How to Pack a Litter-Free School Lunch

CC BY 2.0. Larissa Brown

Finally, schools are catching on to the fact that packed lunches generate far too much trash. Learn how to reduce waste, and your grocery bill will shrink, too.

Did you know that the average school-age child generates approximately 67 pounds (30 kilograms) of waste from lunch packaging each year? That’s an enormous amount of garbage, especially when you multiply it by the number of kids who go to school. (via National Post)

Most of the plastic yogurt and applesauce containers, granola bar and candy bar wrappers, juice boxes, straws, Lunchables, plastic sandwich bags, chip bags, and Saran wraps, etc. that constitute that trash are entirely unnecessary. School lunches do not need to be made with single-use, disposable items – nor should they be, if teaching kids about environmental stewardship is anyone’s priority.

Slowly but surely, school boards are turning their attention to this issue, encouraging students to bring ‘litterless’ lunches to school. Indeed, I received a letter from my son’s kindergarten class this year encouraging students to bring reusable and litter-free lunches each day. An article in the National Post cites Heather Loney, an employee of the Upper Grand District School Board in Ontario, describing her school board’s efforts to reduce lunch trash:

“We’re trying to encourage students and staff not to create that garbage in the first place. The goal of the litterless lunch is to help reduce greenhouse gases that are produced during the manufacturing and transport of all that food packaging. Some of those packaged foods are not as nutritionally strong as just buying whole foods. Also, they can be more expensive.”

Loney is right on the mark with her assessment, but, as I've learned firsthand, packing a litterless lunch does take greater effort on the parent’s part. Some of the challenges I’ve found are that it requires kids to be good eaters, not accustomed to processed, pre-packaged snacks to keep them happy. (Say goodbye to yogurt tubes and cheese strings.) Second, it take more forethought and time to prepare everything from scratch, as opposed to grabbing a package off the shelf. Finally, it’s more difficult for kids to take over responsibility for packing their own lunches, although that can be taught over time. The benefits make it worthwhile, however, as kids get better food with higher nutritional value, and you will definitely save money.

Here’s how to get started with litterless lunches:

Invest up front in good containers.
I use stainless steel, small glass Mason jars with screwtop lids, and a few old plastic Tupperwares that have been kicking around the house for years. Buy reusable water bottles. (My kids have small Klean Kanteens.) Buy a small Thermos for dinner leftovers. Check out Life Without Plastic for all kinds of wonderful products.

Use reusable wraps.
A cloth napkin works well and can be laundered. I also have a few Abeego beeswax wraps that are convenient. In a pinch, I use wax paper or parchment. (I don’t even keep plastic wrap in the house anymore because it’s too tempting.) Send reusable cutlery.

Have a basic lunch formula and stick to it.
“Sandwich, vegetable, fruit, and treat” is what I remember while packing. Yours could be “snack, lunch, snack, treat.”

Have a (mental) list of sample menus.
Kids don’t need a lot of variety; they’re surprisingly happy eating the same thing for months on end. Our lunches are usually a combination of the following:

Sandwich: Tortilla or pita with hummus and spinach, bagel with cream cheese and sprouts
Dinner leftovers: Pasta with sauce, soup/stew with bread on side, slices of cheese
Vegetable: Carrot or celery sticks, cucumber or red pepper slices
Fruit: Whole apple, peach, pear, banana, grapes
Snack: Homemade yogurt (stir in some jam for added sweetness) or applesauce in a jar, raisins, sunflower and pumpkin seeds
Treat: Cookie or muffin
Drink: Always water, never juice. (They don’t need that extra sugar!)

Be aware of the trash ‘footprint’ that’s intrinsic to the items you buy.
A litterless lunch doesn’t mean much if everything you bought came in single-use plastic. Purchase bread in paper bags and transfer to reusable containers at home. Buy items in bulk, i.e. large containers of yogurt and applesauce, large bars of cheese, big packages of pita, etc. to minimize packaging, then distribute to reusable containers as needed. Buy local, seasonal food whenever possible. Take reusable containers, jars, and bags to the grocery store or farmers’ market to buy produce and deli products. Learn how to make items from scratch, such as hummus, yogurt, cookies, and bread; it’s easier than you think, once you get used to the idea.

Keep educating yourself on what it means to live a Zero Waste life.
There are many resources available here on TreeHugger, including this slideshow: "7 items for a plastic-free lunch box".