The Steambox is an electric lunchbox looking for a problem to solve


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May 05, 2023

The Steambox is an electric lunchbox looking for a problem to solve

By Mitchell Clark If you buy something from a Verge link, Vox Media may earn a

By Mitchell Clark

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I’m going to level with you: I don't really get the Steambox. I mean, I understand what it is: it's a self-heating lunchbox that uses steam to warm up your food, one that's powered by a rechargeable battery so you can theoretically take it on the go. And to its credit, it does actually live up to the idea of being a lunchbox that heats up your food. I just don't understand why anyone would pay $279 for this particular one.

Before we get too far into that, though, let me acquaint you with what this thing actually is. From the outside, it's a shoebox-sized gray plastic box with a bamboo lid. (The dimensions are 11 inches long, 6.5 inches wide, and 3.5 inches tall.) Unclip the plastic lid, and you’ll find a little metal pan with its own rubber lid, where you store the food — up to around 3 cups or 700ml worth. Beneath that is a heating element, which you pour water onto when it's time to heat the food. (The water is stored in a little measuring container that clips onto the bamboo lid).

To turn it on, you flip a switch on the back, which is located right next to the barrel plug you use to recharge its battery. (Yes, you do have to use the bundled charger; at CES 2023, Steambox co-founder Kevin de Krieger told TechCrunch that it couldn't charge via USB-C "because of how USB-C works." Okay.) Then, you dump your water onto the bottom, put the metal container back in sans lid, and close the box up.

To choose how long you want to reheat your food, you tap on a capacitive button that cycles through 5-, 10-, 15-, 20-, and 25-minute timer settings, indicated by a row of five lights. There's another capacitive button that starts the heating process. Yes, the fact that it doesn't use physical buttons can be a bit annoying — they don't always register taps, and it sometimes took me a second to register what cook time the flashing lights were indicating.

You do have an alternative, because of course the Steambox has an app (though you can use the device completely offline if you want). Unfortunately, the app requires an account to use, and it's extremely bare-bones. Once you’ve signed in and connected to the Steambox via Bluetooth, you can see how much battery it has left, set a timer with single-minute granularity, and start or stop the heating process. That's pretty much it; there are buttons at the bottom that promise tips, recipes, news, and an FAQ, but tapping on them gives you a little "coming soon" banner.

Okay, so why am I so down on it? Is it bad at warming up food, leaving it cold and unappetizing? Not exactly. I found it to be sufficient at reheating most of the things I threw at it, like salmon fillets, mac and cheese, chili, mashed potatoes, and more. It's important to note that word, though — reheating.

If you Google "Steambox," the gadget we’re talking about today gets buried by information about Steam Machines, a mid-2010s experiment in making computers specifically built to run Valve's game store. People colloquially called the devices Steam Boxes, and Kevin de Krieger has now stumbled into this SEO nightmare.

Unlike more powerful electric lunchboxes or portable hotpots that plug into the wall, the Steambox isn't really meant to actually cook your food. The company's website warns you to "be careful when cooking raw meats, chicken, or fish with Steambox" and says that doing so isn't recommended.

The FAQ page does say that cooking veggies should be "no big deal," which I was very happy to hear. I was a little less happy when I bit into the broccoli that had been steaming for all 25 minutes and felt the crunch of mostly raw greenery. (Though, honestly, it was alright once I tossed on a little Tony Chachere's and some sweet chile sauce.)

Probably my biggest issue with the Steambox: it is slow. I had to reheat the mac and cheese I mentioned for around 20 minutes, whereas a microwave takes around two or three minutes. It's also worth noting that the Steambox's small size gives you a pretty hard limit on what you can reheat, and it fits way less than even a dorm-size microwave. (I don't think you could fit an average slice of pizza in it.)

Microwaves are one of the elephants in the room when it comes to the Steambox. Or at least they would be if the company (also named Steambox) didn't constantly bring them up in its marketing. "Bye microwave," reads a quote on its website. "The microwave basically kills your food," de Krieger told TechCrunch. Perhaps the most offensive bit of copy is on its Kickstarter page, which claims the microwave is "a great way to heat up your food, and a great way to destroy all of the goodness and nutrients ... before radiating the sh!t out of it," adding that a microwave often makes your food look "revolting."

