Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Finding Alternatives to Melamine Dishware

by Alexandra Zissu
The Green Guide
July 1, 2008

Now that the bisphenol A used to make polycarbonate baby bottles has become such a health concern, parents of the bottle-feeding set are tossing out their colorful, durable plastic bottles in favor of glass and safer plastics. But what about the solid-food eaters and those cute and colorful, practically indestructible plastic dishes off of which they love to eat?

Aside from sippy cups, most kidware isn't made of polycarbonate but of durable, colorful melamine. Melamine is a questionable choice for food because it's made with formaldehyde, which has been linked to allergies, asthma and cancer. There's no evidence that formaldehyde leaches out of melamine every single time it's used, but some studies, including one by the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration, have shown that the chemical can migrate out of melamine and into food under certain circumstances, such as heat and when serving highly acidic foods.

Parents who continue to be devoted to plastic can find plates, cups, spoons and forks made from the better plastics (those labeled #2, #4 or #5). Unfortunately, plastics aren't always labeled, so it can take considerable work finding which type is in your child's favorite Dora the Explorer plate. One resource is The Soft Landing, a web site run by a mom/former RN who spends a tremendous amount of time emailing manufacturers to find out what plastics their products are made of. Regardless of type, it's a good idea to hand-wash all plastics, since abrasive, powdered detergents can cause them to deteriorate.

Another option, especially if a houseful of kids makes hand-washing next to impossible, is to do what I did and do: Avoid plastic altogether. My daughter eats from our own lead-free ceramic dishes. She also eats from small stainless-steel prep bowls purchased at a kitchen supply store, and even the occasional glass bowl. I know some moms and dads worry about shattering glass, but she's never broken one, despite the fact that the floor under our dining table is poured concrete (inherited from someone else's renovation). It probably helped that we have firmly explained to her over and over and over that she may not toss the things.

Unfortunately toxic chemical concerns don't stop at bowls and plates. For bibs as well as other kiddie dining items that contain too-high levels of questionable materials, log on to It's a great place to visit before shopping to learn if your desired spoon with "color change tips" (or something equally extraneous) contains lead-tainted polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or other undesirables. To avoid this sort of thing entirely, go with stainless steel cocktail spoons and forks, the perfect size for wee mouths. These are widely available, especially at kitchen supply stores. Many moms I know also use Bambu's bamboo utensils. Parents who miss the cute characters that come on plastic plates can make up for it with bibs, placemats and splashguards. Check out Mimi the Sardine, a brand of PVC-free Oeko-Tex-certified acrylic-coated cotton bibs that are as chemical-free as they are cute and colorful.

The Mimi goods are our concession to adorable dining presentation, used with sweet and subtly patterned kids' enamelware sets from Golden Rabbit (pictured above). There's some concern about lead and cadmium when it comes to enamelware in general, but Golden Rabbit happens to be manufactured by family friend and father of two, Tom Mansfield. He says all his products are free of both, "and FDA tested every time a shipment is brought into this country, so it's food safe and everything safe." Like glass, ceramic and stainless steel—and unlike certain plastics—it goes safely on the top or bottom rack of the dishwasher, worry-free.

Now that you know what's safe to serve on—and why—let the messes begin.

For sippy cups made from safer materials, see our Baby Bottles Buying Guide.
Stainless steel prep bowls:
Stainless steel cocktail forks and spoons:
Mimi the Sardine bibs and mats:
Golden Rabbit enamelware:
Mini glass bowls:

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society


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