My husband and I pack our lunches pretty much every day. Actually, when we first started dating, we ate lunch together every day, so making our lunches together in the morning also became one of our things. I sadly broke this tradition when I left grad school and got a full time job. Now we take turns packing lunch and snacks for each other each work day.
Some years back, I started to reconsider what I was using to pack my lunches and started looking for ways to reduce the waste I was producing each day. Here’s a summary of that process (which has been several years in the making). Also, just to be clear, this is a summary of the products we’ve used personally. I didn’t do any additional research for this post, nor did I receive any endorsements from the companies I mention.
Stage 1 – Tiny Plastic Baggies
I have a hunch that there are a two types of families out there – those that use ziplock bags in their school lunches and those that use the fold-over baggies. My house was the latter, supplemented by waxed paper expertly folded and creased into a sandwich wrap.
As an adult, I used these baggies for my lunch as well. I started saving and reusing bags over and over, but a bag only lasted so long before you got mustard all over it, or you accidentally mixed up your cheese bag and your carrot bag… And you’d have to toss out the baggies and get a new set, which is why I tried moving on from the tiny plastic baggie.
Stage 2 – Plastic Tupperware
I actually skipped this stage altogether. These containers work great for some – they are reusable, washable, and lightweight. I just didn’t want to replace one type of plastic with another. I won’t even get into the headache of organizing all of the containers and their lids in the dreaded tupperware cabinet. On a hilarious note – when I first met my husband, he owned one tupperware container. It held about a gallon of liquid or enough food for a family of 6. This did not stop him from bringing it in for lunch though. Some days he ate a LOT of pasta.
Stage 3 – Reusable Lunch Baggies
So, to replace the disposable plastic baggies, I bought two different types of reusable lunch baggies. One type was made from organic cotton and the other was a coated fabric. Both used velcro to close. Both were really disappointing. Our sandwich bread was always a little dry on the outside by lunch time and completely stale if you forgot to eat your sandwich (which happened to my husband more than one would think). Chips and pretzels were stale by lunchtime (only 4 hours after packing!) and baby carrots were always dried out by the time I wanted to eat them. The velcro closure didn’t work for any type of cut fruit – juice just got everywhere. This was a very sad time for lunches in our household.
Also, these containers were not cheap. I can’t remember the exact amount, but it was a little less than $50 on the two sets (for about 10 bags in total). They were both small US companies, so I felt okay spending a bit more on something I was taking a chance on. Boy, did I learn my lesson. I did not check the return policy before purchasing and let my impulse win over my typical long, drawn-out process of researching a product before purchasing.
What kills me is that I am seeing more and more of this kind of baggie advertised on the various blogs I read! These are primarily advertised for kids. Which is where I think the problem lies. The adults who buy or make these baggies don’t try them out for themselves. If they did, they would realize what a poor job they do keeping a lunch fresh and edible.
Stage 4 – Hybrid Approach
I know this sounds silly, but we were pretty bummed out by our experience trying to reduce our lunch waste and we weren’t really sure what to do next. I remembered my mom’s technique of wrapping sandwiches in waxed paper, so I decided to try that. Waxed paper is paper, so I thought this was a bit better than the plastic baggies. At the store, I found a box of waxed paper bags all ready to slide my sandwich in! They also worked pretty okay for chips and pretzels – if you ate them that same day.
I also introduced bringing food in glass pyrex each day. I switched away from the daily sandwich around this time as well, so I needed something other than a baggie anyway. The only downside to Pyrex is their weight. If you drive into work, this isn’t a big deal. But lugging a couple of pyrex full of food on the bus and then up a hill (my current commute) actually weighs you down. Add in DC humidity and I was an unhappy bee by the time I made it into work.
I’ve found mason jars are lighter than Pyrex, so I also use those sometimes for yogurt and granola, or servings of cut up fruit.
Stage 5 – The Bento Box
This brings us to just a couple of months ago. Our house is doing just okay with lunches. My husband is still eating sandwiches, so the bread gets sent in the same bag over and over again; the jar of PB is at work, along with some bag of snacks usually. We’re big on homemade granola bars, so those go in a baggie (same one over and over again). I am lugging those 2-3 glass containers every day up a really steep hill and I am tired of it. Did I mention I like snacks? That’s why I have so many containers with me each day. Moving on…
Enter the Bento Box. I had seen some bento boxes on blogs I read. Some were plastic (which I still didn’t want to buy) and some were stainless steel. I was concerned with a couple of things about the stainless steel ones:
- Would they weigh less than the Pyrex?
- Would they hold the right amount of food?
- Are they worth the price?
I had seem lots of kids lunches packed in these boxes, so I wasn’t sure if the food I like would fit in the small boxes and I wasn’t sure how many of these boxes I would need to lug up that hill daily.
Luckily, the pain of wasting money on those other bags was still fresh enough in my mind and heart to keep me from making any impulse purchases. And yes, a lot of time had passed at this point, and yes it still bothered me that I wasted that money.
I looked at two brands closely: Lunchbots and Planetbox. Lunchbots has a couple of different types of containers, but generally are on the smaller size. At Planetbox, their product looks like a cafeteria tray and comes in different sizes for different sized appetites. Ultimately, the Lunchbots system seemed better suited to my needs. They would fit into my current lunch bag along with my thermos or in the bottom of a large tote without much trouble. The weights of the containers were posted on the site, so I was able to weigh my empty Pryex and compare. The stainless steel containers were, in fact, a good bit lighter than the Pyrex! Additionally, Lunchbots had a 30 day return policy. So if they ended up not working, I could send them back. So I went for it and bought the Stainless Set – three containers in total, each with a different number of compartments.
The verdict? We love them! Here’s what my lunches look like now, everyday! Just kidding! My lunches look pretty much the same as they used to; the foods I like fit fine in the bento boxes. Whole fruits are too big, but half a banana or apple quarters fit fine. On days I need to reheat my entree, I bring a Pyrex. While the containers are well constructed, each section is not leak proof, which means putting pickles in the same container as strawberries is not a good idea. I’ve seen pictures of using lettuce to hold different foods – like these rice bears on the right – but I’ve been using silicon muffin cups to separate foods when I need to. A little cup holds a serving of nuts or hummus easily.
Below are a couple more (realistic) pictures of what fits in these boxes. These lunches are still fancier than what I do daily, but they hopefully give you an idea of what you can do with the containers. All images are courtesy of the Lunchbots site. They have a gallery full of really nice looking lunches that will put your mom’s brown bag lunches to shame! (Just kidding Mom!)