Turning back-to-school lunches green

This post is part of the Green Moms Carnival, which, this month, is focusing on greening up your back-to-school routine.

People often think “going green” means you have to spend a lot of money. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. Making school (or even work) lunches green doesn’t require a huge outlay of cash. In fact, by packing eco-friendly lunches, you are more likely to save money, your children are more likely to eat healthier foods, and you are taking care of the earth by producing less waste. It’s a win-win-win!

Time is often an important factor when it comes to packing lunches (at least it is for me). And while some of the following suggestions take time to prepare, if you do your prep work on a weekend, you will have food conveniently ready to toss into lunch containers throughout the week(s) ahead.

When shopping for school lunch foods, be mindful of greenwashing – “a term used to describe the practice of companies disingenuously spinning their products and policies as environmentally friendly.” Just because a product claims to be “natural,” contain “whole grains” or even “organic” doesn’t mean it’s healthy or what it claims to be. Read labels carefully. The more processed food is and the more ingredients it has, the less likely it is to be healthy whether it’s organic or not. I mean seriously, organic Oreos? Give me a break!

If you buy individually packaged foods, like organic fruit snacks, how green are you really being? Think about how much plastic and packaging is involved there. A great alternative is to make your own organic fruit snacks. If you can use locally-grown fruit from your own garden or farmer’s market, all the better. Package them in a reusable container like these reusable sandwich bags found in the Cool Mom Picks Back to School Guide and you have a tasty “green” snack ready to go!

Far better than buying food that contains a label is to buy label-less food, like fresh produce! Chopped fruits and vegetables, paired with a dip or nut butter, bring color, taste and healthiness to every lunchbox. Try to choose fruits and vegetables that are in season and grown locally whenever possible. You can even buy large quantities of in-season fruits or veggies and then dehydrate them to throw into lunches year-round.

Granola bars are another great snack, but when you buy them from the store they are often full of unwanted ingredients, additives and preservatives and come with excessive packaging and waste. When you make them yourself, you control what goes into them and you significantly cut down on trash or eliminate it all-together. Check out these tasty do-it-yourself granola bar recipes below. You are sure to find at least one that your kiddos will eat. Some don’t even require baking! Make a batch on the weekend and you are set for lunches for the week. Put them in a reusable container and they are good to go.

Nuts are a great protein-filled food that can easily be packed into lunches. I just read a post by a woman on Freecycle asking for used Altoids containers. She said she uses them to pack nuts in her kids’ lunches. What a great idea! If your school has a no peanuts policy, ask if other nuts such as almonds, cashews, pecans or walnuts are acceptable.

Does your child like yogurt but you don’t like all of the waste (recyclable or not) produced by individual cups? Here’s another thing you can make at home (even in your crockpot), then scoop into your reusable container and you’re set. If you run short on time and have to buy yogurt from the store, buy it in the larger containers, then scoop out the desired amount into your child’s reusable container. Again, less waste.

If your child’s school doesn’t have the option for them to compost their leftover food (perhaps you can inquire about it and get a system started), ask them to bring home their leftovers rather than throw them into the trash so you can either save them if they are salvageable or compost them yourself. This will also allow you to gauge how much and which foods your child ate for lunch.

Along the same lines, check with your child’s school to see if they have a recycling system in place. If not, find out how you can get one started.

Michelle at What’s Cooking blog has an entire post chock full of ideas to help your child eat healthy school lunches. Some of her tips include:

  • Keep in mind that your children don’t have much time to eat…so pack foods in small portions that are easy to eat, so they have time left to play.
  • Let your child help you select a cool lead-free and reusable lunch bag or lunch box. Pick up a few reusable containers that will fit inside – this will prevent food from leaking and getting smashed, and will help you avoid using disposable items like plastic bags and foil.
  • Pack a reusable drink container instead of juice boxes, juice pouches, cans, and disposable plastic bottles.
  • Buy in bulk instead of purchasing pre-packaged items.
  • Whenever possible, pack lunches the night before.

Michelle also has some great tips for sandwich alternatives, thermos treasures, and container combinations that kids can assemble themselves.

Looking for more lunch container ideas? Check out:

  • Lunch Bots Uno and Duo
  • Kids Konserve which contains a page with a lot of information for schools, including a waste-free challenge to earn or save money for their schools. (Use code: crunchy for 15% off your Kids Konserve purchases through Sept. 30, 2009)
  • Retro Housewife put a list of cute reusable containers, utensils and cloth napkins for back-to-school waste-free lunches
  • Kellie at GreenHab has also put together a nice selection of lunch boxes

There ya have it. Turning your school lunches green is healthier, less costly and better for the earth, and probably even more fun. If you have money-saving green lunch tips or kid-friendly recipes, please post your links in the comments.

