Think Outside the (Lunch) Box

If you’ve ever done lunch duty at your child’s school, you’ve seen the waste: discarded sandwiches, untouched apples, disposable juice boxes and water bottles, single-serving yogurt containers, cheese stick wrappings, paper napkins, plastic baggies, plastic cutlery and brown paper bags. 

As another school year looms, it is time to reconsider the lunchbox.

Begin by eliminating all the disposable items inside, such as paper napkins. I got rid of them years ago, when I discovered that I could purchase high-quality napkins – linen, frequently – at Goodwill for $3 for a set of five. 

I packed one in my boys’ lunch boxes, along with a real fork (when necessary) and Tupperware container, and found that all came home (most days) without too many reminders on my part. 

Amy Hemmert and Tammy Pelstring offer their own suggestions in The Laptop Lunch User’s Guide (2002, Morning Run Press), a book filled with statistics (the average-size elementary school generates 18,760 pounds of lunch waste each year!) and strategies for feeding a picky eater.

Hemmert and Pelstring are two moms at the forefront of a campaign for waste-free lunches, initiated by parents and teachers at Gateway School in Santa Cruz. You can find some of their tips at

I like their ideas: field trips to the local landfill, shopping with a grocery list – and standing firm when the kids ask for one of those empty-calorie foods so conveniently placed on a shelf at their eye level.

“If it’s not on the list, we’re not buying it” should be every parent’s mantra. 

But if you’re looking for inspiration beyond the old PB&J standby, this isn’t the book for you. Yes, there are a few interesting recipes – but they’ll hardly carry you through a year of school lunches.

Chicken drumsticks, hot soup and potato pancakes all make a welcome change to the sandwich grind. But my kids’ all-time favorite was Peanut Butter Pasta, a dish I made the night before, refrigerated and stored the next morning in a glass container. By the time it’s lunch, the pasta will be at room temperature – perfect for eating.

It’s spicy, delicious and kid-friendly. I knew they really ate it because I always had to wash the cloth napkins on those days.


Sara Solovitch is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.


Peanut Butter Pasta
  • 1/2 cup chicken or vegetable broth

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger root

  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce

  • 3 tablespoons peanut butter

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons honey

  • 2 teaspoons hot chile paste (optional)

  • 3 cloves garlic, minced

  • 8 ounces Udon noodles or spaghetti

  • 1/4 cup chopped scallions 

  • 1/4 cup chopped peanuts

  • chopped fresh cilantro

  • diced cucumber

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add a teaspoon of oil to prevent noodles from sticking. Add noodles and cook until tender, according to package directions. Drain in a colander and rinse with cold water. 

Combine chicken broth, ginger, soy sauce, peanut butter, honey, chili paste and garlic in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat until peanut butter melts and is heated through.

Add noodles and toss to coat. Garnish with green onions, peanuts, cilantro and cucumber.

Refrigerate and divide into separate non-disposable containers in the morning.

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