Tips for Packing a Nutritious, Waste-Free Lunch
Have you ever dropped into the school lunchroom to see what “lunch” means at your child’s school? If he or she attends a typical American school, you’ll likely see less-than-nutritious lunches made up of prepackaged, single-serve items and foods wrapped in disposable baggies, tin foil, and plastic wrap. You’ll see trash cans packed with trash, uneaten food, baggies, foil, paper napkins, juice boxes, straws, and more.
In fact, the New York State Department of Conservation has estimated that a child taking a disposable lunch to school generates an average of 67 pounds of trash per school year. Lump that figure together with the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey’s estimate that 16 percent of children and adolescents ages 6-19 years are overweight, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
But don’t despair! Savvy parents and teachers across North America are taking matters into their own hands. They’re working tirelessly to implement lunch programs aimed at improving nutrition and reducing waste. It’s no secret that children who eat well and exercise regularly experience less fatigue, more energy, and better concentration. They are more fit for sports and other physical activities, and they have lower obesity rates. Waste-free lunch programs not only reduce landfill waste, but also teach children about the importance of environmental stewardship. Want to make a change in your lunchmaking routine? It’s much easier than it seems . . .
A home-made lunch may take a bit more planning and an extra ten minutes a day, but given the obvious benefits, it’s well worth the time and effort.
What to Pack
Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Make sure your child eats at least 2–3 servings of dark green, red, and orange vegetables daily. Purchase organic and locally grown produce whenever possible.
- Fresh fruits and vegetables provide a variety of vitamins and minerals. These fiber-rich choices help reduce the risk of diabetes, constipation, and some types of cancer; and they can lower blood cholesterol. People who eat high-fiber foods are less likely to overeat.
Whole-grain breads, crackers, bagels, muffins, pita, lavash, tortillas, rice, pasta, and cereal instead of white varieties
- Whole-grains provide vitamins and minerals, fiber, and protein.
Beans, nuts, and whole grains for protein instead of meat, eggs, and whole-milk dairy products
- These healthy options contain more fiber, less fat, and fewer preservatives. Avoid milk and meat products from animals that have been treated with hormones and antibiotics. Search for rBGH-free milk or a sustainable dairy in your area.
Water instead of juice, fruit-flavored drinks, fruit punch, or soda
- Water is what our bodies need. When children fill up on sugary drinks, they may not have room for more nutritious choices, and sodas deplete the body of much-needed calcium.
What to Limit
Fats, especially hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils
- In addition to the increased risk of obesity, excess sugar consumption is thought to depress immunity. It has also been linked to diabetes and heart disease and may increase the risk of cancer.
- Sugar consumption can also increase the incidence of tooth decay.
Sodium—Sodium increases the risk of high blood pressure and stroke
When packing lunch this year, try to pack at least one fruit, one vegetable, a whole grain, and a protein. If you don’t do so already, check the ingredients label of every food item before you place it in your shopping cart—if you don’t like what you see on the list, don’t buy it. Involve your children in the decision-making process. The more input they have, the more likely they are to eat what’s been packed.
As a first step, sit down with your child and together look at the following list. Ask your child to circle the items he/she would like to eat for lunch. Feel free to add some of your own wholesome ideas.
Dried: apples, apricots, cranberries, dates, mango, mixed fruit, papaya, peaches, pears, pineapple, prunes, raisins
Fresh: apples, apricots, Asian pears, avocado, bananas, blueberries, cherries, dates, figs, grapefruit, grapes, kiwi, mango, melon, nectarines, orange sections, papaya, peaches, pears, pineapple, plums, pumpkin, raspberries, squash, strawberries, tomatoes
Raw: bell pepper, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, green beans, lettuce, mushrooms, shelling peas, snap peas, spinach, zucchini
Steamed: asparagus, beets, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cauliflower, green beans, snap peas, soy beans (edmame), spinach, sweet potatoes, yams
Other: mushrooms, sautéed or marinated, eggplant, potatoes—baked, mashed, or pan-fried, seaweed
beans (refried), canned beans (kidney, black, pinto, garbanzo, etc.), beef (lean cuts), cheese (lowfat or lite), chicken, cottage cheese (nonfat), eggs, egg salad, hot dogs (tofu or all natural chicken or turkey), nut butters, nuts, pork , salmon (wild-caught), soy cheese, soy sausages, soy yogurt, tofu (fresh or baked), tuna (no more than once a month) , turkey, yogurt (nonfat)
bagels, bread, buckwheat noodles, cereal (unsweetened), corn, couscous, crackers, lavash (flat bread), pasta , pocket bread (pita), polenta, popcorn (air-popped, not microwavable), rice and pilaf, rice cakes, spelt pretzels, tortillas
- Pack lunches the night before and store them in the refrigerator overnight.