Related posts:

Cross-posted on BlogHer

Make sure you head over to Organic Mania on Monday, Aug. 10, to find out how other Green Moms are greening their back to school routine in this month’s Green Moms Carnival.

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37 thoughts on “Turning back-to-school lunches green”

  1. Love this post! I have been making an outline about this very thing, along with lots of lunch ideas for my blog. I may just link to you once it is completed! My son is too lunch for a lunch box since he is just starting preschool, but we use this type of thing when we do picnics(just bigger).

  2. After your ditch the disposables challenge, I always carry my cloth napkin, a real fork or spoon, and glass containers for my leftovers to lunch. The only problem is that I begin to accumulate forks in my school bag and then wonder why I have no forks at home 🙂

    When we go back to school, I’ll be eating my favorite macoun apples for breakfast and one for lunch, probably one for a snack, too. I love them because there’s no package required 🙂

  3. My kid’s “school” sends home all uneaten food (in the stainless steel containers they provide) so that we can gauge how much was eaten! LOVE that.

    It’s also a good indicator as to when items are a hit or not.

    Great post, Amy!

  4. Crunchy,
    Your ideas are over the top as I prepare my little ones for back to school. I am going to make the granola bars as soon as I get the ingredients from Vitamin Cottage today. I love being able to access you blog and find the ingredients right there for me….I can’t thank you enough. What ever happened to the good ol’ days when mama when cut you an apple and send you off to school with some peanut butter to dip it in? Is it that hard to put some peanut butter in a little tupperware container and slices of apple? We find a new use for almost every container in my house. The other day my boy brought home a water bottle his dadda bought him from the store and as he was about to put it in recycling, I said, “hold up” mama can use that to put in your lunch box boy! My point is that we all can make the world greener if we just put some thought into it and try. You’re the best, Crunchy! I can’t wait to use some of these ideas!

  5. This is just what I needed to get off on the right foot for our first time packing “lunches” – really it’s just a snack for his 2 hour school day.

    Either way you inspire me to be less wasteful and see “convenient” has a price even when it has “Organic” plastered all over it.

  6. Amy, you are such a good mom and so smart and environmentally conscious. As a retired teacher who saw a lot of food wasted, thrown in the gabage and not even touched, you are giving great advice. I am very proud and Ava and Julian are so lucky. Great post!

  7. You’re right; some companies out there claim that their products are “green.” When in reality, they’re not only bad for the environment, they’re also bad for us.

    I love granola bars! But now that you mention that some of the ones available in the market are not so good for us, I’m having doubts if I should still buy them… 🙁

  8. A Word To The Wise 4 All Moms!
    I have listened to doctors, teachers, counselors as well as social workers dish out advice about our children and some of it is well taken, but all must be critically perused and evaluated by us, were the mommies! Who could possible know our children better than we do?
    Some children have adverse reactions to sugar and some do not, however experts would like to paint all children with the same broad brush. Teenagers having problems in school is a good example. The first direction the experts seem to like to pursue is Attention Deficit. However a wise individual would first pursue the basics such as: Are their marital problems in the home or some type of alcohol or drug abuse? Is the child fighting thru Identity issues such as sexuality? These are just a few of the possibilities that could be causing children problems and us Mommies and Daddy’s need to make sure everything is being addressed before we push it off on a medical condition. I’m not saying we don’t look at everything; however it seems we live in a society that loves to turn directly to medication to solve a problem! Just watch the evening news and I’m sure you will see what I mean. The drug companies are now pursuing us directly to get us to ask our doctors for their drugs! The government likes to preach “Just Say No to Drugs”, and then they pitch them at every opportunity!
    My 16 year old was being tortured by mean girls via email and was heartbroken. She was having some acne issues as we all did but they were extremely mean to her in nature. It was not easy but I found a site that carries Cyber Bully Alerts warning the children to STOP sending these emails as they are being watched and logged and will be prosecuted. We all know what this kind of meanness can lead to with teen suicides and all. I found the cards at hate cards dot net and they did the trick! The torture stopped for Sarah and that was good enough for me. We need to find ways to overcome and adapt to protect our kids.
    We can care for runny noses and chapped bottoms, but we must look out for our babies through high school and educate them to think for themselves until they learn too!
    At Home Mom in MN

  9. Those are great tips and will work for kids as well as adults. I’d eat that lunch any day at work. Even as an adult, I still like a PB and J on whole wheat bread – it’s comfort food!

