School Lunches: Why Not Go Waste Free?

We here in the U.S. are a society of convenience. We want everything quick, easily usable, pre-packaged, and single serving so we can grab, use, and dispose of. One place where this is more than apparent is in kid’s school lunches, specifically those that are sent from home. Parents are busy and as a result, have migrated to the idea of packing single serving pre-packaged foods for their kids. This is not only more expensive, but creates an incredible amount of waste as well. Statistically speaking, the average school lunch generates a staggering 67 pounds of waste. Translated to an average school, that’s 18,760 pounds of waste per year - and that’s for just one school. It’s insane.

The waste involved in these lunches isn’t the only problem though. For starters, there’s a health issue. Many of the pre-packaged foods contain preservatives and chemicals that are not part of a waste free lunch, especially where fresh fruits and veggies are involved. There’s a cost factor too. When the same two lunches are compared, pre-packaged to waste free, the waste free lunch comes out ahead by over a dollar a day, or approximately $240 per year! But most importantly, there is the message that we are sending our children. If their formative years include lunchtime routines that involve pre-packaged foods and the disposal of tremendous amounts of packaging, they will grow up to believe that this is the way things should be, when in fact they are not.

So starting tomorrow, if you have kids, why not make the move towards waste free lunches. Don’t have kids, no problem, bringing your own to the office has just as many benefits as it does for school kids.

The first thing you want to do is say no to pre-packaged. Most of the foods that we send our kids off to school with are available in bulk and or fresh and are that much better for them. Fresh cut carrots versus that little bag of carrots that’s who knows how old. A glob of yogurt in a small re-usable container (from a larger container that you have bought) versus those yogurt tubes that seem to be all the rage. A reusable water bottle versus a toss away juice box. Take a look at your child’s lunch tomorrow and pick one thing that you can cut out and see how that goes, then work your way forward until you’ve conquered the whole beast.

Here are a few other ideas as well:

Pack a reusable napkin instead of paper.
Re-usable silverware instead of plastic.
Re-usable sandwich bags like these.
A re-usable lunch box system with individual compartments like this.
Why not dust off that old lunch box and have your kids go retro.

*A quick note to point out that I’m not advocating going out and buying more stuff to help you with wasting less, but there are those who need the option, so I’m passing it along. If your kitchen is anything like ours, you’ve saved all sorts of containers over the years that will do just fine.*

The bottom line is that if we look at what we are doing and take a second to recognize how out of wack it all is, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what the alternatives are. In fact, in most cases, you’ll recognize that the “alternatives” are actually the things that were being done 50 years ago before the age of plastic and individual packaging. Just pretend that there are no pre-packaged choices and you’ll be surprised at what you’ll come up with. It’ll be healthier for your kids, save you money in the long run, and most importantly, show them that the “easier” way is not always the best way.

Have any other tips from where you live? Shoot them on over and good luck going waste free.

Dave Chameides is a filmmaker and environmental educator. His website and newsletter are designed to inspire thought and dialogue on environmental solutions and revolve around the idea that no one can do everything, but everyone can do something. “Give people the facts, and they’ll choose to do the right thing.”


No Politics H.
Past Member 4 years ago

You can also wash plastic cutlery if your child has the habit of losing things.

Terry V.
Terry V.4 years ago


a             y m.
g d c.4 years ago

can we not wash & re-use plastic utensils???

a             y m.
g d c.4 years ago

can we not wash & re-use plastic utensils???

iii q.
g d c.4 years ago


Mary Stahlheber
Mary Stahlheber4 years ago


David M.
David M.5 years ago


liliya l.
Ke A.6 years ago

I agree totally, my three children all have a packed lunch..and I am going to make the the eco sandwich bag as posted by memember Ronnie Citron-Fink...mind you not so sure my teen will be so keen. Great postx

Peter B.
Peter B.6 years ago

thankyou for shareing Dave

Andrea M.
Andrea M.6 years ago

This is a great idea for kids and adults. I used to buy plastic silverware at Dollar Tree, and sometimes I still do use plastic, but I toss the heavier plastic (like the kind that you get at Wendy's) into the dishwasher and it extends the life of them. I also bought some "real" silverware at Dollar Tree, and it's saved me a ton of money vs buying the plastic silverware. I've seen those reusable sandwich bags, and am definitely going to invest in those. I always feel guilty throwing away the plastic ones. If I had one of my old lunchboxes from school I would use it! Funny that those tin ones hold more than my current nylon bag! =)