What are the most awesome, non-plastic, non-toxic, reusable lunch containers available?
April 24, 2008 8:43 AM   Subscribe

What should I bring my lunch to work in? I'm looking for non-plastic, non-potentially-toxic, reusable alternatives to the zip-locs and gladware I usually bring my lunch & snacks to work in.

I did try searching for this both here and on the general internet...while I have found random suggestions, none of them have really appealled to me as the perfect solution, so I'm hoping to get some direct product suggestions or the most awesomest idea ever from you guys. No pressure or anything. ;-)

I bring my lunch and many snacks to work daily. Things I typically bring include the following: sandwich in a zip-loc or gladware, with some pickles/lettuce/tomato wrapped separately in another zip-loc; cut up veggies in a gladware with a little plastic solo cup of dip; pre-packaged applesauce in little plastic cups; sliced fruit in a zip-loc; sliced cheese in a zip-loc; leftover soups/stews/entrees in gladware; yogurts, cottage cheeses, other wet gloppy things in gladware. Oh, and I drink water from the water fountain at work in either plastic cups or a plastic Nalgene bottle.

I realize this is not good for the environment, and -- if there is anything to all the recent hype about how bad storing/reheating food in plastic is* -- it's probably not so good for me either.

So what are the best alternatives? I would prefer things that are: (1) Not crazy expensive, (2) Reusable for the long-haul, (3) Easy to clean, (4) Easy to carry around, (5) LEAK PROOF.

I would need the following items:

- Things to wrap or store sandwiches in.
- Things to store and reheat soups, stews, and entrees.
- Things to store salad in.
- TINY containers to store dressings, dips, condiments, and extras (like pickles which are highly important).
- Alternatives to zip-locs for little snacks like apple slices, berries, cheese cubes, nuts, veggies, etc.
- Alternative to my Nalgene bottle.

Links to places I can buy things online would be highly appreciated.

* I don't really want to debate this because I don't even know if I believe it's a hugely big deal (I mean, at this point, the only things that aren't proven to cause cancer are rainbows and laughter), but I've read plenty of convincing information that makes me think it's worth exploring non-plastic alternatives.
posted by tastybrains to Food & Drink (36 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
I bring my lunch in pyrex storage containers most days. A little heavy if you're backpacking to work, but very sturdy, I've used them every day for years.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 8:48 AM on April 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

Would a bento box fit the bill for you?
posted by jquinby at 8:49 AM on April 24, 2008

Have you looked into all the various styles of bento box? This one is melamine... I know there are metal ones too, if you Google.
posted by pineapple at 8:51 AM on April 24, 2008

posted by cephalopodcast at 8:51 AM on April 24, 2008

Response by poster: Would a bento box fit the bill for you?

What are the bowls made of? I thought they were plastic, but it doesn't say.
posted by tastybrains at 8:52 AM on April 24, 2008

See also, laptoplunches.com
posted by cephalopodcast at 8:53 AM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

I am a HUGE fan of lunchinabox -- it's a blog about making bento lunches. She has lots of ideas, recipes and resources for different containers. I make my daughter a preschool lunch once a week and it feels great to send her with something different, in reusable containers. (They're really cute, too.) My next plan is to purchase something like this for use on the occasions when I lunch outside the home.

Some other bento sites:

cooking cute: she hasn't updated this in nearly a year, but the links page is really useful.
posted by chihiro at 8:55 AM on April 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

I was going to mention the Pyrex ones, too. Big sets of 'em can be on sale cheap sometimes.

Rubbermaid/Tupperware type containers do come rather small, if you look around. I have a couple that are maybe 1/4 cup volume or less, enough to hold a handful of snacking nuts. Small yogurt containers with proper lids (a few brands still have them) can be great washbale/reusable containers about the same size.

(If you're really really into thinking about the ecological impact, you might want to consider the impact of washing and rewashing reusables versus using small disposables, if you're in an area with water shortages. I don't have a definite answer there, just something to think about.)
posted by gimonca at 8:56 AM on April 24, 2008

Response by poster: Laptop lunches are cool but plastic. As are rubbermaid containers...I have a few already.
posted by tastybrains at 9:00 AM on April 24, 2008

re: Mister Bento, I have to assume that the bowls are plastic. The Amazon description says "microwaveable". There's a little more info about them at the Zojirushi website.
posted by jquinby at 9:09 AM on April 24, 2008

Best answer: Sigg metal water bottles are supposed to be better than the Nalgenes (something about the plastic in the Nalgenes leeching bad stuff in your water). The Siggs are more expensive than the Nalgenes but friends who have them swear by them.
posted by pised at 9:09 AM on April 24, 2008

Best answer: Tinfoil and parchment paper are perfect for the "wrapping" part - for both sandwiches and small items like apples, cheese cubes, etc. Just make a little packet.

