The Insight:

How to Pack a Zero-Waste Lunch

By:  Alexandra  Zissu  Author & Speaker  April 25th, 2013

Packing lunch for your child is one way to ensure she’s getting mom-approved [ed note: or dad-approved!] fuel for school, but the waste generated from home-supplied lunches can add up to 18,760 pounds per elementary school! Not so cool. The answer? Zero-waste lunch to the rescue!

For inspiration and help, we turned to our friends, the mother-daughter green team Lynn Colwell and Corey Colwell-Lipson, authors of the book Celebrate Green! Creating Eco-Savvy Holidays, Celebrations and Traditions for the Whole Family. Below are their thoughts on how to pack a waste-free lunch. For more, check out their great website,

Zero-Waste 101

A zero-waste lunch means everything in the (reusable) lunch-box (or bag) is eaten, reused or recycled. Out with paper sacks and plastic zippy-bags; in with containers that click and clean. It’s easy and — dare we say it? — fun to put together a zero-waste lunch. (Getting your child involved in the process makes it a valuable eco-lesson, too.)

Green Their Lunchbox

Start by selecting a lunchbox or bag that’s sturdy, washable and free of toxins like heavy metals, PVC, phthalates and BPA. Choose a style and size that suits your child’s age. Or recycle a box or bag that’s already in use by your family: baskets, reusable shopping bags and mini-coolers are ideal.


Compile a set of durable, washable and reusable containers for the variety of healthy foods you’ll be sending to school with your child. Look for containers in different shapes and sizes made of BPA-free plastic, stainless steel, glass or fabric (earn extra credit for hemp or organic cotton). Pouches and bags for fruit and veggies slices, wraps for sandwiches, tins for cheese cubes, yogurt and dips and spill-proof thermoses for the hot (or cold) stuff.

Ditch drink boxes and plastic bottles (even those that are recyclable) and save money by refilling. Juice, milk and water will keep clean and cool in no-fuss stainless steel.

Zero-waste doesn’t have to cost a dime. Save small jars, tins and other containers that come with food you purchase at the store. Invite your kids to be on the lookout for perfect sized containers that could be used in their lunches. If you’re a DIY maven, you can make your own cloth sacks and pouches.

“A” for accoutrements

Don’t forget the napkins and utensils! To wipe messy faces and hands, opt for washable, reusable cloth napkins or make your own with some old fabric cut in squares with pinking shears (fast and no-sew!). Make a stack and use them at home, too.

Fast-growing bamboo makes the perfect zero-waste utensils. Little hands will love light-weight plastic options, which are made from potato or corn. And stainless-steel straws are a fun, and reusable, addition as well.

A few additional tips

  • Include your child in making healthy lunch choices.
  • Pack only what your child will eat and encourage your child to bring home the rest to eat later or compost.
  • Make kids responsible for rinsing out containers, putting napkins in the wash and re-provisioning their kits.
  • Include notes (on recycled paper of course) praising your kids for helping the planet.
  • Encourage your children’s school to go zero-waste on their lunch programs, too.
  • If it can’t be consumed or reused, recycle it! If it can’t be any of these, still encourage your child to bring the wrapping home; make art from it.


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Alexandra Zissu

Author & Speaker

Alexandra Zissu Alexandra Zissu is the author of The Conscious Kitchen (2010). Co-author: Planet Home (2010), The Complete Organic Pregnancy (2006), & The Butcher's Guide to Well-Raised Meat (2011).

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