Zero Waste School Lunches

12 Tips for Packing Zero Waste School Lunches

When it comes to school lunches, a parent's top concern is that their kids have enough to eat. So they fill their children's lunch boxes with food and drinks. If the food is all healthy, that's even better, but what would be best is a healthy and zero-waste lunch. 

Zero-waste school lunches are better for the environment and are such a great way to get your child to care about the planet. If like most parents, you may think making your kid's lunch sustainable is not reasonably possible, we can help. Here we share easy tips to make packing zero-waste school lunches a breeze.

Benefits of a zero-waste school lunch

For many parents, packing school lunches every day is not the easiest thing, and it can prove easy to rely on prepackaged food. Prepackaged meals, from bags of chips to healthy snack bars, often come in single-use plastic baggies, and those have environmental consequences. 

Single-use packaging wastes the resources that go into producing them. Trees are cut down to make paper, and every flimsy plastic wrap originated from fossil fuels. These natural resources are not ones humans can afford to squander. We cannon renew fossil fuels, and trees take much longer to grow than the demand currently placed on them. 

Additionally, plastic bags and wrappers may contain traces of harmful substances like BPA. However, it is everywhere and in almost everything. But a zero-waste school lunch helps you reduce the number of plastics your kids are exposed to.

Finally, a lot of the trash that arises from the school lunch you pack will still be intact when your kids have kids of their own. That's because plastic does not decay. Instead, it will occupy the landfill for hundreds of years. When it does break down, it becomes tiny pieces of toxin magnets we call microplastics

12 easy tips for packing a zero-waste school lunch

Benefits of a zero-waste school lunch
Photo by Katerina Holmes

1. Use reusable napkins

A napkin is excellent for staying clean while eating and after, especially for little kids. Rather than paper napkins that your child can only use once, try cloth napkins instead. A cloth napkin can be washed and reused over and over again. 

You can buy cloth napkins or cut up a clean cotton fabric you no longer need. One cloth napkin saves the earth valuable trees that would have ended up in the waste bin after one use as a paper towel. You'll also save some money since you are not constantly replacing paper towels.

2. Scrap disposable cutleries

Yes, we know that doing the dishes isn't the easiest chore, but disposables are much harder on the environment. They make most single-use plastic utensils from polypropylene and polystyrene. Both types of plastics are highly polluting and dangerous to humans and wildlife. 

Reusable utensils reduce waste heading to the landfill from your child's lunch box to the landfill. Many plastic manufacturers claim to use recycled plastic-free from dangerous substances like BPA. But greenwashing is quite common today, so, Just use real cutlery instead.

3. Opt for reusable water bottles

Your kid's waste-free school lunch is incomplete without a reusable water bottle. Single-use plastic bottles are one of the most common trash you'll find polluting the oceans. Juice boxes result in the unsustainable use of tree resources and do not quite biodegrade because they come lined with polyethylene.

So your kid should take their water and juice to school in a reusable water bottle. You'll find eco-friendly reusable water bottles of all kinds that are safe for your kids and the earth. You could even get a foldable space-saving collapsible water bottle if you are concerned about space.

4. Try a reusable lunch box

Kids carry food and snacks to school in various ways, some of which are not eco-friendly. Invest in reusable containers to reduce waste. Single-use paper or plastic baggies are not ideal for the waste-free lunch lifestyle.

You can buy large or small eco-friendly lunchboxes designed just for packed lunches, depending on how much food your kids take to school for lunch. A full meal is better in a stainless steel or bamboo lunch box, especially bento-style boxes. But if it's just sandwiches, you can pack those in reusable snack bags or beeswax wraps as alternatives to plastic wrap

You should pack semi-solid foods like peanut butter in small reusable containers with leakproof silicone covers. Look out for recycled and toxic-free lunch boxes and bags. To complete the zero waste vibe, grab them an eco-friendly backpack.

5. Cancel plastic straws

If you want to start packing waste-free school lunches, plastic straws should be one of the first things to go. Over 8 billion straws littered the ocean in 2017, according to research. We know that millions more enter our environment daily, which is terrible for our fight against plastic pollution.

