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Insulated Shopping Totes

Published July 2015
Update, September 2020
Recently, our favorite insulated shopping tote underwent some small changes; the bag's interior is now made from different materials than when we originally tested. After testing the new Rachael Ray ChillOut Thermal Tote, we were pleased to find that it was just as good as the old one--it still does a great job of keeping groceries safe and cool, and is comfortable to carry as well.

How we tested

Unlike regular reusable shopping totes, insulated shopping totes are designed to keep refrigerated and frozen foods cold on the commute home from the supermarket. We purchased six, priced from just under $10 to almost $40, including puffy models boasting patented insulation and an innovative model with freezable gel packs sewn into its lining. We were looking for a comfortable, easy-to-carry tote that could keep our groceries at a food-safe temperature for at least an hour. To evaluate comfort and design, we loaded each with an identical assortment of bulky, heavy, and fragile groceries (12 items total) and took each bag for a 10-minute walk. We tested their construction and strength by weighing down the bags with 25 pounds of nonperishable groceries and suspending them from their handles for 24 hours. We also monitored how long half-gallons of orange juice remained at a food-safe temperature in 70- and 90-degree rooms, putting an identical arrangement of groceries in a plain paper grocery bag for comparison. Our final test: stain and odor resistance. We smeared the interior of each tote with a measured amount of milk, yellow mustard, and tuna packed in olive oil, waited 48 hours, and then attempted to wash them clean. 

We expected bags with thick walls and layers of insulation to fare best, since these sheets of fabric and foam act as barriers, keeping the cold air in and the warm air out. So we were puzzled when a large tote with the thickest foam insulation and the puffiest walls (0.40 inches) kept juice cool for just 40 minutes in a hot room, not much better than the paper bag. Another tote with soft sides that didn’t shut all the way performed inconsistently; depending on the mix of items and arrangement in the bag, it kept the contents cold—or not. We realized that the size and design of the bag were as important as the amount of insulation. The best bags sealed tight and were of moderate size, between 12 and 20 inches at their widest and no taller than 16 inches—dimensions that could accommodate a gallon of milk and a dozen other items. The reason is simple: Insulated bags work best when they’re full because there is less room for warm air to circulate around the groceries. That large tote with thick walls would need a cart’s worth of groceries to be effective. Two conventionally insulated totes succeeded at keeping orange juice at a food-safe 40 degrees for 1½ to 2 hours in both tests. As for that innovative model with freezable gel packs embedded in the lining, it lasted a whopping 4 hours in a 70-degree room and just longer than 3 hours at 90 degrees. And even when we used it without freezing the bag first, it kept pace with the front-runners. 

Those moderately sized bags were also the most comfortable, as bigger totes allowed items to shift during transport and felt cumbersome to more petite testers. But only one of these models also boasted wide, comfortable shoulder straps that made carrying a heavy load easier and freed up our hands. Of the two, we preferred our winner because it is slightly roomier than the Igloo and did a better job keeping contents cold in the 90-degree room. We can also recommend one bag without shoulder straps, which kept food cold for hours even when we didn’t freeze it ahead of time.

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The Results


Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little.


Schmidt Brothers Downtown Block

This roomy block completely sheathed our entire winning knife set using just one of its two sides—and quite securely, thanks to long, medium-strength magnet bars. Heavy, with a grippy base, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard made this model extra-safe but also made it a little trickier to insert knives and to clean; the wood block itself showed some minor cosmetic scratching during use.


Schmidt Brothers Midtown Block

This smaller version of the Downtown Block secured all our knives nicely, though the blade of the slicing knife stuck out a bit. With a base lined with grippy material, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard afforded extra protection against contact with blades but made it a little harder to insert knives and to clean; the wood itself got a little scratched during use.

Recommended with Reservations

Swissmar Bamboo Magnetic Knife Block

This small, scratch-resistant model had a stable, rubber-lined base and could hold all our knives, though the blade of the 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a bit. But inch-long gaps between its small magnets made coverage uneven and forced us to find the magnetic hot spots in order to secure the knives. Its acrylic guard made it safer to use but harder to insert knives and to clean.

Not Recommended

Messermeister Walnut Magnet Block

This handsome block was done in by its shape—a tippy, top-heavy quarter-circle that wasn’t tall or broad enough to keep the blades of three knives from poking out. It lacked a nonslip base, and its extra-strong magnets made it unnerving to attach or remove our heavy cleaver. Finally, it got a bit scratched after extensive use.


Epicurean Standing Knife Rack 12"

This magnetic block sheathed all our knives completely, though with a bit of crowding. But it was hard to insert each knife without hitting the block’s decorative slats on way down, and because the block was light and narrow, it wobbled when bumped. Worse, we couldn’t take it apart, so splatters that hit the interior were there to stay. Additionally, the outside stained easily, and when we wiped it down, the unit smelled like wet dog.


Kapoosh Rondelle Knife Block

This model stabilized knives with a mass of stiff, spaghetti-like bristles that shed and nicked easily after extensive use, covering our knives with plastic debris. While all our knives fit securely, several of the blades stuck out, making this unit feel less safe overall. Finally, though the bristles could be removed and cleaned in the dishwasher, their nooks and crannies made this block hard to wash by hand.


Kuhn Rikon Vision Knife Block, Clear

This plastic block required us to aim each knife into the folds of an accordion-pleated insert that was removable for easy cleaning but got nicked easily with repeated use. Because we could only insert the knives vertically, longer knife blades stuck out; a cleaver was too wide to fit. The lightest model in our lineup, this block was dangerously top-heavy when loaded with knives.