Dear Vanessa,

I am trying to save money and bring my lunch to work. I also want to do what's best for the environment. Do you have some ideas about how to 'do lunch' better?

— Lunching in L.A.

Dear Lunching,

You have my full support! Greening your brown-bag lunch is a great way to save money, the environment, and — if you’re like most of us — improve your health. I know I’m a broken record, but once again: What’s good for the environment is good for us, and the best solutions tend to be the most economical ones.

Concentrating on what food you buy and how it's packaged is one of the best green steps you can take. (For more tips on packing a sustainable punch at lunch, see MNN's guide on how to green your lunch.)

Some of my suggestions

  • Buy in bulk, it saves money and reduces waste from packaging and transportation. Buying large quantities at once isn’t always practical for individuals, especially when it comes to perishable foods. Don’t just think of bulk as the amount you buy, but also how it is sold. Buying from bins — think flour, rice, dried fruit, sugar, nuts, snacks, cereal, beans – allows you to buy the amount you need, and saves money and resources. (Don’t forget to bring your own bags!) This includes drinks. Buy the largest containers you can find. Frozen concentrates are a good alternative to bottles of juice — unless it’s local and fresh-squeezed, you’re just paying for the space and weight of water.
  • Take food and drinks to work or school in reusable containers (metal, glass, ceramics) and bring silverware and a cloth napkin. Pack it all into a sturdy bag. I put our names on everything and pack lunches in cloth bags that I can throw in the wash. When buying packaged food, I look for containers (usually glass) that can be used for lunches and storage once they’re empty — think salsa jars repurposed as yogurt containers.
  • Buying food locally is one of the best ways to green your diet and strengthen your local economy. On average, the food on your plate has traveled at least 1,500 miles. That’s a lot of gas for one carrot to burn! Stock up at the farmers market and join a CSA, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture and is basically a way of buying shares in a farm. Local Harvest and Food Routes are good resources for finding CSAs and food grown in your area.
  • Don’t buy bottled water ... never, ever. Invest in a filter if you’re worried about the tap water in your area. Keep in mind that most bottled water is nothing more than tap water in plastic — plastic that may be leaching BPAs and phthalates. Municipal water is better regulated than bottled water, anyway.
  • Avoid the health and environmental dangers of plastics. Bisphenol A is an endocrine disruptor that mimics the effects of estrogen and is linked with prostate cancer, chromosomal abnormalities and obesity. Containers with recycling symbol No. 7 tend to leech bisphenol A, and almost all canned foods are lined with it. Plastics marked with No. 3 (Polyvinyl Chloride or PVC) contain phalates that can cause genital abnormalities. Polystyrene (No. 6) — found in cups, plates, bowls, utensils and take out containers — is a probable neurotoxin. Avoid putting warm or acidic foods in plastic, or using containers that are worn or scratched. Never heat food in plastic (“microwave safe” simply means the container can go in a microwave; it has nothing to do with your safety).
What are the alternatives?

Glass is long lasting and safer than plastic. Ceramic can’t be recycled, but it is also long lasting and heat-safe, and while mining and processing takes a huge toll on our health and the planet, metal containers are generally a better option than plastic because they last so long. Even if buying a safe, reusable container costs more, it will benefit your wallet and health in the long run. For information on the dangers of bisphenol A in plastics, look here.

  • Stay away from single-serve packaging. You’re usually paying for a dangerous and unnecessary convenience. That goes for drinks, cheese, snack bars, yogurt, whatever. Most things (it’s sometimes hard to call them “foods”) that are over-packaged are also over-processed. The best single-serve foods come in their own packaging (apples, nuts, potatoes…). Why pay for an over-processed “health bar” when you can get an even healthier piece of fruit for half the cost?
  • For both your health and wallet, don’t drink sodas.  Avoid a lot of fruit juice also; you are much better off eating fresh, whole fruits.  Orange juice, for example, has such a high concentration of sugar that it interferes with the absorption of vitamin C. Seep slices of lemon, orange or cucumber, or add leaves of mint and lemon verbena as a refreshing way to spruce up water.
  • Put leftovers to work by bringing them to work. Or make extra servings that you can pack for lunch as you are cleaning up from dinner.
Thank you for your question, and your effort.

Keep it Green,


Inspiration to get and keep you going:

  • The EPA estimates every child who brings a brown-bag lunch to school will generate 67 pounds of waste over the school year. If those kids adopted a waste-free lunch habit — as you seem to be ready to do — we could divert more than 3.5 billion pounds of trash from landfills every year.
  • According to, a child who bring her own lunch to school will save about $250 a year.
  • An estimated 500 billion plastic bags are consumed worldwide every year (that’s a million bags per minute), and the EPA says 380 billion plastic bags and wrappers are consumed in the U.S. alone. The Wall Street Journal says using 100 billion plastic shopping bags costs retailers $4 billion a year. How many of those bags have carried our to-go meals?
  • Each durable, reusable bag has the potential to replace 1,000 plastic bags.
  • Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it photodegrades. That means that when it eventually starts to breakdown, it isn’t reabsorbed in a natural cycle but rather becomes smaller pieces of the same toxic substances, contaminating soil and water and eaten by animals (like us).
Photo:  Jupiterimages
How do I make my lunch greener?
You can 'do lunch' and still help the environment.