Build A Lower Waste Lunch

A friend asked for some tips on packing lower-plastic and lower-waste lunches for her school-age son. This rather surprised me, since this particular friend is genuine cloth-diapering, Keystone XL Pipeline-protesting, etsy-craft-selling kind of girl. And in fact, when further questioned, it turned out my friend was already packing a pretty green lunch, but was looking to cut down on some of the “stuff-in-baggies” problem that plagues the sack lunch.

Sandwich in bag, cheddar bunnies in bag, granola bar in bag, baby carrots in bag…and a lot of those bags tend to be plastic. But that’s what kids do: they make even the most well intentioned of us cut a corner here and there in the name of day-to-day sanity and survival. Let’s not get into the styrofoam contains that cluttered my trash can in December after take-out Pho night (I needed it to get through the holidays, I swear!). Right, moving on…

Since I pack daily lunches for Homebrew Husband, our second grader, and often the toddler and me as well, I should have it down by now. But a lot of time I’m looking around for something a kid will eat at 11 pm or 7 am and thinking, in my haze, “this is why people buy those industrial sized boxes of Fruit Snacks.”

When I am organized and prepared, it is as easy to throw together a low-waste lunch as it would be to throw together a convenience component lunch. It’s just that about half the time I’ve fallen off the “organization wagon” and find myself at 11 pm with no bread. Still, no one ever goes hungry.

Let’s take a look at a typical low-waste kids lunch in our house. This was Bella’s lunch yesterday:

You’re looking at a PB & Peach Jam sandwich on homemade honey-wheat egg bread, orange sections and what we call “tuna mayo.” I guess the rest of the world knows tuna mayo as tuna salad, but I never add anything “salady.” There are no onions, carrot dice, celery bits or garlic. There is never pepper or mustard, because my kid can detect even 1 part per million of anything spicy in her food. There is only tuna, mayo, and (occasionally) diced up lacto-fermented pickles. We also do salmon mayo and chicken mayo. Anything with mayo is a hit with my daughter

Sandwiches and dryish snacks like dried fruit, nuts, jerky, cheese, hard fruits and veggies, and treats like cookies or zucchini bread or homemade granola bars usually get tucked in a washable reusable bag. I have a few ReUsies cloth snack bags, and several my mom made for me as a gift in a similar style. Wet stuff, like tuna mayo, oranges, pears, pasta, yogurt and the like get packaged in a reusable lidded container.

We have a bunch of old rigid Rubbermaid plastic containers that store leftovers and lunch components, but slowly we are transitioning to these predominantly glass SnapWare style containers when the sets go on sale at Costco and they become more reasonably priced. In a pinch, I’ve also sent Bella into school with glass canning jars fitted with a plastic screw-on lid. Those lids aren’t 100% leakproof, though, and you just can’t expect a school lunch box to not get tossed around, so canning jars aren’t my first choice.

Because the bread, jam and pickles are homemade, and the oranges come with their own convenient compostable container called a peel, the only direct waste from this lunch is one recycled tuna can. Technically some fraction of the plastic mayo jar and peanut butter container waste would be “owned” by this sandwich, but that’s getting quite nitpicky.

My kid is pretty responsible, so we don’t lose too many spoons or containers, and she is good about bringing back leftovers for reuse or composting.

The one thing I worry about in packing lunches like this is that my kid will feel weird. I mean, she likes to eat a big bowl of tuna mayo (she specifically requests it, actually) but she also notices that everyone else in her class eats food that comes in a shiny foil wrapper, and that other kids have GoGurt tubes while she has a glass container of homemade plain yogurt cheese topped with maple syrup (which is divine, by the way). I worry she’s going to be the mostly-all-natural, odd-girl-out in a few years, when kids really start to pay attention to that stuff.

If you pack lunches for big or little people, including yourself, how do you minimize waste and maximize homemade in the process? Do your kids eat homemade, or do they put their foot down for food with cartoon character branding?


  1. says

    My kids are older and refusing to bring a lunch. It’s not the trendy thing to do at school. I don’t think there is a way to get around this, no matter how much more healthy or green it is. By the way, do you ever worry about the mercury in tuna in your tuna mayo. I’d assume that a large fish like tuna could have a lot of mercury in it.

