This school year comes with a variety of extra considerations and concerns. Whether your kids are attending school full-time, taking some classes online, or spending the entire school year at home, lunch is still a must! Despite these challenges, you can still keep meals “green” with eco friendly school lunch options for your child.
Table of Contents
- What’s the Problem?
- Eco Friendly School Lunch Supplies
- Eco Friendly School Lunch Choices
What’s the Problem?
In the morning rush to pack lunches and get our kids ready for school, we’re not pondering the environmental impact of school lunches! Now that you have a moment, take a few minutes to read about the impacts our food choices have on the planet — and our wallets.
Excess Single-Use Packaging
Many of us reach for those conveniently pre-packaged lunches, snack packs, or “mini-meals,” with their promise of an easier lifestyle. They may even feature friendly faces of cartoon or movie characters—but they’re anything but friendly to our planet.
Single-use products affect the planet’s health in significant ways. By definition, food packaging is designed to be single-use. It’s no wonder then that food packaging material makes up nearly half of all municipal solid waste.
Plastic is the worst culprit in the waste category. A recent report identifies the U.S. as the world’s largest generator of plastic waste, producing 46 million tons in 2016. Yet, less than 10 percent of plastic waste is recycled. One of the reasons for this appallingly low rate is insufficient market demand. Another is the processing capabilities of many recycling facilities that are unable to recycle plastic film and packaging (such as snack bags) that’s made from composite materials (aka “horrible hybrids”). Lastly, while other packaging materials (glass and aluminum) can be recycled almost infinitely, plastic actually degrades in quality each time it’s recycled. It has a finite life and eventually ends up in the landfill or as litter.
But it’s not just the waste that’s a problem. Take a moment to think about how that packaging was created and the resources needed: water, energy, and nonrenewable raw materials. All forms of food packaging — paper, glass, aluminum, plastic — use and deplete valuable resources in their production, but plastic, despite low recycling rates, has a larger environmental footprint for its dependence on greenhouse gas emitting feedstocks.
Then there’s the litter — in particular, the plastic litter that never degrades. The U.S. ranks as high as third among countries contributing to coastal plastic pollution when taking into account scrap plastic exports, illegal dumping, and littering.
A Waste of Money
It turns out that all this packaging is also pretty bad for our wallets. Even if we disregard the fact that most of these products are unhealthy chips, cookies, or sugar-laden snack products, we can’t justify them from a financial perspective.
In one study that compared lunches of pre-packaged products to those that had no packaged items, the average cost of the packaged version was three times higher than if the consumer had simply packed the same products on her own. In this particular scenario, the same brands were chosen for most of the items, but bulk purchases yielded savings of more than $600—more than enough to warrant the purchase of some reusable containers!
It isn’t just packaging that’s wasteful. Whether they eat school lunches or bring food from home, food waste is a chronic problem with school-aged kids. The waste associated with school lunches is estimated at more than $1.2 billion every year—and this is just waste from meals served at lunch. Another recent report by the World Wildlife Fund estimates U.S. school food waste totals 530,000 tons per year and costs as much as $9.7 million a day to manage.
How is this an environmental problem? Well, all that dumped food has to go somewhere, and it typically ends up in a landfill where it rots, producing methane gas, a greenhouse gas that is a far more potent polluter than carbon dioxide. A startling visual is that if food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Yes, all that food waste is a major contributor to climate change.
One simple way to minimize food waste is to pack appropriately-sized lunch portions. Keep track of what your child brings home in her lunch box so you can adjust portion sizes.
Food Choices That Aren’t Climate Friendly
Along with food waste as a contributor to climate change, your food choices can impact the climate. In fact, the carbon footprint for certain food products is sizable, and overall food production is responsible for approximately one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s right: your food choices for your child’s lunches (and all meals!) have a direct impact on the environment.
Eco Friendly School Lunch Supplies
Before you start shopping for eco friendly school lunch supplies, take a look at what you already own. Do you really need to purchase a new set of utensils or cloth napkins for your child’s lunch box? And can you reuse lunch and snack bags from older siblings before pulling out your wallet to buy yet more bags and containers? Starting with a mindset of reducing new purchases and reusing what you have will save you money and minimize waste.
So now let’s look at how you can stay environmentally friendly even if you have to purchase new lunch supplies. Fortunately, it has never been easier to find eco friendly school lunch supplies.
Lunch bags. For an eco friendly take on the quintessential brown paper bag, try these waterproof canvas bags from ECO/EGO that includes a handy bamboo cutlery set.
Canvas lunch bags. For a durable and spacious organic cotton bag, you can’t go wrong with this zippered bag from Fluf. It comes in dozens of styles and is water-resistant.
Lunch boxes. Black & Blum’s stainless steel lunchbox is leakproof and has a divider for different foods.
