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How to Pack a Waste-free Lunch

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Concerns continue regarding the number of overweight and obese children and teens in schools today. Trends in chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension affecting younger and younger populations also continue. Some have apprehension regarding the lack of plant-based choices in schools. Naked Chef, Jamie Oliver has shed light on just how unhealthy school lunch programs can be with several seasons of Food Revolution on ABC. Although some legislative proposals have made traction, school lunch programs still face strict governmental guidelines and deep school wide cost cutting that makes administering healthier meals a challenge. I hope we will begin to see healthier school lunches in schools across the nation but until then, our best hope for healthier children begins at home. The dog days of summer and trying to stay cool during extreme heat hardly seems like the time to think about school lunches. However, school supplies are beginning to line department store shelves. If you want your children or grandchildren to have healthy, waste-free, and cost effective lunches this school year, you will need to start planning now.

I still remember the excitement of getting to select a lunch box when I started first grade. Back then, most children brought their lunch from home while some bought lunch from the cafeteria once or twice a week as well as packing. I loved my Pebbles and Bamm Bamm lunchbox and thermos set and carried it to school with pride. When my children started school, the metal lunch box had gone by the wayside in favor of soft sided lunch bags. Today there are eco-friendly container systems that allow children, youth, and adults to take lunch without creating the increased waste that comes from individual serving bags, sandwich bags, or juice boxes. With many landfills filling up and communities not interested in expanding them or having incinerators pumping contaminants in their back yard, reducing convenience packaging is necessary for all of us. Estimates suggest the average school-age child generates more than 60 pounds of waste each year just from disposable lunches. At the same time, families spend more to pack lunches then they would if they focused on reducing, reusing and recycling through a waste-free approach. Use these steps to create a waste-free lunch for children and adults alike who regularly pack their lunches.
  • Find a reusable lunch bag or lunch box that is the right size for your meal needs. Although paper or plastic bags can be recycled or reused, they still generate waste that needs to be dealt with in one manner or another. Select a reusable bag that represents your personality and although you may shell out more money for it initially, over the course of a year you will save big and so will the environment.
  • Select reusable containers for your food instead of convenience packaging or other single use options. Purchasing items in bulk will save you money but so will reuse of containers. If you purchase a lunch bag or box that contains reusable containers, be sure they are safe from lead, BPA, phthalates or PVC, easy to clean, and preferably dishwasher safe. Find reusable ways to package foods instead of plastic wrap, sandwich bags, wax-paper or aluminum foil even if you reuse them several times before discarding.
  • Don't forget to plan for a reusable bottle for your beverages including water. Drinks are one of the most common single-use items included in lunches from juice boxes and pouches as well as cans and plastic bottles. Many justify the use of cans or plastic bottles because they can be recycled. Although that is true and make them better choices than those that are disposable only, they still ultimately create waste. Find one that is durable, easy to clean and fill, preferably dishwasher safe, doesn't retain or impart flavors, and doesn't contain liners that include BPA, phthalates, lead or toxins. Keep in mind that beverages other than water as well as warm leftovers, soups, and casseroles will require an insulated reusable container to ensure food and drinks are held at the proper temperature.
  • Don't forget about reusable utensils and napkins. Eliminate the cost and waste of paper napkins in favor of cloth napkins that can easily be washed as part of your weekly laundry. Disposable plastic utensils create another waste that can easily be eliminated by using washable stainless-steel utensils.
Packing a lunch allows children and adults to reduce waste for the planet while maximizing nutrition and saving money at the same time.
What do you think about the idea of packing waste-free lunch? What barriers prevent you from committing to do it?

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REDROBIN47 3/28/2020
This is a good article for those with children in school. I'm fortunate to be beyond that but I remember going through it when mine were young. Report
ROBBIEY 2/9/2020
Good ideas Report
MUSICNUT 8/27/2019
Thanks for the great article! :) Report
We did not always pack our lunches, most of the time we bought them from the school cafeteria. Report
Thanks for all of the great ideas!!! Report
Bummer... I thought this was going to be about healthy foods that kids would eat.

My daughter went to school for one year... I had all the neat little packaging tools and the thermos for her drinks. She didn't even drink her water. The teacher said that she spent her lunch socializing - not eating.

