Just like us, our food is on the road a lot during the holiday season—whether that’s traveling to a family dinner where everyone’s eagerly awaiting your signature dish or back home in the form of your favorite leftovers. And it certainly takes the fun out of holiday meals if you’re left worrying whether your containers are leaching chemicals into Aunt Sadie’s homemade stuffing.
Many portable food containers are made of plastic, and as you may have heard, there are potential health concerns with some plastic materials. So, we’ve broken down container options by category, offering the safest materials available and covering the pros and cons of each, plus relevant brands to purchase.
Cover Alternatives to Cling Wrap
Conventional plastic cling wrap is convenient, but it may come at a price to health. Plastic wraps can contain organotins, a harmful class of chemicals linked to hormone disruption, which can leach out of the wrap and onto our food.
Beeswax food wrap is a safer alternative; it is malleable when warm, easily fitting over a leftover bowl, and stiffens as it cools, thereby sealing the product to maintain freshness.
Pro: Most beeswax wrap can last up to a year and, as a result, is quite affordable when you calculate cost per use.
Con: It requires hand-washing (similar to dishes), so it’s not quite as convenient as disposable plastic wrap. Also, you can’t use beeswax wrap on hot foods, because they can melt the beeswax coating. It’s best to let the food cool down before applying the beeswax wrap.
Certain brands now offer 100% recycled aluminum foil, which is quite durable and easy to mold.
Pro: Foil is a bit more convenient than beeswax because it can be used over the top of warm foods, rinsed off and used again, or recycled (check with your local recycling program to confirm).
Con: Some researchers are concerned that cooking with aluminum foil can lead to aluminum leaching into food. Therefore, it is a good precautionary measure to avoid heating foil, including grilling, toasting, and baking.
It’s easier than ever to find reusable glass containers and good old mason jars come in a variety of sizes and are very affordable. Glass is safe because it doesn’t leach any harmful chemicals or compounds.
Pro: You can feel confident placing both cold and hot food in these containers—and they are safe for reheating meals.
Con: Glass can be heavy when transporting food, and it isn’t ideal for children’s use, since it can shatter more easily than other materials.
Widely available and considerably lighter than glass, food-grade stainless steel is safe because it doesn’t leach or break down like some plastic compounds do.
Pro: In addition to being lightweight, stainless steel is very durable, making it easier to transport in rough-and-tumble environments, like lunch boxes and picnic baskets.
Con: Hot foods can heat the stainless steel, making it hard to transport. Also, some of the stainless steel lids are hard to put on and take off. Twist-on, “safer” plastic (see below) or silicone lids offer a more convenient way to use stainless steel food containers. Also, make sure that the container isn’t lined with a mystery resin inside—just 100% food-grade stainless steel.
“Safer” Plastic (Instead of #3, #6 and #7 Plastics)
We recommend glass and stainless steel over plastics. But if you need to use plastic, keep in mind that certain types are safer than others. The kinds of plastic that seem to pose less of a health risk (because they aren’t made with some of the most harmful building-block chemicals, like BPA, vinyl chloride, or phthalates) are usually marked with the numbers 1, 2, 4, or 5. There are outstanding questions, however, about the safety of most plastic materials; they haven’t been adequately studied, which is why we call them “safer” but not necessarily “safe.”
Pro: It’s lightweight, affordable, and easy to transport.
Con: We recommend refraining from placing hot foods or liquids in these containers or microwaving them, because the heat may cause plastic chemicals to leach from the container.
Commonly made from corn or sugarcane, PLA (polylactic acid) is a type of plastic that has been a popular alternative to petroleum-based plastic. You should see “PLA” on the product itself if it’s made of this material.
Pro: PLA plastic isn’t derived from petroleum. Not everything that is derived from petroleum is unsafe, but moving away from petroleum products can reduce your environmental footprint.
Con: Most of the plant-based plastics come from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and reduce cropland that otherwise could be used for food.