Recycla has had children in school for eight years now and in all that time her daughters have never once bought lunch at their schools. They don’t like the food and Recycla understands completely — any time she has been at the girls’ schools for lunch, she has been horrified by the pre-packaged and/or processed garbage being served to the students.
Therefore, the girls pack their lunches EVERY DAY, which translates to around 2,400 packed lunches (and counting). The family has a LOT of experience packing lunches — her daughters do the heavy lifting now that they’re older — and has learned much over the years about how to be as healthy and environmentally friendly as possible in the process.
Let’s start with the healthy part first. Recycla and her husband have been talking about nutrition with their daughters since they were little. The girls understand why the family stays away from high fructose corn syrup and processed foods. They know why organic food is important and also why it’s good to eat locally and seasonally as much as possible.
At the same time, the family has talked about how it’s impossible to be perfect and that moderation is healthy. This means that the girls can still be teenagers and enjoy occasional sodas with their friends or ice cream sundaes with their grandparents. They’re at a great age in which they can watch Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution and not only learn from it but extrapolate from there.
All this means that Recycla’s daughters know how to put together a healthy lunch on their own, provided that the base ingredients are in the kitchen. In the evenings, they assemble the various things they want in their lunches the next day and then put everything in the fridge overnight. It takes at most 10 minutes at night and only a few minutes in the morning to prepare great lunches.
One thing you won’t see in those lunch boxes: Lunchables or other pre-packaged “meals;” prepackaged foods, such as chips, sodas, Twinkies, etc.; or juice boxes, disposable water or drink bottles, Ziploc bags, or most other throw-away packaging.
How do you pack an eco-friendly, waste-free lunch? It’s quite easy, actually, once you have a few basic supplies and you’ll save money in the long run too.
The lunch box: Not all lunch boxes are created equal. Some soft vinyl lunch boxes contain dangerous levels of lead and far too many others contain polyvinyl chloride (PVC), including many of the ones sold at big box stores. Luckily, there are a wide variety of safe lunch boxes out there. Recycla’s daughters have lunch boxes from Lands’ End and L.L. Bean. Both companies’ offerings are PVC- and lead-free. These lunch boxes are a good deal and they clean easily.
There are loads of other great eco options out there. You could buy a cloth lunch bag from Etsy and support a small business owner in the process. You could buy a tiered stainless steel lunch carrier, which Recycla has seen used by some middle school boys.Or how about a bento box?
Once you have chosen a lunch box/bag, the next question is: How do you wrap up the food that goes inside? Naturally, Recycla encourages you to go with reusable containers instead of plastic bags and aluminum foil.There are plenty of options, including these. Recycla’s daughters have been using the Lunchskins bags shown in the link for a couple of years now and the bags have worked well and are easy to clean.
For foods that need a rigid, sealing container, such as delicate fruits or salad dressing, your options are plastic, metal, and glass. Be advised that most schools discourage the use of glass containers and Recycla agrees that it’s iffy with kids. Recycla’s daughters have some of these metal containers and they’ve been great. The family also has some plastic containers that are BPA and phthlate-free. If you are feeling crafty, you can make your own reusable sandwich wraps using these instructions.
For utensils, Recycla’s children carry the real deal, not plastic. If you’re worried that your child might accidentally throw away his fork, buy some inexpensive flatware from a thrift shop, so that you’re not out much money if something ends up in the trash. Recycla usually spends around 25 cents per fork or spoon when she hits her local Goodwill.
For your child’s drink, juice boxes are wasteful, as are disposable water bottles and those wee cartons of milk. Pack a reusable water bottle instead. Sure it will cost you some money up front, but you’ll recover the dollars spent pretty quickly.
And have you considered swapping out disposable paper napkins for cloth ones? Recycla’s family uses cloth napkins for most meals, but does have some paper napkins made out of recycled content for occasional use and also for her daughters’ school lunches. The girls always bring the paper napkins home and, if they’re too dirty to be used another time, they toss them in the compost bin. This year, however, Recycla is going to try using cloth napkins in the girls’ lunches. While she already has lots of cloth napkins that she has accumulated over the years, she’s thinking about cutting up some of her husband’s old shirts to make more.
A no-waste lunch box is the ultimate goal, but Recycla admits that it is not always feasible. Even she will resort to using plastic bags on occasion, such as when the girls go on field trips and their schools demand that the students bring lunches in disposable packaging. (And this bothers one of Recycla’s daughters so much that she brings everything home so that it can at least be recycled.)
The important thing is to take that first step and eliminate just one single plastic bag or juice box every day. Once you do that, take the next step and make another change. And so on and so on.
Tell the Eco Women: Do your kids buy their lunches at school or pack?
Disclaimer: The Eco Women are not employed by any of the companies listed, nor were they given any products to review.