What My Son’s Preschool Taught Me

September 24, 2009 at 4:52 pm , by

A preschool lunch made by Wendy Copeland (wendolonia.com), a mom who's way out of my league!I was getting a bit lax in the eco-friendly arena. But preschool whipped me into shape.

My son just started preschool for the first time last week, and I thought I’d be the  dorky parent who sends carrot sticks and soy nuts for snacks when everyone else gets Lunchables or some other food that’s “fun,” mainly due to being based on white flour and sugar and housed in disposable cartons, boxes and bags covered with brightly-colored, bug-eyed licensed characters. For at least a minute or two, I seriously worried that he might be a preschool social reject because of his uncool, health-conscious lunches.  (In reality, I think he has a couple years before he risks becoming a pariah on those grounds.)

Turns out I seriously underestimated my ultraprogressive, parent-run preschool.  No Blues Clues-emblazoned Yoplait for this crew! Right in the family handbook, it spelled out a lunch and snack policy that was healthier and way more eco-friendly than I was planning to be. Healthy lunch and snacks only, they said, no sweets allowed—and please send food in reusable containers, with real cups, spoons and forks and a cloth napkin. “This practice will eliminate the waste of paper and plastic and help your child learn to preserve the earth’s resources.”

Whoa. I was planning on being eco-friendly and all, but no yogurt cartons, pretzel packs, or juice boxes EVER? What about those little containers of organic applesauce? Don’t they buy me some moral high ground, despite the plastic? What about my guilty addiction to Ziploc bags? And it would never have occurred to me to send a cloth napkin to school. The responsible citizen in me thought these were excellent rules, but the harried mom thought, “yikes!” I had some shopping to do.

After totally striking out at local stores—cloth napkins for kids and eco-friendly lunch paraphernalia are apparently far from the norm, even in my famously progressive neighborhood—I went online and found some great products (my favorites listed below). Scott was ready to go green.

But something else happened. Preparing his healthy, eco-friendly lunches guilted me into doing the same for myself—and because of his preschool’s rules, I was ready with all the right containers.

The ReSnackIt sandwich bag

I swear my turkey on whole wheat tastes way better in its hip-looking ReSnackIt reusable bag than it would in a Ziploc.  Even those drearily healthy carrot sticks have taken a step up: now they get dipped in the hummus I put in one of the tiny little Sassy containers I got for Scott.

The transformation goes further—as I put his cute cloth napkin into his lunchbox, I find myself thinking that, instead of a paper towel, I really could use a cloth kitchen towel to dry the counter after sponging it. Meanwhile, at work, the Envirosax company sent me a 5-pack of their portable, reusable shopping bags. Thanks to Scott’s preschool giving me a shove in the ecologically correct direction, I decided to try them.

An Envirosax shopping bag

Turns out they’re not only pretty, but practical: They fold up easily to the size of a Kleenex pocket pack, so you can always keep one in your purse, and they have nice long handles so you can hang them from your shoulders, making grocery-carrying a lot easier (a big deal in New York, where you have to shlep your bags for blocks).  Plus, Justin Timberlake uses them. How cool is that?

The upshot: After two weeks, I’ll bet all the paper and plastic Scott and I would have generated—but haven’t—would fill our kitchen garbage can.  I still use too many paper towels and too much plastic, but I feel great about the changes I’ve made. It took some effort to get myself set up with products that make re-using easy, but now it really isn’t so hard to pour some milk into a thermos or spoon some yogurt or applesauce from a big jar to a small container that I can throw in the dishwasher later. I wouldn’t have done it without a push—our culture is set up to encourage excess packaging and the idea that things can be heedlessly thrown away, and it’s so much easier to just go with it.

So, what I’ve learned so far in preschool? Just like the teacher says, rules really can make the classroom a better and happier place. And sometimes, peer pressure can actually be a force for good!

Do you have an eco-friendly lunch product you swear by? Check out my faves, after the jump:

-3ReSnackIt is basically a reusable plastic sandwich bag, only it’s BPA- and PVC-free nylon with a coating on the non-food side, dressed up with cute fabric and a Velcro close. Unlike a plastic baggie, you can toss it in the washer and dryer, instead of having to hand-wash and dry it inside-out.  It comes in sandwich size or the smaller snack size, which is perfect for a preschooler’s snack or half-sandwich. The fun designs make brown-bag lunches much brighter. Plus, I don’t have to feel guilty about throwing away (“where exactly is ‘away’?” my son might ask me someday soon) another plastic bag that will clog a landfill and take 1,000 years to degrade into toxic substances.

Fabkins kid-size napkinsFabkins are child-size cloth napkins with cute embroidered designs and a label for your child’s name. I was afraid of the stain-showing potential of the solid colors so I chose blue gingham (with zoo animals) for one set of 4 and red stripes (with surfing themes) for the other. I love them, use them at home, too, and only wish they’d use a looser-weave cotton that wouldn’t wrinkle so much. Another company with cute kids’ napkins is Happikins.

p94599bThermos not only makes terrific BPA-free stainless-steel insulated straw cups for kids under the Foogo label, but they make adult version, too—the clunkily named “fashion hydration bottle.” The design is much easier to deal with (especially when driving) than the screw-off top of my Kleen Kanteen, the trendy water bottle in New York right now. With this Thermos product, which is double-walled to keep your drink cool, you just press a button and the top flips up, exposing the straw. It’s also way better than my son’s Sigg water bottle, which has a cute exterior but a “sports top” seemingly designed for a flexible bottle—since you can’t squeeze the stainless steel, you have to suck really hard to get any water out of it.

