Friday, August 27, 2010

How to Pack a Waste-Free Lunch

It's back-to-school time, folks! Inspired by a recent post from Tofu Mom, I thought I'd write a little bit about packing a waste-free lunch -- either for yourself, or for your school-ager!

First, you might not be a lunch-packer, so I thought I'd try and convert you. Here are a few reasons to pack a lunch every day:

1. A home-packed lunch is nutritionally superior to a lunch purchased from a restaurant. Restaurant portions are often ridiculously large, contain heavily-processed ingredients, unhealthy oils, and too much salt and sugar.

2. A home-packed lunch saves you time! It takes me about ten to fifteen minutes to pack lunches for both Dan and myself every day, and I often pack our lunches the night before, when I'm putting dinner leftovers away. When you consider the amount of time it takes you to travel to a restaurant, stand in line (or wait for a table,) order, and pay, a packed lunch wins!

3. A home-packed lunch saves TONS of money. I was reading in the most recent issue of Eating Well about the cost savings of packing a lunch daily. They estimated a typical restaurant lunch costs, at minimum, $8.50. They estimated the typical home-packed lunch costs between $2 and $3 per day. Whoa! That works out to a yearly savings of over $1300!

4. A home-packed lunch can be waste-free! Think of all of the wrappers, paper napkins, cups, lids, straws, plastic silverware, and other junk associated with eating out. Here are some of my favorite resources for a waste-free home-packed lunch:

Dan and I both have neoprene lunch bags from BUILT. (Dan's is plain black with a taupe lining; I have an awesome polka-dot pattern.) These. Bags. ROCK! Until I discovered BUILT bags, I used to wear out a lunchbag per year. Not any more! I have had my tote for over three years, and it's still kicking strong. The bags are durable, washable, insulated, slightly stretchy (in case you occasionally need to pack a breakfast or dinner, too,) accomodate a variety of sizes of containers, come in awesome colors and patterns, cushion your food and containers from minor bumps and bangs, and truthfully, are relatively affordable, when you consider how much use they will get.

I tend to pack mostly leftovers for lunches, so leak-proof containers are extremely important to me. I have been happy with these containers from Sterilite. We have found that occasionally the seals need to be removed (they are easy to pop out with a fork) for cleaning, and if you repeatedly bend the flaps backwards they have a tendency to crack, (but none of ours have broken yet,) but they are COMPLETELY LEAK PROOF! Seriously, I had a container of soup flip sideways in my lunchbag during a bike ride, and not a drip escaped from the container. We have been rocking four of these for a year now, and I'm not sure I'd buy anything else! I do recommend having a double-set of containers, just in case you don't get to the dishes one night. :)

(P.S. I'm not worried myself about heating food in plastic for a minute or two in the microwave, but if you are, buy glass containers. I've recently seen some of a very similar style to my above containers, and have been curious to try them out. Glass is obviously heavier and breakable, but non-leaching!)

Another lunch gadget I love are Wrap-N-Mats! These things rock, and have helped us drastically reduce our use of plastic ziploc baggies. The mats are great for sandwiches, pizza, crackers, chips, pretzels, cookies, bars, muffins, scones, raw veggies, or really anything that isn't too sticky, runny, or drippy. Plus, they come in TONS of colors and wild and crazy patterns! We have four, and even though I chose some pretty bizzare patterns, Dan gets tons of compliments on them from coworkers. (And of course, the kids love my goofy piano-playing frogs!) These are a must, in my opinion, for a waste-free lunch kit!

I pretty much just drink water, but looooooooove my Earthlust water bottles. I have two, (a 20-ounce and a 1-liter,) and adore their stylish patterns. I found the keyring/carabiner clip kind of clunky and annoying, so I just took it off, and haven't gone back to a Nalgene or SIGG since! These bottles have slightly wider necks than average, too, so I find them pretty easy to clean with a bottle brush. (And of course, they could go in the dishwasher.)

Find some fabric. (IKEA has really fun patterns, if you don't have fabric lying around. I think I spent about $7 on a yard there over four years ago, and I haven't bought a paper napkin since.) Borrow a pinking shears from a friend or grandma who sews, and cut it up into napkin-sized squares or rectangles. (Ours are about 5X7, but you could obviously go larger if you'd like.) These will shred a little bit in your wash the first few times you wash/dry them, but then they will be fine. They take up hardly any space in the lunchbag, and very little space in the wash each week. Cheap! Waste-free!

Do you have forks? Probably. Do you have spoons? Probably. Throw one in your lunchbag. Put it back in your bag when you're done eating! If you have forgetful little children or care about your flatware set, buy some crappy flatware from the Goodwill just for things like packing lunches, picnics, camping, and the like. Cheap! Waste-free!

Now . . . it's up to you to figure out what to eat! :)

I'm curious to hear any additional waste-free lunch packing tips, tricks, or supplies you find helpful -- comment away!


Anonymous said...

Love this post on waste free oldest is starting grade 1 this year and will be bringing a lunch to school for the first time so I bought her and her sister a planetbox. They arrived yesterday and I'm really happy with them. They were expensive but I know they will pay for them selves quickly but not having to by plastic wrap, baggies, juice boxes, etc.

Cool idea about the napkins! I'm gonna head to the fabric store today to pick some up.

Anonymous said...

I have a BUILT lunch bag too--love it!


Lauren said...

I bought two sets of snack/sandwich bags from here: Saw her booth at a local craft fair in spring. LOVE them.

Lauren said...

P.S. What do the Earthlust bottles have that SIGG lacks?

Catherine Weber said...


Earthlust bottles are stainless steel, so while they are heavier, they are also dent-proof. (My old SIGG is super beat up, and the paint is totally scratched.) I had big problems with a new SIGG bottle's lining peeling out after only a few weeks of use, so I made a switch and won't go back!

Lauren said...

Gotcha. My SIGG is getting pretty beat-up, too. Did you get your Earthlust here in a store or online?

Emily said...

Love these tips! I pack my lunch ALMOST everyday!
I'm going to check out the Built bags though, I don't love my lunch bag.

Catherine Weber said...

Lauren, I found my Earthlust bottles at -- they have TONS of cool stuff!

Emily, I LOVE my BUILT lunchbag! They have the coolest patterns!