Packing a waste-free lunch

I like to go on Pinterest every so often — mostly to see what sort of zero waste DIY projects are out there — and one thing that keeps popping up are pins that extol the value in letting kids pack their own lunch (with you on that one) using a fridge and cupboard filled with prepackaged or repackaged items from the store (lost me there).

That's just a lot of garbage.

That’s just a lot of garbage. (File photo. Thanks, Internet.)

I should mention that because of my food issues, shared by Johanna, incidentally, so that sucks, we don’t do a lot of processed food in this house anyway. (Does cheddar count as processed? Oh, and cereal. Eric’s bread is definitely processed. So, like, those.) I can’t do artificial colors, flavors or preservatives unless I want to die (which I do not), and Johanna gets sick when she has too much sugar. Too many fats, oils and salts also get us, although it takes a while for that to build up.

So what I’m saying is that it’s easy for me to talk because life necessitates we look at this differently anyway.

But we can still have a fridge and cupboard filled with items for the ol’ lunch box. I like to prep everything on Sunday, my Cook All The Things Day, so all the girls have to do (um, and Eric and I) is pull jars out and start filling up lunch containers.

Here’s what we regularly have to choose from:

Carrot sticks

Sliced cucumber, zucchini or summer squash (raw summer squash is lovely)

Apples (no prep needed!)

Grapes (we have grapes at the farm stand at this time of the year. They are AMAZING)

Juniper grapes. Yes, please.

Juniper grapes. Yes, please.

Nuts (sometimes a snack mix if I’m feeling generous, but generally raw walnuts, peanuts or cashews)

Dried fruit (cranberries, apricots, plums)

Peanut butter on bread (we like it fast in the Walker household)

A host of salad fixings (Abby and I are big fans)

… Johanna started putting popcorn in her lunch last year in lieu of chips, but she hasn’t yet this year

Sometimes, if I’ve got time or am on the ball, we also have:


Zucchini pancakes (from Ina Garten. Delicious, even cold. Recipe HERE)


Apple chips (just dried apples but that’s what the girls call them)

Hummus (HERE is a recipe, I’m not usually this fancy though)

Some sort of dessert


I’ve already written about our lunch container setup, but here’s a roundup: Abby and I have stainless steel containers, Eric has plastic containers he got just for this purpose like three years ago (maybe more), and Johanna uses the odds and ends of containers we’ve had forever. I’ve been slowly adding stainless steel containers to our collection, but they’re expensive and, to be honest, I don’t trust Johanna not to lose them at this point. 😉 Also, unless Abby decides to take her container with her to college next year, Johanna will inherit that one.

Live action lunch shot, thanks to Johanna Monday night.

Live action lunch shot, thanks to Johanna Monday night.

Eric makes three lunches Sunday night and the other two Wednesday night (has for years), but the girls and I like our lunches a little fresher than that, plus we don’t have the container system he does, so we make ours the night before. It’s a big ol’ family extravaganza.

(I kind of thought our enthusiasm for making lunches the night before would wane by now, but the girls like being able to just grab and go in the morning, and I am a big fan of that myself. An extra 10 minutes can be a lot if you’re not a morning person.)

Also, by packing our lunches every night, we don’t need a bunch of extra containers. Yeah, I have to hand wash (almost) every day, but I’m doing that anyway (hello, travel coffee mug!).

That’s the minimalism talking, though. I like cabinets and cupboards that can breathe.


One item I’d like to learn to make is energy bars. I’ve got a couple of recipes I want to try and they don’t look particularly hard or even time consuming — it’s basically melting peanut butter, oats and honey on the stove and then adding stuff like dried fruit, nuts and seeds. Johanna needs to be fed and watered every hour on the hour, so having energy bites in her locker would be helpful. It would also be a good snack for Abs, who isn’t a fan of processed food but will sometimes buy herself a box of granola bars, especially during basketball season, because she needs something quick.

Okay, now it’s your turn: What package-free items do you put in your lunch box / your kids’ lunches? Do you pack your lunch the night before, the morning before, or do you pull an Eric and do all the lunches in one night?

Next up: I went on reader Jennifer’s blog (which is adorable) and read about how she put all of her cleaning products in one place and then went through them to organize/discard/etc. (Post HERE.) Genius. So I decided to do that, too.

16 Responses to Packing a waste-free lunch

  1. Here in the U.K. nut products are banned from schools because of allergies. Most places also ban chocolate, crisps (what you call chips), etc in order to promote healthy eating. My son generally has a small thermos with pasta and tomato or bolognaise sauce in it (sauce is frozen in small portions and microwaved in the morning while packing the box). On the side today he has some cucumber, some grapes and a Cheese String (i know, I know, but he won’t eat it if I just put in some regular cheddar).

    • Oh, that’s interesting — a friend of mine in Colorado sent her kids to a charter school and they were a nut-free campus, but that’s pretty rare here. Maybe a nut-free table in the cafeteria. I have a sweet little nephew who is deathly allergic to so many things, including peanuts … I wonder sometimes how he’s going to navigate school. He just turned 3.

