a peek inside the fishbowl

05 Oct, 2009

The new lunch box: packing a litterless lunch

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Yaktivism

It’s October. Those of us with school age children have been dutifully (or grudgingly) packing lunches for about a month.

Making lunches doesn’t bug me anymore. It used to, but at some point I decided to stop letting it annoy me so much.

So what if my kids want to eat the same thing every day?
So what if they don’t want to eat leftovers from the night before?
So what if it’s a boring chore?

I’ve written about this before, but I wanted to address it again because I recently caught wind of someone complaining about the litterless lunch concept the other day. This person’s specific complaint was (a) that it is too hard to pack a litterless lunch (b) that the kids lunchboxes come home filthy (I’ll address this second point in a minute).

We’ve been packing litterless lunches since the girls were in kindergarten. I will confess to a teeny bit of mounting frustration with people who insist they can’t do it. IF I CAN DO IT ANYONE CAN DO IT. I’m just as tired and grumpy as the next mom. I’m in a rush too. I’d also like to be drinking a latte and reading the paper – but I can’t. There are lunches to make!

A litterless lunch is a packed lunch that doesn’t result in any lunchtime garbage: no wrappers, no single-use disposable containers, no baggies, no cans, and no plastic wrap.

The other added benefit of the litterless lunch is that the kids end up eating less processed food.

Here’s a typical lunch in our house:

1) Sandwich
The girls faves include various combinations of cheese and lettuce and cold cuts, and jam. They also really like tortilla spread with cream cheese and sprinkled with chopped red pepper. Sandwich is made and placed into a reusable container. Sometimes I toss a frozen bagel into a container and put some jam or cream cheese in a separate small one. Sometimes I pack the pita and hummus. Sometimes I pack tomato soup. Sarah likes cold rice. Result: no Ziploc or other disposable sandwich wrapping is used.

2) Fruit
Apples, pears, other seasonal fruits are washed and placed in the lunch bag. Grapes are washed and put into a reusable container.

3) Beverage (we don’t give them juice in the afternoons, just milk or water)
Milk is poured into a reusable drinking box. I pack a lunch-sized frozen cold pack along with it. Mark recently figured out that if you wrap an elastic around the milk container and the cold pack it stays very cold. Result: no cans, juice boxes, milk containers, end up in the garbage or the recycle bin.

4) Other
This is where many parents lose confidence in the litterless lunch because they wonder what else they can put in their kids lunches. Some parents get into the unfortunate habit of sticking a mini-chocolate bar or bag of chips in their kids lunch every day. This is really not necessary. Not every meal needs to include a treat or a sweet finish. We also don’t need to buy individual serving sizes of various traditional lunchtime foods, like mini-yogurts or fruit cups, boxes or raisins, puddings, or packages of cookies. Emma and Sarah both get yogurt and applesauce and even cookies or goldfish crackers or chips in their lunches, but I take it from the larger package and put it in a smaller, reusable container. It works really well and it really and truly doesn’t add significant amount of time to the lunchmaking routine. If I feel inclined I might portion off the yogurt/applesauce/crackers the night before and just do the ol’ grab ‘n go the next morning.

Yogurt tubes, mini-candy bars, mini pretzel/cheese dip things, pudding cups, fruit roll ups and granola bars strike me as totally unnecessary.

If you’re concerned about the lunch box coming home with puddles of yogurt and spilled milk inside, talk to your child and your teacher and find a way to get your kid to rinse their containers out before putting them back into their lunchbag. The girls started doing this with their milk containers. No more stinky milk!

Anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the litterless lunch idea. Do you do it? Can you do it? Would it be too difficult to try? Can you endeavour to try to replace one thing, like trading your sandwich baggies for a reusable container? Or cutting out the yogurt tubes?

Here’s the other benefit of the littlerless lunch: it’s cheaper. And you can’t disagree with the bottom line.

41 Responses to "The new lunch box: packing a litterless lunch"

1 | Annie @ PhD in Parenting

October 5th, 2009 at 8:30 am


Great post! We do mostly litterless. I do put a store-bought granola bar in every day though. Plus I get annoyed that the organic applesauces in flavours other than plain apple only come in the individual portions. My son won’ t eat any other fruit, so those often get tossed in.

2 | Melissa

October 5th, 2009 at 8:38 am


We’ve been doing litterless lunches since Boy #1 was in JK (Grade 2 now). I’ve even taken it up a notch by trying to avoid any reusable plastic containers (various reasons). They each have a couple steel drink bottles, a couple small steel multi-layer “tiffins”, plus a few other steel containers of various sizes. Each boy has his own food thermos. I made them each a machine-washable fabric lunch bag (super easy).

