What is a Zero Waste Lunch
When I hear the term zero waste lunch, I think of a meal that basically leaves behind no man made material that will wind up in the trash can. Whatever is left after eating can either be recycled or reused or composted in the case of fruit peels.
I know the hard core zero wasters are gonna jump on me about fruit peels probably ending up in the garbage and that’s not really zero waste but seriously, I’ve gotta draw the line somewhere.
I know many people take it further and consider the materials that are used in the production of food and containers as well but we could spend years trying to figure that out and honestly, to expect everyone to do that is completely unrealistic.
Is a Zero Waste Lunch Possible
First, I’ll tell you I think a zero waste lunch is nearly impossible so now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I’m going to share some ideas on how to pack a zero waste lunch that just about gets there. We’ll call it mostly zero waste.
Zero waste is the buzz word of moment when in actuality, for the vast majority of us, truly zero waste is impossible. In my experience, many of the ‘zero waste followers’ can be pretty judgmental but you won’t find that here.
The words we live by in our house are ‘progress, not perfection’ so striving to pack a zero waste lunch is what we’re aiming for. We do a pretty good job with it, if I do say so myself.
Now before you go assuming that I’m making all our food and there’s no way you can do this, let me tell you, I don’t make all our food and I’m going to give you ideas that will hopefully inspire you. You pick and choose what works for your family.
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Zero Waste Lunch Ideas
When you’re so used to doing things one way and suddenly decide to pivot, the brain freezes. At least that’s what happens to me. Even things that should be obvious, aren’t.
So before I share my tips with how to pack this lunch, let me share some food ideas with you so you’ll see how doable it really is.
- sandwich or rollup
- cheese and crackers
- hummus and veggies
- trail mix
- pasta salad
- energy snack bites
- hardboiled egg
- pepperoni and cheese
- nut butter and crackers
- granola bars
- build your own english muffin/bagel pizza
- fruit salad
Now I know you’re looking at a couple of these like, ewww, that should be served warm and it’ll be cold. My kids don’t seem to care about the temperature of some things…strange I know.
My son went through a period where all he would eat was black beans and rice with cheese melted on top so I tried sending that in an insulated container but he tired of it quickly so from then on, I stayed away from warm/hot things.
As a personal preference, I stay away from strawberries, raspberries, watermelon, and kiwi only because they tend to get mushy.
Other options if you want to send a warm meal (in an insulated container):
- pasta and sauce
- soup or stew
- chicken nuggets
For even more ideas and some help with basic recipes, my two favorite books for packing lunches are:
Weelicious Lunches by Catherine McCord – the recipes are super easy, kid friendly, teen friendly and delicious.
The Best Homemade Kids’ Lunches on the Planet by Laura Fuentes – just like Weelicious, the recipes are super easy and appeal to anyone.
The photos in both books are mouthwatering and totally appealing to kids. Every so often I would just give the books to my kids to look through so they could choose a few for the week. Helped to switch things up a bit and try new things.
How to Pack a Zero Waste Lunch
QUESTION 1: WHAT TOOLS ARE NECESSARY TO PACK A ZERO WASTE LUNCH?
ZERO WASTE LUNCH TIP #1: USE WHAT YOU HAVE
The good news is, you probably have most of these items in your kitchen already. You’re going to need:
- insulated lunch bag
- cloth napkin
- food container(s)
- reusable snack bags
- reusable water bottle
If you’re trying to reduce waste, the worst thing you can do is go out and buy a bunch of new things. If what you already have is in perfectly good condition just keep using it and replace items as you need to.
This will also keep you from spending a bunch of money.
QUESTION 2: WHAT FOOD SHOULD I PACK FOR A ZERO WASTE LUNCH?
ZERO WASTE LUNCH TIP 2: WHATEVER YOU LIKE
You can continue to pack the same foods as you normally would, you may just need to rethink the packaging a bit. For example, rather than a plastic bag, use a stainless steel container for sandwiches.
Rather than a plastic bag for snacks like chips and cookies, choose a reusable snack bag instead.
Rather than cheese sticks that are prepackaged, opt for a block of cheese and cut it up.
In my opinion, the bigger issue here (and it’s mainly with kids) is food waste. When my kiddos were in elementary school, I started a TerraCycle program at their school. In the beginning, I was ‘training’ the kids how to separate their trash after lunch before heading back to class.
RELATED: How TerraCycle turns trash into cash
I was shocked at all the food that went into the garbage, uneaten.
As parents, we want to pack healthy lunches for our kids but for real, they aren’t eating it.
