Taking lunch without filling the landfills

By Mir
August 13, 2008

The lovely Melinda writes:

I enjoyed your post on nut-free lunches, and I have a concern that is sort of a tangent to that one. I’ve recently become aware of my un”green” lifestyle and am trying to make some changes. I started thinking about the little baggies that I pack everything in for lunch and did some quick math: if every one of the 900 kids at our school threw away three baggies with every lunch, the school trash would have 13,000 baggies per week. Over the course of a year, that would be nearly half a million baggies! In my family of four kids, we’re tossing at least 2,000 of those suckers a year just by ourselves.

So, in my angst I’ve been looking for alternatives. These Laptop Lunches are super cute, but spendy. And look at the cute meals all these people make on this Flickr Pool!

Have you got any great ideas for something similar: small, reusable, cute, hard to throw away? The Ziploc and Gladware containers seem too big and I want something that fits together neatly.

Thanks in advance for the pretty thoughts coming from your pretty brain.

Melinda’s email made me hang my head in shame. Hi, my name is Mir, and I… I… I am a snack-size-Ziploc-aholic.

Melinda’s right, though, so I got to thinking.

As she’s already pointed out, the ideal solution is something like the aforementioned Laptop Lunch kit, although it’s not only expensive, it means washing out all of those itty-bitty containers every single night. I’m not sure I want to go that far.

Here’s a few ideas:

DIY Bento. All of the Laptop Lunch and fancy-schmancy (read: expensive) nested food containers are riffs on the idea of the traditional Japanese Bento Box. And while I love the concept, I’ve yet to find anything that’s all cutesy fitting together like that which doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. You can buy larger containers (Ziploc or Gladware or whatever) and fit smaller ones inside, sure. Will it be perfect? No. Will it be adorable? Probably not. Will your kid live? I’m thinking yes. (Okay, one more suggestion: This Fit & Fresh Lunch on the Go set is only $10, and if you spend $39 you get $10 off, so you could get 4 of ’em for $30. Not too bad.)

Container sizes change. I’ve seen quite a few smaller containers in the “new” reusable container lines, actually. I have small bowls I use to pack the kids yogurt, in both 4 and 8 ounces sizes. So they’re not impossible to find. Plus, my very favorite tiny adorable container is the Smidget, which is a round condiment container made by Tupperware. They may be discontinued, but they used to be part of the hostess gift package. They’re pretty easy to find on eBay. I use ours to pack dipping ketchup or ranch dressing.

Coffee filters. Coffee filters—plain ol’ basket ones—come in large and small sizes and are biodegradable and great for cradling foods that need to be kept somewhat contained but not hermetically sealed. Obviously you’re not going to be packing yogurt in them (um, ewwww), but they’re great for bunches of grapes or a couple of cookies.

Wrap-n-Mats. I’ve been waffling on these for a while, but I think Melinda’s mail was the push I needed to to ahead and order a set of Wrap-n-Mats. I love the concept, and it’s sort of a solution halfway between a coffee filter and a plastic container with a lid, I think.

Go for broke. I was planning to show you this as an example of my ultimate dream solution, and lo and behold, it’s available on the 4-for-3 special! It’s still ridiculously expensive, but I’m just sayin’. Should you win the lottery, I declare you must run out and buy a Zojirushi Mr. Bento Stainless-Steel lined Lunch Jar, the Cadillac of Bento solutions. (Want justification? You said you have 4 kids. Do the 4-for-3 and never buy another lunch container. Heh.)

Readers? What other suggestions do you have?


  1. I got some reusable “crayola” sandwich containers for my kids. They are not too large, will hold a sandwich (or, sometimes, just crackers and cheese, or cut up fruit). They do get used a lot in this house, and because they are so colorful, they rarely get thrown away (okay, they’ve NEVER been thrown away SO FAR!) We don’t use paper sacks, but a lunch bag. And my daughter carries water in a thermos, even though it would be more convenient to just throw a bottle of water in her bag. She brings it home every day, too.

    And wax paper was always great for wrapping and reusing….

  2. I saw these http://www.happy-sacks.com/ this morning in Cookie Mag. The snack sacks are about $7 a pop which seems pricey but then you think about how much a box of ziplocs costs and that ends up in the landfill… It might be worth the initial investment.

  3. I picked up 2 Wrap n Mats at a pretty good deal (via a co-op on DiaperSwappers) and my husband uses them every single day, alternating between them. We’ve cut way down on the sandwich size Ziploc useage! I wash them by hand (pb&j smears) and they’re dry and ready pretty fast for the next day. Probably wouldn’t have taken the leap at full price, but can now heartily endorse them… (and yes, would by them again without a deal).

    Now where can I get one of those hard-boiled egg molds for a steal??

  4. My husband and I also love wrap-n-mats and I fully believe they keep my sandwich fresher than a ziplock. I purchased full price (totally worth it) but also belong to a different co-op that has had sales for Laptop lunches and wrap-n-mats.

