"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, make a difference with your fork and dig in.
1. Cut down on meat
Try swapping deli meat for a vegetarian sandwich, or pack some delicious meat-free leftovers — at least a couple of times a week. The environmental benefits of eating a meat-free diet have been well-explored, so 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 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.
2. 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 lunch container, add a piece of fruit and enjoy a stress-free lunch.
3. Pick reusable containers
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, every child who brings a brown-bag lunch to school each day generates 67 pounds of waste by the end of the school year. Skip the paper and plastic bags, and tote your lunch in one of the many sustainable (and stylish!) reusable lunch bags and boxes available instead. We like these:
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 place mat during lunchtime. They are washable, reusable and can be folded up and tucked into a purse or bag after use.
Bento boxes — Commonly used in Japanese cuisine, bento boxes tend to feature single portions of rice, fish or meat, and vegetables kept in distinct, portioned containers — but you can put whatever you like in yours. Ranging from elaborately styled lacquered boxes to simple stainless steel versions, the bento box feels like a small lunchtime revolution. 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 one.
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.
Built NY — These lunch bags feature a sleek design and separate, insulated pouches for food and drink.
The reusable container advice goes for drinks, too. Having a reusable water bottle filled with water, homemade iced tea, dressed-up seltzer or another refreshing drink is more eco-friendly than buying soda or bottled water. And use this tip for remembering to bring your thoughtfully packed lunch with you.
4. Order in 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 ask the restaurant to leave out the extra napkins, plastic forks, menus and ketchup packets that tend to sneak into your life — and the waste stream — via your delivery bag. At the office, stash a real fork, knife, spoon and cloth napkin in your desk, and revel in your eco-savvy.
The Green Restaurant Association certifies food establishments (restaurants, coffee shops, caterers, etc.) that abide by a series of eco-protocols, including avoiding Styrofoam containers, reusing gray water and using energy-efficient appliances, lightbulbs and so forth.
5. Go to the farmers market
This Los Angeles farmers market offers tables so patrons can sit down and eat. (Photo: Alex Millauer/Shutterstock.com)
If you live in an urban center, chances are good that there's a farmers market in easy walking, biking, subway or driving distance. Many of these markets sell easy-to-eat, local lunchtime goodies like artisanal cheeses, tomatoes and cucumbers, freshly baked bread and cookies, and apple cider. You can find a local farmers market through Local Harvest. It sure beats ordering pizza, yet again.
6. Sit outside, or at least at a table
Making the effort to green your lunch is noble — but don't forget to also care for yourself on your lunch break. Go outside and find a bench or a square of grass where you can eat your lunch in peace. Take the time to relax, read, go for a walk or do some yoga. Chances are you'll come back to your desk clear-headed and ready to work.
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.
7. Start a lunchtime book club
Do you have a stack of food or environment-themed books sitting by your bed, collecting dust? Gather together a few like-minded co-workers and start a lunchtime book club. Pick a title (e.g. "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan, "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson, "The Power of a Plant" by Stephen Ritz, or "Hot, Flat and Crowded" by Thomas Friedman) and set a monthly date when you come together in the staff kitchen — or a nearby park — to share your thoughts. You'll get to know your co-workers better, and educate yourself about important environmental and sustainable food issues.
8. Keep learning
Read up on sustainable and food-justice causes such as The Lunchbox Fund, which provides impoverished children in South Africa with nourishing lunches during their school day, or Edible Schoolyard, a program launched in the San Francisco Bay area by local foods pioneer Alice Waters, which uses sustainable gardening as a powerful teaching tool for urban public school kids. If you have your wallet nearby and are feeling generous, donate and help share the love of a green lunch with others.
This story was originally published in April 2010 and has been updated with new information.