Good lunch in a hurry: less waste doesn’t have to take more time

Sticking with the theme from yesterday of how to pack a waste free lunch, today I’ll shift the discussion to getting a low waste lunch packed in a hurry.

Remember, the idea of a zero waste lunch is to avoid generating unnecessary garbage (usually packaging) to lighten our ecological impact.

Time is of the essence

No one seems to have enough time in her day anymore, and this is at least as true of moms as it is of the general population. Mom has the same 24 hours available to squeeze in caring for herself and her offspring.

Today started off with one of those mornings. It was predictable, and I often employ strategies to reduce morning stress, but sometimes I fail to achieve my idealized solutions.

  • I didn’t pack lunch the night before.
  • I needed to get laundry in the machine this morning so it would be dry by evening.
  • I didn’t prep the breakfast ingredients the night before.

Each of these tasks is quick—taking perhaps 5-10 minutes—but, when added together, there goes my precious early morning tea time. Not the end of the world, but it sets a very different tone to the day.

When I’m not prepared, it takes more work to have what the kids and I call a “good” morning. No yelling! No taking frustrations out on family members. No blaming someone else for the jobs we left undone and are scrambling to complete.

We did manage a good morning, in spite of my poor planning. One reason for that was having strategies in place for a speed-packed lunchbox. I even took a few extra seconds to snap some pictures. We arrived at school with three minutes to spare, though, if I’m honest, that’s only because traffic was mercifully light and I lucked out with every traffic signal on the way there.

Here’s how I packed a lunch so fast.

Main dish straight from a bulk package in the freezer

There were no leftovers ready to go, so DS2 got his favorite treat for a main dish: chicken nuggets. These are the gluten free version from Applegate Farms. He can use a microwave oven at school, so I packed them in a CorningWare 16 oz glass casserole dish. A paper towel and the heating instructions are folded into the dish with the food to make it easier for DS2 or a helpful teacher, to prepare his lunch.

The heating instructions call for the paper towel when re-heating nuggets in the microwave. At home, I would use the oven heating instructions and avoid the waste, but that isn’t an option for school.

When I’ve included glass dishes in a child’s lunchbox, I make a point of reminding him to be a little extra careful about how he handles it. I suspect that this advice is forgotten before he’s even through the door, but we have had very good results in spite of careless boys and breakable containers.

I’ve been happy with both CorningWare and Pyrex dishes. They are very sturdy. The insulation/padding of a modern, soft-sided lunchbox no doubt helps cushion the glass as well.

Side dishes zip from storage to containers

Here’s another case where I have to own up to my imperfections in the area of less wasteful grocery practices. One of the reasons I always keep “baby carrots” in our fridge is that they go straight from storage to the lunchbox or plate. The value of this ease can’t be overstated when it comes to getting fresh veggies into the lunchbox, and making vegetables a quick grab snack to which the boys may help themselves.

I also have regular carrots on hand that I buy from our local farmers. We use those when we are cooking and prepping lunches and snacks ahead of time in an ideal scenario. But baby carrots are the champions of less than ideal mornings at our house. Cherry tomatoes are really easy, too.

Another corner I cut on a day like today is patting dry the other produce before I pack it in the round stainless steel containers. The U Konserve/Kids Konserve rounds with silicone lids will hold whatever water remains while in transit, but I will probably get a moderately grubby lunchbox back at the end of the day due to dribbles, crumbs, and dirt.

Thank God it’s Friday! We only wash the lunchbox once a week, on the weekend, to maintain some semblance of good hygiene.

Potato chips are a rare lunchbox treat, but, like the chicken nuggets, both popular with the child and super quick to pack. Since he’s getting two servings of vegetables today—one for snack, and one for lunch—it’s a good day for this concession. I’ll avoid anything high in sodium for dinner tonight to make up for the little guy’s salty lunch.

Washing twice as many veggies took less time than choosing and getting out an alternate snack option, like nuts (kept in the freezer) or an egg (which I peel for him at home, thus costing more time.)

The apple wins the award for least packaging needed, but my son may well skip eating it. Sliced apples are much faster to eat, which is why I usually take the time to cut them up when I include them in his lunch. Reducing packaging isn’t necessarily an ecological improvement if it results in wasted food.

