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When I was a kid, my dad would pack a full grocery sized brown paper bag with lunch for both my sister and I to share. Our sandwiches and snacks were packed inside reused tortilla and bread bags and we got full sized apples and oranges. It required no investment, it wasn't fancy and yet for its time it was pretty close to a zero waste lunch. This goes to show that there are so many zero waste lunch options that don't entail any upfront costs at all.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are adorable, and very expensive options that can be engraved and personalized and can be very over the top when it comes to price. I'll admit that I explored all the fancy, expensive kid lunch options. I even felt somewhat justified (even thought they were out of my price range) because I am a zero waste professional. I will admit I got a little green with envy. But in the end, I decided that zero waste doesn't need to cost a lot and that I want to keep the investment in my kids' lunches minimal, so that if they loose the whole thing, I can handle it financially and won't be resentful...because they are kids, and it will inevitably happen.
So, after a lot of trial and error, and over a decade of packing (close to) zero waste lunches, I'll let you in what I do and what I use to make a zero waste lunch for my kids.
Zero waste starts in the preparation, before you even get to the store.
1) Start saving anything that resembles a container or baggie that you can reuse. Save those spaghetti jars - for bulk shopping storage. Saving those bread and tortilla bags - to use for snacks (I follow the rule of thumb that you can reuse plastic bags several times unless you use them for for things like meat or cheese). After several reuses, depending on where you live, you can ususally recycle plastic bags at your local grocery store.
2) Invest in a set of resusable bags for produce and bulk shopping, that way you are bringing home less waste from the store.
3) Consider what you are willing to make on your own. I often make my own granola bars (no baking required) or pop my own popcorn for their lunches (takes 2 minutes), which really saves on packaging.
The goal at the grocery store is to buy food with as little packaging as possible. I know it will be impossible to avoid all packaging, but the standard of zero waste is to aim for 90% diversion. So if you reusing, reducing and recycling 90% of your waste, but have 10% trash still, from things like large pretzel/chip bags, you are doing great. Here is how to achieve that and some things to aim for:
1) Avoid individually wrapped items. This is the hardest part, yes, but once you make this your goal, there are still plenty of convenient options that are not individually wrapped - I promise! There are many snacks sold in bulk without individual wrappers including chips, popcorn and even granola bars!
2) Try to purchase only things in which the packaging can be recycled (or at least aim for 90%). Look for things sold in hard plastic or that the packaging is made from 1 material (unlike traditional chip bags which are usually a blend of foil, paper and plastic). I'm starting to find lots of snacks at Costco that are not only sold without individual wrappers, they are sold in hard plastic containers that can be recycled.
3) Shop in the bulk aisle. This is a game changer. If you don't already shop in the bulk/bin section of your local store, you need to check out all the awesome snacks they have in that department. Bring your reusable bulk/produce bags (or at least reuse the bulk aisle bags they provide).
4) Purchase fruits that have already been pre-wrapped by mother nature, like mini tangerines, apples, etc. Why go to all the trouble to cut up and store oranges and apples in a plastic baggie, if/when your kids are at the age that they can eat fruit on its on. You will save on waste and if you buy fruit in mini sizes, so you can avoid excess food waste as well (because 40% of food goes to waste in America! Yikes!)
PACKING THE LUNCH:
1) The Outer Container
Here is where you make a little bit of an investment. Even though it could get potentially get lost, there is also risk of buying a cheepo in which the zipper breaks or the interior rips and you are faced with buying another one (which is wasteful in and of itself). So, I do buy quality that will ideally last 2 school years. My kids are very specific about what they need in a lunch bag. I take that back - one kid is super chill and doesn't care, the other has a laundry list of requirements for a lunch bag. According to her, it needs to have a long strap (and a handle), to make carrying easier. It needs to have a mesh water bottle container, so that she can walk to the lunch room hands free. And it needs to have a separate outside snack pocket. I have bought many brands thought the years, here are two examples of what works for my family. Avoid "theme" lunch bags if you can, instead opt for a basic color that your kid will be willing to use for more than one year.