LunchBots are brightly colored stainless-steel containers good for sandwiches, salads or whatever. I got the “Duo,” available at Amazon.com, which holds two different foods separate from each other. You can throw it in the dishwasher and be happy you’re not using plastic. I wish they came in fun patterns and in more sizes.

The Sassy on-the-go setThe Sassy Baby on-the-go feeding set sounds like an infant product, and it technically is, but it’s also a great, inexpensive, BPA-free plastic 4-piece bento box-style system for packing a variety of things—sandwiches, dips, snacks. Best of all, unlike some other bento-box products, everything has a lid, so soft or liquid foods definitely stay where they’re supposed to be, and you can use each container separately if you wish.  I got ‘em at Amazon.com. A slightly more expensive option is to get the “Bento Buddies” from Laptop lunches—also 4 different-sized containers with lids.

Happy eco-eating!

Photo of bento box (at top of post) by Wendy Copley, a health-conscious, eco-friendly mom who’s way out of my league!

9 Responses to “What My Son’s Preschool Taught Me”

  1. Wow, Louise! I have to admit it: When I first read the words “cloth napkin,” I said (out loud) “Are you kidding me?” Just the idea of packing a cloth napkin for a preschooler seemed a bit over the top. But as I read on, you dragged me along with you and I started to get into the swing of things. I, too, use too many plastic bags and paper towels.

    OK, to be honest… If my kid was still in preschool, would I be buying cloth napkins to pack in his lunch each day? Maybe only if he went to your preschool! But this was great food for thought. And you threw in some goodies to make the whole thing more fun, too.

    I’m getting hooked on your blog!

  2. Dang, that preschool is hardcore. We do use dish towels and washcloths for a lot of things in the kitchen now, and I’m trying to cut down on plastic bags–I have some leftover fabric that I’ve been meaning to turn into reusable snack bags. But honestly, I buy applesauce in the single-serving containers because we don’t eat it quickly enough to make the big jars worthwhile–I’d rather throw out the little cups than throw out half a jar of applesauce every two weeks. And what about working moms like you and me for whom those prepackaged snacks might be a big sanity saver?

    What happens if you violate the policy? Do you get shunned? :-)

  3. I switched to cheap bandanas as everyday cloth napkins at home — you can find them a lot of places and toss them in the wash without ironing afterwards, unlike the nice linen napkins I first used. But when I suggested that my son start using those bandanas for lunch napkins, he pointed out that I can’t write his daily note on the cloth. Fair enough. He gets paper with a note. I wrap my bagel and apples in a bandana and go.

  4. PS Don’t get me wrong, I’m secretly looking forward to packing cute little bento boxes when my kid starts school. I just want to be able to slack off if I need to, too!

  5. When I was in Berlin, I saw a girl eating a sandwich out of a plastic reusable sandwich size box. I bought a few of those, and have not used foil, or zip-locks to wrap sandwich since. I have a real spoon, cup, fork and bowl in my office and use those. I am thrilled that you send Scott to such a school and so happy how it has affected your life. Even more I am glad that you are blogging about this, so you have a far reaching impact on others…thanks!

  6. OH, the guilt. OK, been thinking about this but now I have no excuse…time to get my eco-act together. Thanks Louise!

  7. Hey Louise-

    god, I’m already worried about what I’m going to feed the kid I don’t have…now I’m paranoid about what to pack it in.
    But, I just wrote a story on new green lunch products for Specialty Food magazine (it’s a trade mag targeted at high-end retailers trying to decide what products to carry).
    here are two items from that that seem to be getting good buzz:

    “sustainability is also a buzzword at lunch. What began with some schools mandating waste-free lunches is becoming a consumer trend, says Anastasia MacDonald, managing partner at Nest—the housewares component of Roots Market. The retailer carries Wrap-n-Mat, a sandwich wrap with fabric on one side, and 100 percent BPA, lead- and phthalate-free plastic lining on the other, and a product called Snack Taxi. ‘They’re made in Massachusetts, and it’s a total cottage industry that’s exploding,” McDonald says. ‘They’re shaped like tall envelopes so you could slip a sandwich—and crackers and baby carrots—in. And they come in fun prints, like jalapeño peppers.’ Both items, she says, have done consistently well for the store. “Customers walk in and say, ‘What’s this funny little thing?’ And they get it. Even if they’re not looking to reduce Ziploc® bag use, earth or no earth, they think, ‘that’s clever!’”

  8. Louise, we have a solution for the paper towel dilemma that works for us. I buy multiple packages of Twist Bamboo Cloth whenever I see them on sale at our co-op or grocery (you can see them at http://www.buygreen.com/twistbamboocloth.aspx). Since they’re biggish, I cut them in quarters. Pick out a pretty, wide-necked vase to use as an on-counter dispenser and put all the cloth squares in it for easy access. The bamboo cloth works very well, wet or dry, as a small towel, washcloth, sponge, etc. When they get gross you can throw them in the washing machine. They stay useable for a number of washes (I’d say 5-10 depending on use), and once they start to fall apart we throw them in the compost since they are biodegradable.

    We are also big fans of the Snack Taxis mentioned above.

    Love reading your blog!

  9. I wish my kids would switch over to eco-friendly reuseable bags. So far, I got them to switch to the Kleen Kanteen and ditch the juice boxes but my son says the reuseable bags are not cool enough for him to use them….maybe it’s the prints. My daughter would definitely use them but the boys I know (4th graders) are a much harder sell. Perhaps if they were plain black or navy blue…a little more inconspicuous, I might be able to get him to use them in his lunch bag. There needs to be something for older kids.