Plastic storage containers with lids of plastic are a common, inexpensive and lightweight storage solution – especially as meal prep containers for people who take their lunch to work. However plastic food storage containers have their drawbacks: They may leach harmful substances, they aren’t neutral to smell and taste and they are ecologically problematic. This is what you can do:
So you have checked our main article on different food storage container types and have decided that plastic storage containers are what you need?
Then there is one important issue you should know about before you check our product evaluation: It’s the possible impact on your health. Plastic is a “living” material. It doesn’t have an inert chemistry. That means it ages and can release some of its potentially harmful components during regular usage.
This renders plastic also quite difficult for our environment. So choose plastic only if other choices are not feasible to you.
Plastic Storage Containers: What Matters
Health and Safety Issues
Plastic storage containers may be a hazard to your health. Polymers can always leach plasticizers, flame retardants and other potentially harmful additives. So in an effort to apply at least minimal care for your health you should only use plastic storage containers that are deemed food-safe.
Nonetheless public insecurity remains since people have heard of Bisphenol-A (BPA). It is (was) a common additive until health concerns came up, leading to an increasing availability of BPA free plastic products, among them plastic storage containers.
However the FDA confirmed in 2014 that “BPA is safe at the current levels occurring in foods” after evaluating more than 300 studies on the topic. Nevertheless we know that BPA shows so called “estrogenic activity” (EA). It works like a hormone in many animals’ (including human) bodies.
BPA Free Is Not Enough
But even if the plastic is BPA free, it is possibly not harmless. A study from CertiChem from 2011 analyzed what dissolves out of plastic products. The authors indicate that “almost all commercially available plastic products […] leached chemicals having reliably detectable EA, including those advertised as BPA free.”
EA is the most common form of endocrine disruptor activity and can cause many adverse health effects. That means we know that potentially harmful substances are very wide-spread in every plastic product. But their harmfulness wasn’t proven in the amounts found.
Personally, I would prefer the industry had to present a proof of harmlessness for their products instead the other way round. But seemingly that’s not possible as long as you stay in the material domain of plastics.
lifewithoutplastic.com has a good overview for typical usage, toxicity and recycling of common plastic materials.
Just Keep Cool…
On the other hand you can reduce the risks of leaching greatly. The above cited study also states that “this leaching […] is often accelerated if the product is exposed to common-use stresses such as ultraviolet (UV) radiation in sunlight, microwave radiation, and/or moist heat via boiling or dish washing.”
Yes, there are plastic storage containers or plastic dishes on the market that are labelled “microwave-safe”. That just means that these plastics have a better temperature robustness and don’t leach that easily. They are not perfect, but these materials are generally the better choice.
Nevertheless microwaving is always strain for the material. If you can avoid microwaving plastics, I would prefer not to do it. Of course there are other opinions that consider the issue less critical. You have to decide yourself what risk you want to take.
…and Avoid Acids and Alcohol
Additionally you should avoid very acidic contents in your meal prep containers as well as alcohol. These substances can also dissolve soluble contaminants from the base material.
The same goes for other aggressive detergents. Don’t treat your plastic storage containers with chlorine, acetylene, peroxide or other “killer chemicals” that can also dissolve the material on its surface.
There is a separate article on this issue, so here’s just the essence: The only good thing with plastic is the energy efficient production. But, like mentioned already, the additives are a major problem. They often end up in the ocean and poison many maritime species.
We address this topic also in an individual article. In a nutshell: Use only soapy dishwater, no hot dish washer programs, no aggressive detergents. Remove odors with newspaper, charcoal, coffee grounds or baking soda.
Buy Plastic Containers For Food Storage
We have done some product research to pick the best plastic food storage containers for you. Links marked with an asterisk (*) are affiliate links.
You’ll only find products that are deemed microwave- and dishwasher-safe by the manufacturer. We think this is the best heuristic for a durable material that will leach only very small amounts of additives when used appropriately. Still we think you should never microwave plastic!
Also, if you need the main advantage of plastic (lightweight), you probably want to transport your food. That means your plastic storage containers should be free of leakage.
Finally, you want your food storage containers to have a good durability. This usually highly depends on how rough you handle them. But you can’t expect much from containers that are too thin and deform easily.
Top Brand Rubbermaid
We have screened hundreds of products available on Amazon, but one brand that really stands out in overall quality are Rubbermaid food storage containers.
All types are BPA free, deemed microwavable, freezable and dishwasher-safe. Rubbermaid food storage containers are also easily stackable to make kitchen organization easier.
