School Lunches 101

New pants the next size up, with knees as yet unscraped or torn: Check. New shirts without food stains or pen marks: Check. New pencils, binders, and protractors: Check. New lunch boxes: Nope.

This year, not only did we not buy new lunch boxes for the kids, we didn’t buy any new containers to go in them. Ursula and Virgil will be carrying their lunches to school in the same bags they used last year, and we’ll pack their food in containers that worked for us last year, as well.

If a recent New York Times article is any indication, we are apparently part of a larger eco-trend. That article, “The Plastic Sandwich Bag Flunks,” focused on a trend toward waste-free packaging: out with the Ziplocs and paper bags, in with reusable sandwich and lunch bags.

Two years ago, we started looking at how we packed the kids’ lunches as much as what we put into them. One of our goals was to reduce packaging waste. That meant looking for containers we could use and reuse …. many times over. In that first effort, I bought the following:
- SnackTaxis, reusable snack bags sewn by a cottage company in western Massachusetts and decorated with pandas, beavers, and turtles
- a lunch bag made out of recycled juice boxes by a women’s collective in the Philippines
- stainless steel containers and bottles

When the SnackTaxi bags arrived, the tag contained information that disturbed us all: Each year, an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are used and discarded worldwide — more than 1 million a minute; more than 100,000 animals in the oceans die after eating discarded plastic bags. We scaled way back on our use of plastic bags of all types and washed and reused those we already had in the house. Our local grocery store also started accepting plastic bags for recycling — all small steps toward decreasing those huge and horrifying numbers.

There was another reason we wanted to change how we packaged our lunches, though —one even more important to us than reducing waste — and that was reducing our overall exposure to potentially toxic plastics: BPA, phthalates, PBDEs, and other endocrine disruptors. I was surprised to see no mention of this issue in the New York Times article, especially as new scientific studies suggest that a much wider range of plastics are endocrine-disruptors than was understood even a few years ago.

Last year, we went to even simpler packaging. While we liked the idea of the SnackTaxi bags, we had trouble keeping them odor-free. Following a tip from a “Great Kids, Great Outdoors” reader, we tried wrapping some food in a cloth napkin and discovered that it worked just fine. For food with more moisture content, we relied on stainless steel “Bento box” containers. We added the following to our collection:
- Pyrex glass bowls in several sizes. The glass is heavy-duty; the lids are plastic, but BPA-free.
- Wide-mouth thermoses for hot soups and leftovers.
- Zippered neoprene bags in bright colors and wild prints to hold everything.
- A thick canvas lunch bag with “L U N C H” in stenciled type across the front that nicely mimics the paper bag of the classic “brown bag” lunch. This became Virgil’s go-to lunch bag. He liked the jokey obviousness of it, and we loved how easy it was to clean.

We know that the kids’ lunches aren’t going to be completely plastic-free, or waste-free. But in the process of trying to give Ursula and Virgil truly healthy lunches, we’ve educated ourselves, too.

Learn more

- about reducing exposure to plastics from the nonprofit organization Healthy Child, Healthy World

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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