School children eating lunch in cafeteria

Is your family trying to go green? One of the most effective ways to cut waste and lighten your eco-footprint is to change your eating habits. For instance, if your family switches to eating a meat-free meal just one day a week, you can save the equivalent carbon emissions of driving 1,160 miles in a year. Your kids’ lunches are a great place to start greening your family’s food.

If you’re a frazzled parent, making eco-friendly lunches may feel like another item on an already-too-long list. But greening your kids’ lunches benefits the environment, and it can also benefit your household—which makes it worth the investment. 

Eco-friendly eating is often healthier. And switching to reusable products can save your family money. What’s more, greening your lunches can be a powerful way to connect with your children and work together toward a common goal. You’ll also model healthy, conscientious behaviors that your kids may take into adulthood.

Ready to green your kids’ eating habits? Read on to learn how to pack more environmentally-friendly lunches.

How to pack eco-friendly lunches

Follow these eight steps to transition to more sustainable lunches.

1. Green your groceries

A more environmentally-friendly lunch starts at the grocery store (or better yet, the local farmer’s market). To shop green, keep the following tips in mind

  1. Buy in bulk to cut down on packaging waste. Individually packaged servings may be convenient, but they’re wasteful. 
  2. Choose unprocessed, whole foods (such as fresh produce) to reduce manufacturing and packaging waste. 
  3. Opt for organic food if you can afford it. It’s healthier for the environment and your children. 
  4. Buy locally grown, in-season produce that hasn’t traveled long distances. 
  5. Limit meat and dairy purchases. Conventional meat and dairy are massive contributors to climate change. If you eat meat and dairy, buy from local, small-scale farmers whenever possible. 
  6. Buy only what you know your kids will eat. Don’t send them to school with massive portions that will end up in the garbage. Americans waste between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply every year, which is an expensive and environmentally destructive problem.

2. Use reusable lunch bags or boxes

Once you have eco-friendly foods on hand, it’s time to green your kids’ lunchboxes. Instead of sending them to school with disposable paper bags, opt for reusable lunch bags, totes, or bento boxes (containers with dividers that allow you to pack different types of foods in separate compartments). 

Let your children pick out their reusable lunch totes so they’re excited to use them. Encourage them to opt for totes made from organic cotton, hemp, or other eco-friendly materials instead of plastic. Educate your kids about the importance of bringing their totes home every day to reuse. 

3. Ditch disposable snack containers

Instead of packing individual snacks in disposable plastic bags or containers, opt for reusable receptacles such as the following.

  • Stainless steel containers
  • Glass containers (for older children)
  • Bamboo containers
  • Reusable food wrap, such as beeswax wrap
  • Reusable snack bags

You could even wrap a piece of fruit or sandwich in a clean bandana or dishtowel.

Reusable containers require more labor because you need to wash them, but you can reuse them indefinitely. What’s more, these materials don’t contain the harmful chemicals in plastic bags and containers. 

4. Pack reusable cutlery

It’s easy to toss disposable cutlery into a lunchbox, but single-use plastic forks and spoons add up to a lot of waste over a school year. Send your children with reusable cutlery instead. Consider letting them choose a set so they’re excited to use it every day. And educate them about the importance of bringing tableware home to wash and reuse.

5. Use reusable beverage containers 

Kids love juice boxes, but a juice box each day adds up to a lot of packaging waste. Instead, send your kid to school with reusable beverage containers such as stainless steel water bottles or glass bottles with protective sleeves to prevent breakage. Avoid plastic bottles, which can leach harmful chemicals

6. Nix disposable napkins and wipes

Kids are messy. Many parents stuff fistfuls of paper napkins or wet wipes into their kids’ lunchboxes for cleanup. But disposable napkins and wipes add up to a lot of waste. Opt for cloth napkins instead. They’re easy to clean; just toss them in the washing machine with your next load of towels. 

7. Invest in greener ice packs

Instead of using disposable ice packs that your kids toss in the cafeteria trash, invest in reusable ice packs. Some companies even make stainless steel (plastic-free) ice packs. By stashing eco-friendly ice packs in your kids’ lunch boxes, you’ll help keep their lunches cold. That way, your kids can eat leftovers as a snack later in the day or repurpose them for the next day’s lunches to help reduce food waste. 

8. Get your kids on board

As you’ve probably noticed, making your kid’s lunches eco-friendly requires their buy-in. Educate your children about your efforts and encourage them to participate. 

Let them pick out fun reusable containers, cutlery, water bottles, and napkins. And invite them to help you shop for eco-friendly groceries and prepare healthy lunches. You could even make a game out of tracking your family’s lunch-time waste by printing this handy chart from the EPA

Pay attention to which foods your kids eat. And ask them what’s working and what’s not. Then adjust their lunches accordingly. By including your kids in your efforts, you’ll increase the odds that they bring home their reusable lunch products. Plus, your kids may share their efforts at school and inspire friends to green their lunches too. 

Conclusion

You and your children can reduce your family’s eco-footprint by making more environmentally-friendly lunches. If you want to make an even bigger impact, advocate for green eating policies at your children’s schools. Encourage school cafeterias to donate leftover food to homeless shelters, set up composting systems to reduce food waste, or host regular Waste-Free Lunch Days. By advocating for greener eating in your home and schools, you’ll help improve children’s health and make a difference for the environment—and you’ll serve as a positive role model for your kids and community.  


Laura Newcomer Environmental & Personal Wellness Expert.

Laura Newcomer is a writer, editor, and educator with multiple years of experience working in the environmental and personal wellness space. Her writing has been published on Washington Post, TIME Healthland, Greatist, DailyBurn, Lifehacker, and Business Insider, among others.

Article originally appeared on Quill

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