By Dawna Matthews
Back to school season has begun for many, and with school comes many transitions, changes, and fun: new teachers, new routines, school activities and the traditional bag lunch. Many find packing a healthy lunch for their children to be challenging, but just as challenging is packing a lunch that is healthy, creative and also waste free.
We as Americans love our conveniences, and prepackaged food is no exception. As it turns out, this convenience has made its way to the lunches we pack for our children. It shows up in forms such as single-use plastic bags for sandwiches and fruits, packaged drinks and juice boxes, paper napkins, prepackaged snacks, disposable utensils and more. Of course these goods are extremely convenient, but with convenience comes a high cost. In fact, the EPA estimates that one child’s disposable lunch generates an average of 67 pounds of waste per school year. That equates to 18,760 pounds of lunch waste for just one average sized elementary school to send to the landfill. We all know the landfills are overfilling at an alarming rate and that anything we can do to help save the planet can’t happen soon enough.
What is Waste-free?
Waste-free is just that: without trash. By filling reusable lunchboxes and drink containers with healthy portions of delicious whole foods, and utilizing reusable utensils and napkins, you can create waste-free lunches. When packing lunches in a reusable container, very little trash is generated because households buy more from the bulk and produce sections. Any packaging is left at home for reuse or recycling. Food waste also decreases, as children can re-pack uneaten food instead of dump it, packaging and all, at school.
Waste-free lunches are super easy and convenient for school, day trips around town or vacations. You can pack litter-less lunches in 3 easy steps: reduce, reuse, recycle.
1- Reduce: Cut down on packaging and food waste by purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables in the produce section. Buy other foods in the bulk grocery sections of the store. Most bulk sections in stores have everything from whole grains to snacks such as raisins or pretzels. Each year, American school kids toss out 4.6 billion pounds of lunch waste. By buying items you can easily pack in reusable containers, you can drastically reduce that amount that ends up in the landfill. As well, you’ll reduce your household cost since reusable containers can save families approximately $250 a year. Wow! Reduce your waste!
2- Reuse: Pack lunches in reusable containers. Replace paper and plastic with a safe, sustainable, stylish alternative. Save money and the Earth with reusable sandwich and snack bags as well as food containers. Some of my favorites are bento boxes such as those from Laptop Lunches, as well as glass options from Wean Green. For reusable bag options, I also adore Pouch Pals. For utensils, I love my bamboo utensil set from To-go Ware.
3- Recycle: As Jack Johnson sings, “And if the first two R’s don’t work out and you’ve got to make some trash don’t throw it out – Recycle” Use recycle bins instead of tossing recyclables into the trash. Additionally, create a community of people who also want to empower, educate, and inspire others to care for the environment. There are several ways, such as “Grades of Green” or “Waste Free Lunches,” to get started.
Packing a nutritious lunch and snacks can be challenging, but it also can be so much fun. I find this is a wonderful time for me to be creative. It’s also a good time to get your culinary kid in on the fun.
As nutrition will affect your child’s energy level, behavior and ability to concentrate throughout the day, try to avoid high sugar and nutrient-poor foods. A balanced meal includes at least three of the four food groups. As mentioned already, bento box-esque lunch kits and compartments or cubes are popular. They are also colorful and make eating fun. Here are some options from each food group to fill your cubes:
Vegetables & Fruits: berries, dried fruit or fruit leathers, bell pepper strips, zucchini or cucumber slices, baby carrots, grape tomatoes, broccoli and cauliflower ‘baby trees,’ blueberries and strawberries.
Grain Products: whole grain buns, pitas, wraps, or bread for sandwiches; pita triangles for dipping; whole grain muffins; dried cereal; crackers; and pasta salad.
Meat & Alternatives: hummus or beans/lentils, boiled eggs, deli meat (nitrate-free, lower salt is best), baked beans, edamame, soy dogs, tuna or eggless salad.
Milk & Alternative: cheese cubes or strings, milk, yogurt, pudding, cottage cheese.
Other fun food ideas: graham crackers (a Chloe and Mommy baking activity), raisins, skewers, homemade cereal bars, avocado boats. Use cookie cutters for sandwiches, fruits and veggies, or even if you want to make your own crackers. I have recently become a fanatic of cutting my crackers into cute shapes.
It sounds so simple. And, really, it is fun to create healthy, waste-free lunches for your children, your spouse, yourself! One tiny step in the right direction can help save the planet as well as empower your children to make healthy decisions about food and the environment. So take a step and pack your child a trash-free lunch. Mother Earth will be grateful for the gift as you gift your child with yummy foods in reusable containers.
There are, oh, so many cool blogs with fantastic ideas on lunches. My favorites are weelicious.com and yummymummykitchen.com
What are some of the lunches you pack for your children?
For ideas and literature about how to implement litter-less waste-free lunches, check these out:
For Waste free products: