no trash lunch

Monday was the first day of school. Yes, school starts in August in our district, which always seems crazy to me as I used to start school after Labor Day when I was a kid. This means that instead of determining what my kids will eat for lunch at around noon, I am now frantically making lunches at 7:30 in the morning.

Although making a school lunch may seem like a no brainer (PB&J with a banana, anyone?), a lot has changed since my mom threw cellophane-wrapped sandwiches into my childhood Scooby Doo lunch box. For one thing, most lunch boxes are no longer made of tin, but polyester and nylon. For another, people are now starting to take note of how much trash is created during the school lunch hour.

Did you know that a typical American school kid’s lunch generates 67 pounds of trash a year? When I first heard about this statistic, I was amazed. I then did a little math and realized that a class of 20 kids produces 1,340 pounds of trash in the school year, and was horrified when I further calculated that a school with 200 kids (which is a small school), creates 133,400 pounds of school lunch trash a year!

The day-to-day issues of dealing with all this trash, combined with a desire to help students become more environmentally aware, led the administrators and parents club at my children’s school to initiate a No Trash Lunch program. What, you may ask, is a no trash lunch? Well, it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a lunch that doesn’t use anything you would throw away — no baggies, plastic sporks, juice boxes, or paper napkins. I started making no trash lunches two years ago, and although I sometimes slip and use a baggy in moments of desperation — usually when the containers aren’t clean — I’ve found that packing a no trash lunch can be just as convenient as making one that generates piles of trash.

But making a no trash lunch isn’t just about giving up baggies and paper napkins. The fad of toting a disposable water bottle has also thankfully fallen out of vogue. Kids are now being taught that those little plastic bottles of Crystal Geyser and Evian clog up land fills and are bad for the environment. The current trend is to use stainless steel water bottles. I’ve seen these available everywhere from REI and Whole Foods, to the L.L. Bean web site and our school’s parents club. Although the stainless steel bottles cost more than the plastic variety, they will last for years and are not made of plastics that could potentially leach chemicals into your child’s water. Many reusable plastic bottles are also great, but be sure to purchase those with a 1, 2, 4 or 5 on them as they are thought to be safer.

So if you’re ready to give up baggies and plastic bottles, here are some tips that might help. Once you invest in the basics, a no trash lunch can be just as fast and easy to make as one full of waste.

Making a No Trash Lunch

1. Buy a reusable lunch box. I like the ones made out of Nylon and Polyester that can be washed.
2. Get some sandwich and snack-sized containers. These are sold everywhere from Target and Longs, to IKEA.
3. Purchase a reusable water container. I like the stainless steel ones, but these can be pricey. If you get a plastic bottle, try to purchase one that does not have the numbers 3, 6, or 7 imprinted on the bottom as these are most likely to leach chemicals. The best choices are those with the numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5 (although these are often more difficult to find).
4. Give your child a cloth napkin instead of a paper one.
5. If your child will need a fork or spoon, include a metal one that can be taken home, washed and reused. You can buy inexpensive sets of four at most drug stores.
6. If your child likes warm food, purchase a reusable thermos.

If you have any other ideas for how to create a No Trash Lunch, I’d love to hear them.

No Trash Lunch 28 August,2008Denise Santoro Lincoln

  • Thanks for that link to the green guide for plastic water bottles. I have been wondering about the details regarding plastic containers and at home use pyrex to store food and try to get bottled water in glass containers only. I recently wanted to get a water bottle for the gym and saw that whole food had those #7 containers in the area where you can purchase filtered water. I decided tap is a better bet…at least it seems to be in Oakland tastewise. Read about bottled water safety from the national geographic green guide. They site a 1999 Natural Resources Defense Council study on the bottled water industry
    I will be most likely hunting down a stainless steel container…

  • Jim (UK)

    Here in the UK , I use a filter jug , fill up with tap water and top up each time , and change the filter every month . We can get jugs that fit in the fridge to keep cool .

  • You can also find small refillable plastic bottles for condiments such as ketchup, mustard and other sauces. This way the kids won’t have to use the packets.

  • Denise Lincoln

    Great idea for using condiment containers. I also bought little salt shakers and include those when I send hard-boiled eggs in my daughters’ lunches.

  • Dianne

    Good for you! As adults we also create tons of waste with all our take out lunches and dinners. In East Asia, the rice lunch box is commonplace for adults and school children. Kids are even really competitive with each other over whose lunchbox is the best (see Eat, Drink, Man, Woman for a great example of this). Also in India, many businessmen get their lunches delivered to them by “tiffinwallahs.” Therefore, I would recommend looking in Asian Supermarkets for ideas for reusable containers and other materials for your lunches. Be careful, you may go shopping crazy!

  • Kerry

    We have started No Garbge Lunches in our elementary school as a monthly contest. We educated the children about the importance of what being “green” means, why we need to love our Mother Earth, and had each grade create a poster about the importance. We also have engaged the parents at the monthly PTG mtgs. The grade with the least amount of re-usable waste receives the Mother Earth Award. Although the amount of trash and single use plastic water bottles has declined, we still have a way to go. During Earth Week we are stepping it up and asking all children to have a garbage free lunch. I see our biggest delema as being the plastic milk bottles the children are required to take if they purchase the daily lunch. Can you recommend a solution so we can succeed at our cumulative No Garbage Lunch during Earth Week??

  • Denise Lincoln

    Sounds like your school is doing a great job getting everyone on board for a No Trash Lunch program. I love the idea of handing out a reward each month to keep kids motivated. Our school uses traditional, single-serving, waxed-cardboard milk containers for school lunch, which is great as they are compostable. Can you convince your lunch provider to use these instead of plastic bottles?


Denise Santoro Lincoln

I am a writer, editor, mother of twins, and enthusiastic home cook. I was raised by an Italian-American mother who, in the 1970s, grew her own basil (because she couldn’t find any in the local grocery stores), zucchini (for those delicious flowers), and tomatoes (because the ones in the store tasted like “a potato”). My mom taught us to love all kinds of food and revere high-quality ingredients. I am now trying to follow in my mother’s footsteps and am on a mission to help my daughters become adventurous eaters who have a healthy respect for seasonal food raised locally. My daughters and I grow vegetables and go to the farmers’ market. We also love to shop at Piedmont Grocery and Trader Joe’s. When I’m not hanging out with my daughters or cooking, I like to contribute to cookbooks (including Williams-Sonoma’s Food Made Fast and Foods of the World series), work as an editor, and write about food for Bay Area Bites and Denise’s Kitchen. My food inspirations are M.F.K Fisher, Julia Child, and Alice Waters — three fabulous women who encompass everything I love about food.

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