Plastic Food Storage Containers
How we tested
Whether you're storing leftovers, preparing a make-ahead meal, or taking lunch to work, you need a food storage container to keep food fresh, intact, and ready to eat. But the containers most of us have at home are pathetic: a motley pile of warped, stained bottoms and cracked, mismatched lids. Stores are brimming with containers claiming to be leakproof, airtight, microwave-safe, and more, but which ones function as promised—and hold up to serious use over time?
In our last testing, we chose the Snapware Airtight 8 Cup Rectangular Container as our favorite plastic model, but we've heard complaints about the performance of recently purchased copies; plus, new competitors have emerged. We like having both plastic and glass containers on hand since each has advantages: Plastic is light and less fragile, whereas heavier glass won't warp and resists stains. Many glass containers are also ovensafe.
We purchased six plastic containers, including our former winner, and five glass containers (see our testing results for the glass storage containers to find out which functioned best without warping, staining, shattering, or failing to keep a tight seal. We didn't include disposable supermarket versions, which aren't designed for durability.
Keep Air Out; Keep Contents In
We've all tucked a container of lunch into a tote only to discover later that it has dripped all over the inside of the bag. The products in our lineup made plenty of promises to be leakproof and/or airtight. To check, we filled each container with 2 cups of water tinted with food coloring to make drips easy to spot and then shook them hard over white paper towels for 15 seconds. One didn't last 5 seconds before the lid opened and water gushed out. Two—including our former winner—allowed a steady, thin stream or a few drops to escape, but three kept the towels dry.
To test if the containers were truly airtight, we sealed a spoonful of moisture-detecting crystals in each and then submerged them in water for 2 minutes. These crystals change from blue to pink if the slightest moisture reaches them. A few containers kept the crystals uniformly blue, indicating that the interior stayed dry as a bone. But some containers instantly began filling with water; others revealed a smattering of pink crystals among the blue. If moisture can penetrate, so can air, which lets food stale. Additionally, food odors might not stay in the container and could spread through your refrigerator.
Just Say No to Odors and Stains
The most leakproof container is still a poor choice if it's hard to keep clean and odor-free. Most container lids are fitted with a silicone gasket for a tight seal and flaps or extended rims that snap down to hold the lid in place. The problem is, gaskets and lid hardware can trap food, moisture, and odors. We filled the containers with pungent oil-packed tuna and anchovies, refrigerated them overnight, and then removed the fish and ran the containers through the dishwasher. Staffers sniffed the clean containers, noting any lingering fishy odors. The bad news: Most did trap smells and oily residue around their gaskets. But some gaskets were much easier to clean than others. Our front-runner's gasket was not stuffed into the usual narrow channel but simply built into the lid so you could clean under it; another model had a ⅜-inch-wide, soft, square gasket that was easy to remove and replace in a channel broad enough for a cloth-covered fingertip to dry it.
Staining is the plague of plastic containers. They might still function, but they look terrible. We stored chili full of tomatoes and colorful spices in the containers over a weekend. We then microwaved them until the chili hit 160 degrees, a piping-hot serving temperature. Even after we ran them through the dishwasher, most containers were deeply stained. The type of plastic determined the outcome: Five of the six containers were made of polypropylene and kept a cloudy-orange tint. The sixth, made of a clear plastic called Tritan, stayed stain-free.
Used and Abused
A container that works for only a few months is a waste of money. After our first microwave test, the gasket on our former winner broke, leaving a small gap in the channel where the gasket had split and shrunk. (Since our last testing, the manufacturer was sold, which may have affected production methods.) With just weeks to assess long-term durability, we deployed abuse testing: We opened and closed each container 100 times. Next we ran them through 50 dishwasher cycles, simulating a year of use. Then we repeated every previous test: shaking and submerging, storing fish and checking odors, and storing and heating chili. Finally, we filled the containers with water and knocked them off the counter and then froze water in them and dropped them onto the floor. Some burst open and one lid's protruding corner tab (to help open the lid) snapped off, but three models stayed intact and watertight. You might never drop your container, but knowing yours is unlikely to pop open and make a mess gives you peace of mind.
And the Winner Is …
After container boot camp, we had a winner: the Rubbermaid Brilliance Food Storage Container, Large, 9.6 Cup ($12.99). We loved its roomy, flat shape that was easy to stack and helped food heat faster and more evenly than in deeper containers. We appreciated that its gasket was attached to the lid for cleaning without the fuss of removing a slippery bit of silicone, and we liked its pair of lid clips that doubled down on its already-tight seal. When open, the clips created small vents so we could microwave with the lid on, reducing splatter. An extended rim stayed cool for easy handling when food was hot. Best of all, it didn't leak, and it emerged from extensive testing still looking clear, clean, and good as new. While we tested the 9.6-cup container, Rubbermaid offers a variety of sizes in this line.
We tested six plastic containers (all BPA-free, according to manufacturers), choosing those as close as possible to an 8-cup capacity (the capacities of the models in our lineup ranged from 6 to 10 cups). All containers were purchased online, and they appear in order of preference.
Leaks: We filled the containers with water tinted with blue food coloring and shook them vigorously for 15 seconds. We also filled them with moisture-detecting color-changing crystals and submerged them in water for 2 minutes. Containers that didn't leak when shaken and that kept their contents dry when submerged received high marks.
Odors: We refrigerated oil-packed tuna and anchovies in each container overnight and ran the containers through a home dishwasher and checked for odors. Containers that resisted odors and cleaned up more easily were preferred.
Design: We considered features that made the containers easier to use, including simple, intuitive seals and shapes that stack well and make cooling and heating more efficient.
Storage and Microwave Heating: We filled containers with chili, refrigerated them over a weekend, and microwaved them, checking for warping, staining, and other damage. Containers that didn't leak or spill, held plenty of chili, and resisted warping, staining, and other damage rated highest.
Durability: We opened and closed each container 100 times, washed the containers 50 times in a home dishwasher, and repeated all the previous tests (leaking, odors, opening and closing, microwaving). Then we filled containers with water and knocked them off a kitchen counter and froze water in them and dropped them from 3 feet above the floor. Finally, we checked for stains, warping, breakage, and general wear and tear, giving high marks to those still in good condition.