      • says

        Thanks Erica for the NRDC info. If you find that you want to eat less tuna, according to the guidelines, you can substitute herring. My guess is it has less mercury. Smaller fish typically have less. My opinion is that Herring with mayo tastes pretty much the same. I like smoked herring, but my kids probably could detect the smoky flavor and not want to eat it simply because it is not exactly the same. There is non smoked herring.

        It can be difficult trying to get kids to eat healthy. We just have to do our best.

      • resa says

        we use canned salmon, and it pretty much tastes the same as canned tuna (especially if there’s pickles), with less heavy metals.

  2. says

    Kat wants the school’s hot lunch about once a week, so I let her have that. When she takes her lunch, I’m fortunate that she usually likes homemade better than pre-packaged. A typical lunch for her is a small sandwich (egg salad, tuna salad, leftover ham or roast, etc.) on homemade bread, some fruit or veggie such as carrot sticks, something crunchy (hopefully homemade crackers, but just as likely potato or tortilla chips from the store) and a cheese stick or part of a container of yogurt transferred to a reusable container. I do still use plastic, but it’s reusable. I’ve found the divided reusable Ziploc containers work kind of like a Bento box. I also use silicone cupcake liners to hold dry things, small jars (like pimiento jars) for dips and dressings, etc. Occasionally I use paper cupcake liners with holiday themes.

    I bought 1 package of plastic cutlery in her school colors at the beginning of the year and we have used exactly 1 fork, 1 knife and 1 spoon so far. I also send a cloth napkin with her, which she also good about bringing back home. For her drink, she usually requests water in her aluminum water bottle. Once in a while she wants juice, lemonade or tea instead.

    She’s 8, and so far, she hasn’t coveted what other kids have in their lunches or complained about her lunch not being cool.

    My big complaint is field trip days. The school insists the entire lunch be disposable so that they don’t have to keep track of lunch boxes. On those days I do give in and either use baggies or buy the dreaded Lunchable. :(

    • says

      I like the idea of the cupcake holders – that’s really cute. Your lunches sound very similar to ours. Bella has had school lunch a few times too. She loves pizza, even really, really bad pizza, and you have to pick your battles. I’d stay away from the school breakfast, though. ;)

      • Jill says

        Can you explain how you are using the silicone cupcake holder/paper holders? Are they just floating around in the lunch box or are you using a few as a divider with different items in each and then putting them all in a larger reusable container to keep contained? I’m not getting this picture.

      • says

        There were only two breakfasts she ever wanted from school — biscuit with sausage gravy and mini banana nut loaf. I can have both of those, and other choices, ready in the freezer (gravy frozen separately from biscuits) and have them heated and on the table in less than five minutes…and I know exactly what’s in them.

  3. says

    I guess I’m fortunate that my boys can’t stand the school’s so-called “lunch”. I would love to change over to glass for the boys’ lunches, but the schools don’t have lockers, so they have to carry around their lunch, strapped to their backpack all day. Between the weight and the banging around, it’s just not feasable right now. I’ve tried various plastic containers, and have switched yet again because seals were leaking. At least this set is BPA-free, and we don’t microwave them. I did pick up stainless steel soup thermoses for the boys. They love homemade soup, and it stays warm until lunch. With two teen-aged boys, there isn’t much food left over to waste at our house!

    • says

      I dropped my daughter off at school early for an event one day and got to see the “breakfast” they were serving to the kids who came in early and bought it. Huge frosted cinnamon rolls, cocoa puff cereal and chocolate milk. WTF? And people wonder why kids can’t concentrate in school? The state of school food in most districts – I know some are doing really great and innovative things – seems to be pretty appalling.

  4. says

    I am retired, but my work solution (not much help to the kiddos) the last few years was to pack a meal in a reusable Nancy’s Yogurt container (these are very sturdy) consisting of either rice or diced potatoes, pre-cooked, with some veg bits (such as spinach, chard, bok choi, kale or collards), and a diced hard-boiled duck egg, with a little olive oil, salt, and such. Could be zapped in the staff lounge or eaten cold. I drank water from home (well water) sometimes with a mint leaf in it for flavoring. In season, the spinach, chard, bok choi, kale or collards were fresh, for out of season there’s the same stuff dehydrated in the solar dryer and crumbled up like Italian spices.

    Here’s an example of the type.

    Also can be whizzed into a soup or “green” drink.

    Not so popular with kids, but then my youngest is 25!

    • says

      I’d eat that! Sounds a bit like salad in a jar, which we do on occasion, mostly in the summer. I love cooked potatoes in salad, like Niçoise style.

