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Greening Our Children’s Lunches

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.

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 a 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.