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.


Allie said...

Oh! That's awesome! I will have to make these!

Anonymous said...

Maria, I'm drooling just thinking about those homemade granola bars. I don't know why, but it never occurred to me to make my own. If you have extras to spare, please bring 'em to the beach for snacks!

Mama Monster said...

Light years ago when I lived in Asheville, I used to make my own crackers. I got the idea from, of all places, Martha Stewart. I got soooo much crap for it. People thought making crackers was totally wacky. I haven't done it in years, but I remember that they were easy and really really yummy.