10 Tips for "Green" School Lunches

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by: Erin Dower
The average school generates 20 tons of waste each year. Learn some easy, eco-friendly tips for packing waste-free or "greener" bag lunches for kids.
Green School Lunches Pinterest Graphic
Go Green!
An average-size middle school generates more than 20 tons of waste a year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That's a lot of trash — and greenhouse gases. Learn some easy, eco-friendly tips for packing waste-free or "greener" bag lunches for kids (psst — you'll actually be saving money, too!).
Green school lunch ideas, school lunch with sandwich bag
Reuse Sandwich Bags
The Natural Resources Defense Council says it is safe to reuse plastic food-storage bags until they start to look "cloudy." They recommend wiping the inside of the bags clean before reuse. In my household, we try to reuse our plastic storage bags (or aluminum foil) at least once, unless they contained deli meat, mayonnaise, or things that easily spoil. Bags that contained almost anything else — from peanut butter sandwiches to blueberries to crackers or cookies — have proven safe to reuse another day (and we don't even bother wiping them clean — who has time for that?!). To help younger kids with this habit, write "save" or draw a star on the bags they can bring home for reuse. Think of how much waste you'll prevent even by reusing plastic bags just one time! Alternatives to plastic sandwich bags include reusable/washable fabric sandwich bags (such as LunchSkins) or disposable unbleached-paper bags. Check your local natural food store or grocery aisle.
Green school lunch ideas, brown bag lunch vs reusable bag
Ditch the Brown Bag
You have probably already invested in a cute reusable lunch bag for your younger child. If you're having trouble getting your older child to ditch the good ol' brown paper bag for a reusable lunch bag, let him know that doing so could prevent more than 50 pounds of waste over the course of the school year. That's pretty cool!
Green school lunch ideas, bamboo utensils
Use Reusable or Bamboo Utensils
Plastic cutlery may not seem to create too much waste, but Americans use an estimated 40 billion plastic utensils each year. Plastic utensils are not biodegradable, and plastic incineration produces greenhouse gases. If sending your child to school with your nice silverware is out of the question, invest in a cheap set of metal flatware dedicated to school lunches, or buy a bunch of bamboo flatware, which is reusable and made from a highly renewable resource. If your child accidentally tosses it in the trash, no big deal!
Green school lunch ideas, bento lunch box
Pack in Reusable Containers
You've surely heard about the bento box or Laptop Lunches craze: packing lots of different lunch items in colorful little BPA-free plastic containers. Whether you invest in Laptop Lunches Bento-ware line (about $40 for a lunch bag and coordinating set of reusable food containers, or $25 for just the container set) or other long-lasting food storage solutions, you're surely doing Mother Earth a favor.
Green school lunch ideas, reusable cloth napkins
Use Cloth or Eco-Friendly Napkins
What did we do before disposable napkins and paper towels? Wiped our pie holes with cloth napkins, of course! The green trend has us returning to our reusable roots, so cloth napkins are becoming all the rage. Fabkins makes a line of 100-percent organic cotton cloth napkins for kids, featuring appliqués of everything from ballerinas to sports balls ($19 for a set of four). My household loves Crate & Barrel's 10-inch cotton cocktail napkins (12 napkins in a rainbow of colors for about $25) — the perfect size for kids. You could also pack cheap cotton bandanas as napkins. If washing fabric napkins isn't your idea of fun, opt for disposable napkins made from recycled paper.
Green school lunch ideas, steel water bottle for kids
Skip Juice Boxes and Bottled Drinks
The convenience of juice boxes and bottled drinks might be tough to give up. But disposable drink containers are among the sturdiest, most wasteful kinds of food packaging. Try to replace them with a reusable stainless-steel or BPA-free plastic drink container, which you can fill with your child's drink of choice. Don't reuse disposable plastic drink containers because they can breed bacteria. Crocodile Creek makes lots of cute stainless steel water bottles and food jars for kids.
Healthy nut free school snack, Goldfish kids crackers
Buy Snacks in Bulk
Mmmm, snacks! What's not to love? All that plastic and cardboard packaging — that's what! If you know your child loves a certain kind of snack, buy it in bulk to reduce packaging — and save money! Most kid-favorite snacks are available in bulk at wholesale clubs, big-box stores, and supermarkets. Buying snacks that aren't individually wrapped (think: big cartons of Goldfish, big boxes of cereal, and big containers of yogurt that you can divvy up in your own portions) can help reduce waste, too — especially if you use reusable snack containers.
Green school lunch ideas, bowl of fresh fruit
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 easy and nutritious grab-and-go snacks. Buying organic and in-season produce is better for the planet, so check out these seasonal produce lists for fall, winter, spring, and summer to help steer your snack choices.
Green school lunch ideas, three recycling bins
Improve Green Habits in Schools
Most school cafeterias have a recycling program, but there could be a lot of room for improvement. Student education is an important part of the program. If kids don't know what, where, how, and (perhaps most important) WHY to recycle, participation can stagnate and recyclables can end up in the regular trash. Communities are recycling more and more materials these days, so check with your local town's recycling service to see what they take, and make sure yours is recycling as much as it can.

Environmental agencies recommend having school-wide "zero waste" or "waste-free" lunch days to reduce trash and get students and staff in a "waste-reduction mindset." Help your school provide students and parents with tips about eliminating packaged lunch items and using reusable lunch boxes and food containers. It's a great activity for Earth Day or any day! Print out the EPA's free "Waste-Free Lunches" poster and guide for your child's school, and check out these other tips for helping schools go green.

Green school lunch ideas, healthy school lunch
Buy (Healthy) School Lunches
Ordering the right amount of food for a school cafeteria is a tricky task. A 2002 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that the value of wasted cafeteria food is about $1 billion annually. Considering that schools tend to overstock so that they have enough meals for hungry kids, it's actually "green" to encourage your child to eat a school lunch occasionally to offset the waste. School cafeterias are offering healthier options for hot lunches these days, plus more fruits and veggies and low-fat milk and snacks. Check your school lunch calendar, and encourage your child to make healthy choices in the cafeteria.