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How to clean lunch boxes, thermoses and coffee mugs

Lunch boxes need more than a quick shake to get them clean. Follow these expert tips for cleaning them the right way.
how to clean a lunch box
Lunch boxes can get germ-y, quickly.Getty Images stock
/ Source: TODAY

Lunch boxes are sparkling clean at the start of the school year, but after a few days ... look out!

According to research from e-cloth, 73 percent of fabric lunch boxes tested contained mold and 20 percent had bacteria (staph and enterococci) that could contaminate food and cause food poisoning. Yikes!

TODAY Home spoke with cleaning coach Leslie Reichert to find out some helpful tips for doing the job right.

How to clean lunch boxes and food-storage containers

  1. Start by getting rid of all smashed grapes, smeared peanut butter and other obvious crumbs and smears your child left behind — as well as whatever “treasures” he or she picked up that day.
  2. To remove the most bacteria and mold, wash fabric lunch boxes and reusable food containers after every use with soap and water. A microfiber towel, rather than a regular wash cloth, will help fight bacteria.
  3. Most hard plastic, metal lunch boxes and reusable containers are safe for the dishwasher, but check the manufacturer's cleaning instructions to make sure.
  4. If the lunch box still doesn't smell fresh after a good wash, sprinkle it with baking soda and let it sit overnight. In the morning, rinse and dry. It should be fresh and ready to use!


...use baby wipes on lunch boxes. Like plain cloth, these just move dirt around and do nothing to remove bacteria.

...use chemical cleaning sprays on lunchboxes. These leave behind a chemical residue and odor that could get into your child’s lunch.


...wash your hands before preparing your child’s lunch and remind him or her to wash hands before eating at school. (It can't hurt to pack a few sanitizing hand wipes for good measure.)

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How to clean reusable beverage containers

  • 1. Thermoses

A simple soap-and-water wash is the way to go here, using a microfiber towel and a bottle brush. Since moisture is a breeding ground for bacteria, leave the lid off so it can dry thoroughly. Thermoses should never go in the dishwasher or be submerged in hot water. Be sure to follow care instructions for these items.

  • 2. Screw-top containers

Separate the top from the container and run both pieces through the dishwasher every day (top rack only, of course). Make sure the drying cycle is on since the container needs to be completely dry. If not, it will become a breeding ground for germs. Another option is to hand wash the container in warm water and dish detergent after every use. Use a microfiber cloth and a brush to remove any slimy build-up that may have formed. Rinse well and dry thoroughly before using.

  • 3. Containers with spouts or pop-up straws

Wash in soap and water, using a small bottle brush to clean those hard-to-reach nooks and crevices in the drinking spouts. Rinse well and be sure to dry completely — either by air-drying overnight or hand drying with a clean cloth.

  • To remove odors:

If a container does not smell fresh after washing with soap and water, fill with hot water and add a tablespoon of baking soda. Allow it to sit overnight. In the morning, rinse and dry. By then, it should be fresh and odor-free!

How to sanitize beverage containers

If the beverage container has been shared with a sick classmate or others in the class — willingly or not — you may want to sanitize it using one of the following methods:

Bleach and water:

  1. Wash with soap and water.
  2. Fill the container with a mild bleach/water solution (one teaspoon of bleach to one gallon of water — if you can smell bleach, you’ve used too much).
  3. Allow the bleach solution to stand for five minutes.
  4. Rinse until all bleach odor is gone. Air dry.

White distilled vinegar or hydrogen peroxide:

  1. Wash with soap and water.
  2. Fill container with either vinegar or hydrogen peroxide. Use only one or the other. Don’t mix the two or you’ll cancel their cleaning properties.
  3. Allow it to stand for about 10 minutes, then rinse and air dry.

RELATED: An expert's choice for the best eco-friendly cleaning supplies

Using interviews with specialists, online reviews and personal experience, TODAY editors, writers and experts take care to recommend items we really like and hope you’ll enjoy! TODAY does have affiliate relationships with various online retailers. So, while every product is independently selected, if you buy something through our links, we may get a small share of the revenue.

This article was originally published on Aug. 21, 2017.