March 12, 2008

Packing a "Green" Lunch

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On Natalie's first day of kindergarten, her teachers made a request, and it wasn't for boxes of tissue and crayons. They asked children to bring cloth napkins and re-usable cups for lunch and snack time. I was all for it, considering that Americans typically generate about 4.5 pounds of garbage per day per person. In fact, it got me wondering if I could I do more to make less lunch trash.

That afternoon when I cleaned out my daughters' three lunchboxes, I felt as green as an oak in summer leaf. I resort to plastic bags only as a last resort, instead packing sandwiches, fruit, and snacks in re-usable plastic containers. No plastic utensils. No juice boxes. Water or milk travel in re-usable plastic bottles.

Then I asked around to see how other parents cut down on lunch waste -- and quickly downgraded myself to a pale, iceberg lettuce-shade of green. Those darned single-serve packages. So convenient, and I only buy them for raisins and applesauce. And yogurt. Oh, and cereal bars. Over time, it adds up to a heck of a lot of packaging, even if it most of it gets recycled. I vowed to buy big and dole out daily servings into yet more re-usable containers. Trouble was, this quickly led to an overflow in both the lunchboxes and the kitchen sink.

One savvy mom of three had this solved. She introduced me to two lunchbox systems with modular, re-usable containers that both reduce waste and allow you to pack plenty. I hired Ellie and Caitlin, my 10-year-olds, as official testers.

Ellie, 10, favors the coordinated look of Lunchopolis, a traditional-size insulated carrier designed to neatly hold its own four transparent lidded containers and plastic bottle (www.lunchopolis.com.) I like the ease of sticking them all in the top rack of the dishwasher to use again tomorrow and the fact that it's never a struggle to fit everything in the box.

Caitlin is sold on the Laptop Lunch System (www.laptoplunches.com). Now that she's in middle school, a laptop (even a pseudo one) is way cooler than a lowly lunch box. For me, the advantage of the flat case is twofold. One, the case lid fits tightly enough to serve as a cover for all but one of the removable inner containers, meaning there are fewer parts to wash and store (or go missing). Two, it's easy for kids to see and access every item in the lunchbox at once. No more "Oh, there were carrots in there?"

Natalie can't give up her butterfly-print L.L. Bean lunchbox (www.llbean.com). So we thought inside the box. I've replaced her re-usable juice-box-style straw bottle more times than I care to count, which benefits neither landfills nor my wallet. We swapped in a kid-size Sigg bottle (www.mysigg.com). It's pricey, but the cute animal motif is easy to spot and endearing enough that she keeps track of it. Better still, it's made of aluminum -- a plus for moms concerned about the safety of plastics.

The final hurdle: Plastic sandwich boxes are sometimes a struggle for 5-year-old fingers, but baggies are a big no-no when it comes to a green lunch. Enter Wrap–N-Mat (www.wrap-n-mat.com.) This re-usable sandwich wrapper secures with Velcro, so it's simple to open and doubles as a place mat. It's so easy, that now Natalie wraps all of our sandwiches (yes!). Plus, it's easy to wipe clean and takes minimal space to store.

Now that our lunches score a vivid green, we're hungry for more. Look out, breakfast and dinner!

What eco-friendly products work well for you and your kids? Click the comments link below to find and share ideas.

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Packing a "Green" Lunch

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