2) Inside container
Confession: I use plastic. Contrary to popular misconception, zero wasters are not "anti-plastic". We do try to avoid single-use plastic, but we don't all avoid all plastic. I never microwave in plastic and I don't drink out of plastic. But I do purchase a quality, BPA free, all-in-one container for cold lunches. This is a compromise I make instead, of spending $50 for a stainless steel lunch container. Everyone needs to balance cost and chemical exposure in the way that is best for their family.
After lots of living and learning, I have found these lunch containers to be of tremendous value. I love that they are all in one piece! That is number one for me. I don't want missing tops and I don't want to go searching for several containers in the morning. I love that they have one large and two smaller compartments. I love that they are durable and easy to wash. I have found these containers to last 2 school years - easy! I love that they come in a variety of colors so we can tell them apart. And, they are a great price!!
3) Snack Container
Once I've either shopped in the bulk aisle, or purchased food in bulk, with the least amount of packaging possible, I still may need to pack my kids a morning snack in a separate container. This is where the outer part of the main bag comes in handy. My daughter wants the AM snack to be easily accessible. For me, the easiest way to do this is a tiny Tupperware container, in which I put a granola bar (that I've made or bought in bulk) or a snack that I've bought in bulk. If your kid prefers a "baggie" or you have a younger kid that would loose a Tupperware, then just reuse a bread bag. (I tried many of the reusable bags on the market and I didn't have much success washing them easily. It's quite possible that they have improved and are now easier to clean, but I just haven't had luck with them personally. Please let me know if you have a favorite one!) You can also avoid the snack container all together by packing a fruit that comes wrapped by mother nature like a mini tangerine.
4) Drink Container
A water bottle is a zero waste essential, but what other drinks do your kids drink at school? If a juice box or pouch is your standard go to, consider a second, smaller reusable bottle for juice or milk. My 4 requirements are 1) Stainless Steel - Because they get so much use, and they can get left in a hot car or on a hot soccer field, I think it is worth the investment here opt for stainless steel to avoid chemicals leaching into beverages. 2) Easy to Clean - I like a double wall insulated container that you can put a smoothie into and it is still very easy to clean. And I usually resist the fancy colors, because they tend to get scratched off in the dishwasher. 3) Less Pieces - Because when a tiny part breaks and the whole bottle is useless, that in and of itself is wasteful. I skip the straws and gimmicks and all the ones with parts that can break or mildew and just get one with a base and a top. For younger kids, you may still need a sippy top, but the less parts the better. 4) Good Quality - I want a durable water bottle that will last a long time. If it does get lost or stolen, hopefully it finds its way into the home of a family that can reuse it over and over.
Whatever you do, find a drink container you love and skip the single use water bottles and juice boxes/pouches for good.
#4 Cloth Napkin (& Optional Fork)
Here's an easy one... My kids are old enough to entrust with a cloth napkin from home, but there also are some super cute resuable kid napkin options that are small and thin and don't take up a lot of space in the washing machine. Go for value if you want, organic if you choose, or I love these with a note embroidered on them. An even less wasteful and more thrifty option is to cut up old t-shirts or old towels. Don't overthink it, its just a place to wipe their grimy hands.
My kids LOVE when I let them have the leftovers from last nights dinner (usually I hope they don't notice and I get them for myself). So in that case, they will need a fork. Again, I have big kids, so I can send my kids to school with a metal fork from home, so that's what I do (Not my nice ones, I have a cheap set for parties that I also use for school). But here are some great bamboo options for younger kids and also great for travel (when you need to pass through a metal detector).
I hope this helps! Have fun, involve your kids and most definitely, get what they like to use, so they can start packing their own zero waste lunches themselves (the sooner the better in my opinion)!
And as always, do your best, then let go. Your best is all you can do.
About Kelly Green Consultant: Hi! I'm Kelly Buskirk. I currently live in Austin, TX, but I first got involved in sustainability when I was living on the island of Kauai, and a landfill was proposed by neighborhood. I made the conscious shift to live a zero waste lifestyle and transform the business I was managing from great, to green! My intention is to tread lightly on the planet, by reducing toxins and waste in my life and help others do the same in their life and business. Join me on my Zero Waste + Green Living quest!