This is far from a normal back-to-school season, but . . . a kid’s still gotta eat. So what’s to be done about packing an environmentally-friendly lunch bag?
The obvious approach is to avoid plastic products in your child’s lunchbox, but let’s face it, that is so much easier said than done! Pretty much everything in the “kid’s lunch” market is packed in plastic: juice boxes, fruit cups, chip bags, candy bars, you name it. So it’s time to get a little creative. Or rather, just a little more conscious about what you pack.
First, the lunch box itself. I recommend avoiding the plastic boxes, if you can, as well as brown paper bags (no sense killing a tree every time you serve lunch). Fortunately, there are endless lunch pails you can buy with every cartoon character under the sun emblazoned on them, so you’re sure to find something your child likes. Look for a stainless steel lunch box or cloth bag. If you’re especially crafty, you can make your own—and your child can truly make a one-of-a-kind fashion statement. A stainless steel thermos also is a must.
The contents require a bit of planning, because another key is to avoid wasting food. And it depends a lot on what your kids will eat. But generally speaking, you’re not going to go wrong with packing whole fruits and veggies. They’re healthier, they keep your kid from getting too jacked up on sugar during the school day, and they don’t come in plastic wrappers. Yay!
Sandwiches are a historical favorite for the main course, and they’re pretty easy to handle; if you’re packing something else, like leftover pasta or casserole, reusable containers are the way to go. If you have to use plasticware, so be it, though you can also buy stainless steel tins. The longer you can wash and reuse a plastic item, the better. Try to pack real silverware, though, instead of disposable utensils that will immediately get tossed in the trash—or try out a set of bamboo picnicware that you can easily stash on the go.
For side items like crackers, chips or pretzels, I like to buy them in bulk and then dispense a little at a time into baggies. This helps us avoid single-use plastic wraps.
The best replacement I’ve found for plastic sandwich bags are reusable Lunchskins sandwich and snack bags. You can get them with zippers or without; they wipe clean easily, and they’re top-rack dishwasher safe. I use them for my son’s sandwiches, carrot sticks and crackers. Just remind your child not to toss them in the trash after lunch — you’re going to need them back! (Good news — they come in gallon size, too!)
If your child buys milk at school, send them with a biodegradable or reusable set of straws. I’m kind of hoping these will become fashion trend markers, like old-timey pocketwatches or something. “Oooh, Mason has the polka-dotted straw!!” If you have your own steel thermos, you can fill it up with water or juice in the morning and it should stay cool until lunchtime.
The killer is dessert, because the easiest things to pack use profusions of plastic, like candy bars, pudding cups and single-serving baked goods. I only give them as treats on rare occasions (my son is one of the rare goofball kids who LIKES fruits and veggies so by the time he finishes all of those, he’s usually run out of time for dessert anyway). Or you can go back to the buy-in-bulk option and stock up on items that will keep a bit longer, like cookies, and parse out a few at a time into reusable bags. Kids do love Oreos. Or maybe I’m sublimating here.
Need a napkin? You can cut up some cool fabrics or even leftover socks into squares and toss them in the lunchbag; just have your child bring them home to wash and you can use them again and again. Or try disposable napkins made from recycled paper or bamboo.
It’s really not so bad if you’re buying the right food and can get used to a few minor changes, like reusable bags and utensils. (And as long as your child doesn’t accidentally throw them in the trash!) Wishing you all happy eating, happy lunching, and a happy school year. I hope you all stay well and safe.