  5. I went to an Asian grocery store and got several cute bento boxes for really good prices!

  6. I second Jess — if you can find an Asian market of any sort, you’ll find a number of solutions and without the “isn’t this innovative and eco?” price.

  7. The person to ask is “Biggie” from lunchinabox.net. She’s all over it. I personally think the laptop lunch is totally worth it (I did a co-op, and we’re using them now for the third year, and they ROCK), but I’ve also had good results copying the idea with lock and lock containers from target.

    But seriously. Ask Biggie.

  8. Thank you, Miss Mir. I see lots of good ideas from you and your pretty readers. I’m going to try to find an Asian market near me. I’m in the Mountain West and not near a huge city, but I’ll try! I will also look at the smaller containers you mentioned

    I’m also impressed by the Wrap-n-Mat idea, and found this link for directions to make your own. I love to sew, and could just hear my grandmother saying, “You bought that?! We could have made it so simply!” so I googled for directions.

    I’ll keep watching to see what else your readers have to say!

  9. Another option, also available at Target is this: http://www.organize.com/locklock2.html (click on the alternative picture for a better idea of what I mean) it comes with 4 little containers that fit inside the large one for different foods, if you put in 2 little cups you can also fit in 1/2 a sandwich…another alternative is a square or rectangular container and use silicone muffin cups to separate the foods…

  10. Melinda: if you don’t have an Asian market close enough to you to make it worth it, try Jbox (http://www.jbox.com/) They probably won’t be as inexpensive as an in-person market, but they probably won’t be as expensive as the “aren’t we Green” places.

  11. Not really reusable, but definitely biodegradable: Wax paper. My mom used to buy big rolls of it to wrap our sandwiches & snacks in. She’d also get packs of cheapie mailing labels in bulk and let us draw whatever we wanted on them, and then use those to stick the wrapping together. It worked well and was semi-waterproof. We got an origami book from the library and figured out how to fold little boxes, but that was a lot of work.

  12. You can also find some homemade wraps on etsy.com. They’re about the same cost as Wrap-N-Mats, but Gnome Clothes is having a sale on a few styles ($4)

  13. What works for me is figuring out what can go together in the same container. I use mostly one cup gladware containers and when foods are put together it works well. I have mini silicon muffin cups that I use everyday in my lunch. Nuts go in a little cup in the pretzels container. Hummus goes in a little cup in the carrots container. I’ve never really done sandwiches, but it seems like you could put sturdy fruits and vegetables in with the sandwich to take up extra space. I don’t have a bento, but a lot of the ideas from bento websites help me pack my lunch in a small amount of space.

    My mom had a different solution to the cost of real bentos. She has a small, rectangular pyrex container with a lid that she uses for her lunches. It works the same as a bento, just without the official title.

  14. I was going to post on this topic today, too, but instead I’m just linking to all of the great ideas here ๐Ÿ™‚

    Thanks for an awesome, timely post!

  15. We use Laptop Lunchboxes. My Husband uses a fit and fresh lunch system. You could google reusuable lunch bags and see what pops up

  16. Great suggestions listed here…but consider this when you get something reusable for the kiddies — make sure they can open and close it by themselves without help. I used to send everything in my kids’ lunches in reusable containers, but I would end up with the sloppiest lunchboxes imaginable returned home. They couldn’t get the lid to seal properly on some containers, so leftovers were all over the inside, wet and dry. Some containers were too difficult to open without spilling the contents. You get the idea.

    We found a few that seem to work well and stick with them, but sometimes, alas, we just have to go with some plastic. I, too, have suffered from snack bag addiction….currently making my way through rehab….

  17. I got this in my email today – I haven’t tried it, but they aren’t too expensive. Plus there is a $1.00 off coupon on the website.

    Hope it helps!

  18. Well, as luck would have it, today’s “Daily Finds” email from Etsy.com was lunch-themed.

    I know Claire already mentioned that you can find things like this on Etsy, but that email linked to a different store than she mentioned. Check it out here: http://www.etsy.com/shop.php?user_id=6070468

    I love Etsy! Awesome handmade stuff over there!

  19. I JUST ordered a laptop lunch from Peddler’s Wagon. My toddler cannot wait to use it– just washed the containers last night.

    PW has the option of ordering just the box (and book), without the padded case and drink holder– it was just $20. Not bad when you think about several years worth of ziplocs.

    They also have a “to-go” lunch container that looks like a good option for grownups– and again, you can order it without the spendy accessories/case/etc.

    LOVE Peddlers Wagon (and PathToFreedom.com, the family’s website).


