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Tips for packing a zero

Aug 04, 2023

For parents with young kids, it has already begun: the messaging onslaught from the advertising machine, telling you that you need to buy everything new, that a new school year requires new supplies. Well, don't believe the hype! For those of you who pack your kids' lunch, now is the time of year to start thinking about lunchboxes, containers, etc. But they do not need to be new. Our family definitely doesn't do it that way.

If you're like us and you'd rather cut down on waste and trash and instill your children with values around reducing waste from both packaging and food, here are my tips and tricks for packing a zero-waste lunch.

I start every August with assessing what lunch supplies we already have in stock, making sure everything is in clean, useable shape and that zippers still work, there are no holes, rips or tears. If there are things that are broken, we mend them in both undetectable and visible ways. I don't believe in coaxing a kid into being more excited about school by buying them a whole new shiny sparkly set of everything.

For at least three years we've been operating at 85% reuse. My kids know that reusing is better for them and the planet, and we save our money for things that truly cannot function anymore. My advice is to, if you can, buy higher quality items in the first place, since it will save you money and waste less in the long run. We will also spend on things like shoes, which we all know kids grow out of at double-pace during the summer — and if they're still in good condition, they'll be passed on to someone who's feet they fit.

Here are some ideas for the best supplies for packing a zero-waste lunch.

Before running out to buy a reusable lunch box, first assess what you have at home. Scope out the kitchen for candy, tea or cookie tins. Reusing a cookie tin is not only eco-friendly, it's also comical to roll up at your cafeteria table and have your classmates think for a moment that "yes, in fact I AM eating an entire tin of butter cookies for lunch and I'll do it every day for the rest of the school year, just you watch!"

Why not get double-usage from things your kids are already into? Pokemon card tins are great for snack-sized meals. You may have an extra Lego basics tub that you can empty out and transform into a useful carrier. Shoeboxes and other household containers may be a possibility, too, and if you've exhausted your search and found nothing, I recommend stopping by your local second-hand shop or a neighborhood listserv to see if anyone else might be parting with gently-used options they no longer need. If all else fails, the last stop is to buy a new good-quality lunch box and use that for as many years as possible. I suggest picking a style/type that will age well with your kid, from elementary age through middle and high school/college usage.

We are a household that does have a few plastic snack bags in it and we rinse and clean them out for multiple use; it's been years since I purchased any. An Irish neighbor of mine once told me that when she went home from the US to visit family, she brought them a box of resealable plastic bags; when she came back the next year with another box, her family asked her why on earth she would bring another one, since they were still happily using — via washing and cleaning out — the first ones she gave. Use what you have until the proverbial hubcaps fall off, and if you do find yourself in a position to replace, consider some of these ideas and options:

Just because your reusable supplies start to break, does not mean they need to get thrown out. If a lunch bag zipper starts to malfunction, you may be able to fix it! If that doesn't work, you can still squeeze a little more life out of it by using an elastic band or two to hold it shut. Make your own (I'd recommend a wide elastic with a sewn-in hook-and-loop closure so you could belt the bag through the carrying handle) or look around your house and repurpose a couple of fun elastic headbands you might have lying around in a drawer. If you're handy with sewing and replacing the zipper proves futile, you might refashion a spare tea towel or pillow case into a fitted drawstring slip cover that you can slide over the insulated lunch bag, keeping the inside yummies cool and in place. Make a couple and use them alternately to make for a fun weekly opportunity to switch up the overall lunch box look.

I decided early on to indoctrinate my kids into my ethos of low waste, so they would understand why we do what we do, and take the lead when possible. I coached my kids early to bring home every single thing they take to school in their lunch bags, from utensils to food scraps. This training involved a few years of gentle reminders, numerous trips to national parks and camping sites (following instructions to take out what you bring in) and their own observations that some school cafeterias provided no compost or recycling options to students. In such cases, they learned to be self-reliant, seeing that their extra effort to bring it all home meant that we could compost, reuse and recycle containers for the next day.

Lunch boxes Sandwich and snack bags