Easy, affordable ways to make your packed lunch waste free

Single-serving snack packs, zip-top plastic bags, yogurt cups, juice boxes, paper lunch sacks—the waste generated in schools and offices during lunchtime is mind-boggling. In fact, estimates indicate a school-age child eating a disposable lunch every day generates about 67 pounds of waste per school year. Enrollment in Fairfax County Public Schools is more than 180,000, which means our county is potentially generating upwards of 12 million pounds of lunch waste annually. What?! Can someone check my math please?

A stainless steel bento box can be your Plastic Free lunch workhorse.

Needless to say, Plastic Free lunches will go a long way toward solving this waste problem. And you really only need four things to pack a Plastic Free lunch:

  1. A durable lunch box or bag. There are plenty of fancy eco-friendly lunch boxes out there that will cost you a pretty penny. But a lunch box or bag doesn’t have to cost a fortune. You can find reasonably priced options at the local grocery store or superstore. Or you can just use a cloth grocery bag.
  2. Reusable food containers. For grownup lunches, we’ve got a ton of Mason jars and Pyrex in our kitchen cupboards. For my daughter, I’ve found reusable snack bags, beewax wrap, and a stainless-steel thermos that I love. There are also stainless-steel sandwich boxes out there, but again, they can be expensive. So here are some cost-saving options: My go-to lunch container is an old quart-size, wide-mouth pasta sauce jar. It’s glass, I’ve removed the label, it cost me only the price of the pasta sauce, and it’s the perfect size for salads. If you buy jelly, pickles, sauce, salsa, or anything else in glass jars, take advantage! Instead of throwing them in the recycle bin, reuse them. Beeswax wrap is another good lower cost option. There are several different brands out there or you can make your own. I try to pick up packs at MOM’s when they are on sale (usually around back-to-school time).
  3. Refillable water bottle or tumbler with straw. High-quality stainless-steel water bottles are an excellent investment. You can find them for kids and adults, with straws and without, at various price points. And they’re not just for lunches: Bring them with you to the coffee shop so you can avoid the single-use cup. Bring your kids’ bottles to restaurants so you can avoid that oh-so-irritating plastic straw cup.
  4. Reusable fork and spoon. Yes, I own one of those trendy sets of bamboo utensils (it’s a long story…). But do you know what I pack in my daughter’s lunch? The same cutlery she uses here at home. Don’t overthink this one. Bonus points if you wrap cutlery in a cloth napkin.

    No joke: My daughter LOVES when she gets a Mason jar smoothie in her lunch.

As you start to pack lunches this way, you’ll notice some other changes too. Gone are the single-serving chip, cookie, and granola bar packages. Gone are sugar-laden juice boxes and sodas. Here to stay: fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, whole foods, water–and maybe some (really yummy) homemade crackers. Plastic Free lunches are healthy for you and your kids and are healthy for the planet.

Looking for more product recommendations? Here are a few good lists and articles:

The Frugal Girl, “My 9 Favorite No Waste Lunch Products.”

Zero Waste Chef, “10 Tips for Packing a Zero Waste Lunch.” Not just product recommendations, a good comprehensive list of tips.

My Plastic Free Life, “My Favorite Plastic Free Sandwich and Snack Baggies and Containers.”

Trash Is for Tossers, “How to Pack a Zero Waste Lunch.” Scroll to the end for links to products.

Wastefreelunches.org. Lots of info, including a cost analysis of regular school lunches versus waste-free lunches.

–Julie Kimmel