how to pack a zero waste school lunch

Thanks to Kind Humans for sponsoring this post and donating a zero waste lunch kit to our local school community.

For many parents, figuring out what to send for school lunches is a challenge unto itself. We worry about nutrition, allergies, convenience, and now more than ever, plastic. With 180 school days on average, this adds up to a lot of single-use plastic (that cannot typically be recycled) on everything from granola bars to sandwiches. The concept of a “litterless lunch” may feel impossible with kids will be returning to a very different school landscape this fall. Packing an eco-friendly lunch with them is a great way to bond, discuss feelings about the upcoming day, have a little fun, and keep old routines intact while they navigate their new reality. Having agency over this part of their day will go a long way for your kids – and help the planet too!

Make a Plan

Meal planning is an important part of zero waste living. Figuring out what you will eat in a week saves you time, money, and food waste. It also helps you prioritize package-free and bulk ingredients. Have your kids sit down and do this with you! After all, getting them to actually *eat* their lunch is part of the challenge! Ask them to suggest a sandwich, a fruit and veggie, and a dinner they will happily take as leftovers the next day.

Snacks can be easy to plan in advance – click here for 25 suggestions! Once a month, we have the kids choose a baked treat and a protein ball they would like for lunches. We spend an hour or two preparing them on a weekend afternoon and pop them in the freezer, taking out one each day as needed. Package-free snacks such as dried fruit, pretzels, and roasted chickpeas can be found in bulk sections of many grocery stores and keep well in glass jars in your cupboards. Chop veggies into your typical serving size on the weekend and store submerged in water for the week ahead.

You do not have to make everything from scratch to reduce waste! Turn fresh eyes on the bulk, produce, and bakery sections of your local store to see what you can stock up on. Buying the largest possible container of something (such as yogurt or crackers) and then sending individual portions in reusable containers still significantly reduces waste. Opt for packaging that is likely to be recycled in your area, such as metal or cardboard.

Involve the Kids

Participating in selecting and preparing their lunches is a great opportunity for kids to learn valuable life skills while spending quality time with you. They are also more likely to eat food they have helped prepare! Kids can help with meal planning, picking out produce at the store, baking, chopping, even washing their lunch containers each evening. Doing these things together provides teachable moments for you to discuss *why* waste-free lunches are important and connecting them to larger issues in sustainability. 

What Goes in the Lunch Bag?

The actual food you send depends on your child, but how to send it is a snap with a few quality reusables! While these require a little investment up front, they can be used for your child’s whole school career and beyond, saving you money and tons of trash in the long run.

An insulated reusable water bottle is a must. This eliminates single-use bottles and can be refilled at school. A straw lid makes it easy for younger children to drink from independently. Nesting containers like this one are great for separating foods in a fun way. I typically send a sandwich on the bottom and two snacks up top. The smallest one has a lid and is great for yogurt or hummus! A bamboo cutlery set made just for kids replaces plastic utensils. Pack it all in an insulated (and easy to clean) lunch bag. There are so many cool patterns available for kids to express themselves with. And don’t forget a cloth napkin for clean up!

Think Outside the Lunchbox

Once you have packing zero waste lunches sorted, think of other ways you can reduce waste in your larger school community. Visit your child’s classroom to teach kids about sustainability and things they can do to help the environment. Get involved with the school’s Parent Council to advocate for on-site compost, community gardening, and litterless or boomerang lunches (where everything that is sent to school returns home). Pay attention to what is coming home uneaten and adjust what you are sending accordingly to minimize food waste. 

Go easy on yourself when shifting to waste-free lunches. Be realistic about how much you can reasonably do according to your budget and circumstances. Change one thing at a time and be proud of what you and your child have accomplished together!

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