- Maximize leftovers. Prepare extra servings at dinnertime for the next day’s lunches. Pack the leftovers in lunchboxes in the evening when you’re doing your regular dinner clean up.
- Elicit the help of your children. Teach them how to make nutritious lunches. Even a small child can help put carrots into a container or fill a water bottle. As they grow, give them more responsibility.
Stocking Up and Packaging
- Keep fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other nutritious foods on hand.
- Keep nuts (for older children) and dried fruit on hand for emergencies.
- Buy from bulk bins to reduce your costs. (Read ingredient labels carefully!)
- Make sure you have a set of containers that your child likes and can open easily.
- Write your child’s name on all containers before they leave the house.
Packing Waste-free Lunches
Packing a waste-free lunch is easy once you make it part of your daily routine. Here are a few guidelines to get you started:
Pack Food in Reusable Containers—Avoid plastic bags, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, and prepackaged foods whenever possible.
- Sturdy containers prevent “squishing.”
- Resealable containers make it easy for children to save uneaten food for an after-school snack.
- When you your child “packs out” uneaten food, you’re provided you with a view into his lunch habits and preferences. Talk with your child about the food that comes home. Adjust quantity and food choices periodically. With prepackaged foods, the lunchbox may come home empty, but you won’t know how much has been eaten and how much has been tossed into the trash can.
- Purchasing lunch foods in larger containers instead of single-serve packages costs less. Buy yogurt and applesauce in larger containers and spoon it into a smaller container for lunch. Buy quality bulk bin items, including fresh-ground peanut butter, nuts, dried fruits, and granola.
- Consider purchasing a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share or shop at the farmers’ market. Visit LocalHarvest to find a CSA or farmers’ market near you.
- Cut up fruits and vegetables. Children can eat some at lunch and save the rest for later. It’s hard to take two bites of an apple during snack time and save the rest for lunch. It’s easier to eat a wedge or two and then reseal the container for later.
Use a Refillable Drink Bottle—Consider using a made-to-last water bottle instead of refilling single-use bottles.
- It is widely suspected that single-use water bottles may leach chemicals into the water.
- If you use a refillable bottle, your child can save some of his/her water for later. If you pack a juice box or pouch, most of it may end up in the trash, and your child will have nothing left to drink at the end of the day.
- Water spills are easier to clean up than juice spills—at home, at school, and in your child’s lunchbox.
Use a Cloth Napkin Instead of Paper—Make or buy a napkin for your child to decorate. This can be a fun family project and will provide your child with a sense of ownership, increasing the chances that the napkin will make it home again.
Pack Reusable Utensils Instead of Disposables—Provide your child with utensils that will make lunch feel like a “real” meal!
The Bottom Line
Home-made lunches are not only more nutritious than their prepackaged counterparts, but they tend to cost less as well. A person taking a disposable lunch to school will spend an average of $4.02 per day or $723.60 per school year. A student who packs a waste-free lunch will spend about $2.65 a day or $477.00 per school year. That equates to a yearly savings of $246.60 per person.
A home-made lunch may take a bit more planning and an extra ten minutes a day, but given the obvious benefits, it’s well worth the time and effort. When packing lunches this school year, look for ways to make them nutritious and waste-free. For some excellent lunch ideas, recipes, and photographs, please visit:
Article Contributors: Amy Hemmert and Tammy Pelstring