Store-Bought Lunch Is Stupid and Wasteful

The humble lunchbox is a missive from your home—a potentially embarrassing glimpse into how you cook, eat, and live.

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Jul 23 2014, 3:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Xurxo Martínez

Bury me in a click-and-lock Tupperware.

Lay me out in a sandwich bag and may flights of lunchboxes guide me to my rest. Because if, as Freud suggests, handbags, purses, and lunchboxes are a simulacrum of our vaginas, then I have spent my life knee deep in the square little plastic cunts. I love them.

And yet, nobody knows more keenly the hot, fumbled shame of revealing your box to a room of critical glances. The snide comments about your cold curry, the shocked stares at your lip-staining beetroot salad, the jokes at the expense of your fragrant cheese and brinjal pickle sandwiches.

A lunchbox is a missive from your home—a molded plastic glimpse into how you cook, eat, and live. It is probably the most personal piece of paraphernalia in your bag, far more exposing than the odd condom or nest of tampons. Your lunchbox tells the world what your kitchen smells like, what you spend your money on, what was at the back of the fridge, what you slip down your gullet, and whether you can cook.

If we just cut each other some slack about our approach to sloppy seconds, we could all eat better, cheaper, and with less waste.

Which is precisely why we need to break this bullshit lunchbox shaming loop immediately. To spend £4.99 on a freezing, mayonnaise-glutted sandwich, for fear of other people's mockery, is not to each lunch. It is expensive, unhealthy, ecologically unsound, and almost entirely unnecessary. According to three major WRAP studies in 2013, the UK last year wasted 12 million tons of food, 75 percent of which could have been avoided. If we just cut each other some slack about our approach to sloppy seconds, we could all eat better, cheaper, and with less waste. We could feast on leftovers, make our own sandwiches, toss our own grains, and pack our own veg pots for a third of the price and in less time than it takes to buy a strip-lit meal deal.

So why don't we? Well partly, like my commitment anxiety, distrust of marriage, and loathing of confrontation, it comes from our childhood. Like so many double-chinned children I spent my schooldays jack-knifed with shame that I ate at all. As an overweight adolescent I felt guilty, embarrassed, even angry that I had to be seen, in public, adding to my girth with the buttered potatoes and mountains of cheese my parents packed up for me most mornings. My lunchbox merely confirmed everyone's suspicions: that I was greedy and my parents were weird.

We laughed at other people's lunchboxes out of fear—the anxiety that we might be targeted for eating anything that wasn't a neat, crustless ham sandwich, or a plate of school-shovelled chips. My childhood was spent on hard school benches, rucksack propped between my knees, ferrying small morsels of mystery lunch from the depths of my school bag to my frantically masticating mouth, in terror that anyone would see what I was actually eating. And with good reason: When one of the boys from my class brought in a packet of Rice Crispies, a bowl, spoon, and pint of milk for lunch, our shrieks of damning laughter could probably have been heard from space. When another boy, who had recently lost his mother, produced nothing more than an unopened can of curry and a spoon from his lunchbox, we set on him like a pack of angry hounds.

Dosirak from Korea, biandang from Taiwan, baon from the Phillippines—the world is awash with simple, fanciful, comforting homemade lunches.

But, really, we're not at school any more. If we can accept our sexuality, our parents, our bodies and our homes, then we can surely accept the fact that people eat. By shaming those who make their own lunch, who dine out on leftovers and tote Tupperware, all we're really doing is playing into the hands of the greedy corporate giants that profit from our squirming—the same people who package up a sanitized, furiously expensive, twee, fake healthy or faux indulgent array of the very food we left in our bin at home. Adverts for veg pots, instant soup, pre-cut carrots and micro tubs of cheese imply that we are nothing but incapable, avaricious consumers; that we have neither the time, the inclination nor the ability to cut our own bread or tear our own salad. And yet, I have faith that we can. Most people who can bake a potato, slice a tomato or cut a salami could make themselves lunch—even if it's just the sort of sandwich that your local fluorescent chemist packs behind cellophane and marks up by 400 percent.

We have absorbed, entirely, the anti-DIY myth that shop-bought is cleaner, tastier, and better than anything we could make ourselves. And yet there is romance to Tupperware, cling film, sandwich bags, and greaseproof paper that no mountain of whackaging will ever scale. The Indian tiffin towers and Japanese bento boxes are master class in home-packed food beauty. Dosirak from Korea, biandang from Taiwan, baon from the Phillippines—the world is awash with simple, fanciful, comforting homemade lunches whose names alone read like a piece of poetry.

My father used to place little hand-drawn cartoons into my sandwiches for school— an epistle of quiet fatherly love, stuck to my tuna mayonnaise. After weekends at my grandmother's house I would return home groaning under small, pale, rounded plastic boxes of roast potatoes and cold cabbage, as a reminder of her affection and her presence. Last night, after driving two hours to meet a shovel-handed man and drink wine in a meadow, he shyly handed over a little blue-cornered click-and-lock Tupperware full of pudding to eat on my journey home.

If we're to battle obesity, scrape through the recession, save the world from a clagged up plastic crust of discarded packaging and feed ourselves with affection, then we need to stop laughing at each others' lunches. We need to embrace our leftovers and be grateful for our banana guards.

There is no shame in onanism, no sleaze in self-gratification, nothing wrong with doing it for yourself. Just as long as you remember to wash your hands.