  5. says

    I don’t have any kids to pack lunch for, but when I pack my own lunch, I love using my bento! A bento is the Japanese version of a lunch box, and the word translates as “box” so if you say bento box, like many people do, you’re being bi-lingually redundant :) My bento has two stacking layers with compartments you put food into directly and a lid with an impressionist-style bunny painted on it. It looks very sophisticated and a little mysterious when it’s closed with it’s elastic band around it because it’s just this rectangular box that could have anything in it. If I ever have kids I will definitely get them bentos to take their lunch to school in.

  6. Saskia says

    Last year I got stainless steel LunchBots containers for the kids and those have worked really well for sandwiches, veggies & snacks (not for liquid, though) and have proven to be durable. I also have stainless steel thermoses for soup and the kids love those. One bummer for us is that no peanut butter is allowed due to a child in the class who has a severe allergy. I do feel for him, but it makes it hard when PB&J would be such an easy thing to make in the morning with mostly homemade ingredients. I’m still struggling to make all homemade dry snacks & freely admit to including packaged granola bars daily, but we’re slowly getting there. As for feeling weird, I find that since the kids’ lunches have always been this way, they don’t feel strange about bringing homemade stuff in reusable containers–even our 7th grader, and that’s saying something for her, since everything else at this age (clothes, backpack, shoes, bike, etc.) absolutely has to be in line with what’s cool.

    • says

      That’s good to know, especially for the seventh grader. I find the phrase “Earth Hero” goes over pretty well at this age (2nd grade) and hopefully the early eco-brainwashing will help Bella continue to support the less-waste lunch. I’ve looked at the stainless bento-style boxes. They look great but I balked at the cost. Maybe I’ll make the investment for next year.

    • Claire says

      You could try Sunflower Seed Butter instead, it’s a bit more expensive, but lasts a long time, my 2nd grader says it tastes just the same as peanut butter (although my husband disagrees). With my homemade bread & homemade jam, I feel good about sending her to school with this lunch. I cut the sandwich into 2 hearts with a sandwich cutter (like a big cookie cutter), which she thinks is cool (& feed the crusts to the chickens – I don’t like to waste food!).

  7. marci says

    Since glass containers are NOT allowed on school buses, I’m guessing you are driving your child to school or close enough to walk? My kids just used lots of reusable tupperwares – the old kind found at garage sales. There is one sandwich sized and one pie sized :)

    Starting in 9th grade when we had no lunch room, I have always toted a sack lunch, even to work all these years… That’s actually well over 40 years. Think of all the money saved also! lol !

  8. says

    The Husband and I are both faithful lunch toters. We’ve also transitioned to glass snapware for most things, 4oz canning jars for nuts, Reusies for anything else. I just got my first metal lunchbot for Christmas. I also happily tote my banana and orange peels home for my own compost. I also wash most of my glass containers at work in the breakroom, because yes, I am that cheap.

    I totally understand the 2nd graders love of Tuna Mayo. We are big eaters of tuna salad, egg salad, chicken salad, all things mayo-y salad. Our is a little more sophisticated that plain mayo, but not much, especially for The Husband. It makes a yummy, protein packed, transportable lunch! The girl knows her stuff.

    • says

      You wash your containers out at lunch!? I hope my husband is reading. ;) The only thing my daughter refuses to load into the dishwasher are “dads old lunch containers.” After a few days hiding in the car they can get a bit objectionable.

  9. says

    When my kids do take lunches to school, it is mostly my daughter. She has a couple of bentos (being the J-Pop fan that she is) and tends to pack them herself. I have a couple collapsable lunch kits now, and keep bamboo flatware at work. I am starting to transition most of my Tupperware/Lock and Lock to glass, which I can take for meals, even if my children cannot. I figure it is a good start!

  10. says

    First I applaud Bella’s appreciate for mayo. I too love mayo, especially when I use it as a dip for pieces of roasted chicken or wedges of crunchy lettuce. Yum!

    This holiday one of my requested gifts was a three tier stacking tiffin lunchbox from Happy Tiffin. I love it! I wasn’t worrying about carrying small items in plastic containers but I wasn’t happy with heating items in them. Now I have a bowl and plate and work for when I have things to heat up and I use old canning jars for soup (though I may get a stainless steel thermos one day). My salad dressing holder this week was the washed out pill bottle from last month’s antibiotic prescription.

