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MARCH 2012 (links updated 2014): With today's stylish and ingenious lunch box options, you can easily pack safe, zero-waste lunches for the whole family.

The Smart Lunch Box
No muss, fuss, toxins or waste

How does a lunch box get straight A's? It delivers lunch on the go without waste, harm or inconvenience. The schoolchild who carries it saves, on average, 67 pounds of trash a year.

The "it" in question includes not only the lunch box (or bag) itself, but the food and beverage containers and packaging inside. All parts are reusable and durable, all are easily cleaned and none are made with toxic materials, such as BPA, phthalates or lead.

With a Grade A lunchbox you can say goodbye to plastic wrap, aluminum foil, disposable plastic water bottles—and the high cost of pre-packaged single-portion drinks and foods. Equally important, you can feel safe knowing your children's health—or your own if you're packing for yourself—has not been compromised by exposure to dangerous chemicals.

Of course, the smart lunch box also performs its principal job well, which is to keep lunches in good shape till lunchtime, with warm things warm, cold things cold and everything in its proper place. It is lightweight, accommodates desired portions and has lids, clasps and closures that are easy to use. The look is good and the price is right.

Extra credit goes to lunch boxes made of recycled and/or organic materials.

You can assemble your own smart lunch box by buying components a la carte or go for an all-in-one solution. The menu includes:

Food bags and wrappers - lightweight cloth packaging for sandwiches and snacks. Lined or coated with moisture-resistant materials, they can be wiped clean and washed in the washing machine or dishwasher.

Food bags:
Snack Taxi, Lunchskins

Food wrappers that convert to placemats:
Wrap-N-Mat

Bento boxes - partitioned boxes containing separate compartments for different dishes. They handle sandwiches, pasta, stews, cut-up fruit, yoghurt, raisins, dips, etc.—almost anything but soup. Japanese in origin, bento boxes are traditionally made of lacquered wood but come in a wider variety of materials today. Look for boxes made of food-grade stainless steel or one of the safe plastics (#1, #2, #4 or #5).

Stainless steel bento boxes:
PlanetBox, Lunchbots

Plastic bento boxes:
Laptop Lunches

Tiffin carriers - a set of two or more stacked food containers that are latched together, generally with a handle on top. Like bento boxes, tiffin carriers can accommodate wet and dry foods, but aren't ideal for soup. Originating in India, tiffin carriers are typically metal. Look for ones made of food-grade stainless steel.

Tiffin carriers:
To-Go Ware, Happy Tiffin

Insulated food jars - wide-mouthed vacuum insulated stainless steel jars that keep food hot or cold for hours. These jars are the best option for soup as there is no leakage. Most are single item jars, but Zojirushi offers several models that include stacking tiffin-style containers inside that can accommodate a mix of hot and cold foods.

Insulated food jars:
Lunchbots, Thermos, Zojirushi

Utensils - spoons, forks and knives in stainless steel, tin or bamboo. If you have some old ones lying around at home that you can spare (and afford to lose), use those. If buying, consider a two-in-one spork (half-spoon, half-fork), which does double-duty.

Utensils:
To-Go Ware, ECOlunchboxes

Napkins - the cloth variety. Good choices are organic cotton or hemp. Napkins in dark or bright patterns will hide stains and reduce the need for washing, which saves energy, water and time.

Water/beverage bottle - reusable bottles with some kind of drinking spout. Get a bottle made of food-grade stainless steel (not aluminum) or glass. You can also choose a bottle made of one of the safe plastics (#1, #2, #4 or #5).

Regular bottles:
Klean Kanteen, Enviro Products

Regular & insulated bottles:
Thermos

The lunch box or bag itself - a carrier for all the lunch components. The best materials are stainless steel, cotton and canvas. You can also choose a lunch box made of one of the safe plastics (#1, #2, #4 or #5).

For a wide selection of boxes and bags from different manufacturers, see Reuseit.com. Not all are made from the safest materials, but you can filter the list for those that are—and for those made from recycled materials.

—Sheryl Eisenberg


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On This Topic


Planetbox bento box

Laptop Lunches bento box
TRY A BENTO BOX for an appealing lunch with multiple dishes and no waste, like these from PlanetBox and Laptop Lunches.


Tiffin carrier
TIFFIN CARRIERS, where dishes are stacked vertically and latched together, are another alternative. Find them at To-Go Ware and Happy Tiffin.


AVOID SOFT VINYL LUNCH BOXES. Vinyl is often made with lead, a dangerous neurotoxin that can impair a child's cognitive and physical development at low levels. Instead, choose a cotton, canvas or stainless steel lunch box from the large selection at Reuseit.com.


Well-loved, well-used water bottle
THE BENEFIT COMES FROM LONG USE. Manufacturing a stainless steel bottle comes at a relatively high environmental cost, but if you use it regularly for years, the cost per use drops to almost nothing. So don't leave it in the cupboard or replace it at the first sign of wear and tear. It's built to last. My trusty blue Kleen Kanteen above has seen me through more than a thousand workouts at the gym and is still going strong.


Resources


Earth 911
5 Ways to Pack a Zero Waste Lunch

Annenberg Learner
Solid Waste

EPA
Waste - What You Can Do

NRDC
Lead in Her Lunchbox?

ilunchbox
Lunch Recipes for Kids

Also see resources embedded in the text.


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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.