Originally Published: 07/26/10
On hectic weekday mornings, it's easy to gulp down a nutrition bar, toss the kids a juice box, and throw together a lunch made of individually-wrapped, pre-cut, and pre-packaged foods. That adds up to a lot of convenience, and potentially, a lot of waste — but don't fret. Set aside a few minutes for planning, and you can still have delicious, convenient, eco-friendly grab-and-go meals when the school year gets under way. Just practice the three Ps — purchase, prepare, and pack — and practice them sensibly.
Making your quick meals greener begins with what you bring home from the store. Before stocking up on the usual, consider what purchases could be kinder to the environment.
- Invest in fewer, but more versatile, food storage containers. Consider what will work for the lunches you pack — and buy accordingly. There are great containers for sandwiches and for salads, which have compartments to keep everything fresh and separate — even the dressing.
- Buy the ingredients to make your own versions of your favorite pre-packaged foods. For instance, you could save money and packaging waste by buying larger containers of treats and making your own 100-calorie packs.
- Favor foods that are packaged in recyclable, recycled, or earth-friendly containers. Look for the recycling symbol on packaging, or keep an eye out for products packaged in more efficient ways — for instance, Yoplait recently introduced 6 oz. 4-packs of yogurt that use 45% less plastic than a comparable individual cup of yogurt.
Not all grab-and-go foods are equal; some lend themselves toward greener prep. Consider trying less wasteful foods and less wasteful ways to prepare foods.
- Muffins can be very quick, easy, and low on waste. Take some time on the weekend to bake a batch, and instead of paper liners, use cooking spray to prevent muffins from sticking, or try reusable, silicone muffin pan liners. Once the goodies are baked, freeze them for a breakfast that can be defrosted in seconds in a microwave or toaster oven.
- Consider unlikely leftovers. We all know that roast turkey and other meats make great next-day sandwiches, but what about those other extras? If you make pancakes or waffles on the weekend, cook the extra batter and refrigerate or freeze them. Reheating them in the toaster or toaster oven makes a fast and delicious weekday breakfast, and you don't waste any extra batter.
- Prep foods that don't require utensils — you won't need to use plastic or risk losing your metal flatware. The aforementioned muffins fit the bill, as do foods like sandwiches, and veggie sticks with dip.
- Remember the leftover condiment packets (salad dressing, ketchup, and soy sauce) from your take-out meals; they're perfect for packing in lunches, and it's infinitely better to use the extras you have, than to throw them out.
Don't stop now — picking and prepping the right foods helps to green your choices, but the way you pack it all up matters, too.
- Pack foods that do double-duty. Freeze individual cups of yogurt and use them as ice packs; by lunch, the yogurt will be ready to eat and the rest of the food will still be cold.
- Think outside the box for other packaging methods. An emptied half-dozen egg carton is a great way to pack a few strawberries, especially if snacks tend to end up smushed before lunchtime — just place one strawberry in each indentation of the egg carton, and they're that much more likely to make it through the morning.
- Reuse. Consider purchasing an insulated lunch bag, which will last much longer than a brown paper bag. Save the non-recyclable food containers you do end up with and use them to hold sundry items, or for crafts.
What are your favorite eco-friendly school-day meal ideas? Share your thoughts in the comments below.