The initial investment for containers was spread over a few years, but well worth the investment. Stainless steel is pretty indestructable, can be written on easily w/ permanent marker, and doesn’t absorb odours.

Typical lunch for us: sandwich/hummous & pita/cooked pasta & sauce; juice (30% juice/ 70% water); an apple or two; plus a little container w/ a couple homemade cookies or crackers, cheese cubes, olives, dulse (#1 *loves* seaweed ;)), or something else to fit role of “a little something extra).

It’s a quick and easy, IMO, as a “packaged” lunch and is much healthier. It’s also a *lot* cheaper than buying the packaged sugar treats. I was volunteering in a JK/SK class last year and I remember one child who regularly came w/ a McCain’s fruit punch, Jello pudding cup, fruit-roll up, and a pizza pocket. Ugh!

3 | coffeewithjulie

October 5th, 2009 at 8:40 am


Ah, the litterless lunch. We too have been doing this since day one. But my “litterless” isn’t entirely litterless like yours.

I do use ziplock baggies, but they come home and I reuse them all the time. I also need to cut my daughter’s fruit for her (not enough teeth to bite into an apple!), and simply putting it in a container leaves her with a brown-tinged fruit that is not appetizing, so I wrap two large pieces tightly together with plastic wrap. If you’ve got a solution for this one, I’d love to hear it since it’s one I can’t work around as of yet.

I don’t send milk or juice to school, just water (in what used to be her Sigg, but that is now sent back to manufacturer!). She already gets her milk from her morning cereal and gets it at dinner. So that one’s easy. Cookies, carrot sticks, celery, cucumber, grapes — they’re all easy too with a reuseable container. I like to do one veg, one fruit and one or two cookies like oatmeal raisin.

The portioned snacks from the store are far more expensive, and they seem to add a lot more sugar to them. All in all, it’s been no hassle and costs less.

But I do have some room for improvement re the plastic I’ve been using.

I think the litterless lunch is excellent and I’m striving to get there.

4 | Laura

October 5th, 2009 at 8:45 am


My children’s school is pretty strict with litterless lunches which is great. I discovered a neat product called the Wrap-N-Mat that is a sandwich wrapper and place mat too. I love it and it makes litterless sandwiches easier, no baggies or containers to wash, I just wipe it down. Thanks for the reminder that not every meal needs a “sweet treat”. I get stuck making the same boring lunches so I appreciate the new suggestions. :)

5 | Ginger

October 5th, 2009 at 8:47 am


I am so in love with the idea of a litter-less lunch! I plan on the boys being litter-less from the start. I have been researching containers and ideas. We are starting Spanish immersion preschool next fall so I am going to start purchasing things this spring. I am working on getting my husband to be litter-less but that is a struggle. We are working on it.

6 | Amy @ Muddy Boots

October 5th, 2009 at 8:48 am


Have you seen those bento box style lunch boxes? Like Laptop Lunches? http://www.laptoplunches.com/ I’ve heard good things about them. Seems having bright, colorful, fun lunch boxes helps make the chore of lunch making less tedious… like having a bright, colorful, fun laundry room apparently makes doing laundry less tedious. Not that I’d know.

Making a litterless lunch has become much easier since we started homeschooling this year! *wink*

7 | andrea

October 5th, 2009 at 8:54 am


I don’t do cut up apples anymore but at one point I was slicing apples into wedges and putting them in a container with a few drops of lemon juice, closing the lid and giving it a gentle shake to distribute the juice.

Also good: orange slices!

I’ve had lots of people suggest the bento/laptop lunch idea but I find they’re really overpriced for what they are. And what if we lose a lid? (This happen more often than I would like, and it’s not a big deal if it happens with a less expensive container.)

I would really like to get into stainless steel too!

8 | Lana

October 5th, 2009 at 8:57 am


We love the wrap-n-mats as well. I try to do a “litterless lunch” for myself these days too. I’d love to see a more grown up version of the laptop lunchbox.

9 | Krista

October 5th, 2009 at 9:07 am


We use reusable containers. I pack sandwiches in washed out one litre milk bags – they come home and I wash and re-use again.

10 | Chantal

October 5th, 2009 at 9:26 am


I do my best but I keep individual portioned snacks around for when I haven’t had time to bake muffins. I would say I am an in the middle gal. Decent, but not the best. I would hope it will get better when I am on mat leave. We will have to see.

11 | Chantal

October 5th, 2009 at 9:30 am


oh yes, and I use the wrap-n-mat, that I won right here on your site!!

