Want to give your child a healthy, zero-waste school lunch they’ll actually eat without spending hours on meal prep?
It may sound like a fantasy, but packing a low-waste lunch is definitely achievable. Even if your schedule is packed, you can build a lunch menu that’s great for your kids and the planet.
In this post, we’re sharing tried and true tips to help you create a zero-waste lunch routine that fits your needs. Browse our favorite plastic-free swaps, simple recipes and ideas to get the whole family involved.
School Lunch Waste Adds Up
Imagine you’re sitting in a school cafeteria. Kids come rushing in, excited and hungry. They swap snacks and munch on their sandwiches. Before you know it, lunchtime is over.
Plastic baggies, empty pudding cups and disposable utensils pile up in the trash bin. This repeats day after day in schools around the world. Over the course of a school year, the average American student throws away 67 pounds of lunchtime trash.
Benefits of Packing a Zero-Waste School Lunch
If a typical school lunch creates so much waste, why have we done it this way for so long? For most of us, the answer is simple: convenience.
But aiming for a zero-waste school lunch doesn’t have to mean sacrificing convenience. In fact, packing zero-waste school lunches for your kids can help you:
- Streamline your routine
- Save money by avoiding expensive pre-portioned snacks
- Limit your kids’ exposure to plastics like BPA and BPS
- Make fewer trips to the store
- Reduce the food and plastic waste you send to landfills
We know starting a different routine can feel overwhelming. So we have 3 quick and easy tips to help you jumpstart your road to reducing waste at lunchtime.
1. Get Your Kids Involved
Chat with your children about why reducing waste matters. This can help them get excited about trying new things. It also helps them remember to bring their reusable supplies home.
You can also have your kids help you with brainstorming menu ideas, prep for the week and pack up. Older kids can clean their own lunches out after school so they’re ready for the next day. This helps them feel involved, and it can take some pressure off you.
2. Replace Single-Use Plastic
One of the most impactful ways to reduce waste from school lunch is to avoid single-use plastic and packaging. This helps you create less waste, save money and often find healthier options for your kids.
Reusable containers require some investment up front, but they pay off over time. Your child can use them throughout the school year and beyond. And you won’t have to keep buying single-use items at the store. Here are some of our favorite options for a plastic-free lunch.
Instead of sending lunch in disposable bags, choose a durable lunchbox your child can use again and again. You can use a permanent marker or label maker to put your name on it in case it gets misplaced.
For cold food, you can slip in a Stainless Steel Ice Pack. It freezes in just a couple of hours and, unlike bags of ice, it won’t leak.
Skip the single-use plastic utensils and send your child with reusable flatware. You can create a set from what you use at home. Another great option is the Kids Bamboo Utensil Set. It’s ultra lightweight and naturally antibacterial. It even comes with its own carrying case.
For most kids, napkins are essential after mealtime. But single-use napkins increase the demand for paper products and are rarely composted.
Instead, use an old washcloth or cut a napkin from an old t-shirt. We also love using Cloth Baby Wipes made from 100% cotton. They’re soft, beautiful and can be washed and reused.
Single-use plastic water bottles are one of the top five trash items found in the ocean. Sending your child with a reusable water bottle helps keep plastic out of our environment. It also makes it easier for them to stay hydrated while they’re at school.
These Stainless Steel Water Bottles from Kleen Kanteen keep drinks iced for up to 40 hours or hot for up to 12 hours. They’re also simple to clean and the perfect size for small hands.
Portion snacks, side dishes or dressings into reusable containers. We like options that are a breeze to clean and easy for kids to open themselves. Some of our favorites are:
Once you’re prepared with zero-waste lunch supplies, you’re ready to move on to the next (and tastiest part). Food!
3. Create a Zero-Waste School Lunch Menu
This scene has played out at my house too many times: it’s almost time to leave for school and my sister is standing in front of the fridge trying to decide what to pack for lunch.
When you plan options ahead, you can avoid last-minute stress. It also helps you avoid trips to the store, reduce food waste and use your time efficiently.
Think Outside the Box
Your menu doesn’t have to be confined to a few traditional “lunch foods.” You can incorporate leftovers from other meals, create a meal of healthy finger foods or try new recipes. When you get creative, you’re less likely to end up in a lunch slump.
Plan a Menu That Works for Your Family
You can invite your children to help you come up with ideas for zero-waste school lunches they’ll enjoy eating. That way, they won’t end up throwing unwanted food away.
Some of my family’s quick and easy favorites are:
- Yogurt Parfaits. Scoop yogurt, fresh or frozen fruit and a dollop of nut butter into a container. Add granola to a separate container to sprinkle on just before eating.
- Healthier Lunchables. Add whole-grain crackers and sliced meat and cheese to your child’s lunchbox. Fruits, vegetables or applesauce make great sides.
- Hummus Trays. Put a generous scoop of hummus in a snack-sized container. Then add dippable foods like baby carrots, sugar snap peas, pita chips, or cheese sticks.
- Whole-Grain Muffins. Muffins keep well in the fridge or freezer and make a tasty side or main dish. We love these Healthy Pumpkin Muffins from Cookie and Kate.
- Hard-Boiled Eggs. Boil a batch of eggs at the beginning of the week to add a quick protein source to your child’s lunch.
- Energy Bites. You can keep a batch in the freezer to add a quick boost to any lunch. One of our favorite flavors is Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip.
Another easy way to build meals is to prepare a few protein, grain and fruit or vegetable options for the week. Then you can let kids select one of each to put in their lunchbox. This helps them learn how to build their own balanced meal.
Batch Preparation to Save Time
Choose a time that works for you to prepare lunch items for the week. Some ideas for quick prep are pre-chopping fruits and veggies or portioning sides into reusable containers.
Older kids may enjoy helping you peel vegetables or make a batch of energy bites. Younger children can help with adding snacks to a container or stowing them in the pantry.
Preparing foods in advance makes school mornings go smoother. It also makes it easier to keep track of what you have on hand. This helps you reduce food waste and cut down on trips to the store.
A Delicious Way to Live Zero-Waste
We’re sending you good vibes as you work to create a tasty zero-waste school lunch for your little one. Every step you make helps protect our environment and your child’s plastic-free lunch could inspire other students to make sustainable choices, too!
Do you have any favorite school lunch recipes? Share them in the comments so we can try them out!