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The Great Lunchbox Debate

If you’re a parent of school-aged children, you’ve probably read a lot about the truly terrible quality of the food that is served to children in school cafeterias all across the county. Thanks to concerns about rising obesity rates among children, as well as the growth of the local food movement, parents, school administrators, and school dining services are all starting to appreciate the need to provide children with healthy food that is both tasty and appealing.

That’s good, but buying lunch every day begins to add up. So you carefully prepare food from home--or, in my case, stare at the fridge in the half-hour before the bus arrives and ask the little darlings what they want. But the big decision here isn’t just what to pack—it’s how to pack it! Here, you have a great opportunity to reduce the waste stream and save money.

You know those little brown paper bags and plastic baggies you grew up with? Don’t use them. Don’t use the cute flimsy plastic containers either, no matter how much they call to your inner Martha/Oprah. In my house, we have tons of sturdy leftover containers from buying yogurt, cream cheese, hummus and the like and we use them to death. If you have crafty kids, you can decorate the containers with stickers, markers, and various doodads that personalize them and make them more fun to use. With the exception of string cheese, I don’t buy single serving packages either. They are expensive, have too much packaging, and generally contain food I wouldn’t serve our guinea pig. For liquid refreshment I send the kids with reusable water bottles. I like the metal ones, but if you prefer plastic, check out the information on our website about what to look for and what to avoid.

To my amazement, my kids bring the containers home most of the time, and they seem to get why it’s important to reuse them instead of throwing them out. We have a tougher time with the lunchboxes themselves. Having a stylin’ lunch box is important, even among the grade school set. When the kids were really little we used cloth lunch bags, but they weren’t big enough and they didn’t hold up well. Over the past few years we’ve tried way too many of the soft-sided, zipper pocketed variety. This has led to troubles with mold (we’ve cultivated some really great samples in our time) as well as durability. We’ve learned that if you can’t thoroughly clean it, it isn’t worth buying in the first place!

This year, one kid got a new soft-sided lunch kit and one kid is still using the grungy one from last year. I’m definitely looking for a better solution, so let me know if you’ve found one! And if you’re ready to commit to packing waste-free lunches, check out the “Green Ham and Cheese” Challenge posted last week by our friends at Carbonrally. They’ll help you calculate just how much carbon you’re saving and offer some more great tips on keeping your lunches as green as possible. Also check out the "Towards a Zero-Waste Lunch" page in our Marketplace for more ideas on packing light.

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Franca Brilliant is New Dream's former Senior Development Director and Lunch-packing Extraordinaire

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