Have a frank discussion with your kiddo about what they want to eat because for the most part, if you’re sending vegetables hoping they’ll eat them, most likely, your kids throwing it in the trash.
Now, if you are lucky and have a veggie loving kid, send all the vegetables.
The other issue is they just get sidetracked talking and forget about eating and then throw everything away.
RELATED: How to Reduce Food Waste
QUESTION 3: WHAT ABOUT YOGURT TUBES AND FRUIT POUCHES?
ZERO WASTE LUNCH TIP #3: SKIP THE YOGURT TUBES AND FRUIT POUCHES
I know they are super convenient and well, less messy but if your kiddo insists on either or both, I suggest using small containers instead. Another option is to check into implementing a TerraCycle program at your school.
I’m not suggesting you have to make your own yogurt although it is SUPER easy, or make your own applesauce (again, super easy), just portion out of a larger tub when you pack the lunch.
Buying in larger quantities does help cut back on packaging waste and is significantly cheaper than single size containers.
QUESTION 4: HOW DO I PACK A ZERO WASTE LUNCH WITH JUICE OR OTHER DRINKS?
ZERO WASTE LUNCH TIP #4: USE REUSABLE DRINK CONTAINERS
This one can get a little sticky, no pun intended. I think for the most part, this is an issue with younger kiddos who are used to juice boxes, juice pouches or those smoothie/yogurt drinks.
This was one area that was relatively easy for me because my kids have always just drank water throughout the day but this is another space where buying a larger jug and then portioning it out comes into play.
QUESTION 5: WHAT TOOLS DO I BUY TO PACK ZERO WASTE LUNCH?
ZERO WASTE LUNCH TIP #5: RECOMMENDATIONS FOR ZERO WASTE LUNCH TOOLS
You’re in the market for some new products but before you spend hours researching the best choices, let me help you out.
When purchasing containers to hold all the food, these are my top tips:
- Sturdy Food Containers – opt for stainless steel or BPA free plastic. They’ll last longer.
- Sandwich and Snack Bags –
- Water Bottles – look for BPA free plastic or a stainless steel water bottle is a great choice and helps keep water cold for a long time.
- Utensils – a cheap stainless steel set from a thrift store is a great option but if you’d prefer something a little less ‘sharp’, a utensil set made from sustainable plant sources are a good choice.
- Napkins – I like to include a small damp microfiber cloth in the lunch bag so my kids can wipe off their hands and mouth before and after eating.
Food Containers, we use a combination of single item containers and bento box type containers.
Snack Bags, we’ve used LunchSkins for years and years. 7 years after buying them, we are still using them today. When we first started all they had was the velcro tab but now they also have zippers, which I would probably buy next time, just because the bread of sandwiches would dry out a bit by lunch time.
Water Bottles – most everyone already has these but opt for a durable plastic or stainless steel.
QUESTION 6: HOW DO I PREVENT MY KID FROM LOSING EVERYTHING?
ZERO WASTE LUNCH TIP #6: LABEL ALL ZERO WASTE TOOLS
I feel your hesitation to use reusable over disposable. Kids are fabulous at losing things or throwing away things that shouldn’t be. This was my exact reason for not investing in a pricey stainless steel container because I could almost guarantee my son would lose it. I did invest in a nice plastic bento box type container which he promptly lost shortly thereafter.
The best thing you can do is label everything. Either borrow or use a label maker you already have at home or use something like these personalized labels from Mabels Labels.
These labels stay stuck, even through hand washing and the dishwasher. The label I put on my daughters sandwich box is still going strong 7 years later.
ZERO WASTE LUNCH TIP #7: GET KIDS INVOLVED
Once you narrow down the items you’re going to buy, to a few choices, let your kiddo decide what color or pattern he/she wants. When they get to choose their favorite, they’ll have more of a vested interest in not losing it.
Talk to them about why you are changing their lunch. I’ll be honest, when my kids were younger, I wasn’t the best at giving them choices, we just did things my way and that resulted in a lot of battles.
As they’ve gotten older, I realize how much easier it is to get what I want when they feel like they get a choice.
I also think kids are more apt to agree once they understand why you are making changes. They may even surprise you and share some ideas of what they see other kids at school doing.
How school lunch is different from work lunch
Pretty much the same tips and ideas apply to packing a zero waste lunch for work as they do for school. Kids tend to be messer then adults however, we’ve all seen co-workers walking around with their lunch on their shirt.
Did this post help you? Comment below and let me know if you have questions or which Tip you’re going to implement first. I’d love to help you out more!