easily replaced, try tossing in the machine and see how it comes out. You may be pleasantly surprised and find a very easy solution.

Hand Washing Lunch Boxes

For those lunch boxes that just need a quick cleaning, or are not made to tolerate the washing machine, a good hand washing will do the trick.

You Will Need:

  • Dish detergent
  • Water
  • Soft cloths or sponges
  • Towels

Steps to Clean the Lunch Box:

  1. Begin by filling the sink with warm water.
  2. Add a small amount of dish detergent and agitate to mix.
  3. Moisten a soft cloth with the sudsy water, and wring it out so it is just moist.
  4. Wipe the interior and exterior of the lunch box with the sponge or cloth.
  5. If the lunch box can be submerged in water, it will be easiest to place the entire lunch box in the water and scrub it all over with a sponge or soft cloth.
  6. Rinse by wiping with a cloth moistened with clean water.
  7. Dry with a towel.
  8. Allow it to air dry completely before use. This step is especially important if the lunch box was submerged in the water as the insulated filling is likely wet as well.

Removing Odors from Lunch Boxes

Any container that holds food for extended periods of time will develop an odor. Lunch boxes are no exception. Here are some steps to remove that “lunch box smell.”

You Will Need:

  • Bleach
  • Baking soda
  • Water
  • Soft cloths or sponges
  • Spray bottle
  • Towels

Steps to Remove Odors from Lunch Boxes:

  1. Fill a spray bottle with a weak bleach and water solution.
  2. Spray the interior of the lunch box with the bleach solution.
  3. Wipe it dry with a soft cloth.
  4. Allow it to air dry completely.
  5. An additional method is to make a paste out of baking soda and water.
  6. Apply the paste to the interior surfaces of the lunch box with a soft cloth.
  7. Allow the paste to dry completely.
  8. Wipe away with a soft cloth or brush out the dried paste with a towel.
  9. Dry baking soda can also be sprinkled in the lunch box and left to set overnight. The baking soda will absorb the odors and can be shaken out in the morning.
  10. Any remaining baking soda can be rinsed out with clean water, but is not harmful if a little bit remains.

Additional Tips and Advice

  • Metal lunch boxes are making a comeback and don’t create the odor problems that insulated lunch boxes do. If cleanliness and odors are a constant problem, consider a metal or plastic box.
  • Anti-bacterial wipes can be used for quick, daily cleanings to minimize odors.


  1. Karin M. says:

    For a quick clean – disinfecting Wipes work well too. Especially now with concern over the H1N1 virus.

    Recently, my daughter’s reusable drink container broke full of her fruit punch. Needless to say, her insulated lunch bag was stained as well as everything around the bag. I used the disinfecting wipes for the most part and for the counter as well, but then filled the laundry sink with a little bleach, soap and hot water for an hour to get the rest of the stains out. Rinsed, hung to dry. It’s like new again!

  2. Susan K. says:

    I put my soft lunch bag in the dishwasher on the top shelf with the rest of my dishes. If the insulation is still damp, I just leave it on a dish towel to air dry. No muss, no fuss.

  3. Alayna says:

    Hi, and thanks. This web site really helped me out. I needed to know how to wash my lunch box, and I now know how! Again, thanks.

  4. Alayna says:

    I hand washed mine.

  5. J9 says:

    We wipe ours out with an all natural cleaner (7th generation) then freeze the whole bag on the weekends or overnight which kills bacteria. Avoid harsh cleaners as the chemical residue can get into food.

  6. Mljj says:

    We wash ours with vinegar. It gets rid of stains and odors simultaneously.

  7. CETR says:

    Vinegar works amazingly; what a super awesome cleaning agent. :) Thanks so much for the pointer!

  8. Teri says:

    I did the “soaking in the sink” way… and now they smell of cleaner. My kids won’t eat their food at school because it tastes bad. I’ve done it twice, soaked them in hot clean water (no cleaner), and let them air dry open. Two weeks later…they still smell of chemical. I don’t want to throw away 15 dollar lunch boxes in the middle of the school year when there are very few selections at stores for replacements.

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