Bento boxes. For a portable, spill-proof way to store both hot and cold foods, try these stackable bento boxes from Max K. Another good choice is the Ecolunchbox 3-in-1 Stainless Steel Bento Box, which is completely plastic-free.
For salads, Rubbermaid’s Brilliance Food Storage Salad Container includes a dressing container and removable insert tray to store toppings.
Snack Bags and Wraps
Snack bags. Rezip storage bags look and feel like zip-top baggies, but they’re made from BPA- and lead-free materials. Stasher brand silicone snack bags are excellent and come in all shapes and sizes, making them ideal for any kind of snack.
Wraps. Instead of plastic wrap for sandwiches, try Wrap-n-Mat. These wraps are cloth on one side and plastic, for use as a place-mat, on the other side. Another good option is Bee’s Wrap lunch pack set of washable, reusable, and compostable wraps. Made with natural and organic materials, it’s a perfect addition to the eco friendly school lunch box!
All-purpose glass. The LifeFactory glass water bottle is a great choice for kids who want glass bottles and the Active Flip Top Cap is convenient for sipping during class.
All-purpose stainless steel. S’well stainless steel bottles come in all shapes, sizes and styles. Another bottle that’s durable enough to be thrown in a locker is the Hydro Flask.
Bottles with sip straws. Camelbak Eddy bottles, with their easy sip function, were very popular with my boys when they were young. My one suggestion is to buy an extra pack of bite valves because the valves get grungy! Another option is the glass tumbler with straw, from Ello, a brand that I love for their attractive, durable bottles.
For reusable utensils, you can’t go wrong with OLA Bamboo utensils and pouch, colorful stainless steel ones from Topbooc Store, or this kit from BEWBOW that comes with a clip-able pouch.
These handmade 100% cotton napkins from Ginger Pie are the perfect addition to your eco friendly school lunch box. And your child will love selecting her own set of colorful prints from the 30+ prints offered.
Odds and Ends
Ice Packs. To keep meals fresh, Onyx brand stainless steel ice packs are small but effective. Another option is FlexiFreeze Ice Sheets. They’re filled with pure water and you can cut the sheets to fit any size lunch box.
Straws. Check out Green That Life’s post on reusable alternatives to plastic straws, but for school lunch purposes, these are excellent options:
- Packable. Final Straw reusable straws are perfect for the lunch box. They pack into their own tiny travel case and include a cleaning brush and cord to attach to a key chain.
- Silicone. Hiware straws are wonderfully flexible and come in a variety of sizes and bright colors. They come with two cleaning brushes and a travel pouch.
- Stainless Steel. Yihong Life‘s assorted pack of metal straws with silicone tips comes with a case and cleaning brushes. Oxo brand stainless steel straws also come with a case and are conveniently expandable.
Eco Friendly School Lunch Choices
Another way to minimize the environmental impact of school lunches is by considering what foods make up those lunches. Lunch meats, out-of-season produce, and heavily packaged and processed foods aren’t the best from a nutritional standpoint—and they’re certainly not the best for our planet, either.
Stick With Plant-Based Foods
As a rule of thumb, plant-based foods have a lower carbon footprint than animal-based foods, so keep the meat, particularly beef, to a minimum.
Eat less dairy. Instead of milk and cheese, try plant-based alternatives that have a low footprint, such as coconut, hemp, pea protein, and oat.
Go nuts for nuts, seeds, and legumes. While it’s true that some nuts have a high water footprint, relatively speaking, nuts, seeds, and legumes, in addition to providing nutrition and protein, have a lower environmental footprint than meat alternatives. And legumes (lentils, chickpeas, beans) are a great addition to an eco friendly school lunch.
Keep food waste to a minimum by packing or serving leftovers for lunch.
Resources and Recipe Ideas
Food footprint tools. Knowing what foods are truly eco friendly can be confusing! Try these resources to help your food selections.
Recipe ideas. Ideas for plant-friendly school lunch recipes can be found here and here. Some of my go-to vegetarian and vegan blogs include Sprouted Kitchen, Naturally Ella, and My New Roots. You’ll find a ton of lunch ideas and more.
Eco Friendly Food Shopping
When possible, pack meals with seasonal and locally-grown produce. Check out a farmer’s market to get fruits and vegetables that haven’t traveled around the world to get to your kitchen.
Instead of using packaging at all, try to source beans, nuts, and grains from a bulk food store or an organic grocery store where you can fill up compostable or reusable containers.
If possible, pack food items that have “natural” packaging — bananas, oranges, apples, etc. — to minimize the need for single-use packaging.
After Lunch: Minimize the Waste
Help raise your child to be an eco kid by teaching her to dispose of unwanted food in an environmentally friendly manner. Make it simple for your child by telling her to bring everything home, whether it’s waste, packaging, or leftovers. That way you can properly dispose of waste but also keep track of how much food goes uneaten. You might even consider starting home composting with your child as a way to turn that unwanted food into nutrient-rich soil.