Sometimes I get asked questions like “How do your kids feel about their lunch boxes? Do they stand out as being different or get teased by other kids?” I understand this concern but I was surprised when first asked this question because our school, like most schools I know of, encourages ‘nude’ food and healthy eating; so, homemade food, reusable drink bottles, containers and cutlery are fairly common in student lunch boxes (they were at our preschool too). These items are even common in lunch boxes packed without waste free intentions so it has never occurred to me that my kids’ lunch boxes stand out. On a couple of occasions my kids have reported positive attention for using different reusables like the cloth sandwich wraps they helped sew, but this seems to make them proud of their waste free lunches.

Often I think waste free school lunches are over-thought. You really don’t need a collection of fancy equipment and you don’t need to spend a lot of money. Remember though, that by investing in something durable and versatile you’ll get a lot of use out of it and that will save you money in the long run – and save waste. These are the reusable lunch box tools that work best for us.

Drink bottles

We have a mixture of reusable plastic bottles (e.g. the ones that came in the Milo In2 Cricket pack) and stainless steel bottles. Stainless steel water bottles last much longer than plastic ones (I’ve had mine since 2003) so they are a good investment and you can find them at good prices. If your kids don’t like the taste of plain water, try infusing the water with slices of fruit to avoid juice boxes.

Insulated Lunch Bags

We pack lunches into insulated lunch bags to keep the food cool; these are our lunch ‘boxes’. I find these sizes and shapes fit well into the kids’ school bags and are easy for them to carry as well as get out individual snacks like fruit. The bags are easy to wipe out and I throw them into the washing machine every now and then. We’ve been using these same bags since the kids began preschool five years ago.

Containers

When packing lunches, I use containers the most – there really isn’t anything that can’t be popped into a container to stay fresh, for example popcorn, cut orange, sandwiches, slices, salad, and trail mix. I’ve been using small plastic tubs and occasionally a small glass jar (for homemade yoghurt). All the containers fit nicely in the insulated bags and aren’t heavy.

Reusable plastic containers for waste free school lunches.

Whilst I now prefer not to use plastic containers for health and environmental reasons, I don’t want to add to the waste stream by prematurely ditching these containers, so I’ve continued using them until they need replacing. I’ve reached that point with my sandwich sized containers so I have decided to replace them with stainless steel tubs which are more sustainable, durable and less toxic than plastic. They’ll last for many years, like the drink bottles, and provide good value for money. Stainless steel tubs are also easy to wash in the top rack of the dishwasher. I decided against glass tubs because of the weight they would add to the school bags and it may even be against school policy to bring glass to school.

In terms of style, my preference is for separate, single compartment containers or stackable sets which can be used together or separately depending on needs. I find them more versatile and the kids don’t have to take a large lunch box that includes compartments that may not be used. Additionally, my kids can quickly and easily reach into their bags to take out what they need without having to open a large bento box and risk spilling food into their bag. Here’s what I’ve chosen to replace our plastic sandwich containers (they were still on their way by mail when I posted this before going on holidays). Click the two links above for full details.

As I said, these tools work for us so have a think about what combination of tools will work for you and your children and which will fit with your school’s procedure for meals and snacks.

DIY Cloth Sandwich and Snack Wraps

Cloth wraps will keep a sandwich, biscuits, or muffin fresh for a day. There are many premade sandwich pockets on the market but because I like to keep spending and consumption to a minimum I use a napkin from our picnic pack or these wraps we made from some scrap fabric. Simply place the food in the middle of the wrap, fold over corners, wrap the ribbon around the bundle, and then around the button to keep it secure.

To make your own, sew together two pieces of fabric 30cm square, right side together. Leave a 3cm gap so you can turn it the right way out, then stitch the gap shut. Iron it flat, sew on a button and ribbon just in from one of the corners and you are done. It’ll take you five minutes with a sewing machine, maybe 15 minutes if you hand sew.

Cutlery

I like to give my kids real cutlery from the kitchen drawer when they need it to teach them about responsibility, but if your child has a tendency to lose things, you might want to get a supply of cutlery from the op shop until they become more reliable.

Other Options

If you like to give your kids cut apples but don’t have a spare container or wrap, using a rubber band to hold the apple together keeps it from browning. Make sure you keep the rubber band for reuse.

Beeswax wraps are another option that get many people excited – they are pretty cool – but I find I just don’t need to use them in lunch boxes and sometimes my kids don’t like the beeswax smell around their food. Beeswax wraps can be bought in more and more places now including online and many beekeepers are finding this product is something extra they can sell at their market stalls, but they are easy to make yourself if you’d like to have a go.

Lunch Orders

The parents club at our school introduced some handy lunch order bags which are reusable and have a separate compartment for money. When we choose a lunch order we send along an appropriate container, cutlery and sometimes a little tub of soy sauce (to avoid the small plastic fish bottles) in the lunch order bag. The parents on lunch duty kindly put the food in the tubs or travel mugs I provide and I obviously wash them when they are brought back home.