My oldest refuses sandwiches, but my youngest likes them. On the occasional day when I forget to clean that mat the night before I will send his sandwich in a ziplock (I wash and reuse my ziplock bags as many times as possible) M will lecture me about using the baggy. :)

12 | Judy

October 5th, 2009 at 9:45 am


We aren’t at the point of packing lucnhes for kids yet, but always struggle to pack good lunches for ourselves. Mainly because we could blow most of our money on lunch!

We use the laptop lunch boxes for ourselves (we bought them at Credible Edibles). We looked at the stainless steel, but we both bus and carry significant amount of stuff and honestly with an hour commute, walking at both ends the stainless steel was too heavy for me carry! The other thing with the laptop lunch box is portion control for us.

I like packing dried fruit, leftovers, mini-pitas, and other good grazing food.

13 | joan

October 5th, 2009 at 9:45 am


I made some of these:

from a tutorial online. Easy, cute they are lined with rip stop nylon and close with velcro. I think you can buy them on etsy too. I’ve made them for my girls and a few other kids in their class. Quite popular. Just throw them in the wash.

14 | Sharon

October 5th, 2009 at 12:16 pm


I thought everyone made lunches this way. Hummm. One puts a sandwich in a ziplock bag gets a squashed sandwhich. Everything that has gone into my kids lunches for the last 14 years have been literless.
I never have found it that hard.

15 | Lynn

October 5th, 2009 at 12:21 pm


We do litterless lunches…I don’t consider myself a very “green” sort of person so I guess this is one thing I got right! We use plastic containers for most of their food — I like the Rubbermaid kind with little “hinges” on all four sides, because even when our kids were very little they could open and close these themselves (since they can close them by themselves, we very rarely have a mess in the lunchbag).

We often pack sandwiches too, or they will get leftovers in a little thermos. On the side I like to pack things from a big bag put into a small container like sunflower seeds, raisins, teddy grams, cereal, or crackers.

I always include one small treat in their lunch — a couple of jellybeans or maybe a bite-sized cookie. But I hide it in one of the other containers. They have to search through every container to find the treat — that way they are sure to have a look at all the food options, at least!

For drinks my kids get milk or, for the Captain, a rice milk “shake” with protein powder, in a thermos. They each have a water bottle that they can keep at their desk all day, as well.

16 | Lynn

October 5th, 2009 at 12:23 pm


Forgot to mention — one other thing the Captain really likes is jello. I make it up in small Rubbermaid containers and then just pop one from the fridge into his lunch bag in the morning.

17 | Melissa

October 5th, 2009 at 12:31 pm


I don’t find out stainless is significantly heavier than the plastic we’d been using. Our favorite containers for ease of use and durability are the 2-layer Zebra ones. We bought them at The Extraordinary Baby Shoppe (http://www.extraordinarybabyshoppe.com/). You can find other lighter-gauge steel ones throughout Chinatown.

I get squicked out by germ-stuff and the idea of fabric wipe-down sandwich wraps weird my out. I like something I can put in dishwasher or washing machine. ;)

18 | Shannon

October 5th, 2009 at 12:41 pm


I am totally going to steal the elastic around the milk and ice pack trick! That is brilliant. Ours slides around too much, so my oldest son will sometimes come home and say his milk was warm but his other snacks were ice cold. This should totally fix that.

My two boys are only in 1/2 day kindergarten still, so it won’t be until next year that I pack a whole lunch. Although some days their “snacks” look like an entire lunch!

Great post!

19 | Gwen @ Nayla Natural Care

October 5th, 2009 at 12:44 pm


Great post Andrea. I am a bit biased since I carry this product in my store, but I am in love with the stainless steel LunchBots (http://www.naylanaturalcare.com/store/Scripts/prodList_brands.asp?idCategory=207)

Our 5 year old is in SK and she is sent to school each day with her Pico LunchBot. She is only allowed to bring fruits or vegetables, so snack preparation is pretty easy for me so far! They are compact, cute and easy to care for. They are also easy for little fingers to open and shut which a concern to most parents who inquire about them.

20 | andrea

October 5th, 2009 at 12:50 pm


Thanks for your comment Gwen! Can you comment about their weight? I think a lot of folks think they might be too heavy for the lunchbag.

21 | coffeewithjulie

October 5th, 2009 at 12:58 pm


Andrea – Thanks for the lemon juice idea! She absolutely loves green apples in her lunch. This might just be the trick.

Gwen – I love the stainless steel boxes your store offers. It would help me feel less worried about BPA from plastic wrap and plastic containers.

