Sustainable Students: The No-Waste Lunch

Kids lunches are a packaging nightmare. Here are some ways to reduce the waste in your child's school lunch.

I, like , have survived another action-packed summer with my kids. As if the school year is not chaotic enough, summertime is that time of year when my wife and I have to continually alter our daily schedules to accommodate the ever-changing myriad of summer camps necessary to keep our kids from being bored. Soccer moms have nothing on me.

This summer, I notice a new camp program fad emerged: the Zero-Waste Lunch. It seems that just about everyone out there has discovered that the tiny little packages made to make beverages and snacks “cute” for our kids are wasteful. It’s interesting that while some families are worried about if they will have lunch for their children at all, food companies have perpetuated the idea that kids won’t eat unless they have tiny prepackaged, cartoon covered items to fill their lunch sack.

So, with the start of the school year at hand, I thought I’d share some of the tips and tools I’ve learned over this summer to reduce the waste in your child’s lunch.

At first glance, you may think that getting rid of the packing in the school lunch is easy. Or, at least, I did. Buying food in larger quantities is cheaper and greatly reduces the amount of packaging you purchase. But then, you run up to the grand hurdle of the No-Waste Lunch: the all-consuming sandwich bag! After the sandwich, the chips, and the fruit or veggies; you’ve already added three plastic bags to the lunch pail each day. This is a startling amount of plastic generated daily when you consider the number of kids at your child’s school.

Fear not, however, for there are alternatives. Today, there are a wide variety of reusable sandwich bags available online or through local merchants. There are many variations on the idea, but most are cloth bags, some with or without liners. If you venture into SF, you’ll find them at Rainbow Grocery. The only drawback with these is that they can be expensive and have a tendency to wear out over time. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches can be quite deadly to a cloth sandwich bag. If you’ve ever tried to wash a squashed banana from a lunch bag, you know what I’m talking about.

Also, pay attention to the lunch bag or pail your child will use. Many reusable containers for kid’s lunches are, reasonably so, made of plastic. And yes, many are BPA and phthalate free, but really, considering their potential health affects (not to mention the environmental impact of plastics), why would we want to continue using plastic containers in lunches unless absolutely necessary?

My favorite lunch containers are modeled after the old Irish miner’s lunch tin or the Indian tiffin. Made of stainless steel with multiple compartments, these boxes are durable, food-safe and dishwasher safe. While they are higher priced than the big brand lunch boxes, they last for years. Some of the newer versions have rubber seals that keep liquids in and food sealed inside extremely well.

Armed with sustainable lunch containers, your family will save money. According to the folks at the EcoLunchBox website, a family packing a waste-free lunch saves on average $400 annually and averts 4,320 pieces of trash from the landfill. Finally, lunch can be good for your kids and good for the environment.

Stephanie Trelogan August 29, 2011 at 03:26 AM
Great post, Dustin—and you beat me to it, I was just going to blog about this! This will be my third year of packing no-waste lunches...with the exception of the occasional yogurt tube, I must shamefacedly confess. (But fear not, I'm planning to start making my own yogurt soon, and then we'll give those up. No, really.) This year I finally found some fantastic plastic-lined cloth snack and sandwich bags that are easy to rinse peanut butter off: LunchSkins, which I ordered from amazon.com. I'm sure they won't last forever, but I'm hoping they'll last long enough to offset how insanely expensive they are. Really, plastic or metal containers are best, but both my kids' classes take snacks out onto the playground and the bags are so much easier to shove into a pocket when they're done.


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