I love my daughter too much to send her back to school, even though it is one of the top schools. She eats better when she is at home (and learns more), but I have a long way to go to get her proper weight. Report
LOL - I though this was going to be about foods to pack that my kids will actually eat and not throw away! I have tried the reusable containers in their lunches - but the end up getting thrown out by accident (all three have ADHD) and costing me more. Also, our school district encourages us NOT to use reusables - apprently it somehow causes more work for them!? It is a great idea if it works for you Report
I am in full support of reusable containers and plastic silverware. I have no problem sending it all to school with the kids. They have learned to even bring the baggies home for me to wash. I can not see sending my cloth napkins. The residue from the fruitsss and veggies and juices in the lunch box is enough to gag me daily, I can not even imagine what it would do to my linens. My boys would destroy them. I guess I am still a bit of a waster there. I will keep trying. Report
I'll say it again: if you aren't packing messy liquid stuff, you don't have to wash those reusable containers every night! A sandwich? Pack the next's day sandwich into the same one. Pretzels? Carrot sticks? Same thing. Some fruits might leave a bit of juice (e.g. cut strawberries), but you can give them a quick wipe and put more in.

(But cottage cheese? Yeah, that one deserves a wash...) Report
I do the reusable thing most of the time, but it has meant I had to accumulate a quantity of containers, since I don't often hand wash my dishes. I run my dishwasher no more than 2x/week since my cat and dog don't generate many dirty dishes!

I use "disposable" utensils, which also get run through the dishwasher. I have 2 - 1 gallon ziplocs full of the utensils and I take home my used plastic utensils when I eat takeout or from the deli. In the last year I have had to discard some 4 year old items due to breakage and no alternative uses. When one of the bags is near empty, I bring the full bag in to the office and take the empty bag home...I just had to replace one of the baggies, it developed holes and the seam was breaking apart....again that bag was 4 years old, so my footprint is relatively small on that front.

I am also trying to get in the habit of using my aluminum drinking bottle, but that has been more of a challenge.

Great topic tho! Report
I would like that idea very much. As of right now when I send something for my husband for lunch it is usually in small containers that he brings home for my to wash. Report
These are great tips, but I also agree with some comments about the reusable stuff either being very time-consuming to clean or won't all fit/belong in a dishwasher.
I think doing the best you can is all anyone can do! Report
I'm very pleased to read others comments. I worked in an office that was big on paper/plastic. (Paper plates, napkins, cups, and plastic utensils.) We had a big meeting about going green and I shared lots of ideas with them. I told them they could go to Target and buy a set of dishes for the office and in a few months it would pay for itself in the money they'd save on disposable items. They didn't listen. I took my own plate and silverware to the office and they all thought I was crazy. I'm happy to see that there are others like me here on SP! Report
Pippagrey, I think your answer was rather tactfully correct, and I applaud you for not going along with the flow just because everyone else is doing it. :) Report
I pack both my kids lunches with reusable items. Currently I just use a variety of little cheap plastic containers for snack mix and fruit and a thermos for their main dish. I also have a couple "wrap n mats" for sandwiches which I highly recommend (it is cloth with liner inside that wraps the sandwich & velcros closed; then it opens to act as a place mat while they eat - great for picnics). I want to check into some stainless steel containers.

As for them bringing the containers back, some tips.
One, have back-ups.
Two, tell them to just leave everything in the bag and bring it home. If everything is reusable there is no need for going to the trash can and this lets you know what they ate and didn't so you can discuss with them. (Someone said with reusable stuff thier kid didn't eat much; maybe they didn't eat much of the disposable lunch either but you just didn't see it. My younger son is notorius for talking more than eating.)
Third, my rule is that if they leave their lunch box at school, they get the job of cleaning it out (which I usually do). Yea, one time of cleaning out cottage cheese that had been at school over a long weekend fixed the forgetfulness. Report
Good ideas, but if you pack 5 or 6 lunches each day, it takes a lot of time to get all these containers washed and ready for the next day. Not all go into dishwashers, either. Report
Our school has a waste free lunch policy, encourage yours to do the same! You can even sell sandwich bags, bottles, etc as a school fundraiser! Report
I think it is a great idea, but the problem in my house is that the food does not get eaten when it is sent to school with our little elementary school student! I was excited last year and also got the Fit and Fresh products (which are WONDERFUL! and BPA free) but every day food was coming home uneaten. Report
I think that the idea of packing waste-free lunches is a good idea. We don't pack lunches right now, but once we do, I'll take the suggestions into consideration. :) Report
My kids are grown and gone, but I've been packing my husband's lunch lately. We use reusable containers a lot, but this is a good nudge to do better (and clothe napkins ... we'll see about that). ;-) Report
I bought my daughter a PlanetBox lunch box last year. It's made of stainless steel, and has compartments plus two containers so that there is no need for any plastic wrap. The compartments actually inspire me-- I can get a visual for what I need to pack (one main dish, two vegetables, one fruit, a little treat in the middle). The soft carrying case has pouches for the bigger snack container and water-bottle (SIGG). I've seen other similar set-ups in my local foods stores, but I don't know the brand names.

