10 Ways to Pack Your Kids a More Sustainable Lunch

Lunchbox with a salad, bread, apple, veggies, nuts, and pretzels

Anastasia Nurullina / Getty Images

The modern mantra of convenience has some pretty serious costs, and this trade-off can all too often be found tucked away in lunch boxes and backpacks. Although throwing together a meal of pre-made packets is quick and easy, it results in a pile of trash and comes with a heavy helping of carbon emissions.

But packing a more sustainable lunch to send to school with your kids (or yourself for that matter) isn’t impossible. Here are some steps to get you started.

1. Skip the individually wrapped foods

Why is food that takes less than a minute to eat packaged in wrappers and containers that last for hundreds of years? Because much of our modern food industry was developed to get rations to the front lines!But for children who are marching off to school, skip the super convenient packaged foods. Not only do processed foods contribute heavily to landfills, ocean pollution, and air pollution (think of the carbon footprint of all those garbage trucks), they are often less healthy.

2. Reach for reusable sandwich bags and containers

On a related note, there’s no need for single-use plastic sandwich bags. Instead, consider a waxed fabric sandwich bag, or one of the many reusable lunch containers on the market. From bento boxes to tiffins, there are loads of choices, although glass jars may be a bit too breakable for some kids.

3. Cut down on meat and dairy

Meat, yogurt, cheese and other dairy products tend to have a higher environmental footprint than plant-based foods. Consider packing at least one vegan lunch per week (for Meatless Monday maybe?). Peanut butter and jelly is a good standby, but you can also get creative with hummus wraps, bean spreads, and thermoses of soup.

4. Be choosy about meat and cheese

If you do go the ham and cheddar sandwich route, keep in mind that processed meat can be high in sodium, harmful nitrates and may come from animals treated with antibiotics. It’s a good idea to shop for organic and antibiotic-free meat and dairy products. Consider using the Environmental Working Group’s Food Scores as a guide to the healthier and less environmentally damaging options.

5. Buy locally

If you buy food that’s grown locally, you’re not only supporting your own community, but you’re also reducing the carbon footprint of your food by cutting down on the distance it’s shipped.

6. Think seasonally

Buying seasonally is often more cost-effective, but it also goes hand-in-hand with the goal of buying local. If asparagus isn’t in season where you live, that usually means it’s coming from somewhere so far away they have different weather. Changing what you pack for lunch with the season can also help prevent kids with getting bored with the same lunch fare.

7. Avoid the dirty dozen

In an ideal world, we’d buy organic food all the time, because it not only cuts down on our personal exposure to pesticides, but it also reduces the amount of pesticide and synthetic fertilizers that are dumped into our environment—in turn harming pollinators and contributing to problems like toxic algae blooms. However, finding organic options can be challenging (or too heavy a financial burden)—so if you’re going to eat non-organic produce, consider avoiding the fruits and vegetables that are most likely to be contaminated: apples, celery, sweet bell peppers, peaches, strawberries, imported nectarines, grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumber, domestic blueberries and potatoes.

8. Pack a water bottle

From juice boxes to plastic soda bottles to whatever those juice pouches are made from, disposable beverage containers are a bummer. Even if recycling is possible, it’s a much more eco-friendly option to opt for a refillable bottle. Consider indulging your kids in a fun water bottle with some personality if that will help to encourage them to use it.

9. Compost peels and pits

If you have a compost pile at home, encourage kids to participate by bringing their apple cores and cherry pits home. Unless their school has a compost program, it’s likely these items will end up in garbage where they’ll contribute to landfills and their associated methane production. Instead, why not teach kids about avoiding food waste while giving back to the soil?

10. Ditch the idea of “kid food”

The idea that children should eat differently than their parents has meant that kids eat more processed food and less healthy fresh stuff. “Kid food” is by and large a marketing ploy—one that encourages less healthy eating. Last year, a study found that kids who eat the same foods as their parents tend to have a heather diet.