How to Pack a Healthy and Eco-Friendly Lunch

It’s the most wonderful time …. Oh wait, it’s not Christmas, just back to school time. And before you ask, I did cherish the time I had with my kids this summer. But we’re ready for routine. All of us. With that routine comes packing lunches. Without further ado, my tips for packing a healthy and eco-friendly lunch, or three, are coming right up.

But first, let’s talk a little about the eaters in my house. I do not have picky eaters. I sometimes have stubborn eaters—you know the ones who eat the lasagna on Tuesday but won’t touch it the next week. I’m not even talking about not liking leftovers, just plain being stubborn. I have one of those.

The Kind of Lunches I Pack

One Elementary School Lunch

This year, I have just one in elementary school. Where they still get a snack and lunchtime is less social and more functional. She uses a regular, insulated lunchbox, from Lands’ End and a reusable water bottle. Nothing fancy here.

One Middle School Lunch

Gulp. I am now a parent to a middle schooler. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but either way, here we go. This year, he’s using a Planet Box – without the super cool magnets. “Mom, I cannot have magnets on my lunchbox in middle school!” He has a metal, portioned lunch box, with a small container for dips/dressings, and an insulated bag with room on the outside for a snack and water bottle. Slightly fancier. Still an eco-friendly lunch.

One High Speed Daddy Lunch

Yup, the husband packs lunch too. And sometimes breakfast. And lots of snacks. It’s a big money saver, lets him eat better and is really a great example for our kids. He recently upgraded to a bigger, better, more dad-like lunchbox. It’s appropriately coyote brown with a manly shoulder strap and made by a veteran-owned and operated company called High Speed Daddy. It has a removable clear liner for easy cleanup, can fit a 12 pack of beer, and is decorated with a borderline inappropriate morale patch.

The lunches vary almost as much as the lunchbox, appropriate for each person. My husband mostly takes leftovers, an assortment of snacks like tuna fish and crackers, and a protein shaker bottle. My kids occasionally take leftovers in a thermos, but mostly take sandwiches, salads, or some individual serving of mini corn muffins or English muffin pizzas with a fruit and vegetable and snack. I don’t pack drinks for anyone, they use a water bottle.

Check out how I made over 50 lunches in an afternoon and stored them in my freezer.

How I Pack Lunches

A few years ago, I made a concentrated effort to have a zero-waste, more eco-friendly kitchen. We stopped using paper products, and that carried over to packing lunches. While the quality of the food I pack for my family is important, the way I pack it is also important. Almost everything is in a reusable container, making lunches pretty easy to clean up after. Here’s what we use specifically.

I pack sandwiches and snacks that I buy in bulk into Lunchskins sandwich and snack bags. We have enough of these to pack a snack and a sandwich for all 5 of us. Which I’ve not actually done yet, but I will one day, I’m sure.

Some of the snacks I buy in bulk include, peanut butter filled pretzels, pirate’s booty, popcorn, nuts, cookies/brownies—those sorts of stuff. I do still buy individually wrapped snacks like granola bars and fruit snacks. I just can’t get away from it yet. Maybe one day. (And yes, I know I can make my own granola, but I don’t want to.)

When I pack fruit or vegetables that have a dip with them, I use a small plastic or metal container. I want to be plastic-free, but these are not single-use plastic, so I count it as eco-friendly still. In these containers can go ranch dressing, peanut butter, or hummus. In similarly sized reusable containers almost always goes apple sauce. I buy the big containers in a 3-pack from Costco and portion out a few on Sunday and Wednesday.

Other meals that get packed may include leftovers or salads. My kids genuinely like salad, as long as it has a protein on it. So, when I make chicken Caesar salad—or any bagged salad that gets chicken on it—I send them in their thermos or another reusable plastic container. Leftovers go in the thermos, and 9 times out of 10 the food stays hot. They also pack bamboo utensils, so we’re not using plasticware. And if we need to use plasticware, it comes home to be washed and reused.

Now, the husband takes much more for food each day and has more flexibility in what kind of containers we use. I have a lot of glass storage, which I prefer for heating up in the microwave, so most of our leftovers get put into those. He packs some snacks, leftovers or a sandwich, and usually a protein shaker bottle to mix up later.

The Exception to The Rule

Every rule has an exception, right? Well, the exception to my minimalist-wannabe-almost-zero-waste-lunch-packing is field trip day. UGH! Everything has to be disposable on field trip day and it is so hard. We simply do not have plastic sandwich bags in the house. Ever! But I do have a few eco-friendly tips for these specific days.

  1. Save paper bags that you get from the store. Sometimes liquor bottles come in paper bags, or you can get a paper bag from the hardware store. Even a paper gift bag would work. Then I write their name on it. Easy, peasy.
  2. Get these recyclable, paper, sandwich bags, and hide them away with your paper bag stash (mine’s in my China cabinet, in case I ask you on the night before a field trip where I hid them). Use them only when necessary.
  3. Send your kids with their regular water bottle. They’re going to be carrying a bag of some sort anyway, right? So they can pack their water bottle, fill it up where needed, and be prepared for the whole day.
  4. Send whole fruit instead of apple sauce or sliced fruit, so that there is no trash at all! Or, if it’s a peel, pit, or rind, it should barely count as trash.

Packing healthy, eco-friendly, non-boring lunches doesn’t have to be time-consuming, expensive, or stressful. In fact, with some meal prep and strategic placement of items, everyone can pack their own.

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