Peek inside my lunchbox: a butter box could save your cookies

Sometimes, you buy a special purpose item, and find it works really well for something unexpected. Here’s an example from my kitchen.

I bought a plastic butter storage box. I wanted to take a single stick of butter camping with less chance of squishing or greasing every other item in the cooler.*

Butter box wafer container for lunch box - 2

Here’s a single stick butter storage container on Amazon ($7) that looks like mine. I don’t have a purchase record to confirm this is the same item, but it should serve a similar function.

This little box is the size of an East Coast stick of butter. It happens to be a wonderful size for sending three wafer cookies in a lunchbox if you’re willing to break the third in half.

Butter box wafer container for lunch box - 1These gluten free Schär wafers have a tendency to disintegrate into crumbs anyway, but breaking one to fit the box probably wastes less cookie. Total devastation is wrought by sending them to school in a baggie like I would with a more robust dessert.

Lunch quick pack busy morning - 5

The butter box also works great for a skinny wrap sandwich made with a flexible, flour tortilla instead of bread. Peanut butter or a light layer of thinly sliced deli meat only! You’re working with an interior space designed for a 1.25″ x 4.75″ stick of butter.

Perhaps this dish will suit your own favorite long, skinny, delicate cookie. When it comes to dessert, I like to save every crumb for eating. The lunchbox should get none.

It’s easier for me to test spatial relationships by getting my hands on something. I can draw diagrams and take measurements and make pretty good educated guesses about how things will work in the world, but I’m not particularly gifted at mentally fitting shapes together.

I wouldn’t have guessed how often I would use a butter box for school lunches until I had one at home to experiment with. In the quest for packed lunches without waste, this is a useful—and uniquely sized—container.

Read more packed lunch posts: containers I like and a Thermos jar time saver.

*My cooler tends to be a mess when I go camping, unlike my carefully curated chuck box!

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I had no idea there were alternate shapes for cubes of butter. Imagine my surprise upon moving east for college to discover that something I thought was standardized came in a different shape. The outer packaging also differs. On the West Coast, butter comes in fatter cubes packed into a row in a VHS VCR tape sized box. Back East, the sticks are slimmer and longer and they get packed together into a box more akin to a building brick.

When I pointed this out to my mother, she said, “That must be why some sets of dishes have such weird, elongated butter dishes! I always wondered why manufacturers did that.”

Ah, the things you take for granted before you travel!

That’s how I IKEA. I’m very good at IKEA. My success is entirely based upon sketched models, however.

Disposable paper coffee cups aren’t good enough for a 4 star hotel like San Francisco’s Westin St. Francis

Due to my husband’s travel schedule and a favorable fare war over the flight path involved, I had the great pleasure of spending five (5!) nights in the heart of San Francisco. His professional obligation put us up at the Westin St. Francis on Union Square.

I would be unlikely to pay for a 4 star hotel in this location—unless, perhaps, it was in an historic building I admired—but I’m eminently capable of enjoying it.*

My husband in particular dislikes a hotel which increases the fussiness or snootiness of the service at the expense of obvious value added to his straightforward tastes.**

Overall, the Westin St. Francis did a great job providing the unpretentious service we prefer at a level above what we demand to be satisfied. It was a very comfortable and gracious place to stay in a bustling San Francisco neighborhood.

Housekeeping gracious manners - 1

It’s my habit to leave a brief thank you with the tip for Housekeeping. A first for me: Westin Housekeepers thanked me back!

Though not quite to the level of get-it-before-you-ask intuition shown at five star properties, we found Room Service to be quick and attentive to detailaspicky eaters on a weird schedule. Housekeeping was very thorough, friendly, and, like Room Service, paid careful attention to special requests.

I can’t fault any of the service personnel at the Westin St. Francis, though the Front Desk was often busy or otherwise slow to serve.***

There was one item both Housekeeping and Room Service failed to providefor us when asked, and I did make requests of both. I asked Housekeeping in a note, and DH asked Room Service on the phone. I was told they could not provide a reusable mug for the in room coffee service.

Even when ordering espresso via Room Serviceor seated in the lobby cafe, it was provided in a tall 12 oz paper cup with Starbucks branding. Yuck!

My complaint here is twofold:

  • I love my coffee, and it tastes better from a ceramic cup.
  • Throwing away a paper cup for a beverage I’m drinking seated and indoors is needlessly wasteful.

I prefer a paper cup to styrofoam, but we all know there’s got to be a coating on that paper to make it waterproof, right? Coffee is hot. Wax and plastic coatings melt. Plastic, even without BPA, still contains chemicals that probably impact human health.

No, I don’t think the paper cup’s interior coating enhances the flavor of my organic medium roast.

And as for the unnecessary creation of garbage for drinks I’m consuming in the comfort of my hotel room? No, just no!

I think it is tolerable—if not my personal preference—for the Westin or any other hotel chain to choose to default to paper cups for in room coffee services. I don’t know the statistics on hotel behavior, but it’s absolutely possible that most guests most of the time are preparing, then carrying out, their room-brewed morning beverage. I understand that the glass carafes on the old 4-cup coffee makers broke regularly, creating headaches and hazards for Housekeeping and guests.

