Friday, July 25, 2008

waste-free lunches part 4: "hidden" waste reduction

So maybe everything I've written is no news to you. You've been using food savers and cloth lunch bags and water bottles and cold packs for years, and you've got a pretty healthy diet. What else is new? Maybe it's time for us to examine the processes behind our seemingly simple choices, and remember that not all carrot sticks or granola bars are created equally.

When I wrote that list above, you may have thought to yourself, "Wait a minute. Granola bars?" A product that comes individually-wrapped in a cardboard box of six doesn't seem to belong on a list of waste-free lunch ingredients.

Granola bars are another manufactured and packaged food product that used to be on my regular shopping list, especially if I knew I had a car trip with Khymi coming up. Apart from scanning the ingredients for anything questionable, I didn't really think twice about tossing the box in the cart or grabbing a couple of granola bars on the way out the door. That was until I discovered how easy they are to make at home, with whatever ingredients you like best.

Just poke around online and you'll find lots of recipes for different kinds of granola bars.

A recipe that's working for us right now (adapted from Vegetarian Times):

Chewy Granola Bars! (not vegan.)

2½ cups rolled oats
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour, or lower protein flour like pastry or rice flour [what's up, Allie?!]
¼ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. salt
2/3 cup chopped dried apricots
½ cup dried cranberries
½ cup almonds (you can chop them up; I like to leave them whole)
½ cup maple syrup
½ cup almond butter
¼ vegetable oil
2 egg whites
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F/175°C
  2. Grease a rectangular baking dish (glass works well)
  3. Combine first four ingredients (dry powdery things) in a bowl. Add the next three (dried fruit/nuts) and stir to coat so the fruit doesn't stick together as much.
  4. Beat last 4 (wet) ingredients together until smooth. Stir in dry ingredient mixture until well-combined (this works really well in a stand mixer, but a wooden spoon would also probably do the trick).
  5. Spread mixture in baking dish and moosh it around with a spatula to compress it and make the top and edges nice and even. Sprinkle a little salt on top if you like. Bake for about 30 minutes or until firm. Cool completely before slicing into bars.
Other recipes are probably really similar. What's great is the versatility--cut into bars of whatever shape and size you prefer. Store them in an airtight container, and pack in lunches, or for road trips or kids' sporting events (for daily lunches, I'd pack one in a very small rectangular food saver). Many of the ingredients are interchangeable, so if you hate raisins or are allergic to peanuts, you can just leave them out. Use a different sweetener (brown sugar, brown rice syrup, honey), or no sweetener. The recipe above might not be vegan, but there are a bunch that are. Crunchy eating habits notwithstanding, you could throw in some M&Ms (or bacon bits, or whatever), if the mood takes you. Experiment!

We take so many of these industrial foods for granted, when it's usually not so hard to find or make food that's local, seasonal, and/or uses less packaging. Here's our list from the "food" post again, this time emphasizing some of the hidden choices we found we could make:

-Pita pockets with hummus and lettuce, with sliced tomatoes in a separate container to be added on top before eating (prevents sogginess) [Homemade hummus using dry chickpeas and olive oil purchased in bulk with reusable containers, lettuce from our garden, tomatoes from the farmers' market]
-Tortilla roll-ups with separate containers of egg salad and fixins [Homemade tortillas using bulk flour, local eggs from the farmers' market, homemade plain yogurt instead of mayonnaise]
-Regular sandwiches (peanut butter & jam, hummus & pesto spread with lettuce and the separate-tomato container) [Homemade bread stored in a reused bag, bulk grind-your-own peanut butter in a reusable container, homemade jam using local strawberries, homemade pesto using homegrown basil]
-Cold leftovers from dinner (cold sesame noodles, pasta with veggies, rice and beans) [Bulk pasta, rice, dry beans, and soy sauce; veggies from CSA share and farmers' market]
-Carrot sticks or cucumber slices with hummus or dip --[Carrots purchased in 5-lb bag, cucumbers from farmers' market, dip made from homemade yogurt and homegrown fresh herbs]
-Fresh fruit [Seasonal fruit (peaches, apricots, cherries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries) from the farmers' market]
-Dried fruit or trail mix [Purchased in bulk]
-Granola bars [Homemade granola bars using bulk rolled oats, flour, maple syrup, almonds, dried apricots and cranberries, local egg whites, and bulk grind-your-own almond butter]

What a difference, huh? And these are just the choices we could make, or were willing to. Yours would probably look a little different.

