A traditional metal lunchbox. (Anne Farrar/The Washington Post)

Choosing a lunchbox was a big deal when we were kids.

When we selected a Peanuts box — or the Incredible Hulk, the Beatles or the Bionic Woman — to carry our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, we were sharing our tastes with our classmates.

“They had a certain cachet on the playground or in the lunch room,” said Lisa Hix, associate editor at Collectors Weekly, a Web site devoted to antiques and vintage items. “They were a way to telegraph your knowledge of pop culture and be up-to-date.”

Hix said connecting through pop culture, whether it’s what we watch on television or the music we listen to, is a uniquely American phenomenon. Lunchboxes were a big part of that.

These days, kids are flashing their pop culture knowledge though their choice of backpacks, shoes or other merchandise, Hix said. That frees up parents to focus less on appearance and more on what’s inside the lunchbox, from safe and healthful food to environmentally friendly reusable containers.

Choices range from a traditional metal container with a licensed character on it to elaborate “systems” with sections for each type of food.

Kids’ interests still factor into the decision, though, whether it’s a favorite color or character, said Mike Dobbs, the vice president for public relations at Lunchboxes.com (who toted a 1976 Marvel Superheroes lunchbox to school as a child).

What’s New?

Bento boxes. These containers, which have separate compartments to hold different foods, have become increasingly popular in the United States, according to Dobbs. “There’s a perception that by separating the food out into different sections, you have more control over the nutritional value of each part of the lunch,” Dobbs said. Some parents get creative with their child’s bento box, designing the food to look like a smile or an animal to surprise the child.

Environmentally friendly containers. Instead of disposable plastic bags, parents can get small plastic containers to hold everything from a sandwich to fruit. In addition to plastic containers with lids, there are reusable bags for sandwiches and snacks available at many retailers. The bags have zip-top closures and many can go in either the dishwasher or washing machine. Both options help reduce waste and can save money over time.

New materials. Manufacturers have begun producing reusable, insulated totes in recent years made from neoprene, the same type of rubber used to make wet suits. Neoprene is flexible and can stretch to fit the contents of the lunch. But the big appeal, Dobbs said, is that the totes are machine washable (unlike some other cloth lunchboxes).

Care and safety tips

Clean the lunchbox daily. The sooner you clean it out, the better, Dobbs said. Most lunchboxes should not go in the dishwasher or washing machine. Do not submerge the lunchbox in water. Instead, wipe the inside of the box with a damp cloth and warm water mixed with a mild soap, then let it air-dry. Sarah Krieger, a registered dietitian and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says you can spray the inside with a bleach-and-water solution; just make sure it is completely dry before packing food in it.

Consider nonperishable foods. Lunchboxes do not protect food for more than two hours unless you use an ice pack, so Krieger does not recommend sandwiches with lunch meat. Other highly perishable foods include mayonnaise, eggs and leftovers that have been refrigerated. Krieger likes peanut butter sandwiches, or those made with nut butter alternatives (derived from sunflower seeds or soybeans, for example). She also suggests sending whole fruit (always washed) rather than sliced melon, because fruit is less likely to spoil in its whole form.

Use an ice pack. Krieger suggests having several sizes and shapes of ice packs to keep foods cold until lunch time. Inspect the ice packs regularly to make sure they are not leaking fluids.

Low, Medium, High

Dobbs, of online retailer Lunchboxes.com, recommended three lunchboxes from its inventory. Lunchboxes.com will ship anywhere in the United States.

Metal lunchbox. This is similar to a traditional lunchbox in size and shape, and has a latch to hold it closed. The box is $8.95 for a plain version without a Thermos. Children can use stickers or markers to create their own decoration, Dobbs said. Boxes with designs or matching Thermoses cost more, up to $19.95, depending on the character.

Insulated lunchbox. A soft lunchbox with a vinyl interior, padded handle and zipper closure, this box is easy to clean and comes in a number of patterns and colors. The insulation helps keep foods cold. It has an outer pocket for extra storage and a sewn-in name tag. $19.95.

Go Green Bento lunchbox system. A plastic container with an insulated carrying case and a drink bottle, this box has five compartments to hold food and a snap-on lid. The drink container fits inside the box. The carrying case comes in 10 patterns. The lid has a silicone gasket to prevent leaks. $32.95.

Shop Smart

1 Consider replacing the lunchbox every year, dietitian Sarah Krieger said. It might look fine on the outside, but mold and bacteria can accumulate on the inside of the box, particularly in any cracks or crevices. She said parents should do a basic “sniff test” on their child’s lunchbox during summer vacation. If it doesn’t smell right, replace it.

2 Have more than one lunchbox for your child. By keeping a couple of lunchboxes in the rotation, Krieger said, you can send one on Monday, then have another on hand for Tuesday’s lunch, leaving time to clean the first one and make sure it is completely dry before you pack food in it again. Or you can have your child alternate between bringing and buying his lunch, to give the box an extra day to dry between uses.

3 Skip the packaged drinks and buy milk at school. Krieger said it’s cheaper to have your child buy his milk in the cafeteria. It’s also fresh and cold. She recommends milk or water over juice, but if parents do send juice in their child’s lunch, it should be 100 percent fruit juice.

1935 The year that Geuder, Paeschke and Frey issued the first licensed character lunchbox: Mickey Mouse.

SOURCE: Collector’s Weekly

2 hrs. The maximum time perishable food can sit at room temperature before it becomes a breeding ground for food-borne illnesses.

SOURCE: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

600K Hopalong Cassidy lunch boxes Aladdin sold in 1950, the first year it offered them. They sold for $2.39.

SOURCE: lunchboxes.com