What? First of all, I’m not letting that bit about destroying nutrients and radiating your food go unchecked because I haven't seen any evidence that's true. (The US has many, many problems with its food culture; reliance on microwaves isn't one of them.) But it also feels like unearned confidence. Perhaps I’m just a microwave wizard, but the food I got from the Steambox was on par with, not better than, food that I reheated in the microwave. It was enjoyable enough to eat, but I’d call bullshit if you told me the food that came out of it was straight from the oven or stove. That's certainly a bit of a letdown for something that costs more than the price of three low-end microwaves (more than enough to stock an office, even if your boss wouldn't spring for one themselves) and takes much longer to reheat food.

The Steambox does have some benefits compared to a microwave; in my tests, it didn't fumigate my house with a fishy smell when I was reheating a fillet, while my microwave did. Also, I can stand next to it while reheating lunch without my AirPods cutting out.

There are plenty of people who don't have the option of plugging a device into an outlet and who may appreciate a portable, freshly heated lunch. And others who would prefer, for whatever reason, not to nuke their food. Perhaps you work outside or are at job sites where outlets aren't available or are taken up by more important equipment.

When it comes to portability, the Steambox does have a leg up versus basically every appliance that needs to be plugged into the wall. Its battery is good for around 40 minutes of cooking, which could reheat around two or three meals.

However, I often spend my weekends in the middle of conservation areas to build and maintain hiking trails and never even considered taking the Steambox on one of those trips. Even toting it to a nearby park for lunch wasn't the idyllic experience I imagined. The problem is that it's a big and relatively heavy device; according to my scale, the whole kit weighs around 4lbs, 11oz, or just over 2.1kg, before you add any food. (For reference, my backpacking stove, a titanium cookpot, and a gas canister meant for backpacking weighs less than a pound: it's 12.8oz, or 360g.)

That heft, and the fact that it's a completely inflexible rectangle, makes it pretty uncomfortable to carry in a backpack. When I talked about the Steambox with one of my acquaintances who works outside almost every day, she was less concerned with the weight but also didn't think it’d work for her 30-minute lunch breaks unless she wanted to scarf down food after 15–20 minutes of watching everyone else eat. She also wondered if it’d hold enough food for someone who's active all day long.

She did come up with some use cases I hadn't considered, though, suggesting that snowmobilers might find it useful or people on a car camping trip, assuming they had an easy way to clean it and wouldn't be outside for too many days. For her personal use, though, it didn't seem like she’d be rushing out to buy one. "I think I’d only try one out if I found one in a thrift store for under $10... more likely under $5," she told me. (That probably sounds a little harsher than it actually is — she's a legendary thrifter.)

There are cheaper and more packable ways to get warm meals while outside if you’re willing to use insulation rather than reheating. A classic Thermos can keep soups hot for hours, and those usually cost less than $50. The same's true of this Zojirushi lunch jar, which even includes small bowls that let you bring along several different types of food. Even a standard insulated lunchbox could do the trick, depending on your needs.

There are a few more nits to pick with the Steambox, while I’m at this:

(I have, however, seen much worse in Kickstarter comments; the ones for the Steambox seem to be relatively positive, though there are at least a few people who say they’re still waiting for theirs.)

The thing I’m most torn about with the Steambox is that it actually seems to be relatively competent at heating up food. Sure, it's not perfect, but it's also not a disaster. Despite that, I struggle to recommend it to pretty much anyone. Perhaps its price tag would be swallowable for affluent fish aficionados whose co-workers hate the smell or someone who really wants to eat warm food away from an outlet, but I think pretty much everyone else would be better served by other less expensive solutions like a microwave, insulated containers, a toaster oven, or wired electric lunchbox. It's just too unhappy of a medium; it's not really convenient to take outdoors, and there are much better options indoors.

Perhaps the best way I can sum it up is with this anecdote: I’ve had the Steambox for a few months now, and have repeatedly tried to convince my wife — who takes a regular lunchbox to work every day — to test it out. Literally the entire reason I wanted this review was to see if my wife could cook fish at work without getting bullied.

Apparently, she didn't think that juice was worth the squeeze because her response was always the same: "Why would I do that? I have a microwave at work."

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