I mention this to, once again, underscore how personal all of these choices can be. What works for me may not be ideal for your situation, but I hope my tips generate ideas you can use.

Dessert and drinks are prepped ahead for the week

Both a treat and a beverage were already portioned and ready to pack. I almost always have these prepped for the week on Sunday night.

Sweets for school—except on a rare holiday—are home baked goodies with a healthier profile than packaged products. The blondie I packed today uses whole grain teff and millet flour and a healthy dose of almond butter for flavor and fat content. They taste great, and are helpful for tempting my little guy, who’d rather play than eat during his allotted break time.

My recipe is adapted from one I found here.

Lunch quick pack busy morning - 5

Today’s lunch pack required four U Konserve rounds (medium, 2 small, mini), a CorningWare 16 oz casserole, Nalgene 8 oz bottle, and a Bumkins small snack bag. The apple required no packaging.

My water bottle choice: Nalgene 8 oz rectangular

The water bottle issue is one I’ve grappled with for years. I’d prefer not to use plastic, but I have yet to find a glass bottle that is affordable enough, durable enough, and sized and shaped right for the way I want to pack a school lunch.

The Nalgene 8 oz wide mouth rectangular bottle is the best option I’ve come up with for daily school use. Here’s why:

This bottle fits inside the lunchbox. My younger son, in particular, will not remember a separate bottle. Either the lunch or the water bottle will be lost. I don’t like that option. He could carry a larger lunchbox, but then it wouldn’t fit inside his backpack; once again, he’d be responsible for managing two important items. It’s a recipe for more frequent replacement of expensive, necessary objects.

Also, rectangular dishes use the space in the lunchbox more efficiently than round ones. I tried packing our small Sigg bottles in the same spot, and the bag bulged alarmingly, if it would zip at all. The Nalgene rectangular bottle is the perfect shape.

I was really upset by how the Sigg company handled the issue of its use of BPA in the liners for its otherwise great aluminum bottles. We still use the ones we have, but I won’t be buying more.

I fill six Nalgene 8 oz bottles with about an inch of water on Sunday night. I freeze them all. Each morning, I top off one bottle’s chunk of ice with filtered water and pack it in the lunch. This helps keep the contents of the lunchbox cold, and it reduces the temperature of the water in contact with (HDPE) plastic.

These factors are important to me for food safety reasons and to reduce my child’s exposure to leached toxins, respectively.

When the weather heats up, or if I know the class is taking a nature study field trip, I’ll add a second frozen bottle to the lunchbox. This gives DS2 enough water to stay hydrated, and keeps the lunch chilled longer.

I have frozen ice packs in a variety of sizes which I also employ as needed, but frozen water bottles are sufficient during most of our school year in New England’s climate.

Not all or nothing, just a best effort for today

It’s taken me far longer to describe packing this lunch than it did for me to complete the task. I’ve had years of practice, but it takes more desire to avoid waste than it does talent or skill. A few containers in convenient sizes also come in handy.

More than anything else, I hope that someone reading this who feels like waste free lunches are out of reach can see that this is a process. It isn’t all or nothing. Do what you can manage today, and aim to do a bit better tomorrow.

Here’s a secret: I keep a small shelf full of pre-packaged snacks at the top of my pantry. Why? Because, some mornings, tossing a ready made bag of pretzels into the lunchbox is the best I can do. It doesn’t matter why, and it doesn’t make me a bad person, or a failure as a mother.

Taking even small steps to reduce waste is a fine start. Just keep following those steps up with more. You’ll get to where you want to be.

What do you do on your busiest mornings to get the best lunch packed in the least time? Do you use more packaged goods, or have you got better solutions? Please share in the comments!

5 thoughts on “Good lunch in a hurry: less waste doesn’t have to take more time

  1. I’m pampered too much by my mum that I don’t need to cook at home and reading how you packed a lunch this fast is just… inspiring. I’ll have to learn how to cook myself meals when I live by myself in Japan, and I hope everything will turn out alright.

    • My secret is… I don’t really like to cook! So I find the easiest possible ways to create healthy meals for my family. (I do like food. I like to EAT!)

      It’s my engineering background. I want to solve problems and have them be done. But getting hungry, cooking, and cleaning up afterwards happen over, and over, and OVER. Arg!

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