Welcome back to school; I miss you while you’re there!

I dislike sending my little guy back to school on the day after Labor Day. In direct contradiction to the nonsense spouted in television commercials, not all parents cheer to have their kids out of the house.

If I were selfish, I would educate both of my children at home, to suit my personality and my interests. I send the younger one to school instead because it suits his.

I miss our long, quiet summer mornings. There’s time for us, then, to sit down together over breakfast. I miss saying yes to late night stargazing and other adventures because there’s no need to worry about a busy schedule.

I miss DS2‘s good company around the house during the day. He’s blessed with great wit and a loving temperament. He’s generous with his hugs.

I am excited to begin the new school session with DS1 here at home. He studies year ’round, but our schedule changes to a different pattern every September, December, January, and June. This choice is energizing, and keeps subjects feeling fresh.

DS1 is a pleasure to keep at home with me. We’re both fairly introverted, so we often work quietly, side by side. Quietly, that is, until one of us gets excited about a project or idea. Continue reading

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!

Peek inside my lunchbox: reusable solutions for a waste free lunch

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.

Lunch dishes zero waste Packed bag

Containers used include Medium U Konserve square (grey lid), 10 oz Thermos jar, U Konserve small round (brown lid), Nalgene 8 oz wide mouth bottle, and Bumkins snack bag (Batman)

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.

Disposable products are almost entirely a modern concept. Lunchables and Ziploc bags are the newfangled oddities that should be regarded with suspicion.

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:

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.

Lunch dishes zero waste Squares nested Rounds

U Konserve sells the To Go square boxes as a “Nesting Trio” (compare to individual piece prices on Amazon for the best value); below are U Konserve small round, mini round, & a generic red silicone baking cup

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!

Why these?

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.)

Lunch dishes zero waste mini round

U Konserve mini food containers are ideal for boiled eggs or cucumbers

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!

Lunchbox life saver: Weck glass storage jars paired with Thermos insulated containers

Some small tweaks in behavior can eliminate daily annoyances. One of those, for me, was the switch from storing leftovers in miscellaneous containers to using glass canning jars with narrow necks made by Weck.

What makes a glass jar revolutionary?

The mouth of a Weck ¼ L Cylindrical Jar (neck opening) nestles perfectly inside the rim of a Thermos insulated jar. It also holds just the right quantity of food to completely fill a 10 ounce Thermos.

I can microwave leftovers in their storage container (Weck jar), then simply invert the jar over the Thermos to quickly and neatly transfer the warmed food.

My old method was messy & inefficient

Before, I would transfer a serving size portion of leftovers—judged by eyeballing the quantity—from a larger Pyrex storage container to a plate. I’d re-heat the food, then fill the Thermos from the plate. Unless I took the extra step to measure out the serving of food, I routinely over- or under-estimated how much mass on a plate would precisely fill an insulated jar.

Or, I would store single servings in plastic containers, but then I would need to dump the food onto a microwave safe dish before re-heating.

We don’t heat food in plastic because of the potential health risk of leaching toxins. I prefer not to store food in plastic for the same reason, though I’m not zealous enough about the subject to avoid it when there’s a real danger of broken glass.

In either case, I also had to spoon the food into the Thermos after heating. That usually resulted in at least a little spilled food and a greasy mess on the outside of the lunch container. Remember, hand-eye coordination is not a particular strength of mine. My arthritis also means morning stiffness in my fingers, further reducing my competence in the kitchen, especially during the before school rush.

Objective improvements thanks to Weck jars

Here’s a list of functional improvements I can attribute to my switch to storing individual servings of leftovers in Weck jars:

  • less wasted food
  • no dirty measuring cup and/or
  • no dirty plate used for re-heating
  • no dirty spoon used to transfer
  • no dirty kitchen counter from spills
  • less frequent cleaning of lunchbox interior from carrying greasy Thermos

More subjective benefits

Though I tend to put function first, the intangible benefits of this new storage and food transfer solution have also made a big impression on me.

Glass jars are beautiful

I debated whether this should be reason number one, but it’s too easy to overlook little changes that bring a lot of joy to everyday life. Beauty is one of those.

Weck jars lids narrow neck - 1

L to R: ½ L Juice Jar; 080 Mini Mold Jar over ¼ L Juice Jar; 760 Mini Mold jar over 975 ¼ L Cylindrical Jar; plastic storage lid, glass canning lid, 762 1/5 Jelly Jar

Even with my lackluster photography, Weck jars make a pretty picture.

I originally bought a set of three of the ½ L Juice Jars from a fancy kitchen store at an exorbitant price. I had a functional use for them, but I also just loved them. Aside from looking nice, the juice jars, in particular, are sized to feel great in the hand while you hold them.

Compare these two views:

Though both cupboards store functional kitchen equipment I use every day, it should be obvious which items I store in a closed cupboard, and which are stored in plain sight.

Made in Germany, meant to last

Americans who aren’t familiar with the German manufacturer, Weck, should know that these are canning jars. Consider this a European equivalent to our Ball or Kerr canning jars.

The difference, and, again, what makes these so perfect for use with a Thermos, is the size of the mouth of the jar. You want a jar with a 2-3/8 inch opening to mate with a Thermos. Weck also makes wider mouthed jars more similar in diameter to the mason jars used in the USA, so check the size carefully before you place an order.

Because these are canning jars, they are made of thick, strong tempered glass. They were designed to be immersed in boiling water as part of the canning process, then stored for long periods to keep food fresh. They are sturdy.

They are microwave and freezer safe, and I routinely use them for both.

Avoid sudden temperature changes when using glass, and allow room for expansion when freezing liquids. Weck jars are sturdy glass, but any glass has the potential to break if mishandled.

Standardized sizes for sensible accessory storage

I realized years ago that buying a set of containers with interchangeable lids works much better for me than a bunch of disparate sizes. I am reasonably good about tossing a container that’s lost its lid, but why run that risk in the first place?

To keep up with the packed meal demands of my family of four, I own six Thermos insulated jars in two sizes, all of which use interchangeable lids.

Though I’ve now expanded my Weck jar collection to include both 2-3/8 inch and 3-7/8 inch diameter sizes, in both cases I can always order extra lids to replace any that are lost or mangled. The jars are somewhat expensive, but the plastic lids are very reasonably priced.

One less thing to worry about

A canning jar won’t change your life, but, if your family carries packed lunches, it might remove a moment of stress from typical mornings. In our household, that’s one of the busiest—and most stressful—stretches of the day.

And, after all, is there any more beautiful way to store your jelly beans?

Weck jelly beans