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The following is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series now written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain.
Summer is quickly coming to a close, teachers are prepping their classrooms, and soon the kids will be back to school. Even if you don’t pack a lunch for a child, maybe you pack one for yourself? At some point, we all find need for a lunch box.
Back in the 80’s, I remember how crucial my lunch box decision was (or how crucial it felt): Rainbow Brite or Punky Brewster? I’ve seen similar anxiety flash across my kids’ faces: Super Plumber Brothers or Spiderweb Guy? Even as an adult, shopping for a lunch box is difficult: stainless steel or plastic, neoprene or canvas, wax baggies or plastic, I like the one with the squirrels but is it worth the extra $5 to have a cute lunch bag?
Today, we’re going to talk about organic lunch boxes. We’ll look at a few different lunch systems and discuss some pros and cons. These options range from basic to high end, all with their own benefits and drawbacks. My purpose is to give you some ideas and information to help you decide what’s right for you.
I’ve heard some friends vent their healthy-lunch frustrations…
I want to pack a healthier lunch, but it takes so much more time.
My child (or husband, or self) doesn’t eat what I pack.
Isn’t it expensive to pack healthy foods?
I’m completely out of healthy lunch ideas! I need a cookie.
I’m sure you’ve thought or heard similar grievances. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to talk about putting together a more nutritious, organic lunch for ourselves or the kids…hopefully without breaking the budget or losing our sanity in the process.
My Story: I never really gave my lunch box too much thought. It’s a lunch bag, just functional (or cute) packaging for lunch. However, over the past couple years my family’s eating habits have changed. Our old standard lunch (PB&J, crackers, gummies, and a juice box) has morphed into a true meal of “real” foods, and packing a good lunch became difficult and time-consuming. As I tried to streamline the process of packing a real lunch, I realized I needed a different system. Nowadays, I can pack a great lunch in just a few minutes, given the right tools.
The Basic Brown Bag
Components: brown paper lunch bag, plastic zip baggies and/or plastic wrapped foods
Cost: about $3 for a package of 100 paper bags, about $4 for a box of 100 zip bags (estimating 4 zip bags per lunch sack). Total estimated cost = $0.19 per lunch, recurring cost; about $34 per school year.
Pros: low investment, easy to find, various other household uses, paper bag is biodegradable, zip bags are leakproof and disposable.
Cons: you can run out, paper bags can break and are not water resistant, cannot hold heavy lunches, plastic zip bags are not biodegradable, delicate food can get crushed or smushed, no insulation for cold/hot items
Health Concerns: no concerns with the paper bag, but some plastic zip baggies are not BPA-free (a type of plastic that can release toxic chemicals, more details below)
My Thoughts: a classic. I always keep a package of these on hand for various uses. Sometimes the school requests a disposable snack for field trips. Sometimes I forget to wash out the regular lunch box. For whatever reason, these do come in handy from time to time.
The Soft-Sided Bag, with or without cartoon characters
Components: usually a soft-sided case that offers a bit of insulation. You can pack the inside with plastic zip baggies or reusable containers.
Cost: about $10-20 for the lunch bag, plus additional cost for zip baggies or reusable containers.
Pros: reusable lunch bag may last more than one year, insulation helps keep food cool/warm, bag protects lunch from minor bumps and smushing, can carry heavier items, relatively low cost, lunch bag is water resistant, durable, fun for kids (or kids at heart), can accommodate reusable containers
Cons: susceptible to wear and tear over time, insulation isn’t great and still requires ice packs or thermal containers
Health Concerns: I’ve seen some bags with anti-microbial linings that I would avoid. The majority of the bags contain some questionable materials, but since they don’t come into direct contact with the food, I don’t worry too much about their presence.
My Thoughts: I’m a sucker for cute packaging. Fortunately, so are kids. If you have a child who is difficult to please, letting them pick a fun lunch box may get them excited enough to eat the important stuff inside. Find a good-sized lunch bag that can accommodate reusable containers to save on zip baggies and make it easier to pack “real” foods. If you wait until a few weeks after school begins, you can get these lunch bags for 50-75% off.
