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go zero waste: how to pack an eco-friendly lunch

go zero waste: how to pack an eco-friendly lunch

Hoping to send less trash to the landfill? 

It’s a worthy goal. According to the Environment America Research & Policy Center, the average American throws away nearly 5 pounds of trash per day. If you have four people in your household, you could be tossing up to an average of twenty pounds of trash every day (think of it like this: that’s basically what my two-year-old weighs). And it’s not necessarily “normal”—America produces 12% of the world’s trash despite only making up 4% of the world’s population. 

Going zero waste sounds intimidating, but you and your family can make small changes that add up to make a significant difference. One way to reduce your waste: Pack trash free lunches for your kids (and yourself!). 

I’m a pretty average mom in the beginning stages of my eco-friendly journey. But packing a zero waste lunch has been easier than expected. In this article, I’ll walk you through the basics.


what is zero waste?

On a larger scale, societies push towards “zero waste” goals, which means they put policies and resources in place to help communities work towards producing as little waste as possible. On an individual level, a zero waste lunch is essentially what it sounds like. You pack and consume a lunch without producing any waste. 

an example of a zero waste lunch in a bento box with chicken salad, a banana, strawberries, and yogurt
a great example of a zero waste lunch (compost that banana peel!)

Before we go any further, I’ll admit it can be challenging (if not impossible) to completely eliminate trash from your lunch routine. So, the goal is to reduce the trash you produce as much as possible.

To start, let’s briefly think about all the trash often associated with a school lunch: 

  • Plastic waste:
    • Wrappers from single-use food items
    • Disposable utensils 
    • Plastic bags used to pack food items (e.g., sandwich bags)
    • Single-use water bottles
  • Paper waste:
    • Disposable napkins 
    • Post-it notes
    • Labels
  • Food waste:
    • Food scraps that aren’t consumed 
  • All other waste:
    • Cans
    • Discarded reusable materials (i.e., you toss your old lunch box in favor of a new one at the beginning of the year)

That’s a lot of trash, and, except for “discarded reusable materials”, it’s quite possible to produce all of that waste with every lunch. If going completely zero waste feels intimidating, you could pick one category and start there. For example, maybe you decide you’d like to eliminate all the plastic trash from your child’s lunch and opt for reusable materials instead. 

More on how to do that below, but first—why does it even matter?

what can a zero waste school lunch do for the environment? 

All of our waste has a significant collective impact on the climate, the air we breathe, and the water we drink. Trash ends up in landfills and oceans, harming our ecosystems and polluting the air and water. Plus, our reliance on single-use items, like plastic bags and paper towels, puts a strain on natural resources.

So, while it may seem like your child’s zero waste lunch can’t make much of a change, if we all begin working towards less waste, we help:

  • Improve climate conditions
  • Reduce air pollution
  • Reduce water contamination
  • Reduce ocean pollution
  • Reduce the impact of our reliance on natural resources, like trees

zero waste must-haves

To pack a trash-free lunch, you’ll need to replace some of the items that typically end up in the trash. Here are a few things to invest in to start:

two kids eat out of stainless steel food jars
check out @anna.mac's kiddos with the food jars

My biggest zero-waste lunch “hack” was investing in a reusable lunchbox with compartments (aka a bento box) so that I could replace plastic bags. From there, reusable cutlery and drink bottles felt like small, attainable changes.

meet your eco-friendly bento box 

Instead of using plastic bags to store food, the built-in compartments in a bento box store my child’s different food items. We also have a few silicone bags, and I’ve noticed I’ve ended up saving money by eliminating plastic sandwich bags. 

an example of a zero waste lunch using a blue silicone lunch pouch instead of a single-use plastic bag
the silicone pocket replaces the single-use plastic bag

I like the for kids bento boxes, because:

  • They’re non-toxic (check out our non-toxic shopping checklist
  • The compartments are truly leakproof, which means I can pack yogurt next to a sandwich, and nothing gets soggy
  • One of the compartments can hold a whole fruit, like an apple (no more pre-packaged apple slices) 
  • My daughter can easily open and close the bento box by herself
  • The lunch box comes with a removable divider, so you have the option of one big compartment or an additional smaller one 

what to avoid 

Generally speaking, you’ll want to avoid all of the trash items listed above. But there’s one thing we haven’t discussed yet—the food you pack. 

If you think about what currently makes up your child’s lunch, a few of the following items might come to mind (no judgment: these were also staples in my daughter’s lunch): 

  • Pureed pouches
  • Store-bought granola bars 
  • Go-gurt 
  • Single-serving packs of chips, crackers, etc. 

After replacing your plastic bags and cutlery, you’ll want to focus on eliminating single-use foods.

how I replaced common single-use foods

This was the biggest hurdle for me to overcome when packing zero-waste was replacing some of those foods. Here’s how I do it:

  • Meal prep: I try to meal prep bento-friendly meals for the week on Sundays. When I do this, I know exactly what I’m packing for lunch, and it reduces my reliance on convenient, single-use foods. 
  • Reusable pouches: I use reusable pouches to make my own smoothies and fruit purees.
  • Bulk snacks: On my better weeks, I make my own trail mix and granola balls in bulk. On my busier weeks (or weeks where I’m just feeling tired), I buy bulk snacks (with no individual packaging) from Costco. Bonus points if I can recycle or reuse the container. 
  • Whole foods: Fruits and vegetables require zero plastic and are easy things to incorporate into a lunch, especially when the bento box compartments make it possible to just throw some blueberries in a compartment (remember to recycle the berry container!). 
a toddler sits at a picnic table with a refillable water bottle and snackbox
my daughter with her re-usable water bottle and snackbox

Read more: School lunch ideas for picky eaters

what about the food waste? 

Even if you replace all of your single-use plastic with reusable materials, you still have one big source of waste: the food your kid doesn’t eat. 

This is where I like to remind parents that any progress towards zero-waste is good progress. The best way to reduce food waste is to compost, and that’s not always feasible when you send a lunch off to school. But, you have a few options:

  • Pack in, pack out: You could ask your child to pack out whatever they don’t eat, so that you can compost at home. It’s a great opportunity to talk to them about the importance of composting, but kids often eat early in the day. I can’t blame them for not wanting to lug around food waste for the rest of the day. This also requires you to have a composting kit at home. 
  • Compost at school: The best case scenario? Some schools have composting programs. 

Start a composting program at your child’s school: If you’re feeling really ambitious, you could try to start a composting program at your child’s school—and get the kids involved!

what my zero waste lunch looks like:

So what does a typical zero waste lunch look like in my house? Using a bento box, I pack variations of the following on most days:

  • Sandwich or a leftover prepped meal that can be eaten cold (like flatbread pizza)
  • Fruit—usually an apple or a banana, or I put some berries in one of the bento compartments
  • Trail mix or granola 
  • Greek yogurt (using a bento compartment or food jar)
  • Shredded carrots or broccoli 
a zero waste lunch with a sandwich and two snackboxes

more about for kids for kids was founded by two moms in Australia, where policies requiring “nude foods” (i.e., foods without excess packaging) are common in schools. They felt like parents needed better solutions for packing waste-free lunches without a bunch of hassle—and now, they have a loyal base of mom-fans spreading across the globe.

Hoping to work towards zero waste goals of your own? for kids has a line of hydration and lunch products available in the United States. All of their products are designed to be non-toxic and easy for kids to use, so that you (and your community) can live healthier and easier. Shop the line by clicking below:

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