Of course, a reusable straw would cost a lot more than a disposable type. But you will eventually save money in the long run by eliminating the constant need for replacement. If you can't get reusable ones like bamboo or steel straws, then get a biodegradable one. Just be sure to ascertain that the green claims are real, not simply greenwashing.

6. Stock naturally packaged foods

Banana plastic free food
Photo by Vanessa Loring

Apples, bananas, oranges, and hard-boiled eggs don't require extra packaging. They are already well protected by their outer layers. You can just toss them into your kids' eco-friendly lunch bag or box

Apart from saving you from wrapping them, these naturally packaged foods are nutritious and fresher than industrially processed foods. So it's a double win.

7. Buy snacks and drinks in bulk

To pack a zero-waste lunch goes beyond reusable stuff and avoiding plastics. The food purchase and preparation itself should be waste-free. One way to prevent food waste is to buy in bulk quantities. We are not suggesting buying small, individually wrapped snacks in large quantities. 

Instead, buy super large sizes and make smaller portions at your house. For example, rather than buy a 4-32 oz (118-946 ml) juice box, get a gallon of juice and pack small portions for your child's lunch every day. You can also do this with bags of string cheese or cheese sticks. Storing bulk food is easy with refrigerators, glass jars, or dried fruit bags.

8. DIY as much as possible

Another way to reduce food waste is to make some of the lunch items on your kid's menu from scratch. At home, you can make things like cookies, muffins, yogurt, smoothies, and granola bars in large quantities. Batch preparation will save you a lot of time and resources.

You can save time on some meals by preparing ingredients days ahead. Try pre-chopping fruits and veggies that won't spoil easily in proper storage. To keep baby carrots fresh for a week or more, you can soak them in glass containers or wrap them in aluminum foil or beeswax wrap. If you soak apple slices in salt water for a few minutes before rinsing and refrigerating, they should remain fresh for a week.

You'll also find a great range of reusable alternatives to Ziploc bags perfect for stashing goods in the fridge or freezer to last a few days.

9. Be conscious of the quantity

How much of their school lunch does your child eat? Many parents are not aware of the percentage of the school lunch their kids eat because the kids throw the leftovers at school. Kids may not eat as much in school as they do at home. That is common in picky eaters who need much encouragement to finish their meals at home anyway.

Ask your child to bring home whatever they do not eat, and you'll get an idea of the right portion size. If you are worried they aren't eating enough, get creative and try new recipes. You will find many low-cost creative meal plans on Pinterest.

10. Compost leftovers

Food scraps like bread crusts, apple cores, banana peel, and egg shells are great for composting. Remind your kid to bring their leftover food back home for compost rather than tossing it in the trash. If their school has a compost bin, they can throw in the leftovers. Composting can help the world cut back on the 1.3 billion tonnes of food wasted yearly.

What if the leftover meal is still good and enough to eat? Make another meal out of it for your family or to donate it to the local soup kitchen. That is important because not every kind of food waste is good for compost. 

11. Recycle unavoidable waste

Even with your best attempt at zero-waste school lunches, you may still generate some inorganic waste. If your local recycling center accepts the waste, you can just dump it in the proper recycle bin and be done. But some types of waste require special recycling infrastructures that are not widespread.

Look for special recycling companies like TerraCycle that have recycling programs for hard-to-recycle products. You can begin your search on a recycling search engine like Earth911 or RecycleNation.

12. Label your zero-waste lunch gear

A lot of the gear you'll need to start school lunch packing without the waste will initially cost a bit more than their disposable counterparts. Inevitably the odd misplaced reusable napkin or straw will happen. Still, you can help them by using a permanent marker or label maker to put their name or an identifying mark on the items. That way, there is a chance to recover in case it gets misplaced.


The food and packaging waste one child's school lunch can generate in one school year can quickly add up. To help your kid and the planet, you should pack a zero-waste lunch at school.

Getting your kids involved in packing their zero-waste school lunches is an excellent way to teach younger children about environmental sustainability. Your older kids can even help you out with things like recycling, composting, and packing their own lunches.

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