Say you want to join the waste free lunch revolution, but you don’t know where to start. Here’s some advice on where to begin if you’re looking to reduce disposable packaging in your packed lunches.
What does a zero waste lunch look like, anyway?
There are a lot of nifty reusable lunch containers on the market today, and it could be easy to imagine you need to invest the kids’ college funds and buy a complete set of stainless steel Tupperware alternatives from an expensive, eco-friendly brand.
That’s great if you have the budget—and it isn’t wrong to say that a few perfectly sized and well designed pieces can streamline a lunch packing system and simplify busy mornings.
On the other hand, lunch—or, at least, the concept of eating food while away from home—is hardly a modern concept. You can pack a lunch with whatever you have on hand, and you can do it without waste.
You can reuse commercial packaging jars.
Reusing bottles and jars is one good option.
The great benefit of these is that they appear in your home as a side benefit of some consumable you’ve purchased anyway. Jelly jars as drinking glasses? That’s reuse at work. You can certainly bring soup to school in a mayonnaise jar.
The down side is having the right tool for the given job. Does anyone have a kid who eats that much soup? Unless we were buying what I think of as “singles” sizes (as opposed to our large, “family size” jars) of mayo, peanut butter, etc., these jars are too big for any meal I can imagine for my kids.
If you’ve got the jars on hand, however, use them!
My mother-in-law has told me many times about how, living in communist Russia, they would save every jar they got. They were considered generous gifts to offer when someone invited you to visit their home. Every one was reused, and very much appreciated as the useful tool it was.
Her stories really help me appreciate the bounty I enjoy every day in my life, and we’ve gotten plenty of family sized helpings of her homemade chicken soup in repurposed jars.
Dry foods will survive just fine wrapped in fabric
Sandwiches on the dry side and similarly non-oily cakes can be wrapped in plain cloth napkins. If I have something just a bit too squishy for cotton, I might cheat and use a layer of waxed paper or parchment beneath the cloth. Okay, then I’m no longer packing a waste free lunch, but the paper does at least stand a chance of biodegrading, unlike a plastic option.
I grew up using cloth napkins, and that’s all we’ve ever used in our shared home. That means they are always on hand in the kitchen, and that I’ve also got a subset of napkins with stains. That mayo from the sandwich could make a grease spot? Oh well.
Just take care not to use your heirloom linens for this task, and it’ll be fine.
Damp foods can travel in dishes with fabric lids
Moving up the squishiness scale, damp or moderately malleable foods can go with you in any bowl you own. Just cover with a cloth and use a rubber band to hold the cover in place. This option is perfectly fine for adults who will carry a lunchbox in a reasonably upright orientation.
Remember Little House on the Prairie? Well, those kids carried their lunch to school in a tin pail with a cloth over the top, and we know Ma didn’t pack it full of Tupperware. The kids probably swung the pail as they walked several miles to school, too. Not a single anecdote from those novels tells the tale of a ruined lunch and how the world, as a result, ended.
Err on the side of caution and use an oversized dish. The food is less likely to slop over if you
swing your pail tip your lunchbox in transit.
Soup is tricky: buy a Thermos
If I were starting to pack waste free lunches today with no existing dishes, and I was ready to invest in some basic equipment, my first purchase would be:
- a 10 ounce Thermos insulated food jar,
- a medium sized U Konserve square “To Go” box, and
- a set of two U Konserve small round containers.
All of these are made primarily of stainless steel. They hold up well, are non toxic, and they won’t break under normal use, even by kids or clumsy adults. All of them have withstood regular washing by machine, even the Thermos which doesn’t recommend dishwasher use.
I’m assuming anyone reading this article already owns at least one reusable water bottle or beverage cup. I see making that switch as even more fundamental than packing a waste free lunch. Exploring the best water bottles would require a whole separate post!
The Thermos is vital for me, because I like to pack hot leftovers and soups. Even when I had access to a microwave at work, I found it easier to do all my food prep at home in the morning. Ditto for my kids. I can barely get my little guy to eat the food I send for him; he’d rather skip lunch and head straight outside for free time. Only an insulated container gives you warm food immediately when you’re ready to eat.
A big eater could readily swap the 10 oz Thermos jar for the larger 16 oz size. The lids interchange between the two sizes, and I own both. I tend to pack smaller servings of more types of food for the larger appetites in our family, but the 16 oz size isn’t unreasonably large for a one dish meal such as casserole.
But, many times, I want to send drier foods that are fine at room temperature, or perhaps a sandwich to accompany that soup. I’ve found the medium square To Go box by U Konserve to be an ideal size. It will hold a fairly large sandwich (e.g., on artisan bread), but it can also handle a child’s mini sandwich with an assortment of small side dishes.