Lynn – Your find-the-jelly-bean trick is priceless!

22 | Jen_nifer

October 5th, 2009 at 1:23 pm


What about fruit peels when trying a litterless lunch? A couple of schools around here do a day (or is it a week?) where everyone is supposed to bring a litterless lunch. As my son just entered JK I haven’t experienced this yet. I heard from another mother that her son was told he couldn’t through out his banana peel, because it would then no longer be littlerless. I’m not sure if he was told by the teacher or fellow students. Anyone have any experience with this?

So far I am in the same boat as Gwen. My son is in 1/2 day JK and snack can only be a fruit or vegetable. They have turned off the water fountains (I’m guessing for H1N1) so I also send him with a reuseable juice box that has either water or diluted juice.

23 | Carrie

October 5th, 2009 at 2:05 pm


The lemon juice trick works for the apples, but if your kid doesn’t like the tang of the lemon, sprinkle a bit of cinnamon into the sliced apples instead. Shake it up and you are good to go. They still turn brown, but the apple juice and cinnamon turn into a sweet glaze and the apples taste great.

Great ideas!

24 | andrea

October 5th, 2009 at 2:08 pm


re: fruit peels
Our school has a compost bin. They send home all the containers and any garbage and leftovers but not the compostable materials i.e. fruit and veg scraps.

I’d guess that in order to promote fruit and veg consumption any school would be nuts to ban oranges and bananas because the peels aren’t technically litterless.

If my school did that I’d sure raise a stink.

25 | Betsy Mae

October 5th, 2009 at 2:14 pm


Oh I want to read through the comments to see what everyone else does but I don’t have time right now! The lunches/snacks I pack for my girls are almost always litterless (cloth napkins and all) but my biggest problem is finding containers that aren’t plastic!! I haven’t found many containers that do the trick, aren’t bulky, easy to open and seal well…and not plastic or glass (school doesn’t allow glass).

I will admit that I occassionally do pack yogurt tubes! Regular yogurt goes into a refillable container but as a treat the girls get a frozen yogurt tube or something similar that can’t be sent any other way.

BTW, we bought banana guards (I swear I heard about them here) and they are fantastic for keeping the bananas from bruising.

26 | Gwen @ Nayla Natural Care

October 5th, 2009 at 5:28 pm


Andrea, the LunchBots are pretty lightweight. From reading the the comments on this post, I thought it would be a good idea to list the weights on my site since other parents may have the same concerns. Here they are:

Uno- 0.202kg (0.45lb)
Duo-0.217kg (0.48lb)
Eco- 0.277kg (0.61lb)
Pico- 0.170kg (0.37lb)

27 | Rebecca

October 5th, 2009 at 5:33 pm


We only have 1 snack with preschool but I am loving his LunchBot container.

Typically, I use reusable containers for almost everything in a lunch/snack, but when we travel, I have to admit, the yogurt tubes are so easy!

28 | Nadine C.

October 5th, 2009 at 8:10 pm


You are so right , litterless lunches are the best. We decided to buy our daughter a slightly bigger lunch box this year , we got hers from L.L.Bean online, the price was very decent and the quality of their products is amazing and it fits all of the reusable containers we need ( for a sandwich , the veggies or salad, the fruits and even her large water canteen or a thermos). It doesn’t even take that much place in her backpack and is so easy to clean in case of a spill as there are no seams inside. Frankly there is no need today for anyone packing lunches with wrappers, I have also been guilty of the occasional single portion applesauce and the granola bar, but it’s way easier to buy in bulk and fill small containers and my kid loves it as she feels that it is like eating at a picnik !

29 | Amy Hemmert

October 5th, 2009 at 8:44 pm


Great post, Andrea! I will refrain from plugging Laptop Lunches since I’m the co-founder, but I would like to mention that we have a wealth of free litterless lunch ideas, recipes, and menus on our Web site at http://www.laptoplunches.com. If you’re looking for fresh ideas, be sure to check out our menu library at http://www.laptoplunches.com/lunchmenus.html.

30 | The Veg Next Door

October 6th, 2009 at 6:42 am


Regarding the LunchBots, if a child loses the lid or the container can it be easily replaced?

31 | andrea

October 6th, 2009 at 7:21 am


This has been a great discussion! I think I’m preaching to the coverted, as usual. :)

I read over my post and I hope I didn’t make it seem like Mark and I are 100% perfect-litterless-lunch-packing-parents. We do our best, and strive to be better, but have been known to pack something with a wrapper or a drink box. The worst is at Halloween, when we’re packing a small bag of chips (or whatevery) in their lunch every day.

