"Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what's for lunch."
— Orson Welles
In a food system that thrives on processing, packaging and profiting, transforming your lunch into a midday green meal makes a powerful statement — and a difference. So go on, vote with your fork and dig in.
1) PACK YOUR LUNCH WISELY
Whether you prefer your peanut butter chunky or creamy, make sure your lunch is packed with care. Try swapping deli meat for a vegetarian sandwich, or pack some delicious meat-free leftovers — at least a couple of times a week. Most importantly, skip the brown bag and plastic Ziplocs, and tote your lunch in one of the many sustainable (and stylish!) reusable lunch bags and boxes available on the market today. There are a lot of them — so pick your favorite and stick with it. And use this tip for remembering to bring your thoughtfully packed lunch with you.
• Go vegetarian. The environmental benefits of eating an entirely meat-free diet have been well-explored on this site and elsewhere, so suffice it to say, it's a good green choice. But for die-hard omnivores, eating less meat might be more realistic, and lunch is a good place to start.
America's favorite sandwich, peanut butter and jelly, has always been — and will always remain — meat-free. And with countless delicious cheeses, vegetables and soy deli slices just begging to be turned into a sandwich, going vegetarian at lunch can be a real treat. Need some inspiration? Check out this collection of vegetarian sandwich recipes from Epicurious. Toss one into a reusable bag along with a local apple, homemade pita chips (so simple!) and a couple of your favorite cookies, and you have yourself a meal.
• Bring leftovers. If the thought of coming up with a new, creative, eco-friendly lunch every day feels overwhelming, try cooking dinner with leftovers in mind. Make a double batch of vegetarian chili or lasagna filled with vegetables. The next day, simply transfer the leftovers into a reusable Tupperware or one of the lunch containers featured in this story, add a piece of fruit and a sweet treat, and enjoy a stress-free lunch.
• Drink reusable. Ordering a Coca-Cola with my meal when I go out to eat is one of my personal weaknesses. And although I know drinking Coke is essentially equivalent to drinking three jelly doughnuts, sometimes I just can't help myself. While I don't think there is anything too wrong with a once-in-a-while habit, having a variety of other refreshing, tasty drinks on hand (e.g. homemade iced tea, tap water or seltzer dressed up with lemon or a splash of fruit juice and kept cold in a reusable water bottle) significantly helps to curb my less-than-healthy cravings.
• Take a "real" lunch. In his book "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto," author Michael Pollan urges readers to "Do all of your eating at a table. No, a desk is not a table." While Pollan is speaking sarcastically, his point is serious. Too many people skip lunch, or — worse yet — eat in front of the computer with one hand scrolling through unread e-mails and the other rooting deeper and deeper into a bag of chips. It's nearly impossible to be fully or even semi-conscious about one's food choices under these circumstances. It also takes the "break" out of lunch break, which is sad, especially considering that the average lunch hour these days in America clocks in at less than 30 minutes.
BROWN BAG IT
According to the EPA, every child who brings a brown-bag lunch to school each day generates 67 pounds of waste by the end of the school year! Thankfully, there is a whole new culture emerging around "brown-bagging it" — and, thankfully, it has nothing to do with disposable paper bags.
• Wrap-N-Mat — Say goodbye to the Ziploc baggie and hello to an environmentally friendly, money saving way to pack a peanut butter sandwich. The Wrap-N-Mat folds and fastens securely around your food, and then doubles as a placemat during lunchtime. They are washable, reusable, and can be folded up and tucked into a purse or bag after use. See Wrap-N-Mat in action, and find more sustainable lunch tips here.
• Bento boxes — Commonly used in Japanese cuisine, bento boxes tend to feature single portions of rice, fish or meat, and vegetables kept in distinct containers — but you can put whatever you like in yours! Ranging from elaborately styled lacquered boxes to very simple, stainless steel versions, the bento box feels like a small lunchtime revolution. The stackable steel bentos fit neatly in a tote bag, and come in different sizes, which let lunch packers control desired portion size. Did you resolve to eat more salad? Put fresh greens or steamed vegetables in the biggest bento container, and relegate last night's mac n' cheese to the smaller box.