We still have replacements we're working on--for example, one of our big lingering plastic-packaged vices is tortilla chips. We eat those like it's our job. So we'd like to start making corn tortillas for fresh tortilla chips instead. Same thing with crackers. And one of Khymi's favorite quick lunches is pan-fried dumplings--I even put them in her lunch as a treat on the first and last days of camp--but we buy the packaged frozen ones; we don't make them from scratch. How hard could it be?

Well, I think that's it. Any other lunch box tips out there? How easy has it been for you to pack fresher, healthier lunches for yourself or your family? Have you found that sacrificing "convenience" hasn't really meant that much of a sacrifice? What about in the winter when less fresh produce is available locally?

Other reading about healthy or waste-free kids' lunches:
  • Jacob's Aunt Nora is a school health consultant and writes a blog called Create Healthy Schools, where she discusses healthy school lunches among the many other components of a healthy school.
  • is a site sponsored by the makers of Laptop Lunches, offering lots of advice on reducing waste in portable meals.
  • The Vegan Lunchbox by Jennifer McCann is a source of tons of healthy, impeccably-presented, low-waste, kid-friendly lunches from a vegan perspective.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

waste-free lunches part 3: drinks

Khymi has a stainless steel water bottle with a sport top. It's durable and washable and it replaced her old polycarbonate water bottle in light of all the concerns over BPA. The problem with stainless steel, though, is that it's a conductor--heat and cold go straight through it. We have neoprene insulating sleeves for our stainless steel bottles, but even those only help for so long. So for day camp, where they don't offer refrigeration, we filled up Khymi's water bottle the night before and froze it, leaving a little room at the top for expansion (if you forget to do this, the bottle will get a rounded bottom like a Weeble--we learned the hard way). The only nice thing about stainless steel's lack of insulation is that it cools down really fast in the freezer.

One part of caring for a kid that I haven't really been able to get with is the supposed inevitability of JUICE. Look at the fruit juice aisle in every supermarket and there are tons of choices, many intended specifically for kids. And any juice company who knows anything about marketing to kids knows that they have to offer their product in lunch-sized boxes as well as bottles. But when you think about it, why? What's so essential about juice?

Since I started eating more locally, one thing I really had to reconsider was juice. I used to buy orange juice every week, but here in the Mid-Atlantic there's no such thing as local orange juice. And really, almost any other fruit juice is the same way. Even if it's organic, 100% juice, who knows where it really came from, or how much energy was used to produce and package it?

So now we buy local milk, and we drink filtered tap water. Every now and then, as a treat, we buy a glass bottle of juice or a couple of cans of organic sparkling fruit "soda" from the store. And one of the pleasures of autumn is the arrival of apple cider at the farmers' market.

For these hot summer days at camp, we felt like it was more important to provide Khymi with enough cold water to drink than to satisfy her (typical kid's) desire for a sweet drink like juice. True, juice contains some vitamins and other nutrients, but for that purpose I'd rather she just have the whole fruit. If we happen to have juice at home, we're happy to give her a glass with an afternoon snack or with dinner.

Eliminating something we previously took for granted, like juice, brings me to tomorrow's final post: the behind-the-scenes trash in a portable meal.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

waste-free lunches part 2: food

Jacob takes a lunch to work with him every day, and it's usually some sort of leftovers from dinner. We try to make a big batch of some all-in-one dish at the beginning of the week so he'll get a few days' worth of lunches out of it. But that plan wasn't going to work for Khymi--for one thing, Jacob keeps a microwaveable bowl at the office so he can heat up his leftovers (no such luck at camp), and for another thing, kids are less keen on eating the exact same thing several days in a row.

