Monday, February 2, 2009

Waste-Free Lunch

If you've read this blog for any amount of time, you know that we're all about easy ways to live a greener life ... to walk a little gentler on the earth. One of our bloggy friends, Wendy from Like sand in an hourglass, has come up with a very creative way to minimize waste. It's a brilliant idea and one that can also be a lot of fun.

Like sand in an hourglass is a wonderful blog. Wendy writes about all kinds of things, including a regular feature called "Going Green" where she talks about her green living efforts and the new things she's doing to save the planet.

A big THANK YOU to Wendy for this brilliant idea. Are you ready? Here we go:

The Birth of a Waste-Free Lunch

As I do periodically, I sat with my 6-year-old son in his school cafeteria for lunch one day last week. Because I am bored with the lunches I pack for him – the “same old, same old” day after day - I paid attention to what the other children were eating with the hope of getting some ideas for different things to pack in my son’s lunch. I got some ideas, sure, but what I really got was a fire in my belly about the amount of waste I saw. Most of the children sitting in my immediate vicinity had reusable lunchboxes and bags, but inside those reusable containers were individually-wrapped foods in disposable packaging. You know what I mean: juice boxes, yogurt tubes, individually-wrapped snack foods, single serving applesauce, Lunchables (gasp!), etc. I did not think too much about it until I watched the kids – my son included! – gather up their trash and take it to the bin. My son, for example, tossed the remains of two individually-wrapped foods, two plastic baggies, orange rinds and a paper napkin!

When I got home, I took stock of the reusable containers in my cupboard and made a list of what I needed to purchase to reduce the need for plastic baggies. Then I went online to start shopping, and while I was browsing, I stumbled on this “culture” of waste-free lunches. My journey started with bento – the Japanese art of packing compact, balanced, visually appealing meals in a box - and moved into what appears to be a green movement occurring all over the country.

Just The Facts, Ma’am

Did you know that the average school-aged child who takes a disposable and pre-packaged lunch to school each day generates about 67 pounds of garbage per school year? That equals approximately 18,760 pounds of lunch waste in a single school year for the average-sized elementary school. It is about 40,000 pounds of garbage for an average middle school. Lunchtime trash is second only to office paper as the leading source of school waste.

We cannot blame all of the lunchtime waste on the children bringing lunches from home. Approximately 12% of food served as part of the National School Lunch Program is wasted (resulting in an estimated direct economic loss of $600 million). Putting good usable food into landfills costs Americans about $50 million per year.

Packing a disposable and prepackaged lunch is also more expensive than the greener waste-free version. The average disposable lunch for a school-aged child is $4.02 per day – more than it costs to purchase a school lunch at my son’s school - which translates to $20.10 per week or $723.60 for a school year. Compare that with the average cost of a waste-free lunch: $ 2.65 per day, $13.25 per week or $477.00 per school year. In addition to helping the environment by reducing trash, packing a waste-free school lunch will save you $246.60 per year!

Just Do It

Bento – as the Japanese do it – strives for a 3:1:2 ratio of food (3 parts carbohydrates, 1 part protein, 2 parts fruits and vegetables) with no candy, junk or oily foods. The size of your bento container depends upon your age and gender. The size of the container often coincides with the amount of calories that fit inside. (For example, a 600ml box holds a 600-calorie meal, which is way too much for a school-aged child.) To help plan your traditional balanced bento, consider the bento planner developed by Makiko Ito at

Nothing says you have to follow the traditional Japanese guidelines for packing a bento. In fact, the American version of bento is more relaxed and really just encourages packing healthy food in a way that creates no waste. In my case, though the majority of my son’s lunch is healthy, he is allowed one “junky” treat in his lunch as long as he is behaving in school and doing his work.

To get started, find a shallow reusable container that has an airtight lid. I am currently experimenting with Sterilite Ultra Seal containers, but other popular ones include Lock and Lock and Snaplock. You may want to purchase smaller containers to put inside the larger container, either to separate foods or to hold sauces. You can purchase a full kit designed for waste-free packing at If the idea of a bunch of small containers and lids is enough to make you crazy, consider using edible dividers like lettuce, or use silicone baking cups, which are great because they are flexible and can be manipulated to use up the available space inside the large container.

The possibilities of what to pack are (almost) endless. Use up some of last night’s leftovers. Pack a deconstructed sandwich if it will fit in the container better. Be mindful of food safety and avoid foods that will spoil if they are in the lunchbox for more than two yours. (Yogurt, for instance, is not a great bento option unless you include an ice pack to keep it cold.) Search the internet for bento and waste-free lunch blogs to find recipes. Use finger foods like cherry tomatoes, grapes and olives to fill gaps. Using all of the available space in your container stabilizes the food, making it less likely to shift during transport. Place the container into an insulated reusable bag, toss in an ice pack if needed, and do not forget about the waste-free accessories; a fabric napkin, stainless steel utensils, and a drink in a reusable sipper.