A really big eater might be inclined to start with a large square To Go box, but I’d still recommend the medium as an initial purchase. Your food will travel better in a box that’s packed full; empty space leads to shifting and deconstructed sandwiches. Buy two mediums (or maybe a medium and a small square) instead of one large and you’ve got more flexibility.
The U Konserve small round containers come in a set of two, which is a good start, because I pack between one and three of these in my son’s lunchbox almost every day. This is the size for a serving of carrot sticks. The silicone lid fits snugly enough to allow for sloppy foods such as yogurt, and its 5 ounce capacity is within the range of usual serving sizes for it.
One standard sized cookie fits neatly inside a small round by diameter, though I’ve been told that I should “fill” the container by including two or more cookies for the necessary depth…
These small rounds are approximately the size of a tuna fish can.
Having set that bare minimum as a baseline, I struggled to write the last section without mentioning what I’ll add here as Phase Two of the Zero Waste Lunchbox Shop-a-thon.
Extras make fitting odd items easier
Moving on from “bare necessities” to “really nice to have,” I’d add:
A set of silicone “baking cups” works wonders to subdivide your larger lunch box containers. These flexible molds come in standard circles, like a reusable version of the paper liners you’ve seen on cupcakes, but they are also available in squares, rectangles, and other shapes and sizes.
I use the square and rectangular cups the most often. They let me snuggle a pickle or other wet food in the same dish with a sandwich when I have an empty corner to fill, and they keep the wrong flavors from mingling. Before I had the silicone inserts, I used a lot more waxed paper or parchment to keep disparate foods from touching each other.
Since they come in a rainbow of colors, baking cups also make the lunchbox look happy inside, for an added ray of sunshine.
The next addition to the shopping list, not quite as basic as the small rounds by U Konserve, but, again, appearing super frequently in our family lunch boxes, are by the same brand: the Mini Food Containers (set of 3.)
About half of Amazon shoppers are offended by how small these are, but that’s why I think they’re so perfect. Many kids don’t like commingled foodstuffs. Separation can be a beautiful thing. Also, many foods aren’t good for us in large quantities. These make a proper one ounce serving of nuts look bountiful instead of pitiful. They perfectly hold one peeled hard boiled egg. A single macaroon fits neatly inside.
They won’t keep in liquids, so they aren’t quite as versatile as the rounds with the silicone lids, but I love this size. It’s great for my light eater to have a high protein snack, stored distinctly from his lunch selections.
My final almost must haves are also some of my newest acquisitions: Bumkins snack bags.
These are like Ziploc bags, but made of washable fabric. The Bumkins brand also makes cloth diapers and other baby items. I preferred their bibs for my boys when they were babies. This is the same durable material: water resistant, wipeable, smooth, and washable.
They can go in the dishwasher (top rack) just like the rest of the lunch stuff, or you can launder them by machine. They dry overnight. I hang mine over the handles of my knives in the knife rack.
Now that I have them, I wonder why I waited so long, but I can tell you the answer. I doubted they would work. I thought they would be hard to clean or less convenient, like some other (hand wash only) reusable zipper bags I tried years ago. When I realized last fall that the only time I was still reaching for a disposable bag was when I had a tiny corner to fill in a full lunchbox, I finally bought these, and I’ve been very happy with both the large (sandwich bag) and small (snack) sizes.
I’ll admit it: I don’t fill the Bumkins bags with super juicy stuff. I have jars with threaded lids for that, and would sooner use the silicone lidded stainless than the bags if I didn’t. Neither the kids nor I have had any juice leak through from fruits, veggies, or pickles with them, though. I polled the house today to make sure.
I’ve packed a lot of lunches using many products
I was inspired to describe our lunch kit today by the comment stream after a post on A Ferdydurking Blog about reducing waste. I’ve tried quite a few products to refine a system that works well for us, and probably wasted a bit of money in the process because I love to compare every possible thing.
One great bit of news is that almost every eco friendly lunchbox brand I’ve tried has been of good quality and sincerely useful. I can’t say enough good things about LunchBots, U Konserve (formerly Kids Konserve), and even the plastic (but high quality) Laptop Lunch brand.
It’s a far cry from the loads of cheap plastic ware that abound in mass market stores and often have poor fitting lids or corners that crack within a few uses. But not every piece will be ideal for every lunchbox. It depends upon what you like to pack for lunch.
I’ve offered up my best suggestions for where to start if you want to begin packing a lunch that’s a bit lighter on the planet. Please feel free to ask if I’ve prompted any questions. I’ve packed an awful lot of lunches in these dishes!