Greening the Lunchbox: Six Easy Steps

Whether you’re packing school lunches or brown-bagging it to your job, the lunch box can be a Pandora’s box of environmental hazards.

Here are a few alternatives for making lunch more sustainable.

1. Reusable sandwich bags. If you or your kids eat sandwiches, you may want to consider this popular green alternative to plastic wrap or freezer bags. Of course, you can also use the bags to hold pretzels, carrots, cookies or any other dry food item you pack each day.

If you’re crafty, try making a sandwich bag.

What you’ll need for an average-size bag, about 7″ x 7″:

  • Fabric cut about 7.5” wide by 17” long. If the bag is for your child, make sure he or she likes the pattern. You may want your kids to pick out the fabric themselves,especially if they’re old enough to care about being cool.
  • Washable liner material cut to the same dimensions (unless your main fabric is water-resistant)
  • Velcro strips – or snaps or buttons
  • Sewing kit – needle, thread, pins – or sewing machine

Five Easy Steps

1. Pin together the fabric and liner.

2. Stich together three sides, inside out, and the fourth side, right-side out.

3. Fold over about 7” of fabric, liner-side out, leaving a flap of about 2 1/2.”

4. Pin and stitch sides, creating the envelope that will hold the sandwich.

5. Turn right-side out and stitch or stick on velcro to top front panel of envelope and top inside edge of flap. (Or sew on snaps or attach buttons and make button holes if you prefer.)

Homemade reusable sandwich bag

Homemade reusable sandwich bag

Not feeling crafty? You can purchase these bags at local craft shops such as A Mano, in Lambertville, NJ,, or online at

2. Other wrappings. For items that don’t fit into a sandwich bag (or other reusable bags you may want to make or buy), try wrapping them in tidy bundles with fabric that can be washed and reused indefinitely. You can even use the wrapping material as a napkin.

3. “Safe” containers. Water and foods such as apple sauce and salad present you with the dilemma of needing some type of container. While non-BPA containers and plastics numbered 1,2, 4 or 5 had been touted as safer options, new studies suggest even they may not be safe enough. If your lunchbox is well-padded, you could use small glass jars and bottles. Ceramics and stainless steel are other good options. Or simply choose foods that don’t require containers.

For more information on a recent study of plastics, check out

4. Avoid heavily packaged foods. Individually wrapped cookies, bags of chips (even organic ones) and pre-packaged meals all contribute to landfill. Try buying items that are packaged as minimally as possible. Better yet, pack home cooked leftovers and local produce that has no packaging at all.

5. Avoid processed foods. #4 and #5 work well together. Fresh, local and homemade foods are healthier and come with less packaging. For example, you might roast turkey breast or chicken for dinner and slice leftovers for the next day’s lunch. Or bake some cookies for the week or load up on organic local carrots at the farmers’ market.

carrots and apples

6. Compost. According to, our food waste adds about 21.5 million tons to landfill each year. Apple cores, stray bits of other fruits and veggies, crusts of whole wheat bread…anything except animal proteins can be composted. Instead of tossing these scraps in the garbage after lunch, pack and carry them back home and add them to your compost bucket. You’ll keep your lunch out of landfill and produce an excellent organic additive for next spring’s garden.

What are you doing to make this one small part of your lifestyle more sustainable? Comment or e-mail your ideas at