The Bento Style Box
Components: Traditionally, the bento box is a Japanese boxed lunch packed with rice, fish (or some protein), raw/pickled/tempura veggies, and a sauce; each in their own little compartment or container. (For the creative ones, bento box packing can be quite an artform!) Bento style boxes have become popular over here in their classic forms, updated styles, and simplified divided boxes. A bento box doesn’t use any disposable elements and can be: a large single compartment box, a multi-sectioned box, or a stack of individual boxes secured together.
Cost: there’s a HUGE price range in this category, depending on how basic or high-tech you want to go. A basic divided box (like these from Ziploc) are just $5 for a 2 pack. On the high end, you can find super-insulated bento lunch systems to keep your food piping hot for so many hours that NASA would be jealous of your lunch box technology, $60. For kids (and grown-ups!), this high-end box offers separate compartments and is easy to open/close, $40+. Since there are no disposable components, there are no recurring costs, just the initial investment.
Pros: No baggies! The divided compartments are excellent for including a variety of foods and helping with portion control. The hard sides of the bento style boxes protect food against smushing and damage. Some boxes feature leak-proof compartments, allowing you to quickly pack fresh fruits or other liquid-y foods. Materials can vary from plastics to stainless steel, non-insulated or insulated. A well-made box can last you quite a few years.
Cons: Washing- some boxes are dishwasher friendly, some need to be hand washed. Some containers may be difficult for little hands to open and close, so read some reviews or try one in person before sending it to school with a child. Depending on the style you select, there may be a high initial investment.
Health Concerns: since your food is in direct contact with your container, always check your materials, and be most careful with anything plastic. I’m sure you’ve seen BPA mentioned somewhere lately. What’s the deal with BPA? Here’s what the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) has to say:
“the National Toxicology Program at the National Institutes of Health and FDA have some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children.”
BPA hasn’t been banned [yet], but the FDA does recommend reducing your exposure. I assume if a product is not labeled “BPA-free”, it contains BPA.
Here comes Debbie Downer again: I believe that BPA is the current “bad guy”, but there’s likely a new villain lurking just around the corner. BPS or BPF, anyone? These chemicals are just as (if not more) toxic than BPA and can be in your BPA-free plastics. Due to the highly synthetic and toxic process of creating plastics, I try to avoid them as much as possible. Just my 2 cents.
What do I use in lieu of plastics? I use stainless steel, enameled metal, ceramics, or glass. For kids, stainless steel is usually the best option as it’s lightweight and won’t break when dropped on the garage floor at 6:15 am.
My Thoughts: Despite the washing issue (and, trust me, I really, really, really dislike any extra dirty dishes), these are my favorite types of lunch boxes. I love that I can pack a variety of foods quickly and without a small mountain of baggies. I find myself using the leak-proof options most often (for yogurt, guacamole, fruit salad), because they save me a lot of time, which is very valuable on a school-day or work-day morning. If you’re into packing “real” food lunches, I think you’ll like these boxes the most. I’ve tried the cheap styles and a couple of the more spendy styles. For the most part, I think you get what you pay for: better quality, longer lasting, better performance. However, I still buy the cheap boxes too. They work well and are great to have on hand. I’d recommend starting with a cheaper one if you’re not sure about the bento style concept.
Today, we’re just talking about the packaging of your lunch. I know you’ll agree with me when I say, it’s what’s inside that counts. A well designed organic lunch box is completely secondary, in my opinion, to a healthful lunch. However, the right lunch box can making packing a healthy lunch a lot easier, faster, and even cheaper. Save annoyance, time, and money? I’m in!
What lunch boxes have you tried and loved (or hated)? What are some of the challenges you face when trying to pack a healthy lunch?
We’re going inside the lunch box to talk about how to pack a healthy lunch without breaking the budget! I’d love to hear any specific questions or comments you have about healthy lunches. Happy back-to-school season, everyone!