  10. Great ideas and perfect timing. I love the granola bar recipes and I’m going to have to try that!

    On a related note, I talked Alexander into the big tub of Stonyfield Farm vanilla yogurt today after I told him it was a “greener” choice than the individual cups. Baby steps, right?

  11. This brought back a lot of memories… of last year when I was tired of fast food. I started carrying my lunches and soon the whole office wanted to know “what’s for lunch” each day. It was SO much easier than going out to eat.

  12. Amy,

    great resources! I have a motley selection of stainless steel containers, Tupperware and sandwich wraps that is starting to look rageed- great new resources!

  13. Great suggestions. I’m always crunched for time with being in school and back to work full time that I do depend on the prepacked items sometimes. I think the best thing I can do is cut down on the use of these. Perhaps instead of using them everyday try to only use them once or twice a week. Reducing our waste is always a great step in the right direction.

  14. Here is some ideas from Lisa Benatar from our forum forum.uptous.com

    “Sure—once you get into the habit of packing garbage-free lunches, it’s pretty easy. Here are some tips:

    – The least-expensive re-usable package for sandwiches is regular zip-lock bags. We have a plastic bag “tree” in our kitchen next to our dish-drying rack. We bought this wooden gadget http://www.greenfeet.com/itemdesc.asp?kw=Plastic-Bag-Dryer&ic=6005-04087-0000&eq=&gclid=CKORj72ZnJwCFRFMagodJA9Fcw but I’ve always thought that it would be a fun project to try to make with the kids, even give as gifts! We just wash our bags thoroughly like you would any plate or cup, rinse well and hang out to dry. Eventually the bags do wear out and you can recycle them with other thin-film plastic bags
    – Another, perhaps more fun, way to eliminate the sandwich wrap garbage from your lunches is “wrap n’ mats.” They are like mini-placemats that are fabric on one side, plastic on the other. They fold up around the sandwich and Velcro shut. They can be wiped clean easily. And another perk: the wrap-n’-mat serves as a little platcemat to eat off of! There are a variety of sources for these handy mats. Try googling “wrap n mat” and shop for the best price. They run about $7 each when you buy at least 4 and account for shipping. It’s another item that looks easy to make, but sometimes even with the best of intentions we just don’t get around to it!
    – Some people are concerned about food being in contact with plastic. (I don’t have a problem with this, unless it’s going into the microwave). For those who are concerned about plastic, there is a plastic-free alternative to the wrap n’ mat, made by a company called Abeego. The product is hand-made, and therefore much pricier (about $18 per wrap). http://www.etsy.com/shop.php?user_id=6088523
    – Pack cut-up fruit or veggies in small plastic containers that can be washed.
    – Buy snack items that are not individually wrapped, like crackers, cheese, peanut-butter pretzels. Again, I’ve looked up recipes for granola bars that can be made at home: http://www.joyfulabode.com/2008/04/11/homemade-granola-bar-recipe-no-high-fructose-corn-syrup-in-these-bars/You may have some recipe for a healthy cookie or bar that you could make and freeze or store for lunches. Replacing dried fruit with tiny chocolate chips in these recipes usually makes them pretty popular…
    – Use cloth napkins instead of paper. We have a separate tall basket for used cloth napkins and dish towels in our kitchen, so they all get washed together once a week, easier to fold and put away quickly. If your kids barely use their napkins (but you still feel compelled to provide them with one), use a Sharpie or fabric marker to put each child’s initial on their own napkin to cut down on laundry.
    – Wash and re-use plastic utensils (or use any re-usable utensils).
    – Get a stainless steel thermos—it really adds to the variety you can pack for your kids’ lunches, too. http://shopthermos.com/detail/TMS+2330P
    – This one is obvious at this point: use a re-usable water bottle.

    All of this probably translates to more time on somebody’s part, washing out the re-usable containers and cloth napkins. But if you integrate it into your normal routine it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. And when you consider all of the packaging you are avoiding adding to land-fills, you may think it’s worth the effort. By the way: you can try getting your kids to wash out their own lunches right when they get home (or whenever works best)—let me know how that goes!”

  15. Fantastic ideas! As an addition for lunch box container, you might want to have a unique style that suits your personality, that you can store up to four dishes but can carry easily anywhere you go. Then you may go to Happy Tiffin site and see it yourselves.

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