Of course, you'll need to be careful not to smush the packets you make.

Tinfoil is reusable/recyclable, and parchment paper is biodegradable. Can't beat em for convenience, either.
posted by nkknkk at 9:10 AM on April 24, 2008

Tiffin tins (Indian lunch boxes) are stainless steel and available at World Market.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:14 AM on April 24, 2008 [3 favorites]

If you don't want any plastic, you don't want parchment paper. Parchment paper is impregnated with silicone.

Wax paper on the other hand...

But on the gripping hand, wax and plastic aren't such different things.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:16 AM on April 24, 2008

Best answer: I keep glass jars in all sizes.
- Canning jars from homemade jam and commercial peanut butter (I use Adams) and similar sizes are good for sliced veggie sticks or portions of soup, or for protecting ripe whole fruit that might get damaged in transit.
- Larger wide-mouth canning jars, the ones my mom uses to make pickles or pickled green beans, are good for things like leftover spaghetti or salad.
- Smaller commercial jars, like from capers, that Chinese black bean sauce, dijon mustard, other things that come in small amounts, are good for sauces, salad dressings, dips, etc., depending on the size of the jar and the size of the mouth.
- Small canning jars, I think 8oz size, are good for yogurt portions, and could also be used for dips and things. I also put hard-boiled eggs in these to protect them.

I have never ever had a leak from my jars. And once you think about it, your kitchen is already full of jars; just stop putting them out in the recycling, and recycle them within your kitchen instead.
You can get canning jars year-round at most thorough grocery stores; you can definitely find them almost anywhere starting in about August, when harvest and canning seasons start. They come in lots of sizes.

The one thing I have not solved with jars is good sandwich storage. Maybe cut it in half and stack the slices in a wide-mouth tall jar?

Do note that this will be bulkier and heavier than your plastic bags.

As for water bottles, try Sigg, which are metal and come in all kinds of patterns.
posted by librarina at 9:19 AM on April 24, 2008 [4 favorites]

I bring a sandwhich every day wrapped in the plastic bag leftover from a finished bag of bread. I use the same bag for a week, and then move on to the newly finished bag. Why is this bad?
posted by OmieWise at 9:27 AM on April 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

Plastic gives off toxins Omie, so tastybrains doesn't want her sammiches to be potentially harmful to her health.
posted by zarah at 9:34 AM on April 24, 2008

Plastic gives off toxins Omie, so tastybrains doesn't want her sammiches to be potentially harmful to her health.

Well, aside from the serious need for equivocation in that statement*, I assume that if I got the bread in the bag, keeping the bread in the bag is unlikely to further propagate "toxins." There are many slips 'tween cup and lip during which plastic toxins might enter the foodstream.

(I know there's some media hysteria right now about Nalgene plastic, but the last time I checked into it by talking with my sister who's very health conscious and also has a PhD in packaging science and food storage, there was no credible research showing that food-grade plastic in general was leaching anything into food. My sister even, horror of horrors, heats food directly in tupperware/gladware and feeds the resulting toxic sludge to her toddlers.)
posted by OmieWise at 9:41 AM on April 24, 2008 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: OmieWise - I like your idea of the bread bag.

I still want to get away from the gladware though.
posted by tastybrains at 9:50 AM on April 24, 2008

I sat in on a presentation from a guy who runs a trash hauling business and he said that waxed paper is completely recyclable - just like plain paper.

And if you bought in sufficient quantity you get them for about 1.5-2 cents per. More like 5 cents per in smaller, greenerish quantity.
posted by plinth at 9:55 AM on April 24, 2008

I was only translating/reiterating Omie, since most everyone here seems to have skipped over the part where the OP requests alternatives that are non-plastic. However toxins have apparently already leached into tasty's food because now she is on board with your PLASTIC bread bag, lol.
posted by zarah at 9:56 AM on April 24, 2008

Your description of your lunch reminds me of Bread and Jam for Francis, which has a fabulous description of a packed lunch circa the early 60s. The kids opened up their lunch boxes to reveal cloth napkins, vases of violets, cardboard shakers of salt, and many little wax paper packages containing hard-boiled eggs, celery, grapes, sandwiches, and a "cup custard," whatever that is! Except for Francis, who only likes to eat bread and jam. (I usually just have leftovers...)

