Time for a spiffy new green lunch box to tote back to school or work. Home-made lunches with whole grains,organic cheese and fresh fruits and vegetables cost less and have far fewer calories than fast, overprocessed restaurant and deli meals, or the stuff in school vending machines. Nontoxic food and water containers are also de rigueur in these days of noxious revelations about toxic plastics. The landmark bill passed by Congress last week to ban brain-damaging lead and hormone-disrupting phthalates in children's toys does not, alas, include the category of lunch boxes, which are often made of PVC vinyl that's softened with phthalates and stiffened with lead, according to Greenpeace.  Following are some greener, safer lunch box choices.

Bento boxes, a growing trend in the U.S., are Japanese inventions for portable multi-course meals, each food in its separate stackable tray. They're traditionally made of lightweight wood waterproofed with natural plant lacquers, but avoid the new bento boxes made of PVC. A lovely oval bento box made of cedar and lacquered with the sap of the urushi tree, wrapped with an elastic strap that serves as a handle, is $54.95  from Life Without Plastics. On the more affordable, kid-friendly side, we recommend cute, colorful Laptop Lunches bento boxes made of non-leaching PETE #1 and PP #5 plastic:   Five modular containers, two with water-tight lids, plus stainless utensils, fit like puzzle pieces into a large snap-shut tray;  $22.95 with a recipe and tips book from Reusable Bags,$34.95 with book, #2 HDPE water bottle, and carrying case that's lead- and phthalate-free, at Greenfeet. Both sites also sell Kleen Kanteen non-leaching, lightweight stainless steel drink bottles; Reusable bags separately sells Nalgene non-leaching #2 HDPE drink bottles, as well.

Stainless steel is the most eco-friendly metal, readily recyclable and reusable. A lightweight round lunchbox with handles, that converts into a pot for stovetop heating, is $15.95; oval sandwich box, also great for leftover storage and reheating (in toaster oven, not microwave, please!) is $16.95; a 3-tier round bento box with handle is $32.95, all at Life Without Plastics, but do take care, none of these are water-tight. For a sandwich box with an air-tight seal, see Sigg's bright red or blue alumninum version, $24.99 at Progressive Kid, which also sells PVC- and phthalate-free soft insulated fabric lunch boxes and packs, about $27-32, and reusable sandwich wraps, $6.50 each.

Pack a lunch in a reusable, nontoxic system, and save on waste as well as calories. Win-win!

Story by Mindy Pennybacker. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2008. The story was moved to MNN.com in April 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2008