How to Easily Pack Eco-Friendly School Lunches — with Smart Pandemic Options, Too!

From reusable lunch bags to bamboo utensils, we’re going to teach you how to pack a sustainable lunch box. We even have suggestions for eco friendly disposable products anytime you need them!

  • By Brittany Yamamoto-Taylor
  • August 25, 2020

Zero waste living has been gaining more and more traction in recent years and we absolutely love that. But as much as we fully support the movement, we have to admit that it can be overwhelming to switch over from the convenience of disposables . . . and that only doubles if you’ve got kids running around the house. That’s why we’re excited to bring you easy ways to minimize your daily plastic use through the practice of packing a sustainable lunch box.

Even if you aren’t quite ready to say goodbye to disposables altogether or need to use some during the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve got both zero waste and sustainable single-use options to share with you. But first, let’s quickly look at why you should bother making a change in the first place.

Why do school lunches pose a big plastic problem?

Tons of single-use plastic are tossed in the garbage in schools across the globe every single day. In fact, Thomas Starr King Middle School in Los Angeles once stacked up all the styrofoam cafeteria trays that were used in one week and had to stare at a tower that stood 30 feet tall.(1) And that was only one disposable item from one school in one week. Now imagine how much waste is created by over 130,000 K-12 schools in the U.S. alone.

Two sobering facts are that a single plastic bottle takes 450 years to decompose into a natural substance and 91% of all plastic on the planet is NOT recycled.(2)(3) So between plastic bottles, forks, baggies of trail mix, fruit cups, and straws that are often individually packaged in more plastic, a lot needs to change if we want to leave the next generation a world that isn’t debilitatingly polluted. 

The good news is that it isn’t hard to revolutionize your plastic-heavy school lunch habits with just a few simple practices! With the tips and resources below, you can take control of how much waste you put out in the world every time lunch rolls around and even save some money while you’re at it. 

Ready to get started?

5 ways to pack a sustainable lunch box

1. Say Goodbye to Plastic Bags

Americans throw away 100 billion plastic bags annually, which comes to almost 1 bag per day, per person.(4) Buying a few eco friendly reusable lunch bags can make all the difference when packing sandwiches and a whole assortment of snacks. Many great companies have created affordable and non-toxic lunch bags like this set of 10, while others have taken their products to the next level with adorable designs that celebrate kids’ interests – from dinosaurs to girl power to even graphic prints for older kids. Or you can get even more specific with your kids’ passions and support artists by shopping for reusable lunch bags here on Etsy.

Also, if you’re looking for a good and versatile container to pack all the lunch yummies inside without needing baggies, you can get a Japanese-style stainless steel lunch box with 3 compartments or several compartments.

2. Get an Eco Friendly Bottle

According to, Americans purchase about 50 billion water bottles every year.(5) By simply sending your kid to school with a sustainable bottle every day, you can keep around 156 plastic bottles from entering landfills and oceans in just 1 year! And, by filling the bottle with their favorite juice, you can also avoid creating extra waste from juice boxes and straws.

You can choose from so many amazing non-toxic options for all ages, like this CamelBak set of 2 or these insulated stainless steel bottles that come in a gorgeous array of colors.

3. Choose Bamboo Utensils

More than 100 million pieces of plastic utensils are used by Americans every day and are often wrapped up in more plastic.(6) To keep all that waste out of landfills, all you have to do is buy this reusable bamboo utensil set or get this bigger set that also includes chopsticks! Both options are really affordable and will definitely save you money when your kid stops throwing out at least 180 sets of plastic utensils at school every year.

4. Make Your Own Snack Packs

Another sustainable lunch box practice is to avoid individually packaged snacks at all times. Bulk purchasing will not only reduce your plastic footprint, it will also save your family a significant amount of money.

All you have to do is visit your local grocery store’s bulk bins with cotton bags (complete with tare-weight labels) and then stock up on anything from dried fruit, to nuts and seeds, to chocolate raisins and yogurt-covered pretzels. Then simply pack up the snacks in small containers or reusable bags like we shared in tip #1. Another way to reduce waste and not buy something new is to turn old yogurt containers into kids’ favorite goodies carriers.

5. Go Back to Cloth Napkins

Even though paper napkins aren’t made out of plastic, they still negatively impact the environment through deforestation. So we wanted to give you resources to tackle that, too. With cute cotton napkins like these, you can say goodbye to the days of un-finessed school lunches and do something good for the earth at the same time! 

Cloth napkins like all of these on Etsy are easy to simply throw in the wash with your next load of laundry, so you can stock up on a bundle. You can also save money and shipping if you make your own by cutting up old shirts (that have fun patterns!) if you have a crafty streak.

However, if you are into sustainability but aren’t quite ready to plunge into the world of zero waste quite yet, don’t worry — we have some eco friendly disposable options that can help you in and out of a pandemic . . .

Disposable Options During the Coronavirus Pandemic

During these trying times of the coronavirus, we know that some schools that are reopening are going to require that all lunch items must be thrown away, including containers. Below are some single-use products that are still eco friendly to use any time that disposables are required or simply more convenient.

Instead of Bags:

Instead of Water Bottles:

Instead of Plastic Utensils:

Instead of Paper Napkins:

Now that we’ve walked you through some smart and easy sustainable lunch box practices, we hope you feel empowered to make a difference for the planet and every future generation.

If you want more ways to lean into zero waste in your kitchen, check out these 12 ways to reduce your plastic usage. You can also read this article for fun sack lunch ideas or listen in to this podcast episode if you want to learn how to think more creatively about your kids’ lunches.

And, as always, if you know of any parents who could use resources to pack eco friendly school lunches, please send this article along to them!

A little note:

Some of the above links are Amazon affiliate links, which means we earn a small percentage from those sales. We use this affiliate revenue to support the continued growth of Cook Smarts. Thank you!

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