      I like the pasta and sauce idea. And I WISH they’d ban stuff here, but there would be such a backlash … apparently we like to be free to kill ourselves with crap. (Our food system is so messed up, but that’s another post! 🙂 )

      Oh, and I’m not going to throw stones at the string cheese. We do what we need to do to feed our kids — I used to buy them for Johanna too.

  2. I’m in the uk too. My son usually has school lunches cooked from fresh on site (many places just reheat stuff) and some of the veg is grown by the students.

    if he has a lunchox (doing one this week) it will be full of raw veg and salad items with fruit for after. Protein will be a slice of home cooked meat, or piece off a larger block of cheese. If there is bread it will be a pitta or a wrap from a larger pack so I suppose that has been packaged, but that’s all! I will admit to putting things in plastic containers which I have had for years.

    • Once upon a time, like when I was in school in the 1980s, we had “cafeteria ladies” who cooked all meals from scratch, and they were AMAZING. Now everything is heat and serve. So you can get warmed up chicken nuggets and carrot sticks in plastic on a disposable tray with disposable silverware. It’s disgusting and beyond wasteful. Abby took hot lunch a few times when she was in first grade, but then decided her packed lunches were better. Johanna has literally never had a hot lunch, although she’s been in after school programs where they feed them the same kinds of things. Your system sounds so awesome. I’m jealous! We do have a school garden, but it’s tiny and I’m not sure what even happens to the veggies.

      I think it’s good to use what we have, i.e. plastic containers. I’m not thrilled about it necessarily, but it seems very wasteful to toss everything and then go buy new stuff. No shame in admitting you use them!

  3. There are recipes on the web for “bars” made with dates and nuts blended together. Can add other dried fruits, coconut, whatever. I like dates, peanuts, and a little bit of chocolate. Like you, I have collected some stainless containers – lighter than glass and I hate plastic.

    • I’ve had glass jars break in my lunch — that was a little too exciting.

      Hey, so on the bars, just toss that stuff in a food processor and it magically becomes an energy bar? I might have to try that … thanks!

  4. Ha ha I saw the first picture and thought “SO MUCH PLASTIC”…I sort of panicked when I thought that was your zero waste lunch…! It’s amazing how your blog changed the way I see packaged food now. Greetings from Portugal.

    • Ha! Yeah, sorry about the heart attack. That’s one of the pins I see all the time. So much plastic! And so much sugar — the nutritional value in that lunch would be around zero.

  5. I make lunch for the kids on the days they are at school, they do it on the days they are home (they only go two days a week). My son took a peanut butter sandwich yesterday, with pomegranate seeds from our tree. My daughter is taking summer rolls (rice paper, veg, marinated tofu -not zero waste!) and pomegranate seeds. Recently it was black beans and rice in a thermos (reheating at school is too time consuming). So we’re all over the map lunch wise. Everything gets packed in the family’s usual tupperware, or wrapped in a cloth napkin (sandwiches), Or a tiffin.

    I have a wonderful recipe for energy bars, with nuts, chia seeds, coconut butter/butter, some other stuff. And a smear of chocolate on top for decoration/joy. It remains bar-like if treated gently. Let me know if you want to me send along the recipe.

    • Yes, please do! Thanks!

      We have thermoses, but I didn’t think about packing anything in there besides soup. Abby is especially fond of rice and beans. That’s a great idea! (They have a microwave in the commons area, but there are like 1200 kids at lunch all at once, so good luck there!)

  6. T, will send you super easy energy bar recipe. It’s from friends who were doing the paleo thing. Yummy and ingredients can be found in the bulk bins! WIN!

  7. We have Planetbox lunchboxes that really help me pack better lunches. I send fruit everyday and I try to pick a raw salad veggie or two. Usually a leftover main or a sandwich/wrap/homemade lunchable. There’s a Facebook group called Planetbox Inspirations (even if you dont have a Planetbox) where people post pics of their lunches to help give others ideas. It has some really good ideas that I haven’t seen other places. It’s a pick-what-works-for-you-leave-what-doesn’t kind of thing.

  8. We use Planetboxes for our 2 kids, too. Have had them for 6 years and they still look brand new. I like how they are divided into sections to encourage healthy eating. The kids pick their fruit for the fruit compartment, veggies for veggie compartment, etc. We also use stainless steel Thermos for hot food (soup, pasta, taco meaT). On Fridays, the school has Pizza Day (you order your kids slice ahead of time – funds from pizza sales go to Buy books, tech, etc.). On that day, we use zippered food bags from Etsy (ours were made by Butterfly Kisses shop) to hold the fruit and veggies. Like the UK, most schools in Canada are nut free until high school.

  9. Pingback: “Where do I start?” Easy zero waste changes in the kitchen | The Simple Year

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