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!