How to Pack a Waste-Free School Lunch
Save the planet and your wallet with these efficient, cost-effective tips
Ever wonder what happens to the juice box, plastic sandwich bag, chips package or squeezable yogurt tube you tuck into your child’s lunchbox? Chances are they end up in the garbage, which then gets trucked to a landfill or burned in an incinerator, releasing toxic pollutants into the air.
“In schools, the lunchroom is where the most garbage is generated,” says Grey Russell, sustainability coordinator for Montclair, New Jersey, and a member of the board of directors of the Association of New Jersey Recyclers. Every child who brings a disposable lunch to school produces roughly his or her own weight in trash each year — an average of 67 pounds, according to the New York State Department of Conservation. And the waste doesn’t only pollute the environment, it drains public funds. “We’re burning our own money,” Russell says.
And yet, it’s remarkably easy to cut back on school lunch waste. “There are so many options for reusable containers for sandwiches, snacks and drinks,” says Elise Aronov, a mom of two in Montclair who has served as environmental coordinator for her children’s schools. For example, she stepped up recycling in lunchrooms by teaching students how to sort recyclables and food waste from garbage. She also started a “waste-free lunch” day initiative that’s taken off throughout the district.
Besides protecting the environment, there are many advantages to packing waste-free lunches.
For one, they're cheaper. Ditching disposable packaging such as plastic bags and utensils, juice pouches, paper napkins and pre-packaged foods can cut the cost of the average homemade lunch nearly in half, from $4.02 per day to $2.65 per day on average, according to wastefreelunches.org. You can save even more by buying in bulk and portioning single servings into reusable containers.
They also tend to be more nutritious. By packing fresh food in reusable containers, you avoid preservatives, artificial ingredients and added sugars often found in pre-packaged foods.
How to go eco
Apportioning and packaging (not to mention slicing and dicing) foods may sound labor-intensive, but there are simple ways to streamline waste-free lunch prep. Amy Hemmert, one of the founders of wastefreelunch.org, recommends these tricks:
- Pack lunches the night before so it doesn’t add stress to the morning rush.
- Use dinner leftovers or purposely cook extra servings and portion them into individual containers when you clean up from the meal.
- Keep fresh fruits and vegetables in the fridge (or on the counter). Slice a few days’ worth in advance.
- Pre-portion nuts and dried fruit or snacks like popcorn or pretzels into individual containers.
Now, how to pack the lunch. Start with an insulated lunch tote instead of brown paper bags. Tuck an ice pack in it to keep things cold and stave off bacteria. From there you can use:
- Reusable sandwich sacks. These are often made of a thick cotton fabric coated in food-safe polyurethane.
- Stainless steel or BPA-free plastic food containers. Portion individual servings into these. Bento boxes and tiffins (containers with multiple compartments) are another option.
- Reusable flatware made of bamboo, BPA-free plastic or stainless steel. These replace disposable plastic utensils.
- Stainless steel or BPA-free beverage containers. Break the bottled water habit.
- Cloth napkins. Look for some in kid-friendly patterns so your kindergartner will be enticed to actually wipe her hands on the napkin and not on her shirt.
One final waste-free lunch
tip: Pack only as much food as your child typically eats. “I see kids come to
school with a whole apple, take one bite and throw the rest away,” Aronov says.
Ask your child to bring home her leftovers so you can gauge how much she’s
really able to tuck into her tummy at lunch time — and have her polish them off
as an afternoon snack. No need to produce your own overload of food waste at