Thinking inside the box

More people than ever are packing a lunch for work or school. The number of ways to carry the meal have grown, too.

By Debra Samuels
Globe Correspondent / September 3, 2008

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Are you still brown-bagging it? If so, it may be time for a change. Lunch has evolved beyond the sandwich, and lunch containers have kept pace. They keep your salad crisp, your dressing separate, your drink cold and soup hot, and your taco intact.

JoAnne Anderson, marketing manager for Pacific Marketing International -- the parent company of Aladdin, the lunch box manufacturer, and Stanley, the thermos maker -- says research indicates more people than ever are bringing their lunch to school and work, for economic, nutritional, and environmental reasons. What they bring that lunch in now includes reusable sandwich wraps that wipe clean, bowls outfitted with yogurt-holding ice packs, and containers with serious style.

Kids' lunch totes are still adorned with superheroes and princesses, but instead of metal and hard plastic boxes, they are soft, insulated sacks with pockets for cold packs and elastic bands for securing bottles. Betsy Block, author of the newly published "The Dinner Diaries: Raising Whole Wheat Kids in a White Bread World," says that "if the cheese gets wet or the x chips soggy, my little daughter, Maya, won't eat."

But as Block shops for containers that forestall those disasters, she is also concerned about safety. She cautions that consumers need to know what containers are made of. "Look for ..... 1(PETE), 2(HDPE), 4(LDPE) and 5(PP) in the recycle triangle," says Block -- these are OK. "Even if the risk is small, why take the chance if you have choices?" She recommends the National Geographic Green Guide website ( as a place to educate yourself.

Deborah Hamilton, creator of the website, spent nine years in Japan and became besotted with bento, the Japanese portable meal that is the ultimate in compartmentalized lunchboxes. Healthy food arranged attractively for both kids and adults is serious business in Japan. Her website illustrates the lunches she packs for her young son. "Basically I am too lazy to make him something different from what we eat at home," says Hamilton, "so it is all in the packing." She has a collection of cute Japanese-style lunchboxes for her son with all manner of sauce containers, appealing muffin holders, and cartoon-character-shaped molds for rice balls or sandwiches. Her website has recipes, excellent tips for making food in advance, product reviews, and information on bento boxes. Although some might be intimidated by the lengths she goes to for her son's lunch, the site has practical information and is occasionally inspirational. Tokai Japanese Gifts (617-864-5922) at the Porter Exchange in Cambridge has bento boxes for adults. (They are also a great way to practice portion control.)

Several new products help reduce the amount of disposables. Wrap-N-Mat is a square of fabric lined with plastic (the good kind) that closes with a Velcro strap to wrap sandwiches or cookies. When opened, it doubles as a place mat. Wash and dry overnight and use again and again. (Bye bye, baggies.) These are available in a variety of colors and designs ( Check out the website, which offers items for toting all manner of things around, including food.

Today's containers are often designed with specific foods in mind. There is, for example, a hinged plastic container for a banana ( Fit & Fresh ( has compartmentalized containers with snap-in, fitted cold packs. There is a carrier for salads with a lid that contains the dressing. Flip open a cap and the dressing drizzles onto the salad. The Breakfast Chiller comes with a doughnut-like ice pack that surrounds a container for milk or yogurt.

Among local stores, Target seems to have the largest variety of lunch solutions. You will find them in the housewares, back-to-school, and outdoors departments. A young cashier got really excited as she scanned a bunch of saladware. "Wow! I stopped bringing salad to work because it got all mushy. These are way cool."

Get healthy, be frugal, and go green. If you can make it, you can take it -- in safety and style.

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