  20. I’m a Tupperware consultant and would love to help y’all out. If you e-mail me your order I can offer you free shipping on any order over $25. I think these new Sandwich Lunch sets are fantastic:

    my website is http://www.my.tupperware.com/mugsysgirl and my e-mail is jenminson@gmail.com Feel free to share with anyone. I use my Tupperware all the time for lunches and the best thing about it is the lifetime warranty.

  21. I got mine, adults and grandkids, on ebay – search Tupperware lunch box. Many choices and inexpensive…

  22. We use a lot of wax paper bags and those little Ziploc containers. We also send a stainless steel water bottle every day.

    Also, for all manner of bento supplies…containers, food dividers and cups, tiny sauce bottles and yes, even those super-cute boiled egg molds…at very very cheap prices, check out http://www.ichibankanusa.com. Of course, I just checked it and right now they are out of stock on a lot of those supplies.

  23. Sabrina D linked to what I send my kid’s lunches in. I have 6 of those locking top divided containers and they are AWESOME for things like grapes, carrots, half sandwhiches. I put cheese sticks I’ve cut in half in parts or take out two sections and put half a sandwhich or bagel sandwich in. Basically, I fill the thing up and snap the lid on. It won’t keep small things in the separate compartments if it tips (there is space between the sections and the lid, so small stuff can stlip through) and you can’t put liquid in the sections, but for just your basic stuff, it’s awesome. They were fairly cheap and we’re going on year three with them and they’re holding strong. They are GREAT for homemade lunchables (didn’t that get mentioned a lot in the no-nut comments).

  24. We have the laptop lunch box and although it seems “spendy” – my daughter used it EVERY DAY for THREE YEARS.

    She’s about to take it to school for its fourth year.

    One of my friends scoffed at the price, but admitted that she’s bought her daughter a new lunch box every year for the last 4 years….so “spendy” may be relative?

    I think a years supply of ziploc bags would be more than the Laptop Lunch system, honestly! : )

    And it goes in the dishwasher every night, so we’ve never had a problem with keeping it clean. (Although we do have two – one for back-up and I use it too.)

  25. For a few years my kids both used bento boxes of various sizes. They were great but hard to keep track of all the different lids and making sure they made their way home from school. I have just upgraded to the tupperware ‘lunch n things’ box for both. it is fantastic, it can fit an astounding amount of food for my ravenous monsters, is easy to keep track of (no bits to loose) and fits easily into a school bag. I love it.

  26. I use ziplocs reguarly – but I also reuse them. I just wash them out, dry them, and they are good to go. I have probably used the one I currently bring my breakfast in for several months. I have asked my daughter to put hers back in her lunch box when she is done (rather than throw it away), and that has worked. I have heard of people turning them inside out and putting them in the dishwasher, but I haven’t tried that. I just rinse and dry and reuse.

  27. This is such a co-incidence. I found these replicas of ones I used in childhood in costplus last week and was very excited.
    If the link doesn’t work search for stainless steel tiffin tin.
    I grew up in India where we used steel tiffins (doesn’t that sound cuter than lunch box ๐Ÿ™‚ ). They were light, easy to clean and I like them better than plastic or glass.

  28. I know I am a little too excited but they are less than 10$!

  29. We have Laptop Lunches lunchboxes and they are fabulous. They were only $20…and for the use we have gotten out of them/will continue to get out of them, I think it’s a great deal. They also do fundraisers, giving back a very generous portion of the purchase price (like $5 of the $20 for the boxes) to your school. I don’t find that I have to scrub them every night…most nights I rinse them and they’re good. FWIW, I don’t pack anything gooey in them ๐Ÿ˜‰

    When we do have to send disposable lunches, and for car snacks, etc, we use waxed paper bags. Switching from plastic to waxed paper was actually my first crunchy move, before I bought the lunchboxes.

  30. Wrap-n-mats rock – I third (fourth? dunno…) the recommendation. We use them every day for sandwiches, cut fruit, & veggies, etc.

    Also, if you just find that you love those baggies, try wax bags (like wax paper, but in the nifty bag shape). They don’t cause such a problem for the landfill, and you get your bag fix. If you want to really go nuts, you’ll find unbleached ones at your health food store.

  31. I have plastic sandwich boxes, and then we use ziploc baggies but I have the kids bring them home again instead of throwing them away. Mostly I pack dry stuff (pretzels, crackers, etc.), so it’s no fuss to reuse them (I don’t wash them or anything, just shake the crumbs out).

  32. A friend found a coupon for 20% of at ReusableBags.com — use f70838 at checkout.

    I don’t think anyone’s posted that yet, so I thought I’d pass it along for those of you interested in the Wrap-n-Mats or any of the other great stuff the site has. ๐Ÿ™‚

  33. Awesome ideas! I use small Rubbermaid and Gladware containers for myself and a Crayon sandwich container. On top of being “greener”, it’s more convenient than constantly putting “sandwich bags” on the list.

  34. Forgive my complete ignorance, but what is a Crayon sandwich container?

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