How to Pack a No-Waste School Lunch
The average American student throws 67 pounds of lunch waste in the trash each year.Posted Sep 8, 2016
Modern reliance on “convenience” foods and disposable products has taken North American wastefulness to astonishing new heights. Even vegetables that used to ship unpackaged in crates now comes shrink-wrapped or boxed up in plastic at the grocery store. During production, all this excess packaging emits toxins into our air and water, while food waste breaking down in landfills releases the potent greenhouse gas methane. The choices you make about how your food is produced, packaged, and transported affect the state of the climate, the air we breathe, and the water we drink. Ultimately it affects the health of our children.
Whether you’ve been packing lunches for years or are sending off your first child to school, give some thought to how to make a dent in the incredible amount of trash generated by kids’ school lunches. Some terrific tools make it easy to pack a lunch that generates no waste at all. In addition to slashing what your kids send to the landfill, you’ll save money by not buying disposable items like bags and single-use food containers. WasteFreeLunches.org estimates that each student can save almost $250 per year on lunches by going no-waste!
When we pack reusable water bottles rather than juice pouches and bottled beverages, we’re protecting our kids from the preventable pollution caused by all that unneeded plastic. In addition to the tangible benefits to our environment, your child’s no-waste lunch is a teaching tool. Your child learns not to expect packaged food and develops an understanding of the impact of our food-related decisions.
No-Waste Lunch 101: Start with the Right Gear
Rather than “brown bagging” it, invest in some long-lasting supplies that can be used again and again. Sturdy metal lunch boxes will last you for years and prevent exposure to the toxins that packaging can leach into food. Add a metal water bottle and you’ve slashed the waste generated by lunch significantly. You’ve just prevented hundreds of paper and plastic bags and beverage containers from getting made, shipped to you, and sent to the landfill. Nice work!
Metal lunch boxes can be packed with all the items your student needs, so no separate plastic baggies are required. Our ECOlunchbox is going strong after a year of hard use by my first grader, and we use it for picnics and on-the-go snacks throughout the year. If you need to pack a bigger lunch, this three-in-one set is a great option. Grown ups in the family might want one, too!
Replace These Items With No-Waste Gear:
- Drink boxes and single-use water bottles: Reduce use of plastic water bottles and waxed cardboard drink boxes by packing a healthy drink in an insulated glass mug or metal water bottle.
- Individual yogurt or applesauce containers: Think of the waste from all those one-serving plastic yogurt containers. Yogurt and fruit or smoothies can go in a reusable container (with reusable spoon of course). Bonus: Packing your own smoothies and similar foods means you can skip the added sugar in a lot of these products.
- Foil-wrapped granola bars: Make your own healthy granola bars and pack them right in the lunch box. Most store-bought ones have far more sugar than is good for kids, anyhow.
- “Snack packs”: Instead of those small plastic-wrapped packets of snack foods, buy them from the bulk section or in large packages and decant them in amounts suitable to your child’s lunch. Small servings of crackers or nuts can go right inside the lunch box with other food. They’ll retain their freshness and crispiness for the few hours until lunch.
- Paper napkins: Send a small cloth napkin from home and have your child put it in the empty lunch box after eating. Easy.
- Plastic utensils: Send reusable utensils when they’re needed. They can be washed later at home.
- Plastic baggies: If you pack everything into the lunch box, you may not need these, but some parents like having washable, reusable snack bags on hand.
Pack the Right Stuff (and the Right Amount)
You don’t want your child to be hungry, but if the lunchbox is coming home with leftover food in it, it’s worth talking to your child about why. One of the many advantages of packing reusable everything is leftovers come home to be eaten later or composted, as well as letting you know what your child ate. In my first year of school-lunch packing, I found that my daughter would go through phases where she tired of certain fruits or vegetables, so we’d avoid those for a while, till they returned to favor. Other times, whole parts of her lunch would be unfinished, and I’d learn that she’d been having too much fun with friends to finish eating in the time she had. I’d remind her to pay attention to eating during lunchtime while she enjoyed time with friends, and since she was usually famished on afternoons this happened, she’d just finish her lunch when she got home. Couldn’t have known this without the “evidence” coming home in the lunchbox!
Variety is critical to getting kids to enjoy (and finish!) their lunch. Mix up the veggies, fruits, and mains often and consider getting your kids to join in the process of planning and packing their lunches. A list of choices for them to select from can help. In addition to staple sandwiches, get creative with rolling up ingredients in tortillas, adding a dip like hummus or yogurt, or mixing together leftovers like quinoa and lentils for a quick and healthy salad. Get a soup thermos or wide-mouth insulated mug and pack leftover soup, pasta dishes or even some oatmeal. Get your kids active in the kitchen making healthy muffins or package-free granola bars to pack for the week.
Many parents have had success packing whole-grain or grain-free pancakes, leftover quiche, hard-boiled eggs, even cold pizza. Use your imagination! If it’s healthy and your kid will enjoy it, consider it lunch. Parent brains are already taxed by the zillion things to remember each morning, so don’t feel you need to constantly come up with new ideas yourself. Look to some of the creative foodies on the ‘net for some inspiration. I particularly like the suggestions and inspiring pictures from Raising Generation Nourished and 100 Days of Real Food.
Take stock periodically of what’s working and what’s not and invite your child to help you develop some more go-to’s for your repertoire. You’ll also have an easier time on busy mornings if you plan your week of lunches ahead when you’re making the grocery list.
Though no-waste lunches take a little planning and investment upfront, you’ll likely recoup your money and then some. And you’ll enjoy the satisfaction of knowing your child’s lunch is as eco-friendly as possible, while she models sustainable behavior for her peers, perhaps even her teachers!
Looking for other ways to limit your family’s impact? Check out these resources:
Susannah Shmurak is an enthusiastic advocate for healthier, more sustainable lifestyles. She shares practical tips about gardening, food, and low-impact living at HealthyGreenSavvy.com.