It’s crazy to think how much we rely on both plastic and aluminum in our kitchens without realizing it. We prepare our food in plastic or aluminum mixing bowls and then we put it in the oven wrapped in aluminum foil or we cook it on the stovetop in aluminum pots and pans. We’ll stir these hot foods with plastic spoons, flip our hot pancakes with plastic spatulas, microwave leftovers in plastic containers, and send our kids to school with plastics zipped snack bags.
We think this is totally ok because the package says the plastic is BPA-free and food-safe. And we’ve been using aluminum for everything since we were kids, so surely someone would have told us to stop if it was really that bad, right? Um, maybe not. But I’m telling you now…. cut it out.
Studies show that most plastics, even those labeled as BPA-free, still contain harmful chemicals that can leach into our foods. This is especially true when the plastic is heated, either in the microwave or just by putting hot food on it. But certain foods and repeated washing can also break down the plastic, leaving you with contaminated foods and drinks. Ditto for aluminum.
Aluminum reacts easily with acidic foods such as tomatoes and lemons, for example. But it also reacts with seemingly mild foods, such as milk. Studies show the leaching of aluminum into our food increases even more readily when we cook with spices. And like plastic, we can accelerate its leaching by scratching aluminum, say, with a cooking utensil or a harsh scrubbing sponge.
Thankfully, there are so many easy swaps that’ll help us get rid of all this plastic and aluminum in our kitchen. Overall, the preferred materials are stainless steel, untreated wood and bamboo, glass, and ceramic. You’ve likely made a few of the below swaps already, but I found a few really cool ideas that weren’t yet on my radar. Let’s take a quick look and see whether they were on yours.
Beeswax food wrap
A great alternative to plastic wrap is this beeswax food wrap, made from organic cotton muslin, sustainably harvested beeswax, organic jojoba oil, and tree resin. The fabric and printing are both GOTS certified, the wraps are both reusable and compostable and, to top it off, they’re made in the USA (Vermont to be exact).
You can use these wraps for all the same things you would use the clingy plastic stuff… to wrap sandwiches, save lemon or avocado halves, pack snacks for lunch, cover a mixing bowl or pie dish, keep a loaf of bread fresh, or to store leftovers in the fridge. Whatever the case, there are no toxins to leach and the beeswax won’t react with your food.
The price might seem a little high at first, but you can wash the wraps in cold water and reuse them for about a year, which means you’ll end up saving in the long run. And don’t throw them away when you’re done, by the way. They’re biodegradable, so you can compost them instead. Pretty cool, right?
Beeswax Food Wrap
Zipped Silicone Food Storage Bags
These food-grade silicone storage bags can be washed and reused thousands of times, making them an excellent alternative to single-use snack bags. They’re free from harmful chemicals and additives and they don’t react with food, which means you can store everything from fish to tomato sauce without worry.
Silicone is also known to withstand an extremely wide range of temperatures from freezing to boiling, which is convenient. You can freeze soups in these bags and drop them into hot water to heat them up. Just make sure the zipper isn’t submerged in boiling water, as that part isn’t rated for as high a temperature as the rest of the bag. (The zipper is completely safe for the microwave, just not in boiling water.)
The bags are also dishwasher safe.
NOTE: Silicone is not 100% natural. It is a polymer, manmade from silica (a natural mineral found in sand and clay), carbon, and oxygen. While silicone products absolutely can be non-toxic, studies show that many do contain additives, even if the label says “food-grade” or “medical-grade”. To make sure you’re getting safe silicone, always check the label or website for an indication that the manufacturer has had their silicone tested to be free from additives.
Silicone Food Storage Bags
Stainless steel lunch containers
Forget the aluminum lunchboxes filled with plastic baggies. Stainless steel is a healthier and more durable option and it works for both hot and cold foods. A couple of these snap together, which is convenient. And I’ve added a thermos option as well.
