10 tips for going zero waste with kids

A common refrain is that a low waste lifestyle with kids is too hard, but says who? It doesn’t have to be that way! Remember that you set the expectations for your child(ren), no matter where you start this journey. The role of every parent is to raise their children to be aware of their actions and make thoughtful, considered choices in their own lives.

Children get older and our parenting must grow with them. Different challenges are always popping up and approaching them with a zero waste mindset is important. The struggle of what other kids have is common to any type of parenting, so having a clear set of values can help navigate issues as they come up. Have regular conversations with your kids about your low waste lifestyle and adjust if needed. It will never be perfect, but no parent is!

Here are ten tips for shifting to a zero waste mindset with your kids:

1. Manage Expectations

Regardless of your parenting style, you set the limits in your home. Communicate changes well in advance, explaining your reasoning for them, asking for feedback, and engaging your kids in making the change where appropriate. If this is the last box of granola bars, let them know what to expect in their lunches instead. If you are gifting an experience instead of a toy to their friend, tell them why and let them choose!

On the flip side, be honest with yourself about your expectations and what you can reasonably do at any given time. Being a parent is challenging enough without placing expectations of perfect homemade everything and an Instagram aesthetic on yourself!

2. Involve the Kids

Every child is old enough to do something! Involve your kids in your zero waste decisions and activities as much as possible. Let them scoop at the bulk store, sort the recycling, do a litter pickup, choose their lunch snack for batch baking day, take the compost out, hang the laundry up, or pick out the produce at the market. We are teaching them habits they will take with them out into the world.

how to prevent food waste with kids

Preventing food waste with kids can be challenging, but it is also an amazing opportunity to learn about how food grows, food systems, food justice, and sustainable habits together. Check out these 3 learning activities and tons of tips on how to prevent food waste with kids.

3. Do a Waste Audit

Look in your trash and recycling at the end of a typical week to see where the waste is coming from. Have fun sorting through everything together on the kitchen floor! Older children can make notes. Click HERE to download a free trash audit worksheet!

Once you have determined what high frequency items you can live without or replace, discuss more sustainable options with your kids. For example, if yogurt is one of the only 5 things they will reliably eat for lunch, you can replace individual yogurt cups by making your own yogurt, or by buying the biggest possible tub you can find, and portioning it out into reusable containers. This will help to minimize the packaging waste and overall carbon footprint.

how to conduct a trash audit (with kids!)

Looking for something to get you started going zero waste with kids? A household trash audit is a great place to start! Get a clear picture of what you are throwing away each week and brainstorm ways to reduce it together. Click through for instructions and a free worksheet!

4. Batch Cook and/or Meal Plan

Reducing food waste is one of the most effective things an individual can do to reduce emissions. Meal planning and batch cooking can help make the most of the food you buy with little going to waste. I loathe meal planning, but this is where my husband shines and helped get him on board with going zero waste at home.

Once a month, I batch cook 2 dozen muffins and 2 dozen protein balls with the kids for their school lunches. They choose the recipes and we make a trip to the bulk store together for the ingredients. Make it a fun learning experience and kids will be all in!

25 package free snacks for school lunches

When I first started planning for school lunches, the challenge was how to go nut-free for the safety of other kids. My brain got stuck on peanut butter and I wasn’t sure what I could send our picky vegetarian kids that they would actually eat. Eventually I figured out 2-3 main items that would be acceptable…

5. Let Go of Perfection

Go at your own pace and focus on one change at a time. Be flexible and find what works for your family. Don’t worry that you aren’t “as zero waste” as someone else, or if your jars don’t match, that you don’t have a Monstera, or that you still use a perfectly good plastic dish brush. You are becoming mindful of your actions and teaching your children the same. Instagram and Pinterest can be wonderful sources of inspiration but can also make us feel like our spaces and practices don’t measure up. Real life is messy and doesn’t have filters!

be honest with yourself about your expectations and what you can reasonably do at any given time

6. Shop Secondhand

Kids grow quickly and clothes need replacing often. Shopping secondhand is is much cheaper than buying new, and you can often find items that have never been worn. If you don’t have access to thrift shops, there are Facebook groups and marketplaces, school swaps, church bazaars, and yard sales that offer incredible secondhand options. If those aren’t available, there’s always thrifting online via selling sites and apps. You can also find items like cloth diapers, strollers, bicycles, school supplies, sports equipment…pretty much anything you need has already been made and is still out there.

thrift shopping for kids

Thrift shopping is something I have been doing since high school when grunge was in and old cords and grandpa cardigans were The Look. I carried this habit through university and the (sometimes very) lean years between then and now to save money. These days, I still look for secondhand first for so many other…

7. Focus on Your Own Home

Remember that you can only truly control the waste you produce at home, so cut yourself some slack about what comes into the house from outside sources.  The school, grandparents and other folks in your kid’s lives may be reluctant or unwilling to get on board, but be they may just surprise you. Lead by example by showing what you do and sparking conversations about it with people in your sphere of influence.

8. Do All the Normal Kid Things a Bit Differently

The thing I am asked most about are birthdays and gifts. You can still do them! Ask other parents if their child would enjoy an experience or consumable item instead of a traditional gift. On the flip side, you can give specific suggestions of what your child would like for their birthday celebration. This could be as simple as a gift card to the cinema, the aquarium, or a favourite ice cream shop.

zero waste birthday parties for kids

Kids birthday parties are fraught for me at the best of times (so much noise!) but even more so after we actively started reducing our waste. As with many things, we have come to realize over the last few years that we can only control our waste output and quietly lead by example with our…

9. Show Them Where Food Comes From

Years ago on the CBC, I heard David Suzuki say “Kids need to learn that food doesn’t come from the grocery store” and it really stuck with me. Teach your kids how food is grown and produced in the most hands on way possible for your circumstances. Visit a local farm, head to the farmers market, grow a veggie patch or container garden. Watch clips from the How It’s Made YouTube Channel about how food products are manufactured before hitting the grocery store shelves. Talk about where in the world certain foods are grown and what resources are used to get to their plate. This will help them honour the resources that go into their food and help them begin to understand our food systems and see the interconnectedness of people and the land.

10. Find a Community

Life changes are always a little easier with support. Follow Instagram accounts that inspire you and offer practical tips and information. Join the local zero waste group on Facebook to find people in your area. I have been so lucky to make local friends through IG! An online community is great for advice, tips, and commiseration when it feels hard.

10 zero waste parents to follow on social media

“But I have kids, so…” is something I hear often when talking with people about living a lower waste lifestyle. “Kids come with a lot of stuff” being the other one. But do they? Or is it really just marketing, perceived convenience, and well-meaning relatives? No matter where or how you begin to lower your…

Community is key component of sustainability, so be sure to put yourself out there locally as well! Share things with your friends, family, and neighbours. Say good morning when you pass on the street. Offer up items you are no longer using for free on selling apps or organize a clothing swap. And use your local library – they have so much more than just books!

Have you started to make the transition to a low waste lifestyle with your kids?

What challenges are you having?

Do you have a success story to share?

GZW with Kids - SitS version

This article was featured on Twinkl as part of their Sustainability Week campaign.

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