Dear Umbra,

I recently read about the possible effects of plastics on women and the fetuses they may be carrying. I’m ready to change my ways, but I’m not sure how. Do you have some good suggestions about other ways we can package our leftovers or pack foods for lunch at school and work?

Natalie
Portland, Ore.

Dearest Natalie,

Time to go old school, perhaps literally. If plastic is the problem, the answer may be one compound word: ante-plastics. Before plastic became omnipresent, workers and students transported prepared foods in containers made from other materials. Those antiquated containers may be just what you’re looking for.

Here’s what I’m thinking: lunch boxes. The old-fangled metal kind. Wax paper, tinfoil, and butcher paper can be used to wrap the food that goes inside the box — sandwiches, chicken legs, cookies. Wrap sandwiches in wax paper and perhaps tie them with string, although I would be inclined to use rubber bands. Loosely enfold cookies and carrots in napkins, which can be handily reused to wipe the crumbs from your shirtfront. Add a thermos of soup, and you’ve got a retro lunch pail. Ooo! Ring ring! Will you accept a collect call from Martha Stewart?

What of the cold stir-fry, the day-old mac ‘n’ cheese? For storing things in your fridge, glass bowls are a good option, and I’ve seen sets with (plastic) lids. If that’s still too much plastic for you, plates, dishtowels, or tinfoil make good lid substitutes.

Are you tiffin ’nuff?

But glass bowls with tinfoil covers are not practical lunch containers — especially if you’re biking to work. For a solution to this problem, I recommend thinking globally: Folks from other countries have developed some pretty ingenious lunch pails. When I’m headed down for a long stint in the stacks, I often bring a slick, three-tiered Thai lunch pail, the “tiffin.” Three flat-bottomed metal bowls stack together, the second providing a lid for the first, the third providing a lid for the second. The third and top bowl has its own lid, which locks into position with the flip of a latch. It transports liquid, semi-solid, and solid foods with nary an incident. And it’s hella cool. Check out Asian markets for this container or its cousins. And ye huddled masses bereft of nearby Asian markets, check out ImportFood.com or other such websites.

Pail-ly,
Umbra