Anatomy of a Waste-Free Lunch

A new school year is here and one way that we can be kinder to the earth and reduce waste is by packing our kids’ lunches. Packed lunches tend to be healthier and allow us to pack organic foods that most school lunches don’t provide. Packing lunches also makes lunchtime less stressful for those picky eaters.

Packing a school lunch doesn’t have to be full of plastic baggies and individually wrapped items tossed into a brown paper bag. Packing a waste-free lunch can be fun and allow your child’s personality (and yours) to shine! There are a few essential items you’ll need to pack a waste-free lunch.

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1. Lunch Bag or Box

Instead of using the “brown bag,” select a lunch bag or box that can be reused all school year. In our household, we have a small collection of lunch boxes and bags including character lunch boxes that coordinate with their backpacks, cotton lunch bags, insulated lunch totes, stainless steel lunch tiffins, and bento-style lunch boxes. Pick one (or two) that are easy to clean and accommodate your child’s favorite foods. When picking a plastic lunch box, select one that is nontoxic, PVC-free, and safe for your child.

2. Food Containers

It’s time to ditch the baggies and switch to reusable food containers. Some lunch boxes (tiffins and bento-style boxes) have compartments for the food that will eliminate the need for individual food containers. You can use reusable sandwich bags, plastic containers, stainless steel containers, or small glass containers in place of baggies. Sandwich bags are available in fabric or FDA-approved, nontoxic plastic and come in a variety of sizes. Stainless steel, plastic, and glass containers come in a variety of shapes and sizes too.

3. Drink Containers

Individually packed drink boxes and pouches create a lot of waste. Glass, plastic, or stainless steel thermoses and bottles can be filled with their favorite drink and can keep chilled throughout the day. Again, select bottles that are nontoxic, PVC-free, and that can be washed easily. Be sure to wash the bottles every day and allow them to air dry to prevent mold. Tip: Investing in a bottle brush can help keep your bottles extra clean on the inside.

waste-free lunch containers and utensils

4. Napkins

No need for paper towels and paper napkins!  Get some small cotton napkins just for the kids. They come in a rainbow of colors and some even have cute embroidered designs on them. If you have some leftover fabric, old shirts, or dishtowels, you can make your own little cloth napkins. Cut the fabric into squares and stitch the edges to prevent fraying. Stock up so you only have to wash them at the end of the week to save yourself extra work during the busy week.

5. Utensils

I’m not a big fan of those flimsy plastic utensils that you use once and then throw away. You can pack a set of regular utensils from the house or you can buy a set to use just for school lunches. If stainless kitchen utensils make your child’s lunchbox too heavy, you can buy a set of lightweight utensils made of nontoxic plastic or bamboo that are perfect for packing. For the more adventurous child, consider reusable chopsticks!

Finally, we’ve talked a lot about what to put their food in, but we haven’t talked about the actual food! Don’t buy individually wrapped snacks and prepared foods. Pack homemade lunches with fresh ingredients for a healthier and waste-free option. Sandwiches, pasta, finger foods, crackers, fresh fruits and vegetables, and even leftovers can be packed for your kids. If you plan ahead, you could prepare the entire week’s worth of meals over the weekend so you’re not stressing in the morning as they’re rushing out the door.

Originally published on August 21, 2015, this article was updated in September 2022.