In this Tower room at this Westin hotel, the location of the coffee service near the tiled bathroom, but outside of its perils on a carpeted floor, would seem to reduce the risk of broken service items. A ceramic mug also seems less likely to crack than the thinner glass of a drip coffee machine’s carafe.

Most emphatically, if guests can be trusted to eat from ceramic dinnerware and glass cups delivered via room service, there can be no increased risk from coffee mugs of the same materials!

I suspect that the partnership with Starbucks is a part of this equation. Lots of people love Starbucks. It’s viewed as a premium brand. It probably “means something” to use that mermaid logo on your in room coffee service.

Perhaps Westin has an agreement to serve all coffee in Starbucks branded cups? Provide a ceramic mug with the iconic green logo, then, but please do have one available when I request a less wasteful coffee cup. If Starbucks is forcing the use of its branded paper cups, they need to be called to account for it or change their stated intent to reduce their environmental impact to a more honest one.

In Starbucks stores, I can always get my beverage in a ceramic cup by asking for it when I order. My estimation of the company would skyrocket if they made this policy a requirement for third parties displaying the Starbucks logo for marketing purposes. That would show a real commitment to the environment.

In a hotel with several bars and restaurants, a full menu of room service, and a complete kitchen that must include commercial dishwashing equipment, it is simply unacceptable to tell me that you don’t have a ceramic cup for me. I find it repellent, walking through the beautiful, marbled lobby, seeing a cafe full of guests settled in to drink from cups that are, essentially, garbage. I expect much better in an environmentally aware city like San Francisco.

Since 2012, the municipality of San Francisco has demanded that consumers pay for every paper shopping bag procured from a retailer. Plastic bags were banned outright in 2007. Even luxury boutique Hermès must ask if you want to pay 10¢ for a bag to carry home your new $12,000+ Birkin handbag.

How does this align with a hotel advertising rooms available “from $620 per night” during my stay that wouldn’t provide a washable, reusable mug for my use in the hotel?

My solution was to purchase a new glass “to go” cup from local roaster Blue Bottle Coffee. Theirs was manufactured by KeepCup. Trying Blue Bottle’s single origin espresso was on my list of adventures for the City by the Bay, so I got a meaningful souvenir and solved my cup problem in one fell swoop.

Blue Bottle espresso - 1 (1)

Yes, Blue Bottle Coffee’s single origin espresso was worth seeking out in its own right.

For someone like my husbandadmittedly, not a coffee drinker, like many most traveling professionals are—whose free time in the hotel is strictly limited by the rigors of his work schedule, this wouldn’t have been an option. As it was, when I offered him a soothing cup of chamomile tea in the evening, I had to clarify that he’d be getting it only after I finished my own cup of Darjeeling. We only had my one glass mug, of course.

Travel dish soap - 1

I often travel with my own refillable coffee cup† and I always carry a tiny 0.5 oz Nalgene drop dispenser bottle of dish detergent in my toiletry kit, but I left the travel mug at home this time. We were staying in a full service, four star hotel, so I assumed there would be proper drinkware on offer. I also knew that I’d have lots of free time while DH worked. I planned to savor my beverage of choice—espresso, straight up—seated in cafes and not on the go.

A recent sale flier by U-Konserve, the company that makes most of my reusable lunchbox components, pointed out the following from this study by ScienceAdvances:

“There is now one ton of plastic garbage for every person on Earth.”

U-Konserve also gives this fact in their Environmental FAQs:

“About 25 billion single-use coffee cups end up in landfills every year. If you buy just one cup of coffee or tea in a disposable cup every day, you’ll end up creating about 23 pounds of waste in one year.”

KeepCup estimates the environmental breakeven point of my reusable glass cup vs disposables to be as low as 15 uses. Put another way, if I use my new Blue Bottle travel mug 16 times instead of a paper cup, washing it between uses, I will have made the more environmentally sound choice.

Paper cups aren’t plastic bottles, but, seriously, are we still debating the wisdom of the throwaway society?

And I’m not even particularly militant on this topic. It strikes me as possible that disposables are more convenient to many business travelers, and I’m not prepared to insist that my opinions dictate what ends up in other users’ hands.

I am, however, quite wedded to my position that a hotel of the caliber of the Westin St. Francis has an obligation to provide environmentally friendlier options to guests like me who want them.

If not, it is greenwashing of the highest order by a company highlighting its sustainability mission and asking customers to “Make a Green Choice” to defer housekeeping that happens to be labor/cost saving for the hotel in addition to water-wise.

*My personal valuation of hotel class often boils down to: if the location is what I want, clean and simple will serve my needs. I prefer to pay extra for more space (i.e., two bedroom vacation rental with kitchen when traveling as a family) over luxury finishes or a more extensive range of services.

**He raved about the Philadelphia Four Seasons, mostly because room service recognized almost immediately that he prefers exactly the same menu every day. They came to answer his afternoon call with, “Are you ready for your berries now, sir?”

***When the shower knob fell off in my hand, the front desk forgot to send maintenance after my first call; I had to ring them again after 45 minutes of waiting. The service technician, once summoned, fixed the problem quickly, thoroughly, and with a total commitment to disturbing me as little as possible while he worked.

†My favorite is an unbreakable stainless steel-lined model by Liquid Solution. It has a non-slip, textured exterior, a simple lid, and holds up to machine dish washing.Coffee cup travel mug - 1

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!