Tales of a Novice

After a bit of research, a purchase or two, and some planning, I packed my son’s first waste-free lunch today. I tend to pack on the heavy side in case he needs a bit more fuel as the day wears on. Overall I would say it was a good effort, but I definitely need some practice.
Total containers used: 3 (2 smaller containers inside 1 larger container)
Proteins: Turkey and cheese in sandwich, cheese stick
Carbohydrates: Bread for sandwich
Fruits/vegetables: cucumber slices, carrots sticks, mandarin orange
Other: soft mini cookies, water
Room for Improvement:
Color: Too much orange, not enough of anything else
Space: I had some space leftover
Amount of waste: I packed a paper napkin!!

Take It To the Next Level

If you develop a passion for waste-free lunches, why not start a Waste-Free Lunch Program at your child’s school? Go to for ideas or get a copy of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Waste Reduction Guide for schools and offices at Start planning now for your Waste-Free Lunch Day during Earth week in April.

© Wendy A. Taylor, 2009

Another big THANK YOU to Wendy for this wonderful article. And as always ... I would love to hear from you!


  1. Brava Wendy! And to you, too, RF for posting this. This will be wonderful advice for parents with children - or perhaps adults for their lunch packaging!

  2. I think it is great that you are trying to control the waste that a lunch can generate.
    I wish I would have known about binto when my children had to take a lunch.

  3. Glad to see that you put the time and energy into trying to do something positive. Many might debate whether such practices need not be implemented at this point and time, and the impact; however, virtually no one can attack a personal responsibility derived effort to do "something." Keep it up.

  4. This is a topic I keep stashing away in my head for when my Apple starts K in a year and a half. Right now she has lunch provided at preschool, so I don't do any packing yet.

    Have you see all the wonderful handmade reusable packaging on Etsy? As on example, check out these reusable snack bags that I bought several months ago.

  5. I've been toying with the idea of using a bento style lunchbox. 1st ... because it'll keep me from consuming too many calories and second, I'm horrible at how much food and waste I spend money on outside of the home.

  6. Controlling the waste also makes you pay closer attention to the food you're actually packing, helping to keep things healthy!

  7. Interesting. When my kids were that age they only wanted a paper bag instead of a lunch bag. I think there would have been a problem getting the lunchbox back home each day.

  8. I use Tupperware containers because they have a life time warranty, and broken containers are returned and recycled by the company. From experience they last longer than lock and lock. When buying takeaway food, I try to bring my own containers.

  9. What a great idea! Not only does it help reduce waste now...but it teaches our children good practices for future years. Love it! :)

  10. This is brilliant. I am going to talk about it with my daughter this afternoon. Thanks for another great post.

  11. I've never packed a lunch but there is no time like now to start

  12. Check out these sites for more lunch box ideas:

    And our friend Connie, at Connie Mishali's Weblog, has a post about a sandwich wrap-n-mat. Check it out here:

    Small Footprints

  13. Wow I love your blog! Im going to keep coming! And great article with the lunch!

  14. Wendy this is so awesome! I'm going to check out all the sites!! I do not have a school aged child, but I believe just the concept of a bento box itself will help me to plan healthier lunches for myself!

  15. Thanks and have fun with your bentos! I've recently become inspired by bento box lunch-packing, and I agree with you that vegan lunch box is a site with great ideas. I've seen the laptop lunch system, and it's fabulous too!

  16. Tupperware make a lunchbox that's waste free:

    My kids each have one. My son takes milk is a reusuable box in his, with half a sandwich. My daughter takes a juicebox (no, not reusable, but that's usually her only trash) and a whole sandwich. There are two more sections. Usually they have one fruit (sliced apples fit great) and a treat. My favorite part is the it fits on the edge of the dishwasher that's usually wasted to get squeaky clean.

    Here's a picture of one of their lunches (although the new boxes are a different color, but they're the same size/layout):

    There are more pictures of lunches in similar boxes in the Tupperware Flickr pool:

    Living Green and Natural @ Delphi Forums

  17. I'm so happy to hear people share their stories about packing waste-free lunches. I am the rep for Laptop Lunches and manage all the Whole Foods accounts in the U.S. Our products are sold in 7 regions so if you want to see Laptop Lunches in your local Whole Foods store and it's not there please request them or let me know the store.