Trash-Free Lunches


Earth-Friendly, Packed with Nutrition

For a typical school lunch, Claudia La Beau sends her two children to Tuscany Heights Elementary with a turkey sandwich, sliced apples, carrot sticks and chips in reusable plastic containers as well as a thermos of water. What their lunch won’t include are plastic baggies or disposable water bottles and juice boxes.
“I want our kids to become aware of our environment and the need to take care of the Earth by not producing so much waste,” she says. “We need to keep our planet clean for their children, grandchildren and future generations.”
La Beau is part of a growing group of parents who believe that how they pack their kids’ lunches impacts the environment and their family’s nutrition and budget. In 2001, when Amy Hemmert co-founded California-based Laptop Lunches Bento-ware, few moms and dads were on-board with trash-free lunches. Now many parents “get it,” she says.
“Packing waste-free lunches teaches kids about environmental sustainability as well as how to look for quality foods that aren’t pre-packaged,” says Hemmert, whose company makes reusable meal and snack containers. “Children should be able to sit down and have a lunch that doesn’t have more packaging than actual food.”

Cost-Saving Containers

Once a semester, Tuscany Heights, situated in the North East School District, holds a “Trash-Free Lunch Day.” La Beau, the environmental education chair for the school’s PTA, estimates that 80 percent of the children participated last spring. As incentives, each student received a spirit stick, and the three top-participating classes won a Popsicle party and an extra recess.

“Trash-Free Lunch days show students that every little bit counts to help the Earth,” she says. “If everybody does his or her part, we would make a huge difference on reducing the amount of trash we put in landfills.”

Many of the generic and Tupperware containers La Beau uses for her children’s lunches came from their preschool years. She says that for parents to achieve cost savings from trash-free lunches, they should invest in sturdy containers and fill them with foods bought in bulk.

“I buy one large box of Goldfish rather than the single-serve individual bags,” she says. “Then I put the crackers in reusable containers, so that I don’t have to buy Ziploc bags.”
Hemmert says the cost of its Laptop Lunch system, which includes the soft-sided lunch bag, five containers, a stainless steel fork and spoon and refillable water bottle, can pay for itself in three weeks by reducing grocery bills. Using cloth napkins amounts to additional savings, she adds.

“Everybody needs to find a system that works for their family,” she says. “Though, I do caution against buying containers that are flimsy or brittle because they could fall apart easily. Also, make sure the containers are dishwasher-safe, have no PVC, phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA) or lead.”

Locally, products from Laptop Lunches are available at Whole Foods Market, The Container Store and Whole Earth Provision Co. as well as online at Amazon and

According to Hemmert, who tracks trash-free lunch school programs throughout the country, scaling down lunch waste saves school districts tons of money.
“If a school can move from using two dumpsters to one, that’s a huge cost savings over time,” she says. “There can be a dramatic reduction in the amount of trash hauled away and the time that the custodial staff spends emptying trash cans.”


Food Group Framework

Dinner leftovers can be conveniently packed in reusable lunch containers, La Beau finds. Chicken and rice soup or spaghetti with marinara sauce in a thermos as well as cheese quesadillas or chicken flautas are some of her kids’ favorite lunch dishes.
“The night before school, I like to get them involved in lunch preparation,” she says. “If they want fruit, I have them wash it, and I cut it.  Or if I’m making a sandwich, they grab the bread or a bagel. This helps them make good choices, and helps me get the task done.”

Parents tell Hemmert that the five varied-sized containers from Laptop Lunches provide a framework for preparing nutritious meals.
“When they go grocery shopping, they think about how they can fill them with the food groups,” she says. “So for protein they can pack hard-boiled eggs, beans and nuts. Whole wheat options include pasta, rice, crackers or tortillas. Fruits and vegetables can be accompanied with a dip such as guacamole, salsa or yogurt.”
Unlike many disposable food packages, reusable containers can be resealed with leftovers. This feature gives parents an opportunity to talk to their kids about what is and isn’t being eaten, Hemmert says.

“Leftovers provide a springboard for talking about what their kids do and don’t like to eat,” she says. “For example, maybe they didn’t eat their pears because they ran out of time or because they don’t like the way the fruit’s skin feels in their mouth. After all, we want to give our children healthy foods that they enjoy in a manner that’s nicely presented.”

Lisa Y. Taylor is a San Antonio freelance writer and mother of three daughters.


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