Back to school? Try lunching trash-free

Tips to packing tasty, healthy & eco-friendly student meals

  • A trash-free lunch example. Note the inexpensive reused deli container.
A trash-free lunch example. Note the inexpensive reused deli… (Laurel Peltier )
August 26, 2012|Laurel Peltier

(Guest post by Laurel Peltier, free-lance writer, blogger and mother of three.)

Back-to-school means arranging carpools again and sitting through soccer practices, but also packing school lunches. To make this daily chore easier, a recent survey found that almost 70 percent of parents rely on store-bought, pre-packaged foods for their kid’s lunch. 

Convenient?  Yes, but there is a downside to pre-packaged lunch foods.

First demerit: Juice boxes and individually wrapped ‘grab and go’ foods generate tons of lunch-time trash -- 67 pounds per child annually, according to a survey by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. All that lunchbox detritis is costing schools valuable dollars to collect and dispose of it. Moreover, all that trash is going to the landfill (or incinerator), where it's not exactly helping the environment. 

Second demerit:  Pre-packaged foods are usually premium-priced, highly-processed and not that nutritious.  According to the nonprofit, packing trash-free lunches can save parents $250 a year by replacing pre-packaged foods with food from home.

Here are some tips for dads, moms (and kids) interested in packing a healthier and greener lunch:

  • Use insulated lunch sacks, not paper bags. Toss in an ice pack to keep it cool.
  • Ditch the wasteful plastic wrap, foil or baggies and instead store food in reusable containers or paper or reusable sandwich bags.
  • Pour drinks into a thermos (ice stays all day!) or an aluminum or stainless steel bottle.  Filtered water, smoothies, iced tea and milk are options.
  • Try cloth napkins, not paper and include utensils that can be washed at home.
  • Stores now offer lots of cool containers for sandwiches, drinks, even pizza.
  • Don’t forget to reuse those deli “to-go” containers; they stack well.

Hidden benefits of packing trash-free:

  • Save money.  Pre-packaged foods on average are 50 percent more costly. A single-serving, 8 oz. Horizon organic milk costs 85 cents on average, while pouring the same organic milk from a gallon jug costs 35 cents.
  • Healthier food choices. Your food and drink options are limitless when you pack “trash-free.”  Check out this photo link for creative lunch ideas.
  • More food choices. As kids get used to more diverse lunches (hard-boiled eggs, chips & salsa, lasagna) you can start packing dinner leftovers.
  • Parents see lunchbox leftovers. Wouldn’t you like to know what your kids are really eating? "Hmm, an untouched sandwich, but every cookie disappeared.”  Plus, kids can snack on leftovers while riding home in carpool or on the bus.

None of this matters, of course, if preparing a healthy and waste-free lunch is stressful. But parents can avoid or at least ease the morning rush by packing everything but the protein or sandwich the night before when cleaning up after dinner.

So while it might require investing a little time up front to plan and set up, packing trash-free lunches can pay real dividends for parents and kids alike.

Have any ideas for greener, healthier school lunches?  Please share what's worked for you.  We're all in this together!

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