Two things seem to increase lunch appeal for kids: small tastes of many different foods, and some sort of interactive element. I don't doubt that this is what made Lunchables such a huge hit when they were first introduced. If you're my age, you remember the advent of Lunchables--little cracker sandwiches that the kids can build themselves, and a miniature dessert or drink, all in a seemingly space-age disposable tray. (And if you're anything like me, you were annoyed that your parents unjustly denied you the coolness of Lunchables and continued to send you to school with sandwiches, yogurt and fruit.) So we tried keep that in mind in order to re-create the Lunchables experience--without all the packaging and preservatives.

Here are some of the different foods we tried out:
-Pita pockets with hummus and lettuce, with sliced tomatoes in a separate container to be added on top before eating (prevents sogginess)
-Tortillas with separate containers of egg salad and fixins, to be made into roll-ups at lunchtime
-Regular sandwiches (peanut butter & jam, hummus & pesto spread with lettuce and the separate-tomato container)
-Cold leftovers from dinner (cold sesame noodles, pasta with veggies, rice and beans)
-Carrot sticks or cucumber slices with hummus or dip
-Fresh fruit
-Dried fruit or trail mix
-Granola bars

We sat down with Khymi before she started camp and asked what some of her favorite lunches and snacks are. She's homeschooled, so she's not exactly used to brown-bagging it, but she does bring lunches and snacks to swim meets, as well as on the roughly four-hour ride between here and her mom's house. I think she appreciated being involved in the planning, as well as picking out ingredients at the farmers market and the store, and helping grow vegetables in our home garden (she has unofficially given herself the job of "lettuce washer"). In my experience, you're more likely to appreciate what's put in front of you (no matter how old you are) if you had some hand in the process--growing, buying or cooking.

Tomorrow I'll talk a little about drinks and ditching the juice box. See you then!


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

waste-free lunches part 1: lunchboxes, containers, utensils

[Note: I know a picture is worth a thousand words, and it might be more effective to show, not tell, but I'd rather readers make their own consumer decisions. Hence the verbal descriptions with no links to products or pictures containing brand labels, although there are a few cases where I don't mind making an exception. In general, I know that anyone reading this is savvy enough to find what works best for them.]

The last time Jacob packed day-camp lunches for Khymi, she was in a half-day camp. She was five, and we had gotten her a small, simple, one-compartment insulated bag. This time, we realized that that wasn't going to cut it for an older kid at a full-day camp where she'd be involved in lots of physical activity. We went for a bigger, more durable ripstop soft-sided lunch box, with separate insulated and non-insulated compartments and space for a cold pack. Other criteria: lead-free, no "licensed characters" (i.e. our kid is not advertising for Viacom unless they pay us...sorry, Dora).

One of the reasons the lunch box needed to be so big is that we knew we wouldn't be using plastic bags. We've amassed a pretty big pile of food savers, from cheaper "disposable" plastic containers to multi-packs in various sizes, to a lunch container with a built-in spoon and fork in the lid. Reusable containers are the way to go, but they are a less efficient use of space, so we had to consider that in buying a big enough lunch box.

Apart from the lunch box, we already had all of those containers, so we didn't need to go around gratuitously buying lots of new stuff. But I have to say that if we had been starting from scratch, I would have seriously considered a Laptop Lunch or some other neat little bento- or tiffin-like contraption. In retrospect, I also think we should have bought a lunch box with a detachable carrying strap.

Sometimes it did make a lot more sense to pack a dry snack like crackers or trail mix in a bag instead of a plastic food saver, so it could go in the smaller, non-insulated compartment. In these cases, we used one of our small cotton produce bags.

One nifty (if somewhat gimmicky) new container I found was this one, which has a lower compartment for fruit, vegetables or granola and an upper one for dip or yogurt, with a small cold pack that snaps in between. The problems were that it was a little bulky to fit in a lunch box, and although I found it easy to handle, the seven-year-old had trouble closing the lid of the top container tightly enough to prevent leaking. I think it might be a better sort of thing for an adult or an older child.

As for utensils, one of the containers comes with plastic utensils, but otherwise we'd just throw in some silverware from home. We also included a cloth napkin instead of paper.

