Cut the Crap: Repacking the Lunchbox

In a previous chapter in my life, I was a preschool teacher. This episode was sandwiched somewhere between being an experimental filmmaker and being a full-time parent. It was the sort of job situation that found me, and one in which I immediately established a sense of mastery and harmony with the role.

I have an endless backlog of memories from this time that are routinely shared over drinks as witty vignettes from my life, but the one thing that left an indelible memory, with a sense of sustained awe, was lunchtime.

As is obvious to any teacher or parent, this was the time that every child would retrieve their lunchbox from their locker/cubby, sit down, and furiously tear into any number of yogurt cups, plastic containers, and snack packs–leaving in their wake a riot of soiled paper napkins, mangled plastic, and marginally abused food items overflowing a 32-gallon garbage can.

The tide of waste and refuse was so torrential, I had often expected to uncover, during cleanup, injured livestock and battered trailer homes. It is no secret that children are prone to producing a great deal of waste, in the form of the routine childhood detritus–forgotten toys, broken furniture, and needless packaging. There may not be much you could do about the first two items, but with all the unnecessary packaging, especially centered around lunchboxes and lunchtime, there is a lot you (as a parent) could do to curb the tide of refuse.

Start by purchasing durable and reusable food containers. These items used to be hard to come by a few years back, but with “greening” being the apparent zeitgeist, they are virtually everywhere online and even in some of the big box stores. With lunchboxes, there are tons of options from reusable lunchbags (insulated and otherwise) as well as crafty versions of the classic lunch box. One of my favorites is the astoundingly efficient BentoBox from Japan, or the Indian Tiffin Box, which is used widely by the businessman set throughout much of India.

Instead of using plastic bags, foil or sandwich wrap, replace them with simple mini-storage options like the ever-ubiquitous Tupperware, or some of the more stylish Japanese options that could be found online or at various import stores. Also, there is something called Wrap-N-Mat, that does double duty as both a food wrap and as a placemat. When it comes to cutlery, either pack lightweight silverware (hoping that it makes the trip back) or invest in some durable plastic or bamboo alternatives. There are also a number of biodegradable options out there, but remember things don’t always biodegrade if they are living out eternity surrounded by non-biodegradable waste in a plastic garbage bag.

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

Parenting at the Crossroads

9 comments

Danuta Watola
Danuta Watola3 years ago

Thanks for sharing

elena moroz
elena moroz6 years ago

are the plastica beto boxes that you link to safe? In other words, is the plastic that they are made out of BPA and pthalate free, and is it made out of recycle or PCW materials?

Vural K.
Past Member 7 years ago

thankyou...
Kabin
Konteyner
mega kabin

Black Wolf
Roxanne Andrews7 years ago

I use the wrap-n-mat for my daughter's lunch and we love them. I bought 2 for her.Easy to clean and keep the sandwich fresh.

Eric Steinman
Eric Steinman7 years ago

Erin (and everyone else) thanks for your comment. I too have heard some talk about the dangers of Melamine, which has toxic properties that could be released if misused or heated. There was a pet food recall in 2007 attributed to the use of melamine as an actual additive in pet food (this practice was isolated to pet food produced in China). If you want to be safe, I would go with stainless steel containers, or relatively "safe" plastic that isn't numbered 4, 6, or 7. Sadly, this might require you to be a vigilant consumer. Also, I would refrain from microwaving any plastic, even if it says it is safe to do so.

Erin E.
Erin E.7 years ago

I'm curious about the plastic used in the BentoBoxes and sets of all varieties. It appears the BentoBox is made of Melamine. I've read Melamine contains formaldehyde. The other (microwave safe) Japanese sets (many also from Bento) are all plastic... what kind (number)? I'm trying to find a win/win situation, but it's quite difficult...

Erin E.
Erin E.7 years ago

I'm curious about the plastic used in the BentoBoxes and sets of all varieties. It appears the BentoBox is made of Melamine. I've read Melamine contains formaldehyde. The other (microwave safe) Japanese sets (many also from Bento) are all plastic... what kind (number)? I'm trying to find a win/win situation, but it's quite difficult...

Cindy A.
Cindy A.7 years ago

wrap sandwiches in cloth napkins if they are going to be eaten within a reasonable amount of time. wash the napkin and reuse. voila ! greener lunch. I do this for my lunch all the time.

Marya G.
Marya G.7 years ago

I have a 4 year old, and try to pack a waste free lunch every day. I am lucky enough to live near a japanese dollar store, and found kids bento boxes for $1.25 each (Ichiban Kan if you are in the SF area, $2.50 including the matching elastic strap to hold them shut). It's cute, it's functional and it's waste free. I also pack a sigg bottle with juice, and a cute childs cloth napkin.

I find it's MUCH easier to use reusable containers than disposable. A few extra containers get tossed in with our dinner dishes, but we never run out of baggies or juice boxes. :)