Reusable lunch order ttols for waste free lunches. Includes a reusable bag, travel mug, fork and small plastic tubs.

Recently, I came across a small school that is taking the use of reusable containers for lunch orders to another level. Check out this post from Little Eco Footprints for inspiration to implement something similar at your school.

Life lessons from canteen duty. 1. Big change is most easy when made in little steps. A year ago our school canteen menu was full of unhealthy options. Then we offered one healthy homemade choice and started simplifying the menu. Later, fresh fruit salad was added – and a few more choices dropped off. Then salad wraps and salads were added. Yesterday we started using reuseable containers for the salads. A year ago – I would not have believed that such drastic change was possible. And it was barely noticeable because it happened in little steps. 2. Scale is everything. We're a small school. Washing containers after lunch would unlikely be feasible at a larger school. Embrace small and the seemingly impossible becomes possible. 3. You don't always have to be the person driving change. But you sure as hell want to stand up and support the person who is. I havn't been the motivator for any of these changes. (To be honest I put the canteen menu in the too hard basket). But I've been supporting, encouraging and thanking the person who is driving the change. #littleecofootprints #wattleseedcollective

A post shared by Tricia {little eco footprints} (@triciaeco) on

Fundraising Opportunities Using Reusable Lunch Box Tools

Why not help your school community achieve waste free lunches by making and selling some of these tools at school fetes, or look into using a business like Litter Free Living which specialises in litter free lunch school fundraising.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with waste free lunches. Have you found them easy or difficult? Any thoughts about why?

This post was republished by 1 Million Women, a movement of women acting on climate change through the way we live.

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7 thoughts

  1. I’d love to know what you put in your lunch boxes! My girls are vegetarian, and 18 months & 3.5. The younger one goes to daycare, where lunch is provided, but I provide lunch for my preschooler. I usually put a sandwich in (I have a lunchbox which has a clip-shut sandwich compartment, so no need to wrap), a piece of fruit … but I tend to always add a packaged option for treat/snacking (muesli bar, fruit bar, tiny teddies, mini rice cakes). What do you put in as extra? Do you just do similar, but home-bake the items so there is no packaging? I’d love to have some good recipes for school lunches that are yummy and moderately healthy, and can be stored in a sealed container for a week or two so I can dole them out for lunches.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yep that’s what I do; mostly bake some biscuits, slices, bliss balls, muesli bars etc to avoid packaging. But if I can buy anything package free from bulk I will, to lighten the baking/cooking load. I can get bulk popcorn, dried fruit, nuts, pretzels, nougat snacks, etc. We also do veg sticks with peanut butter, boiled eggs, and left over dinners like pasta. At one point I was making things like fruit leathers but the effort wasn’t worth it given my kids will happily eat pieces of fruit in their natural form. It’s the vegetables that I struggle to get into my kids.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the great article, Tammy! I enjoyed seeing what you are doing to make your kids’ lunches waste-free. We don’t have kids, but my partner and I take packed lunches to our respective workplaces every day so we have a similar routine going on. I see many of my co-workers buying lunch every day in single-use plastic containers/wrapping and coffee from a cafe in single-use coffee cups…then complaining about how much they are spending on food! Apart from being infinitely better for the environment, bringing your own food and drink in reusable containers is just so much cheaper!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. HI Tammy,
    My resolution for 2017 was to use less waste in my semi-waste conscious household and lunch boxes are one of the target areas that I felt I could do that. I have purchased plastic yumbox boxes (we had the stainless lunch bots last year but found them too small and had to add so many extra containers that they were too hard to manage and pack easily – I now use the lunch bots for my smaller lunches…I really prefer the stainless though for longevity and reduced plastic exposure). I have 3 kids aged 6, 4 and 18 months so easy, stress free lunch boxes are important. I read an article about you in The Star about 12 months ago and last night googled to find your page after watching ‘A Plastic Ocean’ and feeling inspired to make more changes. I am hoping to lead my family into a more waste free lifestyle and see that your blog and Gippsland references are going to help me on my way. I life near Inverloch on 10 acres so can grow a bit myself, but was finding bulk food stores not so accessible – I am going to try Udder & Hoe tomorrow who are close and open regularly. I have also gone back to cloth nappies which I used a lot with my first two, but hadn’t so much with the third.
    Anyway, just wanted to say hello and thank you for putting together such an important resource.
    Cheers, Cathy

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Cathy, and thanks for your message! I’m so glad to hear of the changes you want to make and that Gippsland Unwrapped will be a useful resource for you – helping others do the same was my motivation for blogging. Finding package free products and even plastic free can be difficult in our area but there are always ways. I would just say don’t be too hard on yourself if there are slip ups, set backs or if things don’t move as fast as you’d like; anything you do does make a difference. Plastic is everywhere and the problem needs to be tackled by individuals, businesses and governments. I’ve seen awareness grow so much in the past 2 years, which makes me confident we’re getting somewhere. 👍🏻

      Like

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