    The tiffin is not a great backpack option, but the same website has latching metal containers with silicone seals called lunch bowls which would be a great alternative to plastic or glass containers. An all metal Laptop Lunch would be awesome!

    My SO has to take cheap plastic containers and baggies, though, because they usually don’t make it home. Drives me up a wall, but it’s cheaper, healthier and no more wasteful than him eating out everyday.

  11. says

    My husband works from home, he has leftovers usually. I take leftovers on the days I got to work, or throw a salad together if I can. My daughter eats a sandwich most days, even though I’d make her something else if I knew she’d eat it. We have various kid-friendly little containers to take her recess and snacks, now for my son too who is off to preschool, and while I am happy to take glass to work, I often borrow the kids ones! We have had sandwich wraps since she started preschool 2 years ago, as we don’t buy gladwrap. We also bought her a Thermos container, but never did warm pasta or beans in it like I intended… but she loves hot chocolates in it during Winter!

    I posted these on your FB page already, but a list of ideas for work lunches, and for school lunches:

  12. Melissa says

    Once the plastic nut butter or mayo jar is empty, you can reuse them to hold your dry snacks like cheddar bunnies. Also, sometimes the lids will fit a canning jar – as well as the other ones you buy for that purpose.

    • says

      Melissa – checking the lids for fit with canning jars is a great idea! I have a few of the purpose made plastic screw on lids but am forever running out.

  13. says

    Three of us take lunches in our house: my husband, myself and my 6th grader son. He has taken a home-made lunch for all his school years, although I do let him have the once a week hot lunch as a treat maybe once a month. It’s not really hot, there are options such as sushi and hummus and pita some weeks.

    I try to use a lot of containers and not so many baggies, but the biggest problem has been finding a lunch kit big enough to hold all the containers (if some of the containers are just in the backpack they aren’t as likely to come home as the ones in the lunch kit I’ve found). He’s a really active kid and requires a lot of fuel through the day. So lots of small snacks. We do sandwiches (butter and jam, tuna, egg salad on homemade bread), crackers cream cheese and pickles, left-over pasta or pasta salad, lots of fruit and veg and usually muffins or a granola bar of some sort. I’ve compromised on the “Everyone else gets this and this and this” by allowing one small ‘treat’ on occasion – so a box of wagon wheels or granola bars or small yogurts maybe one shopping trip a month. Usually still on the healthy side as his dad likes to take them as well. I used to do soup a lot, but the one proper thermos I bought him shattered in his backpack and the food saver one he used when he was younger doesn’t really hold enough to fill him up. I’d love suggestions!
    I consider it all a work in progress. And my son really protests that his dad and I get to take the majority of the dinner left-overs as we have access to microwaves and he doesn’t. He’d much prefer a home-made hot lunch every day.

    • says

      One thing I’d suggest from a space saving perspective is to look at washable fabric baggies. If you sew they aren’t hard to make, otherwise they can be a bit expensive right up front. Still, I’ve found snacks in baggies pack way tighter than snacks in containers. “Work in progress” – ain’t that the truth for all of us!

  14. says

    We do lunches like everything else…to neither extreme. I’ve tried the “bento” style boxes, but they take up a lot of space, so we use the baggie option. Kid gets drinks and such in a reusable container, and she uses metal silverware which she brings home. Once in a while at the store I’ll let her pick out a treat like (good lord, why) My Little Pony fruit snacks, but they’re not common, and she doesn’t get dessert per se, only occasional treats like those. I do buy Dole mandarin orange fruit cups, because they’re the only fruit I can get her to actually *eat* at school, so my desire for her to eat fruit overrides my annoyance at the extra packaging. She won’t eat Cuties or little actual mandarins, not sure why. And she eats school lunch two days a week, her choice of days.

  15. says

    My daughter’s home-from-school routine includes making lunch for the next day (she’s a first grader, so it’s a collaborative effort). Today she packed half an egg salad sandwich and a reusable plastic container of frozen strawberries. The sandwich was made yesterday as a full sandwich (making components of two days of lunches at once), on homemade bread. It’s packed into a machine-washable, reusable baggie, one of a number that i made three years ago now. The strawberries are ones we picked last season and froze; she likes the way frozen berries get all thawed and mushy by the eating time (and I expect it’s nice and easy one her mouth-ful of loose teeth!). The berry container is one of those fresh alfredo sauce containers you find at the store. Her spoon is reused daily; it’s a plastic one we pocketed after a trip to Yogurtland.

