The Summer is coming to a close and ‘Back to School’ days are going to be here before we know it. This is a perfect opportunity to discuss one of the ways my family has cut back on waste and at the same time managed to provide healthier, well-rounded meals to our daughter.

Here are some stats on lunch related waste:

  • According to the Container Recycling Institute close to 2.7 million juice boxes end up in landfills every year.
  • It has been estimated that on average a school-age child using a disposable lunch generates 67 pounds of waste per school year. That equates to 18,760 pounds of lunch waste for just one average-size elementary school. (
  • It is estimated that 17 trees are cut down for every ton of non-recycled paper. (The Environmental Forum of Marin, Obentec & U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
  • An estimated 47 percent of school garbage is recyclable paper. –( Los Angeles School Waste Composition Study)
  • Supplying the plastic water bottles that American consumers purchase in one year requires more than 47 million gallons of oil, the equivalent of one billion pounds of carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere. – Container Recycling Institute

What does the average school lunch look like?

  • sandwiches in disposable plastic bags
  • fruits and veggies in plastic bags
  • prepackaged cookies, bars, cheeses, fruit leathers, chips
  • disposable juice boxes, juice pouches, juice cans, water bottles, and milk cartons
  • single-use yogurts, applesauces, and pudding
  • plastic forks and spoons, paper napkins
  • disposable plastic or paper bag or reusable lunch bag/box

What does a waste-free lunch look like?

  • fresh fruits & veggies, sandwiches, other main dishes and snacks/treats in a reusable lunch container(s).
  • reusable (stainless steel, wood) utensils, cloth napkins
  • reusable drink containers (stainless steel bottles)
  • reusable lunch boxes or bags

Very little waste is generated because the foods are not prepackaged in individual sets of packaging.

Take a large bulk package of individual puddings/fruits/applesauce/crackers & ‘cheese’ like those available at the big box wholesale stores- you have the large printed cardboard container, inside you will find 12 more cardboard containers which contain 6 individually packaged plastic containers with plastic covers. Most of it ends up as waste. Some may be recycled but that is unlikely- most of it ends up in landfills.

You also have a greater opportunity to cut back on unhealthy foods filled with preservatives and high levels of sugar, HCFS and sodium. As a family you will find you may save money as well by no longer paying more for convenience lunch products.

So I know what some may think? If I do this won’t my kids lose the extra stuff? Won’t this end up costing me more in the end?

I was worried about this as well but in the 4 years we’ve been doing the whole ‘waste-free lunch’ my daughter has only misplaced one spoon. She takes great pride in her lunch items and as she grows older we continue to discuss why it is important that we cut back on our waste and our mark on this planet. This isn’t a one time thing for our family, this conversation continues and as she grows older, it evolves.

How can you get started?

  • Replace your brown bags with a reusable lunch bag
  • Replace all the juice boxes & water bottles with a reusable stainless steel bottle
  • Save yourself some extra cash and purchase some reusable snack & sandwich bags. They wash easily and last for years.
  • Stop with the plastic baggies. Replace them with reusable lunch containers. You will find that your options for lunch will stretch beyond just the typical sandwich.
  • Cloth napkins, reusable utensils and ice packs
  • Here is what is a part of my family’s lunch system. We mix and match depending on what we are packing for lunch that day.

Hello Kitty Lunch Bag

Insulated Lunch Bag

We have a lunch system called a ‘Laptop Lunch’. This is a bento style lunch system. It works remarkedly well for our needs. We find that with our daughter variety really is the spice of life. She loves having leftovers packed up in the containers. It may seem pricey but we have had our original set for 4 years and it is still in perfect condition. It is self contained so my daughter just eats out of it and all the pieces have their place, go back in and come home altogether. We have yet to lose a piece. The one downside I found with this set is that if you have a preschooler they may need help opening up and closing this set. It takes practice for small fingers.

Laptop Lunch Set

For reusable stainless steel bottles there are no shortage of options (a nice change).

You can purchase relatively inexpensive bottles from wholesale stores like BJs (3 for less $20) or you shop around online for graphic ones like those made my Sigg or Laken. There are also Kleen Kanteen. There are different styles available- sippy tops, squirt/sport tops, open mouth etc. The price points vary but if you think about it even at $25 per bottle you have a bargain. You will no longer purchase juice boxes and water bottles.

Reusable Containers
There are many options available, from small to large with insulation or without, for hot or cold foods. You also have the choice between BPA free plastics or stainless steel

Here are some of my favorites:

The mainstay for hot foods like soup, mac & cheese, rice & beans, pasta w/sauce- the options are endless. You can find them on sale at various local department stores. I’ve also seen them at Big Lots and Marshalls.

Thermos Vacuum Insulated Food Jar

food jar

Lunchskins Sandwich & Snack Bags

If you are handy with a sewing machines you can make some of these out of oil cloth.

Perfect for sandwiches or snacks (like popcorn, pretzels, veggies, fruit). They contain moisture and do not hold onto grease. They wash very easily as well. There are other brands available that may cost less. But remember all those plastic baggies you will no longer be buying just to throw away!

Lunch Bags

Throw in some utensils and cloth napkins, a cold pack if needed and you are all set.

I label our things with our daughter’s name using labels I made on our computer. You could also order dishwasher resistant labels from companies like Oliver Labels.

There are many resources available online to learn more Waste Free lunches and the affect of waste on this world. Also a ton of great lunch ideas. Involve your children and you will see how quickly they adjust to no longer having the extra packaging. I thought my daughter was going to miss the individual packages or feel left out at school but as it turns out she takes great pride in her small part in helping out the planet. She is also the center of good attention at school when other kids see her delicious, home made lunches. Now at 6 years old she takes the opportunity to talk to her classmates about why she uses a reusable lunch system instead of the usual brown bag and plastic baggie.

For more information:

Laptop Lunches- great lunch recipes ideas- healthy and lots of variety - Lots of reusable products for purchase and good source of information

Waste-Free Lunch Facts and how to help get more people involved

The EPA’s Pack A Waste-Free Lunch Program

How to Pack a Nutritious Waste-Free Lunch for your kids


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