Glass storage containers
I always save and reuse my jars from my store-bought tomato sauce, olives, dressings… everything. I’m kind of obsessed actually. I use them to store leftovers in the fridge or to store dry goods (rice, beans, etc) from the bulk bin. I clean the labels completely, so the glass is crystal clear and I can display them as functional décor. (Citrisolve is my go-to for cleaning off the sticky bits that don’t easily wash off with soap and water.)
If you don’t tend to accumulate jars naturally, you can also purchase them.
Sponges and scrub brushes
Believe it or not, supermarket sponges are often made from plastic polymers (polyurethane and polyethylene, for example), and those labeled as antibacterials are often treated with harmful triclosan. Just what you want to scrub your kid’s sippy cup with, right?
Cellulose sponges are a better option, as they’re made from wood fibers and (when there are no added chemicals) are biodegradable. I buy sponges where the scrub part is made from walnut shells, which sounds scratchy, but they actually won’t harm your pots and pans. And for scrub brushes, I like wood or bamboo.
NOTE: Disinfect sponges and scrub brushes regularly by soaking them in a small bowl with white vinegar.
Reusable spice jars
Instead of buying spices in ugly plastic containers, consider getting them from the bulk bin and then displaying the spices as part of your décor. They look beautiful.
I bring my containers with me to the market and ask the customer service counter to weigh them for me, so I can skip the plastic baggies altogether. It adds all of 30 seconds to my shopping trip, so it’s not inconvenient at all.
Cooking utensils and silverware
I have a few friends who still stir hot stuff on the stove with a plastic spoon and scrape the bottom of their pans with aluminum spatulas. Agh!! Uncoated wood, bamboo, ceramic, and (nickel-free) stainless steel are healthier options. They do tend to be more expensive, but not by much and the few extra dollars could translate to better health and more energy down the line.
Silicone spatulas and utensils are also a good option – when the silicone is food-grade and tested to be free from additives.
NOTE: It is NOT recommended to put uncoated wood and bamboo in the microwave or dishwasher. If a label says their wood or bamboo product IS safe for the microwave or dishwasher (or it does NOT state that it is NOT), there is a chance it may be coated with polyurethane or another chemical that you don’t want touching your food.
Reusable drinking straws
The kids don’t have to give up straws entirely and neither do you. Bamboo, stainless steel, and glass straws are all beautiful options. The glass straws are pretty sturdy, but you can store them in a soft protective bag to be extra safe.
Reusable produce sacks
I always cringe when I see people putting their produce in those flimsy plastic baggies, especially when it’s something like oranges or avocados that mother nature’s already wrapped in a protective cover. I hate the idea of the plastic touching my food, but also, the waste is just so unnecessary.
I use cotton or linen bags for smaller items, like figs or cherry tomatoes, and I skip the bag altogether for larger items. The non-mesh bags are also great for packing bread from the deli counter, as well as for nuts, rice, and other dry goods from the bulk bins.
Ice cube trays and ice packs
Plastic ice cube trays crack pretty easily, stainless steel and silicone do not. Pretty simple.
Also, ice packs are great for keeping food cold in your stainless steel lunch box. You can make your own by filling a silicone baggie (see above) with two parts water to one part rubbing alcohol. (The alcohol will keep the water from melting too quickly.) You can also add dish soap to give it that squishier gel-like feel. If you’re using the pack for a back or knee injury (vs. keeping your lunch cool), be sure to put the pack in a baggie or towel, so that it’s not laying directly on your skin.
In most supermarkets, you’ll find those flimsy plastic picnic cups and stark white (chlorine bleached) plates and bowls. For healthier and more eco picnic and party-ware, you can choose plant-based materials instead.
They are usually labeled as compostable, though to be fair, these biodegradable plates, cups, and forks don’t degrade in a regular landfill, as the conditions aren’t suitable. So unless you proactively compost them at home or through your city’s compost bins, they may last in the environment nearly as long as their plastic or bleached paper alternatives. That said, the compostable options won’t contain harsh chemicals, so they are still the healthier and more eco choice.
Bottles, tumblers, and sippy cups
No plastic-free article would be complete without bottles, tumblers, and sippy cups, right? Here are my glass and stainless steel picks for plastic-free and aluminum-free alternatives.