(Follow Beth Pinsker on Twitter at twitter.com/bethpinsker)By Beth PinskerNEW YORK, July 30 When it comes to kids' lunches, we've come a long way from PB&J, an apple and a cookie in a brown paper bag. Beau Coffron, of Fremont, California, packs his daughter's school lunches in stainless steel containers that cost at least $20 a pop. He apportions all of her food into little compartments, making cartoon characters like Charlie Brown and animal shapes such as tigers and llamas out of the ingredients. Her sports water bottles cost about $10, and the sack to carry it all came with the lunch kits but would retail separately for about $25. Everything is toxin-free and re-usable, naturally. What started as simply a creative way to pack lunches has become a movement in the U.S. to reduce waste from individual packaging, save money by buying in bulk, make use of leftovers and have toxin-free food containers, and share it all on social media. Coffron, who posts pictures of these lunches on his blog (lunchboxdad.com), is part of this wave of moms and dads who are willing to pay much more than the cost of a box of plastic baggies at the dollar store for these benefits. Parents who are investing in fancy lunch gear say it's worth the upfront costs because it lasts longer than disposable items. The annual savings from reusable items amount to an average of $216 a year, according to a study by U-Konserve (kidskonserve.com/), whose lunch kit runs $39.95.
While popular in Japan, Bento-style lunch gear, where a variety of food is packed in small containers or compartments in a specialized, lidded tray, is still a very small portion of $1.4 billion food storage industry, according to research firm Euromonitor International. However, the small companies that sell these products report phenomenal U.S. growth during the last several years as the trend has exploded. Laptop Lunches (this site), one of the oldest and biggest of these companies, launched in 2002 and now sells more than 500,000 units a year, according to the company. On the smaller end of the spectrum is PlanetBox (planetbox.com/), which sells under 100,000 units a year. Launched five years ago, PlanetBox says sales are up 150 percent the last two years. Products vary from all-in-one solutions like PlanetBox, which has a $59.99 Bento lunch kit with a bag and stainless steel lunch tray, to multi-piece solutions like Laptop Lunches' $32.99 kit. A simple Goodbyn tray (goodbyn.com/) with three compartments runs $8.99.
That's a lot of cash for something that is likely to end up lost within the first week of school, which is why more manufacturers are offering customization. For example, PlanetBoxes offers magnets to put on cases and Goodbyns come with stickers so that the items are easily recognizable in the lost-and-found bin. The heft of these products makes children realize they need to take care of them, too. MIX AND MATCH Investing in one expensive lunch kit might not be enough, which is why there's some mixing and matching that goes on, parents say.
Venia Conte, based in Las Vegas, has two PlanetBox lunch kits, in case one gets misplaced or is dirty, plus a couple of LunchBots lunch kits
Aug 3 Gene Openshaw, a Seattle-based writer for Rick Steves' guidebooks, is a seasoned traveler. But before his two-month long jaunts in Europe, one of his top priorities is downloading other people's travel apps to his smartphone. In addition to apps that help him get around, like TripAdvisor for dining reviews, Google Maps for street directions and Rail Europe for train schedules, Openshaw uses sightseeing apps to avoid the hassle and expense of in-person guides. Tourism offices, national parks and travel companies have developed hundreds of free travel-related apps to attract gadget-equipped travelers in the last two years. Most apps can be downloaded to the iPhone or Android cell phones, as well as the iPad or iPod, and don't require a constant data connection. Knowing which to choose is key, since a poor quality product can easily derail a travel experience. "You need to be able to navigate through the app," says Openshaw, who tests each app to get a feel for content, design and ease of use. "I avoid [an app] when it just starts at the beginning and leads me by the nose."Planning a trip? Here are recommendations from travel experts on what to use on your next this site City App: Hidden LondonCost: FreeUpdated in 2012, the app allows travelers to get a deeper look at the delights of this Olympic city. "It really is giving you a list of cool things to do that other guidebooks aren't," says Amanda Scotese, a Chicago-based tour operator and travel writer who visited London this year. Visitors can use the app, created by London native Martin Smith, to browse under-the-radar landmarks like a quaint café at the Tate Modern and ancient Roman baths. For each of the landmarks, it also lists opening hours, address, website and shows a map location, which requires using the phone's roaming data connection. Scotese compares it to having an in-the-know tour guide. When looking for other city apps, she skips the ones that simply regurgitate a guidebook, which can mean too much on-the-go reading. "No one wants to be standing on a street corner for 15 minutes reading their phone," says Scotese. The app is available in other cities, including Hidden Rome and Hidden Prague.
Favorite Museum App: American Museum of Natural History ExplorerCost: FreeNew York's American Museum of Natural History started offering its turn-by-turn app two years ago. "It takes you all over the museum, to areas you may never otherwise get to," says Arabella Bowen, executive editorial director at Fodor's Travel in New York. Users without an iPhone, iPad or iPod can borrow one of the devices from the museum free of charge. The museum also offers one-off apps for temporary exhibits. For instance, its Creatures of Light app accompanies an exhibit about organisms that naturally produce light. The app is set to symphonic music. Openshaw is partial to the Louvre app. The storied Paris museum allows visitors to download a free app or rent an audio guide on a handheld Nintendo DS to help visitors maneuver the world's largest museum. "Basically, if you have an hour and a half at Louvre, it says: Here's the best way to spend," he says.
Paying for an in-person Louvre tour can cost a family of four more than $200, Openshaw estimates, versus the 5 euro ($6.15) cost of renting the Nintendo DS. Favorite Landmark App: Monumental AgraCost: $1.99Touring the Taj Mahal and nearby 17th century ruins in Agra, India can be an overwhelming experience. While the UNESCO World Heritage site draws more than 3 million visitors each year, tour guides are known to be hit or miss. Instead of opting for an in-person guide, Bowen downloaded the Monumental Agra app, created in consultation with academics and historic texts, which let her marvel at the sites at her own pace while getting a dose of Indian history. The app shows visitors suggested walking tours while highlighting points of interest. Being able to look at the sites while simply listening to the audio can make it more enjoyable then staring at a phone, she says. Overall, touring with apps rather than hiring guides, can save travelers from $60 to $100 per day, Bowen estimates.
Favorite Country App: Rick Steves' Audio EuropeCost: FreeWalking tours detailing Italy's not-to-miss sites such as the Colosseum and Sistine Chapel in Rome are a favorite for Annie Fitzsimmons, a travel writer who contributes to magazines like Travel and Leisure. "The app is so pretty and easy that you don't have any question on where you need to go next," she says. The app is split into tracks of landmarks and neighborhoods, so it's easy to combine tracks for a custom tour of each city. The walking tour app offers tours in other European countries, including France, Spain and Germany. A walking tour of the Palace of Versailles near Paris also made touring the giant estate more manageable, Fitzsimmons says. Favorite National Park App: National Parks by National GeographicCost: FreeNavigating hiking trails and sites can be tiring and confusing, especially when exploring vast national parks. But when Fitzsimmons didn't want to splurge on a guide, which can cost more than $50, she used National Geographic's National Parks app to tour the Grand Canyon. The app also contains information for 20 of the most popular U.S. national parks, including Yellowstone, Yosemite and Badlands, and lets users download park-specific guides."Arizona is my home state and it gave me new insight into the park," says Fitzsimmons. (The Grand Canyon also offers short cell phone audio narrations on various points of interest.)Note that all the park "secrets" and photo-taking tips can drain a battery in such an expansive space. Fitzsimmons uses the Mophie, a rechargeable external battery that doubles as a case for her iPhone.