From college foodservice operations to restaurants to supermarket aisles, microwavable to-go containers are becoming more prevalent as increasing numbers of Americans opt for the convenience they provide.
Almost always, the containers come with black bases and see-through tops that allow the consumer to look inside. They have no staples or other metal parts to cause microwave arcs, and unless the consumer has a penchant for saving everything, they're completely disposable and can be recycled.
"That black base and clear top give these containers a contemporary, sleek look that is conducive for the retail environment," says Victor Younger, general manager for retail services at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. Cornell's central campus commissary prepares the take-out food containers and then transports them to several locations where they are put into reach-in coolers. A firm, snap-on lid is critical, then, to prevent spillage.
Cornell also provides take-out plates for those who want to get a meal at one of the many hot food stations on campus, and then take that food back to their rooms or another location rather than sit down in the dining hall. "Say they want a stir-fry to go," Younger says. "Right now, we use a heavy paper [covered] plate. We are looking to change that, hopefully in the next semester."
Younger is working with a local vendor to provide completely biodegradable 9-in. plates with hinged tops. The drawback, he says, is that the tops are not clear, so there is no visibility once the plate is closed and sealed. But, he says, the main emphasis is on the biodegradability.
Although take-out containers have certain standard features, there is a wide variety in shape and size. A large chicken roaster with a high dome is usually in the $50 range for a case of 100. Some other sizes and shapes include the 12-oz. rectangular, 16-oz. round and three-compartment 39-oz. round. Many take-out containers are designed to handle both hot and cold environments, and are generally constructed of injection-molded polymer, which seals in foods, flavor.
Some restaurants, such as Brinker International's Big Bowl Asian Kitchen, feature a take-out service desk located right next to the hostess stand. Anything on the menu can be prepared to go and reheated at home. A widely used size for such items as Kung Pao Chicken is a 6 in.-by-8.5 in. rectangular container that sells for about $60 for a 150-count case.
It should be noted that take-out is not the same as the so-called “doggie bags” provided by restaurants whose customers want to take home leftovers. Leftovers are usually packaged in clamshell containers, either Styrofoam (polystyrene), a black bottom with a clear top or a totally clear container. Diners often prefer containers with clear tops so they know they're getting their own food. The clear and clear-topped clamshells also lock better than Styrofoam. However, Styrofoam can go directly into a microwave for reheating, whereas some clear containers have heat limitations.
For people who want to eat somewhere other than the foodservice location, take-out microwavable packaging makes life easy. "It's a convenience thing for our customers," says Alvin Rayl, purchasing agent for Via Christi Regional Medical Center, Wichita, Kan. "They can pick something up quickly, go back to their unit and pop it in the microwave."
Microwavable convenience is a quality to keep in mind when selecting take-out packaging. And it's a safe bet that the variety of microwavable containers will grow and improve, as on-the-go Americans, love for convenience, and a quick, hot meal at home, increases.