Premier Series (Our Top Pick)
The best choice in our opinion are Rubbermaid Premier Food Storage Containers*. These come at 15 USD for 6 containers, so it’s quite expensive compared to many other products.
A problem with many plastic containers are stains. These containers are not completely stain free either if you use them often with severely dyeing contents like curcuma. But since the material is quite dense, the containers avoid stains and odors way better than many others. That’s probably the best you can expect from any plastic material.
If you shouldn’t follow our stress free handling advice completely, you’re still on the safer side with these containers. The high density makes the material also more robust against stress from heat or other aggressive treatment. However it’s also brittle. So if you drop it accidentally, you might damage it.
Nevertheless we think the Premier series is surely worth the price. You can expect to get plastic food storage containers with high durability. Since there is also only a small amount of negative Amazon reviews, this container series is our top pick.
If you are looking for appropriate meal prep containers, there is no suitable set available. As described in our main article on food storage, we recommend purchasing the sizes 5 cups*, 3 cups* and 1/2 cup* individually.
Easy Find Lids
The most common product line is the Easy Find Lids* series. 23 USD for 21 containers makes up a really inexpensive plastic storage container set with around 1 USD per container.
However the material is not the best quality. People report that there may be pitting or melting when microwaving. This is an indicator for a non-robust material. Also, it seems that the lids sometimes don’t really fit the base and leak or can’t be put on at all.
If price really matters that much, this might be still an acceptable choice. Then you may also be happy with a 9-container-set* for 8 USD. More storage volume is also possible with these 2 big containers*
Even pricier are the new Rubbermaid Brilliance containers*. But you can save that money. They are the same material as the Premier (marketing name: Tritan), but have additional vents that allow microwaving with the lids closed.
There are other Rubbermaid options available like the TakeAlongs* or the Lock-Its*. The former are made to carry your food safely around, as the name suggests. But the plastic is probably a bit too thin, making the containers not very robust.
And the latter are reported to deteriorate in the microwave or dishwasher like the Easy Find Lids. But they lock even worse.
These are probably not general design flaws of the whole series, but we assume that some specimen maybe poorly manufactured which leads to the bad Amazon ratings.
Meal Prep Containers with Compartments
First of all, we are not real fans of compartment containers to pack our lunch. We prefer packing our food into individual containers that can be used way more flexible.
That being said, if you want them, here’s our research for plastic meal prep containers. And if you want them in glass, they’re available too.
Healthy Packers (Best Compartment Container)
You are looking for compartment meal prep containers where you can place full meals inside? We have found one really precious product for that use case: The Premium Bento Lunch Box* from Healthy Packers.
This is a high end, BPA free, non-leaking lunch box that can be configured to have either 4 small or 1 big and 2 small compartments. However the price of around 14 USD is quite a punch for one container. But in this case price correlates with quality. Amazon doesn’t yet (as of April 2017) have any negative reviews on it.
Rubbermaid food storage solutions also include a product line with compartment meal prep containers – or at least stackable differently sized containers called LunchBlox*.
However Rubbermaid haven’t done their homework on these. Many people report that they are too small for lunch (even for kids) or that they leak. You would expect more value for 8 USD.
If you want to go for a cheaper solution you can have the widely used LIFT Compartment Containers*. You get 7 containers with 2 compartments for around 16 USD.
However the plastic is of cheap quality: Too thin, it can break easily. At least it’s only polypropylene which is environmentally friendly compared to other plastics. Don’t expect too much from these containers though.
If you want 3 compartments, SimpleHouseware* has the meal prep containers you’re looking for. But don’t expect better quality than for LIFT.
Overall, the market doesn’t provide a real stand out for compartment meal prep containers expect the Health Packers lunch box. If that’s what you want, go for it. If a bunch of single compartment containers would also do the job, you have way more choices regarding size and shape.
A Plea to Plastic Users
We’ve told you all we know about plastic in general and the best plastic storage containers for your kitchen in particular. If you must use plastic, be responsible – towards your own health as well as towards the rest of this planet.
Handle your products with care, so that they last as long as possible. Don’t buy the cheapest meal prep containers that end up in the trash too soon. Investing a few bucks more is also better for your wallet in the long term.
If other storage solutions seem viable to you, consider avoiding plastic at all. And finally, increase your awareness when you go shopping next time. Plastic packaging lurks everywhere in the supermarket – but not around fresh, loose fruits and veggies at the farmer’s market 😉