• Lunchopolis — The makers of Lunchopolis encourage parents to "feed your kids consciously," with their series of reusable plastic containers and bottles that fit neatly into a multicolored, insulated lunch box. Don't know what to put in all those containers? The company's website comes to the rescue with menu and recipe ideas that are kid-friendly and eco-approved.
• The "old school" lunchbox — As a child of the '80s, I loved my plastic Care Bears lunchbox, which came complete with a matching thermos. I did not think much about my lunchbox's positive impact on the planet — I just cared about keeping my sandwich un-squished and my soup warm until lunchtime rolled around. These days, I regret bowing to 5th grade pressures to drop my suddenly dorky lunchbox in favor of a bland, disposable, paper bag. Sigh.
Young-at-heart adults or adults with youngsters at home can reclaim their love of the lunchbox by ordering one online, adorned with today's most popular icons: Sponge Bob, Dora the Explorer and, of course, Barbie.
• The "new school" lunchbox — If you do not want to go the retro/nostalgic route, there are plenty of grown-up friendly boxes and kits that add a touch of eco-sophistication to your lunch. The Fugu Lunch Tote from Built NY features a sleek design and separate, insulated pouches for food and drink. Pottery Barn also recently started carrying a lunch container that comes in two styles and can be monogrammed with your initials to ward off your coworkers' food poaching tendencies.
Find more ideas about packing a waste-free lunch for yourself or your kids at the site, Waste Free Lunches.
2) ORDER OUT WITH CARE
While ordering takeout is convenient and delicious, it's not always environmentally friendly. Still, there's no need to completely eschew your favorite folder of takeout menus. When ordering in, look for restaurants that match your food values, and take the time to ask the person on the other line to green up his act by leaving out the extra detritus (napkins, plastic forks, menus) that tends to sneak into your life — and the waste stream — via your delivery bag.
Despite your best intentions, there will be days when you simply forget to bring your lunch to work. I am embarrassed to admit how many times I have left a lovingly prepared lunch sitting, sad and dejected, in my kitchen fridge. And since not everyone can work at Google's California campus, where the food court includes the local-foods restaurant Café 150, sooner or later you will find yourself scouring through the office's collection of take out menus to decide "what's for lunch?" But fear not — there are still ways to minimize your lunch's impact, even when you order in.
• Go to the farmers market. If you live in an urban center, chances are high that there will be a farmers market in easy walking, biking, subway or driving distance from where you work. And many of these markets sell easy-to-eat, local lunchtime goodies like artisanal cheeses, tomatoes and cucumbers, freshly baked bread and cookies, and cold or warm apple cider. Getting a taste of a local farm beats the pants off of ordering in Pad Thai, yet again.
Unfortunately, there isn't yet a flawless national Farmers Market database. This one created by Local Harvest is decent but incomplete, and this one even failed to turn up the huge year-round market two blocks from my Brooklyn apartment. But with a little bit of simple online research, you should be able to find a mostly comprehensive list of the markets your area.
• Green your takeout. Want to cut down on unnecessary food packaging at lunchtime? Try asking your restaurant du jour to leave out all the "extras." Request (politely!) that they deliver your food without the napkins, plastic cutlery, and three menus that would get tossed into your delivery bag. Stash a real fork, knife, spoon and cloth napkin at your desk, and revel in your eco-savvy.
You might feel a bit shy at first, but the reduction of packaging waste is worth the potentially awkward moment on the phone. And if you live in New York, an environmental educational organization called Ecoagents has done some of the dirty work for you by creating a campaign called "Eco-to-Go," which educates consumers and restaurants about food waste, and promotes the mass acceptance of the "green take out" strategy.