Last year, I packed lunches in the morning, but this year, I'm going to start packing them in the evenings. I alternate between a sandwich and cheese with rice crackers for the main course. This set-up doesn't work with soup or other hot food in a small thermos, and I've only sent a thermos a couple of times. Report
I had a Holly Hobbie lunchbox too! :)

I think what hinders me from doing this is that I'm a wife/mom and also a full-time student, and I have 5 kids. That's a lot of reusable containers to run through the dishwasher all the time. I have reusable containers that I use when I have time, but my kids probably only get those a couple times a week. Report
Great ideas. Brings back memories of my "Holly Hobbie" lunch box. Report
I have been packing waste free lunches for myself for over 10 years. When my son starts school next year, my concern is that at 5 years old, he won't bring my containers back. Any Ideas? Report
Wow! This is blog has excellent content.
I was upset when I first saw the accompanying photo that features plastic and more plastic.
It is simple, invest in steel lunch and drink containers. Buy local product if you can. Report
Wow! This is blog has excellent content.
I was upset when I first saw the accompanying photo that features plastic and more plastic.
It is simple, invest in steel lunch and drink containers. Buy local product if you can. Report
Wow! This is blog has excellent content.
I was upset when I first saw the accompanying photo that features plastic and more plastic.
It is simple, invest in steel lunch and drink containers. Buy local product if you can. Report
Wow, some great stuff to think about. I never really thought about how much waste I create with my own lunches. This will stop immediately. As for the lunch lady's comments, I agree that school lunches are great. However, my 5th grade daughter (who is very athletic, not at all overweight) starves on what they give her in the lunch line. And there are no seconds available. There have been other complaints by her friends as well - seems they need to figure out how to give the older elementary school kids enough to survive on during the day. She will be carrying her lunch this year from home. We already have the soft lunch bag with the attached water bottle and I'm going to put some serious thought into the containers I pack her stuff into, thanks to this conversation :) Report
I bring my lunch every day and after accumulating enough plastic silverware from the cafeteria at work for an army, hate to throw it out, now have decided to bring my utensils in addition to the plastic containers. Report
We already have waste-free lunches. We have soft lunchboxes from Lands End - might have cost more initially, but they are able to use the same lunch boxes for years (the oldest already has 4 years on his). My kids almost never forget to bring home the containers (they might forget one night, but get it the next day). And even if they do lose an occasional rubbermaid container, it certainly beats tossing out 12-15 plastic bags every day (3 lunches, 4-5 items each).