Tomorrow: what all we put in those containers!


Monday, July 21, 2008

the quest for healthy, waste-free lunches

[Note: There's a chance that some of you might have had the tenacity to read this in its original format after I posted it on Monday afternoon. Since then I've decided that it was really long and worth breaking up into multiple posts.]

One change we know we have to make when we add a growing seven-year-old to our household is the amount of food we buy. Besides the additional food we eat at meal times, having a kid in the house means meeting the frequent demand for between-meal snacks. Our first instinct when we want a snack to is to reach for the bag of tortilla chips, but now we also stock up more at the farmers market for fresh fruits and vegetables to snack on, and we make a lot of air-popped popcorn and homemade yogurt.

Because of our schedules, Khymi spends part of her time here going to day camp. Last year, she went to a camp that provided a "kid-friendly" lunch that turned out to include a lot of processed meats (lunch meat, chicken nuggets), processed cheeses, packaged chips and pretzels, and also some fresh fruit. It was nice for us not to have to bother packing a lunch, and it gave Khymi one less thing to keep track of, but we also felt like the food options could have been healthier and more varied. Khymi isn't the only kid I know who will happily eat healthy, whole foods if that's what's provided (she puts our eating habits at her age to shame). For some reason, "kid-friendly" often ends up meaning salty, sweet, starchy, bland, processed and over-packaged. (Take a look at any kids' menu anywhere and it's plain to see why so many parents are frustrated with the assumption that their kids are incapable of making healthy food choices.)

This year, we chose two day camps within walking distance of our house. Neither one provided a lunch. After last summer, it was kind of a relief to have more control over what Khymi was eating, but also a challenge, because we knew we'd have to come up with a healthy lunch and snacks every weekday for the time she was in camp. We were also dreading inevitable encounters with the more wasteful aspects of bag lunches: juice boxes, individual packages, and countless plastic baggies. As it turns out, we were able to make wholesome, kid-friendly lunches with little to no disposable waste. Over the next few days, I'll be posting what we've learned in four installments:

  1. Lunchboxes, containers, utensils
  2. Food
  3. Drinks
  4. "Hidden" waste reduction
Check back soon!


we're still alive.

Well, for the last three weeks, we've had a small person living here. In case you have kids and you were wondering what it's like to be a primarily non-custodial parent with no other children:

Imagine your life before you had any kids. Waiting until 8 PM to decide what to eat for dinner, not really caring about the cleanliness of your floors, leaving sharp objects lying around, staying out late on the weekends, using swear words liberally...then imagine your life as it is right now. Which is a good life, and can be immensely rewarding, but in a different way, right?

Then imagine time-traveling between those two states on a regular basis. That's kind of what it's been like for Jacob, I think, and if you also imagine that your child entered your life as a fully-formed, potty-trained and otherwise competent four-year-old, that's kind of what it's been like for me. It's becoming important to me, though, when I discuss these things, not to rely too much on that imagery. It's something I'd like to post about in more detail soon.

I've been doing a lot of thinking like this since Khymi arrived, about how being a stepmother has changed my life, about which changes are similar to those associated with becoming a (legal/biological) parent and which ones are very different. I've also been noticing the changing face of the American family, and how more often than not, popular culture fails to reflect it. And I've been trying to think of ways to share my thoughts here without getting too personal, because so little of what I see on the Internet deals with experiences like mine or families like ours.

These days, more of our time is spent at the pool than on the blogs. But hopefully soon we'll get in some posts dealing with consumer waste, specifically food packaging (how's that for a change of subject?). Individually-wrapped food items are maddeningly ubiquitous, but also surprisingly avoidable...stay tuned.


Tuesday, July 8, 2008

NWL on Kojo

Nice White Lady, a.k.a. my mom, is going to be on WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi Show tomorrow talking about a longtime favorite topic (can you tell?): clothing and gender. Check it out!

The show is the second in a three-part series about clothing and culture. She was also on last Wednesday to discuss sustainable/ethical fashion--audio is still available online.

In other news, hi. I'll be back soon.