It’s back-to-school season! If your child brings a lunch to school, now is the time to think about how to pack that lunch. If you bring your lunch to work, this is a great time of year to rethink what you’re packing, too.
Choosing the right lunch-packing habits can make a big difference in how much garbage you create. Reducing waste often saves money, too. If you shift from eating out of plastic wrappers to eating out of washable containers made of glass, metal, or other safe materials, you’ll be taking in fewer harmful chemicals. So it’s a win all around, not just for the environment!
Here are a few main ways my family makes our school and workplace lunches more environmentally friendly. This is not a sponsored post. All of the specific products mentioned here were chosen by my family and purchased at full price, and all opinions are our own. These tips are written as if you, the reader, are the lunch eater, but they all apply to packing kids’ lunches, too!
1. Use what you have.
The greenest type of reusable item is one that you don’t buy new, because even the most ecologically-produced objects take resources and energy to make. Here are some things I’ve repurposed for packing my lunch:
- Glass jars from foods like salsa and peanut butter are great for transporting food. The 2-cup size holds a hearty serving of a main dish or a big handful of cut-up fruit or carrot sticks. The lids seal well. Food can be microwaved in the jar (lid off), but make sure to use a potholder or napkin when you pick up the hot jar. Glass jars clean up beautifully in the dishwasher, although we prefer to hand-wash the lids.
- Plastic bags from bread, and the plastic liner bags from boxes of cereal and crackers, work just fine for wrapping a sandwich or other dry food. Use a bag over and over again (shaking out the crumbs) until it gets sticky. You can wash plastic bags to get even more uses out of each one, and when you’re done, most bread bags and ziptop bags are recyclable (along with plastic shopping bags) in bins outside Target stores and many supermarkets.
- Plastic tubs with lids are good for food that doesn’t need to be heated. They are lighter weight than glass, so if you’re packing one type of food in glass, you may want to put the rest in plastic to avoid having a very heavy bag. I especially like the clear polypropylene containers many Chinese restaurants use for take-out soup and such–they come in three sizes, all with the same size lid, so it’s easy to find the right lid in the drawer. I use these for corn chips, cheese and crackers, and yogurt (scooped from the quart-size bucket we buy into a 1-cup tub). If I’m packing a piece of fruit or a tomato that is pretty soft and might be damaged by other objects in my bag pressing on it during my commute, I put it inside a 2-cup tub.
- Metal utensils feel nicer in your mouth than plastic and are very unlikely to break as you use them. We have an assortment of random forks, spoons, and knives that aren’t part of our matching flatware set, and we use these in packed lunches because it’s no big deal if they get lost. They are dishwasher-safe and last basically forever. Check out this cute way to make your own utensils+napkin kit!
- Cloth napkins are classier, scrubbier, and more absorbent than paper napkins. We have a bunch, many of which were given to us by relatives who had them lying around unused because they didn’t match the dining room decor. They take up very little space in a load of laundry, and they last for years.
2. Buy reusable lunch gear at Mighty Nest.
There are many great sources of lunch gear, but Mighty Nest has a particularly wide selection (lots of kitchenware to use at home, too) and Mighty Nest will donate a whopping 15% of the price of every order to the school of your choice! This is a far better fundraiser than Box Tops for Education–I’m willing to clip those, but we simply don’t buy very many of the products that carry them, either because they’re unhealthy foods or because they’re more expensive than another brand.
Mighty Nest sells a number of complete lunch-packing systems, as well as individual items to complete your lunch kit. Here’s one of my favorite items:
3. Consider a PlanetBox.
If you want to pack a lunch using one simple system, instead of a hodgepodge of containers, PlanetBox is a great choice! We bought the Rover model for our son Nicholas when he started kindergarten, and I wrote this detailed review after that school year. Nicholas is now preparing to start fourth grade, still using the same PlanetBox and Dippers; we replaced the carrying case at the beginning of third grade, and he now has three sets of the decorative magnets, which take turns on the lunchbox and spend the rest of their time on our steel kitchen cabinets. [UPDATE in 2017: In sixth grade, he stopped bringing all of his lunch, filling in with some of the free school lunch and bringing a mid-morning snack in his PlanetBox. This means he’s starting seventh grade still with the same lunchbox. We replaced the case again and bought a few more magnet sets midway through fifth grade.]
These are a few of PlanetBox’s best features:
- It holds 5 types of food without letting them touch–important to many young children! The compartment for dessert is quite small, encouraging appreciation of a little treat in a healthfully small quantity, like 5 chocolate chips or 2 mini marshmallows.
- The 5 compartments encourage you to eat a variety of foods in each lunch.
- If you get tired of the picture on your lunchbox, you can replace the magnets for only $3.95 (or go for the space-age plain silvery look) instead of buying a whole new lunchbox.
- The carrying case is made of 100% recycled plastic bottles. It’s durable (I repeat, we got 3 years out of the first one), the zipper is easy enough for little hands yet doesn’t unzip accidentally, it has pockets in useful sizes, and it wipes clean with a damp cloth. (The corners do get a bit gross over time.)
- The box itself is extremely well-made. We’ve never had any trouble with the hinge or latch. It’s easy to clean with a soapy dishcloth, and it can go in the dishwasher (after removing magnets).
- It’s easy to eat out of the open box kept inside the open carrying case–no extra parts to stash under the cafeteria table and possibly misplace.
Although I winced at paying $59.95 for a kindergartner’s lunchbox, when discount stores sell a wide selection of lunchboxes for $20 or less, PlanetBox has turned out to be a great investment! Those cheap lunchboxes probably would have needed to be replaced every year. PlanetBox, plus a replacement carrying case at $24.95, plus two extra magnet sets when they were $3 each, has so far cost us $90.90 over 4 years; that’s $22.72 per year so far, and it’s still going strong, so by the end of this school year it will be a better deal than the cheap lunchboxes.
4. Consider a Squooshi.
If you like to have a smoothie, applesauce, yogurt, or similar food in your lunch, a Squooshi reusable food pouch is a great way to transport it! It’s just like those disposable pouches that you squirt into your mouth, with the screw-on cap that you can replace if you don’t finish it all in one session…but Squooshi is reusable.
I was skeptical at first. It looked like it would be a pain to clean. But after buying two of them for Nicholas for Christmas, I found that because the pouch opens across the whole bottom (with a closure similar to a ziptop bag) and its “shoulders” are gently curved rather than cornery, it actually can be rinsed out in seconds!
However, I must warn you that it is really crucial not to overfill the Squooshi, and to close the bottom very securely. Once it’s closed, it will stay closed until you pull hard…but if it is just a tiny bit open, or if the pouch is too full so that a little applesauce wedges into the zip, the moment that Squooshi is squooshed there will be applesauce everywhere!!
The larger size Squooshi fits easily into the larger outside pocket of the PlanetBox Rover carrying case.
5. Drink tap water.
Sugary drinks, even juice, are bad for your teeth and add calories to your meal. Artificial sweeteners may not be safe. Bottled water has lower safety standards than tap water. Any kind of beverage costs more than tap water and has some packaging; even if it’s a bulk package that’s recyclable, manufacturing that package and shipping it to the store uses energy. Instead, fill your reusable bottle with water straight from the tap, or filtered if you prefer. Better yet, if there is a source of drinking water in the place where you eat lunch, bring an empty bottle or cup to fill–now your bag is not so heavy!
Packing low-waste lunches works for my family! Visit Waste Less Wednesday for more ways to control the garbage in your life. Visit Mom’s Library for more family-related wisdom. Also check out Kitchen Stewardship’s articles on reusable lunch gear and what to pack in it.