Greening Our Children’s Lunches

Author // Elizabeth Anderson-Peacock, D.C.

When I was in grade school, we had pretty basic lunches. A piece of fruit, some sliced veggies and a sandwich, wrapped in waxed paper. I was so excited when plastic came into play, since my sandwich would no longer fall apart or be stale by noon. Now, of course, plastic has been shown to pose many health risks by leaching into our bodies via our food. The same is occurring with aluminum. In my time, my reusable lunch box was cumbersome, so I eventually chose the standby of a paper bag. We reused the paper bags and held the sandwiches together with reused rubber bands. Any leftovers were returned home in the same bag. I do not remember using the trash. Cheese and apples were cut up to the amount we needed, and since the cookies were homemade, they were also put in sealed reusable bags. We drank water or milk. Oh, how things have changed in two generations.

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Taking Out the Trash

According to the EPA, the typical American schoolchild generates 67 pounds of waste in discarded school lunch packaging each year. Waste audits made by examining unopened packaged foods, untouched fruit and juice boxes indicate the average student in the Durham District School Board in Ontario has similar stats, with the average elementary school child’s lunch generating 30kg of garbage per year (also about 67 pounds).

The Recycling Council of Ontario notes that for lunch alone each school produces approximately 8,500kg of waste per year. In the U.S., more than 18,000 pounds of garbage per school year is created from lunches.

The Toronto Star recommends “boomerang” lunches, a waste-free lunch with no throwaway packaging, thus producing little waste. Uneaten food is returned home, which helps parents to determine what is not being eaten.

Did you know children dispose of approximately their body weight in packaging for lunch alone? How can we each do our part in minimizing landfill waste and set a good example for our youngsters? Litterless lunches can also save you money—approximately $250 per child per year, according to

But how can we make our kids’ school lunches greener? Here are a few ideas.

Eliminate individual packaging. The cost of packaging prepackaged foods adds to the price tag, and also our landfills. Buy foods in bulk, then separate them into lunch-size reusable containers. For example, when buying organic yogurt, add - cup of seasonal organic washed fruit or add . cup organic granola. If your child needs a sweetener, try adding a bit of organic liquid honey in lieu of the presweetened or artificially flavored yogurts.

Avoid the use of plastics wherever you can. If you need to go with plastic for juice or water, ensure it is PBA-free (Polybisphenols A). I use a PBA-free bottle and refill as needed. Other containers, such as individual Tetra Pak cartons, can then be eliminated. How many times do we see spills upon opening those containers? Plus, many children take a couple of sips, then discard the rest.

For food, I use Pampered Chef cup containers. Yes they have plastic lids, but rarely does the lid touch the food within. The remainder of the container is made of Pyrex and also serves as a measuring cup.

I also recommend the stainless steel Kleen Kanteen water bottles. Just be sure to clean all the bottles at the end of the day. The stainless steel bottles will not hold heat unless insulated, so they are not great to use for soup. It’s possible

to use a napkin as a wrap around the bottle, but in the end it is usually too difficult for children to drink hot soup from a hot bottle.

I have also eliminated plastic and aluminum foil wrap. When I bake my organic muffins, I use chlorine-free cupcake papers in a stainless steel muffin pan. The same goes for making bread. I cook in a glass loaf dish with a lid for once it’s cooled. I can cut off a slice and place it into reusable sandwich-size container with a lid.

For smaller children, cut fruit into smaller portions or wedges. This eliminates taking two bites from an apple then throwing the remainder into the waste. What isn’t eaten can be brought home. For salads, you can also use the stainless steel containers or Pampered Chef bowls, which come with lids.

Reusables Reduce Waste

In lieu of plastic forks, knives and spoons, buy reusable and inexpensive stainless steel cutlery at an outlet store. For serviettes, instead of paper napkins, use an unbleached cotton or hemp cloth material. The ends can be sewn to avoid fraying, or you can buy cloth napkins at an outlet store. You might get a couple of days worth of use from them before putting them into a regular load of laundry.

For lunch bags there are options for carrying everything. Unbleached cotton or hemp bags are the best bet for reusable lunch bags. They won’t have Superman or Barbie on them, but you can explore your children’s creative side by helping them decorate their bags. Now it’s a special bag, since they made it!

Some lunch boxes have lead in them, or have lead paint used on them. Other lunch boxes and thermos containers have the inside lined with plastic, which can leach into food, especially with heat. If lunch boxes are unavoidable, look for lead-free options.

Since parents have little time, try packing lunches the night before and keep them in the refrigerator. Increase the use of fresh veggies and fruit. Make the time on a Sunday to wash and cut carrots, celery and other veggies into lunch-size portions, and keep them in a bit of water in the fridge. Have children help with making sandwiches and pulling their veggies from that container each evening through the week.

A great idea from is to print a food list and have your children circle the foods they wish to see in their lunchboxes.

Teach children to use recycling bins properly instead of tossing out recyclables in the trash. If there’s no recycling at the school, have them pack it home.

Begin a compost at home, work or school. Plant material, tea leaves, coffee grounds and egg shells can be discarded there. It makes great future fertilizer for the garden, and children learn a lot in the process.

Pilot programs for waste-free living have been popping up at schools all over North America. To see which programs are in your area, visit Some examples of what some school boards have achieved: Downey Unified School Board, in Los Angeles County, reduced its trash to landfill by 65 percent, saving $200,000 in a four-year period. La Mesa-Spring Valley School District, in San Diego County, saved $116,557 by recycling at 23 school sites, administrative and operations centers.

Preliminary data has shown that when we reduce our lunch waste, schools need fewer waste pickups and trips to the landfill— all of which work to reduce expenses in the public systems (and ultimately our taxes that support it).

There’s no need to feel overwhelmed; you can implement suggestions over time. Most importantly, work with your child to understand the importance of reducing their lunch footprint and doing their part for the planet.

Lifelong habits are instilled in our youth. We can help children understand the importance of litterless lunches to the planet and their lives on it in the long term.

Liz Anderson PeacockAbout the Author:

Dr. Elizabeth Anderson-Peacock, D.C., is the pediatric editor for Chiropractic Wellness and Fitness Magazine. She is a well-known presenter in the arena of pediatrics and pregnancy, and has also delivered keynotes on wellness, lifestyles and motivation. She is co-founder of Girls Gals Gurus, a lifestyle company delivering seminars and coaching to women, improving their innate capacity. Dr. Liz has published papers, sat on numerous committees, and been recognized with numerous awards. She generously donates her time to a number of boards and charities. She is also a professional executive and corporate health coach. For more information or to book Dr. Liz, visit her at

Pathways Issue 28 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #28.

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