    There’s a bit more plastic than I’d like in her lunch bag, but it’s all getting reused lots. If I were packing my own lunches, I’d probably use the glass-lock boxes we have; sending glass to school with a 6 year old seems, well, iffy at best!

  16. says

    Great post! I packed similar lunches for my daughter who now packs her own lunch in much the same way.

    A word or two about your girl being the odd-kid out once her peers are old enough to pay attention…1)My daughter never had any issues…her friends have actually always been curious though and it’s it’s been a great way to introduce other kids (and teens now) to new foods…lemon cucumbers, homemade granola, etc 2) I manage an after school program for girls where we serve a very basic snack each day. We also allow and encourage the girls to bring in their own snacks. If anything, the girls who bring in their own are the envy of the other girls, regardless of what they bring :-) Happy packing!

  17. says

    My 5-year-old is in the extremely-picky stage so I always pack his lunch, and it was really easy to make it zero-waste. I bought a stainless steel Thermos food jar and put beans and rice, peas and tofu, or peas and pasta in there, and then I add either a small plastic container or a Reusies snack bag with cucumber, strawberries, or apple slices as the side dish. I made cloth napkins for him with fabric he picked out and send one of our regular spoons in. After two months, he lost his Klean Kanteen water bottle but it didn’t look like he ever drank from it so I don’t pack a drink in his lunch. He keeps a water bottle on his desk to drink from throughout the day (class requirement) so he’s covered there.

    On those days when I’m in a hurry or don’t have leftovers to throw in the Thermos, I just give him a banana and fill the snack bag with whole wheat bunnies. :)

  18. jahw says

    I bought my son a ‘snackables’ package – he wanted to try it because the other kids in his pre-K eat them for lunch every day. You’ll be pleased to know his reaction. “Mom – can we make lunch for the other kids? They’re starving.”

  19. Alex says

    I can remember when I was in school my mom often sent me with “creative” lunches and packing methods. I was a rather sensitive kid and probably bothered by it more than I need to have been. I was used to people saying things like, “you’re eating what? Pumice?” (Hummus hadn’t hit mainstream status yet.) Today, my stepdaughter is going into 9th grade. She often mentions comments she gets from other kids about her “so weird” festively colored homemade beet soup in a thermos or sandwich in a reusable wrap or reused tortilla bag.
    But, she always says how good it was and that she looks forward to having it again in the future. If anything, I think this sort of ridicule is character building. It sets kids up to be adults that don’t go along with things just because it’s what everyone else is doing. If our kids are going to do anything really great in their lives they’re bound to stand out. They may as well get used to the fact that it’s not always a comfortable place to be.
    By the way, I just discovered your blog, Erica, and it is fabulous!

  20. resa says

    i use canning jars constantly, and have those same lids!

    for school lunches, the glass containers are too heavy for the kids. we use a combo of stainless steel tins from india (small ones, not the stacking/locking “tiffins,” they’re too big) for sandwiches or cheese cubes, plastic cheap small tubs (glad/ziploc) for dry stuff like crackers or trail mix, and lunchbot thermos bowls for hot stuff. occasionally we use waxed paper bags or reused plastic bread bags (esp for field trips when the school wants a disposable lunch). we tie dyed estate sale old white napkins, and wrap/pad whole fruit in them.

  21. says

    I purchased the Planet Box lunch boxes and WOOHOO they have made our lunch assembly soooo much easier. A bit of an investment, but so worth it!

  22. Megan says

    We use these I have three kids to make lunches for plus they go on road trips with us. I’ll make lunches in the morning and pass them out in the car at lunchtime. My oldest is in fourth grade. We’ve been using them for two years and I haven’t had one break on me yet. You can fit three easy lunch boxes in one of the lunch boxes. Perfect when you have three kids! Discovered your blog yesterday and love it.

  23. Tina Stacy says


    Reading this makes me wonder if your daughter is in third now and if her classmates accept her. My kids are forever the “yucky lunch” kids. My daughter is in 3rd and my son in 2nd. They hate school lunch, but kids always say things about their lunches. My daughter is tough as nails and doesn’t care, but my son(even thought his containers are normal) gets offended if kids don’t like what is packaged. My husband and I considered moving to a more progressive setting, but from what I gathered, you may be in an area like that and still not have a strong community for your children where your ideas are your neighbors ideas. Any thoughts?

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