Baby Steps to Waste-free School Lunch Products

Child with Dabbawalla Monkey Lunch Bag

Every year we circle back around to reducing waste as our children go back to school. Waste from school lunch is visible and preventable, so we keep coming back to improve and come closer to that ideal of waste-free school lunch.

This year, look at your child’s school lunch bag to ask if anything is being thrown away. If it is, what reusable alternative can you find?

Take one step. You don’t need to look for perfection. Just look for this year’s baby step.

The Lunch Bag or Box

A single-use paper or plastic bag guarantees that your child will have a 100% NON-reusable school lunch. If you haven’t decided on a reusable lunch bag or box yet, start there.

Which lunch bag or box to choose depends on a child’s age. We have some adorable lunch bags that might be too cute for cautious older children, but we also have a variety of plain containers that won’t give anything away.

Dabbawalla Lunch Bags
Dabbawalla Lunch Bag Inside

Younger children will love Dabbawalla Lunch Bags because of the cute and bright designs, such as animal faces. These bags are insulated to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Best of all, they are fully machine washable. You will still need to pack the food in containers inside the bag, though.

Goodbyn Lunch Boxes
Goodbyn Lunch Box with food

With Goodbyn Lunch Boxes, the lunch box is also the food container. There is no need to have separate small container to include just enough of each food—and you won’t find yourself asking, “Where is your sandwich bag?” or “What happened to the glass container with the apples?” Your child won’t accidentally throw away your new, reusable containers. This lunch box simplifies lunch.

GreenSmart Lunch Bags
Green Smart Sifaka lunch bag

For an older child, the GreenSmart lunch bag is plain enough, but still stylish and easy to carry. The neoprene (or neogreene) material is insulating and machine washable. Just zip food containers into the two separate compartments.

The Food Containers

If you already have the lunch bag or box, work on food containers as your next step. Zippered sandwich bags are very easy to use.

An important step to reducing lunch waste is reducing portion size. Only include just enough fruit or crackers. Having small containers, each with a surprise snack can make lunch fun for kids. I like the Kinderville Little Bites Jars for small (3.5oz) portions.

The Lunch Accessories

Once you have the reusable food containers taken care of, make sure that utensils and napkins are reusable as well. At lot of lunches are just finger foods that don’t require utensils, but this can change as our children get older. We have stainless steel children’s cutlery and bamboo utensils (including chopsticks) in their own travel pack. We also have children’s napkins, but you might be just as happy including utensils and napkins from your family set—or from a secondary family set. Make sure to sit down and discuss what needs to come back in the lunch box, though, so your family set doesn’t shrink over time.

This year, just evaluate your child’s lunch and decide one step you can take to reduce waste.

Packing Your Waste-free Lunch Box

Goodbyn Reusable Lunch Boxes

If you are preparing to pack a reusable lunch box because your child’s school requires waste-free lunch boxes or just because a litterless lunch is the responsible thing to do, you need to know the range of your options. At the Kids’ division of we’ve stocked up reusable school lunch products for you.

Reusable Lunch Boxes and Bags


Laptop Lunches
Laptop Lunch bento box alien

Laptop Lunches is a bento box system that comes with a 90-page user guide. So many parents are using this system, that they have uploaded 8,600+ photos of bento box lunches to a Flickr group. Includes four reusable containers with lids, stainless steel fork and spoon, and a reusable water bottle.

Goodbyn Lunch Box
Goodbyn lunch box

This cute, two-piece lunch box fits into a backpack or can be carried by the handle. Easy to open even for young children. Food is separated into compartments without separate containers. Includes a drink bottle. Just wash the whole lunch box at the end of the day. Comes with a bunch of stickers to encourage a child to customize—these include food allergy stickers. You know they are going to put stickers all over it anyway!

To-Go Ware 2-tier tiffin
To-Go Ware stainless steel tiffin

The To-Go Ware tiffin is a lunch box system from India. This reusable lunch box can carry cold or hot food. You can use just one tier for a snack or both tiers for a full meal. Easy to carry by the handle or put in a backpack.

Boxes and Bags

SoYoung Mother Lunch Box
SoYoung Mother linen lunch box

SoYoung Mother lunch boxes are linen outside with an insulated inner lining. An extra pocket on the outside can carry a napkin, flatware, or notes to the teacher. Carry by the handle or messenger style with a long strap.

Dabbawalla Lunch Bag
Lunch bag monkey

The Dabbawalla lunch bag is made from a neoprene-like fabric that is machine washable. The fabric is insulated, so it helps maintain food temperature. The fabric has earned the rigorous Oeko-Tex 100 standard of safety in textiles, an ecological certification process that tests for over 100 harmful substances.

Mimi the Sardine Lunchbugs and Lunch Sacks
Mimi the Sardine Lunch Bug

It’s the great prints that attract children and parents to Mimi the Sardine. Their lunch bags come in two sizes: Lunch Bugs for younger children and Lunch Sacks for older children and adults. The Bugs have zippered closures and soft handles, while the Sacks have a fold-over Velcro closure and a heavy-duty handle. Both can be wiped clean or machine washed and tumbled dry on low.

