- Meredith bay-tyack
- A low-waste lunch packed in a stainless steel PlanetBox
My 3-year-old and 5-year-old go to preschool Monday through Friday, so packing lunches is a frequent occurrence in my home, one that sometimes feels like a grind. ("Wait, my kids have to eat lunch every day?" I find myself joking.)
In addition to catering to their food preferences and needs (one of my kids is dairy-free), I aim to limit the amount of packaging and food waste packed lunches create. It's not always easy, but I've picked up some tips along the way. Below, find ways I make the process of preparing lunch more straightforward, while also reducing trash.
One important thing to note: All families have different budgets, time pressures and goals. We all do what works best for our families in the season of life we're in. While I try to avoid as much waste as I can, I do occasionally pick up highly packaged convenience foods. We do what we can!
Plan and shop
I have yet to master traditional meal planning, but before grocery shopping I always scan my fridge, freezer and pantry. I make a list of what I have, the meals and snacks I need for the coming days, and what I need to buy. Check your spices and condiment staples, too. Not planning leads to overbuying, and then wasted food — and money! I write my list in the order I'll walk around the store to help avoid random, unnecessary purchases I might make if I'm wandering around. I also try to follow these guidelines:
- Buy unpackaged. I am grateful to live in Vermont, where local food is plentiful and high quality. Our farmers markets, CSAs and supermarkets offer a wide variety of unpackaged food. Sometimes I'll tweak my recipe in order to buy in-season, local or plastic-free. Cut-up fruit and vegetables are a slam dunk for kids' lunches. There are several stores I frequent that have excellent bulk sections, where I can buy everything from granola and rice to dried fruit and olive oil. I bring my own containers and cloth bags. If I forget or need more, I use the provided paper bags that can be reused, then eventually composted.
- Look for less and better packaging. When packaging is inevitable, I find the largest package. Individual wrappers add up in the trash quickly. A large tub of yogurt can be portioned out at home. There's still plastic waste, but the packaging-to-product ratio is lower. Choose products in recyclable or reusable packaging. When all else fails, write to the makers of your favorite products and ask them to make their manufacturing and packaging more eco-friendly.
- Make from scratch. Challenge yourself to make your favorite lunch products and snacks at home. You might be surprised by how quick and easy it is to make apple chips, muffins, crackers, tortillas and more. Once you have confidence in the kitchen, shoot for the stars. Make your own bread, jam, yogurt or whatever you find intriguing. If a recipe or technique is too intensive, make it less frequently or give yourself a break and buy the premade, packaged version.
Tools of the trade
If you're trying to reduce your lunchtime waste, invest in reusable containers and ditch the single-use plastic bags. Go all in and buy a stainless steel bento box, a Japanese-style lunch container with multiple compartments, or take baby steps by buying a selection of durable, reusable plastic containers.
If you're like me and trying to avoid plastic due to its energy-intensive production and potential toxins like BPA, look for other materials. Stainless steel is my favorite for lunches because it's indestructible and easy to clean, even if you accidentally leave your kid's lunch in a hot car over the weekend. Downsides are that stainless can't be put in a microwave and you can't see what's inside without opening it. Silicone and fabric bags can hold snacks. Wood, bamboo and composite containers are also available. Instead of single-use squeeze packs of applesauce, make your own applesauce — or buy a large container of it — and portion it into reusable pouches.
For stainless steel products, I like bento boxes from PlanetBox and containers from LunchBots and U-Konserve. Vermont-made Bee's Wrap is a good alternative to plastic cling wrap, and Squeasy Gear silicone snack pouches are easy to fill and clean.
Pack reusable utensils and a fabric napkin, and choose a washable, durable lunch box. If you have access to a fridge, avoid insulation and go for a simple canvas bag. If you need ice, freeze water in a metal flask or pick up a reusable ice pack.
Avoid food waste
Reducing food waste with kids isn't straightforward, but there are habits that can help dramatically cut back on how much food gets tossed.
- Rethink leftovers. Keep a specific shelf or bin in the fridge for takeout or home-cooked leftovers that need to be eaten quickly. Keep a smoothie jar there, too, to store odds and ends like half-eaten fruit that can be blended up later.
- Properly prep and store. Research the foods your family eats regularly and find out how to prep and store for maximum freshness without using plastic wrap. For example, after washing greens, wrap in a damp cloth. Store carrots submerged in water in a jar in the fridge, and put herbs and uncut greens in a jar of water in the fridge or on a counter. Some fruit can be washed and cut days in advance, while some needs to be left unwashed until you're ready to eat it. When in doubt, freeze it! If you have food that's about to go bad, research to see if it can be frozen. You might be surprised what can be saved that way. Straight-sided glass jars and silicone bags are my favorite ways to store food in the freezer.
- Pack smaller portions, especially of new things. If you're frustrated with how much your kids leave behind, pack a variety of items in smaller amounts.
- Unpack the moment you get home. Our kids have days when they eat everything in their lunch box and days when they barely touch their food. We try to pack a mix of foods, including some items that can be saved for the future if they're not eaten that day. What we can't save, we compost. We store our compost in the freezer year-round to avoid the odor, and we drop it off at our closest Chittenden Solid Waste District facility every few weeks. There are many options for composting at home, too. Green Mountain Compost and the Vermont Community Garden Network have classes and resources if you need support.
Resources for Low-Waste Lunches
- It's Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating, by Dina Rose