Zero Waste School Lunch
Back-to-School Hub,  Eco-Parenting

How to Pack a Zero Waste School Lunch

The normal, non-fancy way…

In scouring the depths of Pinterest for inspiration on school lunches, I’ve stumbled upon a theme. 99% of the posts about having a zero waste school lunch involve the containers or utensils used, but mention no direction on the actual food to pack!  For the ones that mention food, it is always cut into fancy shapes and assembled prettily because it’s obviously meant for social media. And there are always at least 10 different food options to choose from. That is NOT reality!

Foods targeted for school lunches are usually single serve bags, pouches, and cups.  And I totally understand why:  they’re SO EASY.  I can grab a different pre-packaged item from every food group, throw it in a lunch box, and have lunch packed in 2 seconds.  However, most of those choices are over processed and super expensive. 

 Not to mention, think of the packaging and waste from that one lunch of pre-packaged foods.  Now, imagine a week’s worth of that waste.  Can you imagine a school year’s worth of waste? 

Reusable containers

This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission, at no cost to you, if you make a purchase through a link. I only link to products I have personally used or researched. 

Why Zero Waste School Lunch? 

Back to the basics

It’s easier.  Seriously, it is.  I used to hate wandering through the snack aisle at the store, trying to choose school snacks for the week that my whole family will eat.  It’s not that they’re picky with snacks, but I’m picky with snacks.  I’d prefer them not to be hopped up on sugar or too messy during lunch time.  Also, snacks are expensive!  Especially when they’re pre-portioned.

So, I made the decision awhile ago to use two snacks that we will always have in lunches and that’s about it. I buy a family sized box of Cheez-its and a box of cinnamon graham crackers every week.  Done. I’m all about easy, folks.

Now I don’t have to worry that a box of 12 pre-packaged snack bags won’t be enough to fill my kids’ school lunches for a week.  (First world problems.)  The kids know what to expect and I never get complaints.  

My kids- and most kids- like routines.  So choosing the same meals or snacks week after week may seem boring to you, but may not be a big deal to them.  Try it out and see.  If it is, try a rotation between a few healthy options and swap them out week to week.

Kids’ nutrition

I could do a deep dive here on nutrition, but that’s for another day.  I think most people have a basic understanding that kids need good food in their bodies to be able to stay focused at school and keep energy levels even so they don’t crash after lunch and recess. Oreos, Doritos, and juice boxes will not help this situation.

You know what else doesn’t help? Star-shaped melon, umbrella skewered ham and cheese cubes, and ants on a log. Sure, it looks pretty. But that is so much time spent on presentation and more reasons for your kids to play with their food rather than eat it!

Whole, unprocessed foods

For the majority of your school lunch foods, aim for whole or minimally processed foods.  Fruits, vegetables, eggs, and nuts are staples in our house.  They pack easily in a lunch box and stay fresh until lunch time.

A balanced-ish meal

Remember the food guide pyramid? Yeah, they don’t do that anymore. In 2011, that changed to MyPlate.  The plate is divided into 4 sections:  fruits, veggies, grains, and protein…with some dairy on the side.  It’s a much simpler way to visualize meals for more general, balanced nutrition. Keep this in mind while packing lunches.


The whole point of zero waste is to reduce the amount of garbage that is sent to the landfill.  To do this with school lunches, try to avoid as much packaging as possible in the form of individually wrapped cheese sticks, snack bags of cookies or crackers, cups of fruit or pickles, and boxes or pouches of juice.  

Zero waste kids snacks
Here are some alternatives: 

Individually wrapped cheese sticks:  Buy a block of cheese and cut it yourself, reducing the single serve packaging and opting for a bulk option. This takes literal seconds of your time.

Snack bags of cookies or crackers:  Buy the family size box of these items and portion out for lunches in a bento box or reusable bag of choice.

Fruit cups:  Choose whole, unprocessed fruit.  Cut it up or peel ahead of time if your child prefers.  Use a bento style box or small reusable containers.

Boxes or pouches of juice:  Just opt for a reusable water bottle instead.  You’ll save money and your child won’t have a sugar high (and crash) during the school day. 

Once you get used to this change, you can go further in your zero waste journey by looking at packaging of the ingredients you’re using in lunches.  For example, does that bread you use for your child’s sandwich come in plastic packaging?  Try making your own bread or purchasing from a bakery and bringing your own container to reduce the plastic bag.  Do the oranges you purchase come in plastic bags, too?  Bring your own reusable produce bag to the store and choose fresh fruit from the bulk bins instead of pre-weighed in plastic bags.  These are small changes to make over time. Not an overhaul of your entire system!

Zero waste sandwich bread

Foods to Pack for a Zero Waste School Lunch

Ok, so what foods are we actually going to pack here?


Bagel with cream cheese
Chicken nuggets or something similar (thermos)
Dinner leftovers (thermos)


Nuts (most likely not peanuts)
Crackers (cheez-its, goldfish, etc)
Something sweet (graham crackers, cookie, dried fruit, chocolate)


Milk (through school lunch program, hopefully)
Water in reusable bottle

Let’s Go Further

Meal Prep

Choose a day of the week that works for you to prep a few things ahead of time. Sunday nights after the kids go to bed, I take 30 minutes to prep for school lunches. I prep a dozen mini bagels with cream cheese and toss them in the freezer so I’m set for the week. I boil eggs, peel and cut up carrots, and chop up bell peppers. I wash apples, pears, and berries so they’re ready to grab. I do all this while listening to an audiobook or podcast because meal prep has never been one of my favorite things! What can you do now to make your lunches easier? DO THAT.


Remember, the most sustainable option is always to use what you have first.  I purchased these a few years ago when my kids started summer camp and had to bring lunch.  I didn’t want to send them with anything too nice in case it never made it home.  They’re still holding up well so I plan on using them for a while longer!

Zero waste preschool lunch

We also have this bento style box that my Kindergartener uses daily.  I like it because it’s easy for him to open and close by himself with no issues.  Independence for the win. 

Zero waste school lunch

If you’re in the market for a new lunch box, choose an option that you can see yourself packing and cleaning every day.  Stainless steel is an easy-to-find and clean option. 

Looking to send a thermos with hot food?  This is the one we use with over 30,000 reviews!

Separating foods without plastic

To separate lunch items without using plastic ziploc bags or cling wrap, we use things like silicone baking cups, small reusable containers, and fabric snack bags.  You can also use food as its own container.  Cuties or whole apples or pears are good selections when given whole: no peeling or chopping required for extra laziness. I’ve even used romaine lettuce leaves to separate foods in lunch boxes (bonus because my twins LOVE lettuce).  

To swap out plastic bags and cling wrap, try reusable silicone bags, beesewax wraps, or fabric snack bags.  You could also make your own!  (Click here for my tutorial!)

If you’re looking for more zero waste kitchen swaps, check out my post here!

Zero waste snacks

The Extras

In addition to the foods and containers you’re using, think about any extras.  Straws, napkins, and ice packs all have disposable and reusable options.  When you have the choice, choose reusable.  I send cloth wipes and reusable ice packs in my kids’ lunches every day, and I always get them back.  

Zero Waste School Lunch

There are so many benefits to a zero waste school lunch:  simplicity, nutrition, financial, and don’t forget the lunch helper that no longer has to open all your child’s individually wrapped gogurts and cheese sticks!  

Do you think this is doable in your daily life? I’d love to know! Leave a comment below!

Need help with managing mealtimes with kids? Check out this post about mealtime checklists to make things easier!

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