Reusable Snack Bags and Sandwich Bags

Kanga Sac Reusable Snack Bags

Kanga Sac sandwich bags
Kanga Sac reusable bags come in two sizes: sandwich bags are 7″ x 7″ and snack bags are 7″ x 4″. Zipper closure is easy to use for any child. Washable alternative to plastic baggies.

Itzy Ritzy Reusable Snack Bags
Itzy Ritzy blue striped reusable sandwich bag

Itzy Ritzy bags have great cotton prints on the outside with a waterproof coated polyester on the inside. FDA-approved as food safe. 7″ x 7″ for sandwiches.

Reusable Drink Bottles

Kids’ SIGG bottles
SIGG bottles for children

SIGG child-sized aluminum bottles are the easy way to carry a drink for one meal. They all have the new ecoCare lining and flip-style lids.

Klean Kanteen reusable drink bottle
Klean Kanteen aluminum water bottles
For a child who drinks more during the day, a Klean Kanteen water bottle will be more appropriate. Comes in 18oz, 27oz, and 40oz sizes. You can also buy a sports cap separately.


Fabkins reusable napkins for kids

Reusable napkins come in several colors with designs that kids love.

Stainless Steel Straws
Reusable Stainless Steel straws

If your child doesn’t want to drink straight from a water bottle, you can still avoid tossing away plastic straws after every drink. Try stainless steel straws. Come in two lengths: long straws are 9.5″ and short straws are 6.95″. Washable, reusable, and keeps plastic out of your child’s mouth.


  • Waste-free Lunch – Guide for reducing lunch waste both on a personal and on a school-wide scale. Includes research and success stories.
  • Green My Lunchbox Campaign – Manufacturers of litterless lunch products offer a discount. Their goal is to encourage 15,000 families to commit to packing waste-free lunches in order to eliminate an estimated 1 million pounds of waste from landfill.

Trends in Schools: Waste-free School Lunch

Kanga Sac reusable sandwich bags

Watching children scrap perfectly good food off a tray into a garbage bin is alarming. On Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, the piles of wasted food and half-used packaging—even unopened, packaged food—hauled away after school lunch was the most shocking part of a very shocking series. School lunch waste is preventable, but it requires changing thinking and changing habits.

Waste-free Lunches estimates that

a school-age child using a disposable lunch generates 67 pounds of waste per school year. That equates to 18,760 pounds of lunch waste for just one average-size elementary school

It costs schools money to haul waste, so waste-free lunch initiatives aren’t necessarily about environmental impact. Schools are looking for any way to reduce all waste. Trash cans full of wasted food and thrown away plastic containers are just one of the big sources of school waste. Whatever the motivation, waste-free lunch is a trend that is easy to welcome.

Does Your School Have Guidelines?

School waste-reduction programs that work have advocates in the schools. If you want to start a program for your child’s school, be prepared to get involved. If you have support from the school district or the provincial or state office of education, that’s a big help. But, the real work of shifting awareness and changing habits will happen day to day in the schools.

When one school in New York City participated in a Department of Sanitation waste prevention assessment, they found that each person generates ½ pound of waste per day. That would bump the Waste-free Lunch numbers up to 90 pounds of waste per school year per person. So, New York City provides simple guidelines and refers back to Waste-free Lunch.

Most waste reduction programs start with simple guidelines and build from there.

One California school conducted a pilot program in one classroom, giving each of the 30 students a reusable lunch kit then measuring success of the program. All parents used the kits and most agreed that they would continue to use them.

A very successful program can lead to a completely different approach to children and food at school. The Rethinking School Lunch guide from the Center for Ecoliteracy considers health, experience, food cycles, and more then incorporates all of it into the curriculum. Children don’t just fuel up at lunch time but they participate in food systems. Implementing this kind of program would take considerable commitment, but it helps to see the range of the possible.

Waste-free Lunch shares success stories, including a couple from Canada and the UK. When you read about the range of what people have tried and the ways they have succeeded, it is inspiring. Don’t be surprised if you come away with ideas to change school lunch at your child’s school.

Reusable Lunch Packaging

Reusable snack bag with zipper

The idea of a reusable lunch box or bag isn’t new, though it may be unusual to the children who will be carrying them. Once we take that step, it’s easy to make the rest of the lunch packaging reusable as well. My family packs lunches in reusable glass containers with snap tops. The weight of these can add up for a young child, but I like that we can use the same containers to store leftovers and for lunches. They still take up space and add weight on the way home, though. What works for a young child?

The innovation that catches my eye is also a new twist on an old idea: reusable snack bags and sandwich wrappers. So obvious, and so brilliant! The best versions of these don’t use any plastics at all but just zip the food into heavy canvas or wrap a sandwich in a cotton cloth.

Again and again, the old ideas become the new trends.

Next week I will go into more detail about all of the great reusable lunch products you can find at the Kids’ division of