Packing Zero Waste Lunches

Just a few days ago I posted about my conflicted relationship with pre-packaged food. Convenience is expensive, wasteful, and sometimes really, really….convenient. Especially when it comes to packing school lunches, a chore my husband and I utterly dread.

So imagine my surprise when my son’s preschool sent home a notice asking us to exclude all single serving packaged items. What a glorious idea! Having a trash-free policy for packed lunches has a huge impact when sixty students follow it every single day. And since the kids compost and are limited to refillable drink bottles, the daily trash produced will be extremely minimal. But that means no more raisin boxes, or cheese sticks, or fruit leathers. From now on, it’s reusable containers all the way.

I’m actually glad to have the eco-pressure to take that step. It’ll require extra time, but in the long run it will save money and environmental impact. Instead of buying single serving items, we’ll buy large quantities and individually pack them up in the beginning of the week. At this point my inner lunch packing loather is horrified by the change, but like all lifestyle adjustments, I think we’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly.

Cheese sticks will become cheese cubes.
Fruit leather will switch to frozen blueberries.
Raisin boxes will be replaced with homemade trail mix.

In terms of reusable lunch ware, we already love the small compartments in Lock & Lock containers with removable trays. They’re BPA-free, dishwasher safe, microwave safe, freezable and they nest for easy storage.

But we’re also thinking of buying something like Lunchskins so that we can squeeze more in lunchboxes. People also seem to really like the Itsy Ritzy Reusable Snack Bag. Do you have a snack bag solution that helps you pack a zero waste lunch?

I guess the easiest solution would be to wash out zip-lock bags on a daily basis. Are any of you managing on that system?


  1. I think it’s interesting that the school implemented that policy. I know I’ve heard of schools with the opposite approach–no one is allowed to bring in fresh or homemade food for school parties.

    I certainly don’t think washing out Ziploc bags every day would be the easiest solution at all. I hate washing out those bags and make every effort to avoid doing it. I find containers so much simpler than bags of any kind (even those cool reusable ones you linked to in the post). It sounds like you haven’t read my upcoming post on this very issue yet! I found a product that would work well for Roscoe, but you’ll just have to stay tuned to find out!

  2. I feel like my experiment with reusable snack bags has failed.

    My problem with all of these cloth-covered snack holders is that I end up with mold forming on the fabric. I imagine it’s because they are getting put away in the cupboard or back into a lunchbox before they dry completely, or there is food getting onto the exterior that molds. The fact is they get rinsed out in the evening, and then the next day’s lunch gets packed immediately, so there really isn’t time for them to dry.

    We’ve discarded 3 moldy reusable snack bags, and now I have a wrap n mat that I love but is also growing mold. With the cost of these things it is not economical for me to replace them this frequently.

    My youngest has a Planetbox, so he’s all set, but I need to find a better eco-friendly solution for my older children and myself. For now, it’s ziploc baggies and Tupperware.

  3. Love, love, love this idea. Mine is not ready for school yet so the practicality of it does not impact me, but like you said I am sure you will fall into a routine quickly.

  4. My sister sewed a bunch of unlined bags made from cotton. With all the stuff about phthalates, she decided to go plastic free. Because honestly, I think we can all guess that BPA was probably the tip of the iceberg. For everything except the wettest, juiciest snacks (which can just go in a container with a lid) they work absolutely fine. They also require zero sewing ability and about 10 cents worth of fabric. Can you sew a straight line? I haven’t taken this step because I mostly bought school lunches for my kids last year – there was zero waste and I honestly couldn’t have packed their lunches for cheaper. But this year, the price went up and their school switched all hot lunches to brown bag – so creating more waste. Not happy with their “green” school for this decision! So when I get caught up at home, I think I will copy my sister’s idea.

  5. PS. The thing about the cotton bags is to have a bunch and then actually wash the with your rags and things so they will never grow mold.

  6. Eileen, I like your sister’s idea of the cotton bags. I think I’ll try that with some organic cotton scraps! How does she secure the opening… does she just fold it over, tie a string around it (like a twist tie)? Nothing gets stale in the cotton bag?

  7. I love that your child’s school is implimenting that policy.

    I wish my son’s preschool was like that. His first day is today and I’m somewhat worried they will call or send a note home that his bento-style lunch is not acceptable. They want to be able to throw stuff away. I did include the required 2 paper napkins and individually wrapped wet wipe for cleanup – and I respect that 2 teachers need to be able to quickly and easily help their 16 2 year olds to get cleaned up after lunch and its a lot easier to be able to toss the wipes. But I am planning on using the bento box one day a week, and the other he will get things in reusable containers. I’ll be sewing up some of those sandwich bags (we already have some homemade snack baggies) now that I have some free time two days a week!

  8. Oh, Jennifer, I would cringe at having to send in paper napkins and individually wrapped wet wipes! My son’s school keeps jumbo bottles of Germ-X sanitizer on the desks (which I’m also not super-happy about due to the alcohol in it, but at least there’s not a huge amount of waste).

    I have a reusable snack bag (from Reusies) which I use mostly for bunny crackers so mold/cleaning isn’t really an issue. I use either a stainless steel thermos food jar or BPA-free plastic containers for my son’s lunch. He has only 20 minutes so there’s not time for him to eat very much. Oh! and I sewed cute little cloth napkins for him from fabric he picked out himself.

    I will admit I use foil to wrap single squares of chocolate that I tuck in to his lunch box as a treat now and then.

  9. Oh, Eileen, what a great idea! You make me wish I knew how to sew!

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