And can someone explain the difference between a yogurt tube and regular yogurt?

32 | Gwen @ Nayla Natural Care

October 6th, 2009 at 7:47 am


@ The Veg Next Door: the lids are not sold separately, so if a lid does get lost, there is not much else to do other than getting another full container.

I have labeled both the lid and bottom with my daughter’s name just in case…so far so good :)

33 | tali

October 6th, 2009 at 11:02 am


I am basically too cheap to buy single serving stuff, plus most of it is not very good for you. I never pack yogurt or applesauce anyway, since my daughter is a sloooow eater and would never finish it.

I use a plastic, three-part snack plate, and stainless steel bottle. I don’t worry about the plastic, since the items aren’t sitting in there for long, and they’re not heated up in there. That being said, the lunchbots look really nice. We’ve been using the same snackplate for ever, and haven’t lost a lid yet!

I have to say, though, I worry alot more about the kind of food that’s put in the snack, rather than what it’s packaged in. We have a no treat rule at our school, but I think it’s somewhat liberally applied. Doritos shouldn’t be part of anyone’s everyday food.

34 | solemom

October 8th, 2009 at 9:07 am


My little one is still at daycare, so no packed lunches for him yet, but I’ve been doing the litterless lunch for myself for a few years now. One of my favourite new products is the reusable sandwich/snack bag. You can make them yourself like a PP said, or if you’re like me and you will never find the time to do it – buy them from a place like this:

I have 4 of their bags and I love them.

Also – great suggestion aobut the cinnamon on apples! I will be trying that tomorrow – I have a lingual wire (permanent braces behind my teeth) so I can’t bite into whole apples, so I’ve been leaving them out of my lunch for years. Very excited about this idea! Also, just FYI – Royal Gala apples brown far less quickly than other apples.

35 | 10 ways to feed your family without killing the planet (Blog Action Day) | PhD in Parenting

October 15th, 2009 at 9:40 pm


[…] 7. Pack a litter-less lunch: A lot of us pack lunches everyday for ourselves or for our kids. Andrea from a peek inside the fishbowl wrote a great post earlier this month with tips on packing a litterless lunchbox. […]

36 | Cate

October 17th, 2009 at 4:29 pm


Great post! I pack my husband’s lunches and generally I think they qualify as litterless. I send him off with water in a reusable bottle, a piece of fruit (if it’s grapes or something sliced I put it in a reusable container), some chopped or raw vegetables in a reusable container, and for the “main course” something like a homemade granola bar, muffin, crackers with peanut butter, crackers with cheese, etc in a reusable container. I do sometimes use Ziploc bags for things like granola bars, but I reuse them about a million times. It’s great to not be tossing so much stuff in the trash, and it makes packing lunches easier for me, too.

37 | Laura Jane

November 27th, 2009 at 11:45 am


I just bought a Goodbyn http://www.goodbyn.com/goodbyn/default.aspx last night so we can do completely litterless lunches for our daughter.

She LOVED being able to decorate her own lunch kit, and I love it is one container with one lid that most likely will not get lost like all the other containers we have tried in the past. It was so easy to just be able to grab cut up fruits and veggies from our fridge, fill up a reusable juice box, slap some cream cheese and jelly on a bagel, and send her on her way. Definitely just as easy (and way healthier) than the pre-packaged food I gravitate to in a rushed morning.

38 | Packed lunch >> a peek inside the fishbowl

April 29th, 2010 at 8:24 am


[…] written about litterless lunches before. The goal here is zero garbage. Each of the girls’ schools has a litterless lunch policy. […]

39 | Melanie Rex

October 4th, 2010 at 1:10 pm


I have always done a litterless lunch – but with the plastic re-usables. I will have to look into the stainless steel – as I know the plastic doesn’t last much longer than a year – with the wear and tear.

40 | Hello Goodbyn >> a peek inside the fishbowl

January 20th, 2011 at 10:39 am


[…] think she’s secretly proud of her Goodbyn. It’s totally litterless, and she always has some variety in her lunch. But I have to say, I’d be happy if […]

41 | Kaitlin

February 1st, 2011 at 10:29 pm


Re: Eating the same thing for lunch every day…I was reading a study that suggests that eating the same thing is a good way to maintain/lose weight. Not that your children need to worry about that, but that consistency breeds expectation: Your body expects to be full and gain satisfaction from that something that you eat and you’re likely to be full for longer, I believe.

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The Obligatory Blurb

My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human offspring: Emma (24) and Sarah (22). During the day I work as a writer at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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