The Waste-Free Lunch

Use the 5Rs to make your child’s lunches greener and healthier.

The Waste-Free Lunch


Nutrition breaks in North American schools can be a bit of an environmental catastrophe. With classroom wastepaper baskets overflowing with waste from lunches, cafeteria garbage bins stuffed with food and food packaging, and kids toting over-packaged products originating from countries across the planet, lunchtime in many schools and classes creates a staggering amount of waste.

While many teachers and administrators are working to address this issue by introducing programs such as litterless lunches, new recycling initiatives, and composting, much of the problem rests with the lunches that children bring to school in the first place. Pre-packaged meals, such as “Lunchables,” lead the way in waste and remain the most obvious offenders, but cans, bottles, single serving yogurt containers, plastic lunch bags, aluminum foil, and cling wrap all add up to small mountains of waste.

It doesn’t have to be this way, however. The trick is to follow the 5 Rs of waste reduction. Here are a few tips to help you create more environmentally friendly, not to mention healthier and less expensive, lunches:

1. Rethink. The next time you shop for the kids’ lunches, really think about your food purchases. Where does the food item come from? How far does it travel to get to your child’s lunchbox? Are there options for the same food product that have less packaging? Are there similar foods grown or produced locally? How healthy is the product?

If you have the time, do a little Internet research about popular products. From a quick Google search of “Lunchables,” for instance, I learned that the product uses layers of different types of plastic, much of it non-recyclable. As well, most of the “foods” included in “Lunchables” are heavily processed and derive many of their calories from soy by-products and high-fructose corn syrup. In fact, many pre-packaged meals contain over half the daily recommended intakes of fat, sugar, and sodium.

A greener approach is to put together your own Lunchables- type meal for you child, choosing low-fat, less processed meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables, low-salt crackers and reusable containers.

Thinking about greener options before you leave the house will allow you to make wiser choices once 
you are in the grocery store. It will also allow you to 
assess some of your environmental impact before it occurs.

2. Refuse: Say no to food that has travelled far distances to get to your plate. You’ll not only make an environmental difference and probably save money, you’ll also eat healthier. After all, fruits and veggies that are ripened on the vine are a lot healthier than ones that ripen on a truck or boat. Plus, you’ll be cutting back on the greenhouse gas emissions created in transport.

Refuse over-packaged foods. Why buy a head of California lettuce that is shrink-wrapped and shipped for miles, when there are products grown in your own country, province, or community that are farm-fresh, free of packaging, and less expensive?

Similarly, why buy over-processed and over-packaged deli meats and cheeses when there are producers located throughout South-Central Ontario who use natural ingredients?  Even if the environment is low on your list of purchasing decisions, the cost savings and health benefits to your child are reason enough.

3. Reduce. It’s a fact of life: some products require packaging in order to get them to your home. But there are more sustainable ways to buy many of them. Buying yogurt, juice, and snacks in large containers and sending single servings in reusable containers is a better choice.

Visit bulk food stores to purchase nuts, raisins, and other snacks. The same thing goes for peanut butter, jam/jelly, honey, and many other products. If you bring back bags and containers that you used in previous visits, you can eliminate your waste entirely.

4. Reuse. Cut out the plastic wrap and tinfoil by using reusable glass or Tupperware-type containers to transport sandwiches, entrees, and snacks. Use a lunchbox, thermos, and reusable lightweight beverage container. The cost savings will really add up. Be sure to purchase safe beverage containers made from BPA-free polycarbonate, stainless steel, aluminum, or glass, and never reuse empty pop or “bottled water” bottles.

5. Recycle. This should be the final step in your lunchtime waste reduction routine. By following the other 4 Rs, there should be little left to recycle. But if there is recyclable waste left over, make sure it gets into the blue box. Similarly, remember to compost any organic goods. It’s nature’s way of recycling!

Author: Donald Fraser

Donald Fraser is a freelance writer for television, radio, and print publications, both locally and nationally. He is a consultant, and environmental educator with an emphasis on food issues.

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