And here's a time-saving (and water-saving) tip: we don't wash every container every night. For example, one kid has pretzels in his lunch every day. I use the same container for the entire week - a quick tap over the compost container removes any crumbs or salt and it's good to go for the next day. Containers that held 'dry' items get reused, ones that held messier stuff might just get wiped or will get washed, depending on the food. Use common sense and observe food safety guidelines, and don't be overly neurotic about it. Report
Our kids have been using bento style lunchboxes for five years. They are really good at remembering to bring them home each day and love helping choose what to pack for the next day. I know they are eating much healthier than if they bought the school lunches. Reusable silverware is very doable. Since the kids don't have any trash to throw away, we have never lost any of the silverware or containers. They simply close the lunchbox and bring everything home! Report
I have to agree with other commenters, getting you kids to bring everything home can be a problem. And trying to clean some of those insulated lunch boxes when there have been leaks can be, shall we say, interesting. Especially in warm weather and if you don't find it in time. When you've had to wash one of those things three or four times before it can be reused, you begin to wonder whether it's actually worth the effort!
And we really can't ignore the costs of washing when we look at the costs and environmental implications of reusables. Just because we aren't putting something in a landfill or incinerator (and our local incinerator doubles as an electricity generator), doesn't mean that we can ignore the impact of more dirty dishwater to be dealt with, the costs of getting the clean water to the house in the first place, and the costs of the soap and the electricity, oil, or gas to heat the water. I'm NOT saying it isn't a good idea, but we do have to consider all the factors before you can say it's the best idea for everyone.
A great blog! It's so important to reduce waste wherever we can, in whatever way works best for us. As some posters have pointed out, it may not be feasible to bring reusable silverware, and you might have to tailor this to your child's maturity level, but all were excellent suggestions. Report
i think its great actually Report
My children just always ate the lunches at school. When I did try once to buy food for them to take lunches to school, they ate it up before the week was over so it was way to expensive. Report
I don't disagree with it although for some work situations its easier than others. I am just as guilty as most as I don't use a reusable lunch bag or sandwich bags but I do use bags from the store as lunchbags which is a little (tiny) bit better than just throwing them out . Report
I have to agree with tykxboy--my son threw away the reusable containers more than once in first grade--took awhile, but he finally started bringing it back home! Report
Never thought about reusable napkin (clothes napkin), thanks for the all the tips! Report
I take full 1# tubs of salad, shredded carrots, and grape tomatoes in their original containers to work on Monday, and make a big salad for lunch every day. No need for baggies, or even water to wash out the reusable bags! Report
It saves waste, and it also reduces waists! Report
I have been using the waste-free system since early 1990's Report
I've taken my lunch/leftovers in microwavable containers for more than 10 years. Being in a school, it is economical. However, I've found that with portion control and leftovers, this is not as easy or as spark friendly. My favorite is a homemade tortilla(whole wheat of course) w/ some spinach and tuna or a little sliced real turkey. I actually keep several tortilla's in the freezer and then just bring along the insides to heat up. I do agree with terrimeier - the BPA, phthalates, etc. get confusing to me - what does one look like? Also, working at a school, MR54BLD54 has some valid points. Our lunch hours are 15-20 minutes due to overcrowding and kids who bring their lunch often have either unhealthy lunches or kids throw away the fruit, etc. Parents need to set an example and a suggestion would be to encourage kids to "help pack" a lunch that they'll eat! Just some thoughts from a 20 + year educator and mother of two! Report
Fruit is always a great addition. They have their own wrappers.
I'm surprised you didn't mention the Fit and Fresh products . . . I have some and I have given some of the Fit and Fresh products to three of my children and they have LOVED them! They always get comments on them in the work lunchrooms. They were really great gifts for my kids (yes, I confess, I gave them as Christmas and anniversary gifts!). Report
My daughter loves to bring stuff that isn't typical - and I can do that in reusables. She thinks it is so cool to bring low-cal ranch, pretzels and turkey taht she can twirl together and dip. She loves being the kid with something unique...why not? Report
I am totally in full support for this. I actually hate carrying around plastic or paper bags that make me look like a grade schooler who can't afford a decent lunch bag. Report
I love to see these types of blogs, I hope they help people to stop and think. I have brought my lunch to work for more years that I want to remember. First there is the cost savings, then it is a time saver (if I bring it I can relax the whole hour without driving out to get "something") then there is knowing and controling what you are eating. I made a stop at the GoodWill and picked up everything I need for under $5.00. I have a plate, coffee cup, soup mug, a water glass, fork, knife and spoon which I keep at my desk. I use storage containers to transport my food, and an ice pack to it cold. I know I have saved hundreds of dollars and calories :) Report
as an adult, I find these tips to be very practical. I have a reusable, insulated lunch bag I have been using for 2 years now & it still keeps my foods cool till I need them. It also came w/ an insulated water bottle holder to keep my water cool. Having lived alone for so long, left overs were a common lunch for the next day, so Tupperware has been the usual means of transportation! But as for utensils, I use plastic forks & spoons but bring them home, wash them & use them again. Why not? Great blog, thanks for sharing, I hope it encourages more people to do their part Report
Great blog, except I think Jamie Oliver lives out there some where in the not necessarily attainable world. I am a former lunch lady; I loved my job. There are so many things that do need to be done to the lunch program; but lets not over look the great things the lunch program has always done. They do portion control, not super size meals; every single day. These kids are eating basically one meal a day at school, it is not one meal that is making our kids fat. Packing a great lunch from home is a great idea, but I am telling you kids throw away food that is packed from home too. The education system has forgotten the connection with eating and learning. They have cut the lunch times down to just minutes the kids have to eat. We need to look at the whole program not just what Jamie concentrated on. Report
Re-usable lunch containers are all great ideas, but I lost count of how many times I left my lunchbox and thermos lying around when I was in grade school. It's one thing to send your first grader to school with a re-usable lunch box, but also sending them with re-usable silverware, soup bowls, and drink containers? Maybe a high schooler will remember to bring them home, but grade schoolers will forget or lose them enough times to eliminate the benefits. Plus, re-usable utensils? I'm sure a lot of schools will consider silverware forks and knives as weapons and not allow them. This is a good idea in theory, but depending on your school, these ideas may not be practical or even allowed. Report
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