One day while volunteering at her son’s preschool, Amy Hemmert had a realization: lunchtime makes a lot of trash.
“At the end of the day, the teachers had to haul all of that trash up to the curb for pickup. I knew that most of that was lunch waste,” she says.
Because of her years spent living in Japan, she was used to packing her family’s lunches in a bento box, while most American families use disposable
packaging: juice boxes, cups of apple sauce, sandwiches in plastic baggies. It’s estimated that each school-age child generates about 67 pounds of lunch waste a year.
She wondered if there was a better way.
The idea prompted her and her friend Tammy Pelstring to create Laptop Lunches, a business that sells reusable containers designed for school lunches. She also launched WasteFreeLunches.org to help families learn how to reduce their lunch waste. The site encourages schools to get involved in the effort, launching programs like “Waste-Free Wednesdays” where kids are encouraged to bring a lunch that doesn’t create trash.
At least 12 schools in the Chicagoland area have gotten on board, working with the site and similar programs to reduce lunchtime garbage.
For families used to sending lunch in disposable containers, the idea of a zero-waste lunch might seem daunting. But Hemmert says it doesn’t have to be. She shared some great tips on how to reduce your child’s lunch waste.
Overcoming your objections
Parents generally have two objections to the idea of a waste-free lunch: “People say, ‘That will take too much time,’ and ‘My kid loses everything,’” she says.
But she says a waste-free lunch can actually take less time than a typical school lunch. She recommends families make their lunches during dinner cleanup. Put individual servings of that night’s dinner leftovers in reusable containers for the next day. While you’re washing dishes, kids can cut up fruit, veggies or other sides to put in the lunchbox.
Second, Hemmert says many families are pleasantly surprised that their kid keeps good track of their cool new lunchbox.
Take baby steps
Daunted by the idea of an entirely waste-free lunch? Try these two easy steps: Switch to a refillable water bottle instead of a juice box and try a cloth napkin.
“Ninety-nine percent of kids don’t use the paper napkin you put in their lunch. They toss away a good piece of paper,” she says.
“With a cloth napkin, you can almost put the same napkin in every day and it can just go in the wash at the end of the week.”
Get your kids on board
For a waste-free lunch to work, you need buy-in from your kids. Let them help pick out containers and talk about what they’d like to see in their lunch.
Second, talk with kids about the environmental impact of trash. Hemmert took her kids to visit a landfill so they really understood where their trash ended up.
“We need to help them understand that when you throw something away, there is no ‘away.’ It has to go somewhere,” she says.
Gather your supplies
If you want to take the plunge, you’re going to need a few supplies. Hemmert recommends the following: a refillable bottle, a cloth napkin, a set of utensils, a set of reusable hard containers for food and a soft-sided carrier with a spot for an ice pack.
Make lunch count
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and dinner is a time for the family to be together. Hemmert says lunch sometimes gets the short end of the stick.
“Lunch is a really important meal. It fuels the kids for the entire afternoon,” she says. “With a little work, we can use lunch as a way to teach kids how to care for our environment and how to care for themselves.”
Megan Cottrell is a freelance writer and mom.