Check the type of plastic in your containers. According to Mothering.dot.commune (my source for hippy news), #7 is likely to have bisphenol, while #5 is one of the safer ones. It's also my understanding that microwaving food in plastic is especially likely to mobilize the nasty chemicals. I keep a ceramic soup bowl and a small plate that can double as a lid at work. Transport the soups, stews, casseroles, etc. in gladware if necessary, but dish out onto real dishes before heating and eating. For veggies and the like, I would go with tinfoil packets, all thrown into a larger gladware or bento box to avoid any leaks. Or you can always rinse out and reuse all the little ziplocks. Kleen Kanteen is an alternative to Sigg for aluminum bottles. Now that I look, Thermos seems to have updated their line with a lot of resuable, nonplastic, food strorage, not just plaid wide-mouth jars for tomato soup.
posted by libraryhead at 10:02 AM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Older folks in my family bake bread all the time and wrap it in cotton dish towels, and it keeps fresh and moist for days outside of the fridge, so why not go old school and do that with your sammiches?
posted by zarah at 10:04 AM on April 24, 2008

I do the same as libraryhead--I bring leftovers to work in plastic containers, and then reheat them in a ceramic bowl that I keep at work. I'm not worried about toxic plastic, I do it because it tastes better than plastic soup, and it makes the containers easier to clean--no tomato stains.
posted by donajo at 10:17 AM on April 24, 2008

For sandwiches, I've started using something called a wrap-n-mat, basically a food-safe pvc lined fabric placemat that folds up around your sandwich and fastens with a velcro tab. They are not exactly leak-proof, but they contain my sandwiches well, are washable, and preclude the need for plastic bags. You can also use them for fruit, veggies, cookies, etc (although these items do not wrap up quite as neatly).
posted by Jemstar at 11:20 AM on April 24, 2008

Best answer: Earth to OmieWise. The OP specifically asked not to have this issue debated. Did you not read that or can you not respect that?

Anyway, I was going to recommend tin/stainless little boxes, like a lunchbox and smaller ones inside. Unless you need to reheat, and then you could bring a ceramic plate to reheat on. I'm also trying to switch away from plastic, not only for possible health issues, but because non-plastic stuff seems to last a lot longer and doesn't take on the smells and stains of food over time. It's also much less tempting to throw non-plastics away.

The jars idea is really good, too.
posted by fructose at 11:24 AM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you are bringing a sandwich to work you can wrap up both halves in a couple big cabbage leaves. Secure with a rubber band. Eating the cabbage leaves is an option. I would bring a packet of miso soup with me to work and with office scissors cut up the cabbage into strips and boil it in the microwave together. Bring the rubber band home or leave it at work.

Mason jars are nice too. Get the ones with the glass tops, and make sure once it's shut that you've put it in an old bread-loaf bag from the store so whatever you're transporting your lunch in doesn't get totally ruined if the jar breaks.

I like to wrap up snacks in paper when I go places. Have you ever examined how hamburger joints wrap up their burgers? Check out the way they train Burger King (gag) employees to wrap. That's how you can wrap up fruit and veggie and cracker snacks. Just use old newspaper or old unused pieces of material.
posted by mamaraks at 11:42 AM on April 24, 2008

Seconding the tiffin boxes. I took these all the time to school in India and I've never found anything more convenient. They're availabe in all sorts of sizes and they don't open unexpectedly spilling your food into your bag.
posted by peacheater at 12:05 PM on April 24, 2008

Best answer: As an alternative to Sigg water bottles, i highly recommend Klean Kanteen
posted by saxamo at 12:13 PM on April 24, 2008

Mod note: a few comments removed - toxin talk can go to metatalk
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 1:07 PM on April 24, 2008

Seconding the Klean Kanteen over Sigg water bottles. Klean Kanteens do not have an inner liner; Siggs have an epoxy lining that might be a deal breaker for OP.
posted by DB Cooper at 3:00 PM on April 24, 2008

Jars and bottles are good for carting around items that don't need heating, but they usually have metal lids which are a no-no in microwaves; your microwave may be higher quality tan mine, but I find that heating items in jars without lids tends to leave a huge mess. When it comes to containers for heating, I use Pyrex. The lids are leak-proof enough to keep my soups and sauces, but if you're prefer an extra level of food security you can bring your foods to work in a screw-top jar and use the Pyrex as a heating dish.
posted by lekvar at 5:37 PM on April 24, 2008

Remember what I almost learned the hard way - melamine is not microwave safe.
posted by IndigoRain at 9:46 PM on April 24, 2008

less trendy than metal water bottle: buy a glass bottle of water, like pelligrino or perrier. drink and enjoy. keep and refill. cheaper than special metal water bottle, yet people think you are fancy.

everything else, i just bring glass or ceramic containers to work with me. sure it's heavy but such is life. heavy.
posted by apostrophe at 11:23 PM on April 24, 2008

oh oh. don't forget wood as a lightweight non-toxic substance. little wood salad bowls, etc.
posted by apostrophe at 11:24 PM on April 24, 2008

These wide-mouth stainless steel bottles have the same thread as Nalgene bottles, in case you have any accessories (sippy cup insert, water filter, etc) designed for Nalgenes.

A SIGG snack box can protect anything you've wrapped in paper from crushing.
posted by hades at 12:04 PM on April 25, 2008

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