Waste-free School Lunches

Did you know that every school lunch creates an average of 67 pounds of trash per school year? That equates to over 40,000 pounds of lunch annually for the average-sized middle school. With that waste comes increased pollution and the loss of valuable natural resources such as coal, oil, natural gas and trees. As parents we hope to leave behind a healthy planet for our children. One of the ways to do that is by educating children and working together towards a waste-free lunch.

3011 Early childhood programming and teachers are in many ways doing their part to foster environmental awareness in the children that they educate. I’m often amazed by the conversations my four year old daughter will initiate about the impact of car emissions and her concern about wildlife extinction. That awareness has in turn helped to keep me accountable to want to do better to reduce our families’ impact on the earth.

The good news is that you can have a big impact by making some fairly simple daily adjustments. It starts with these top 9 steps towards a zero-waste school lunch.

  1.  Lunch Bags: The days of brown bagging it are long gone and replaced with the reusable and often trendy lunch bag. Pick out a fashionable pattern or your child’s favorite character for a more eco-friendly option that they will enjoy carrying. 3007
  2.  Food Containers: It’s cringe worthy to think back on the many plastic baggies I threw away when I was going to school. With such a wide variety of reusable container options, many of which that include non-plastic alternatives, the plastic baggie is no longer a necessity. Stainless steel container options from PlanetBox and Lunchbots are two popular brands.
  3.  Drinks Containers: Equally as cringe worthy as the plastic baggies are the plastic bottles and juice boxes that are used once and discarded. Ditch those disposable drink options for a BPA free plastic or stainless steel reusable container.
  4.  Napkins: Time to stop using paper napkins as your go to choice when cloth is both economical and can be laundered for frequent use.
  5.  Utensils: Dig out those toddler forks and spoons that may not get as much use any longer now that your child has gotten older. These are perfect for a school lunch. In the event that one goes missing then you won’t be without a utensil from your favorite set.
  6.  Buy in Bulk: Store bought snacks often include excess plastic and cardboard packaging. Resist the temptation of the convenience that single-serving3009 snacks provide. Instead buy snacks in bulk and breakdown into smaller portions into reusable containers.
  7. Pack “Green” Foods: The ultimate “green” snacks are whole fruits and vegetables, particularly ones that don’t require snack bags. Apples, oranges, and bananas are ideal grab-n-go snacks that are also nutritious. 
  8. Reduce Food Waste: Discarded food is the single largest component of waste sent for disposal, much of which ends up in landfills, where it generates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Parents need to plan lunches with their children to help ensure that what is packed will actually get eaten. To help further this effort pack smaller portions that are manageable to consume during a lunch period. 
  9. Green Habits Awareness: Communities are recycling more and more materials these days and many school cafeterias have a recycling program. Familiarize yourself with what is offered so you can educate and help guide your child on how to properly discard any waste. Should your child’s school not offer a recycling program but one is set up in your community, then they can bring home waste to be recycled at home.

3010 Getting children involved and part of the discussion of how to move towards a waste-free school lunch invites insightful and educational conversations. This thoughtful awareness creates the environmental stewards of the future that will have a lasting impact for generations to come.


MaryAnn Viviano, Chief Operations Officer, has been with Kidspace Children’s Museum since 2004. Prior experience includes working for the American Red Cross after receiving a BA in Communications from the University of Texas at Austin.