The new school term is looming next week – or perhaps it’s started for you already? I was pleasantly surprised to see that our primary school has set a challenge for kids to have a plastic free lunch box one day during their first week back, but felt frustrated that they didn’t offer much in the way of tips or guidance on how to do this.
Because packing a low waste lunch box isn’t always easy or obvious, and if you follow the majority of tips out there it isn’t cheap either. We get annoyed when we see websites cheerfully recommending beeswax wraps and stainless steel tubs – not that those things aren’t really useful but at around £9 for a sandwich sized wrap these things are not affordable for most people.
Today we’ve brought together our tips for a lower waste packed lunch but we’d like to hear yours too! Please do comment below or email us tips or recipes to add.
One thing I feel is worth mentioning is that our kids sometimes get snack envy. I think it’s inevitable – however much they like the stuff in their own lunchbox, the packaging on shop-bought snacks is just so exciting. They come home and wistfully describe frubes and cheese strings to me like they’re these exotic delicacies, and gaze at me with big sad eyes because their yoghurt isn’t Paw Patrol themed. Part of shifting to lower waste lunches has involved a lot of gentle chats over time about why we’re trying to avoid plastic waste, and how it is never, ever our place to judge or comment on other people’s lunches. Involving them in making some of their packed lunch food is a big help too.
Packing your lunches
As a general tip – and we start lots of our blogs by saying this – do try and use what you already have before buying anything new. ‘Zero waste’ lunch gear – all the stainless steel and bamboo – doesn’t have any kind of magical property that the tubs and pots already in our kitchen drawers don’t have when it comes to getting food to school (or work) and keeping it fresh until lunchtime.
If you do need to buy new bits and bobs, buy them as you need them, look for preloved, or look out for seconds as they’re so much cheaper and work just as well.
Depending on your kids age they may love having unique DIY’d or personalised lunch gear. We’ve never tried this clever milk jug sandwich box but we want to give it a go – let us know if you try it. We are big fans however of the no-sew DIY snack pouch – we’ve made these at our workshops before with Twin Made and they’re very cute, great for dried fruit, crisps, pretzels, biscuits and loads of other stuff. They’re made from those resealable pouches that cheese and sometimes nuts and sweets come in, covered with colourful fabric. (Of course they work great without the fabric covered too, they just don’t look quite as funky.) If you’re handy with a sewing machine then you can also make your own from scratch.
Beeswax wraps are pretty widely known now, but if you’ve not come across them before they are simply fabric coated with oil, wax, and resin – a technique people have been using for hundreds of years to store and transport stuff.
They’re a helpful replacement for cling film and sandwich bags in packed lunches as they’re easy to care for and can be refreshed to make them last for ages. If you’re interested in giving them a go then consider making your own – for the same cost as buying a wrap or two you can get the ingredients to make loads, and maintain them when they start to get a bit well loved.
We’ve got a video tutorial if you’d like to give it a go – you can use any clean 100% cotton fabric, we quite like making ours from old duvet covers and pillow cases – raid the charity shop! A good way to make this affordable is to club together with a couple of other people to buy the ingredients and have a making session – everyone will go away with plenty of wraps for a fraction of the cost of buying them (and they make good gifts too!).
You can also wrap your sandwiches in cloth napkins, or use a paper bag. We like the snack bags from If You Care as, unless they get super greasy, they can be reused over and over before going into the compost bin. Baby food pots are another handy thing for packing small quantities of snacks or yoghurts and puddings. They’re easy to find second hand on ebay.
Deciding what to pack
I think the holy grail of lunchbox food is something that:
- Isn’t fiddly to make
- Can be frozen or stored for a long time
- The kids can help make so they’re more likely to eat it
- Works out cheaper than the plastic packaged shop bought version
- Is a bit healthier than the shop bought version.
We’re got a few ideas below but it comes down to what you like making and what your kids like eating, rather than aiming for some time of instagram-worthy zero waste lunchbox.
While we’re mainly talking about reducing plastic and waste in this post, it’s worth mentioning that a lot of classic sandwich fillings have a high carbon footprint, and switching to plant based fillings one, or one extra, day a week will make a massive difference to the environmental impact of a packed lunch.
Some of our favourite sandwich and pitta fillings include…
- Aubergine BLT – the recipe says this stores for 5 days but this crispy plant-based ‘bacon’ lasts way longer than that and it’s great as a snack as well as a sandwich filling
- Coronation chickpeas – this recipe is vegan but obviously non-vegan mayo (or yoghurt) work too!
- Cashew cream cheese. Very easy to make and freezes well. We use this in my daughter’s favourite sandwich, an ‘apple banger’ – cashew cream cheese, apple slices, and marmite.
- Tofu egg mayo – the black salt gives an eggy flavour but it is very nice without it. Again, non-vegan mayo works great.
If you’re into DIYing snacks then quite a lot of things can be made in advance and frozen:
- Mini sausage rolls – if you’re making veggie ones here’s a mushroom based filling, here’s a sweet potato one, and here’s a Greggs copycat version! We used to use sosmix but have been avoiding it because of its palm oil content, so we’ve been experimenting with a jackfruit ‘pulled pork’ type filling with apple and sage. Try and choose a pastry that has RSPO certified palm oil – and if there are any scraps left over freeze them or make a few pastry straws.
If you’re absolutely not into DIYing snacks then it’s worth buying bigger bags of things – sharing bags of crisps, pretzels, or popcorn for example – and dishing them out into lunch box portions in a bag or tub. This way you’ll use much less plastic than individually wrapped snacks.
As with the savoury snacks, buying a full sized quantity – of yoghurt, for example, or biscuits, and dishing it out will save a huge amount of packaging. We also have a few favourite DIY sweet treats for lunchboxes:
- Stewed fruit – make it from frozen fruit or grab some reduced fresh fruit that’s about to go squishy. It’s a great pudding on its own, add it to yoghurt, or make mini fruit turnovers for the freezer.
- Tofu pudding. No seriously, tofu pudding. This stuff is so tasty. It’s made with the silken tofu that comes in a box (usually in the world food section), not the firm stuff from the chillers. It’s high in protein and it freezes well – just give it a stir when it comes out of the freezer as it sometimes separates a bit. I strongly recommend chocolate and peanut butter but strawberry is good too!
- Popcorn (best avoided for kids under four as it can be a choking risk for little ones)
- Energy balls. I cannot recommend these things highly enough, they are so quick to make, they’re pretty healthy, and – with the right hype – sound like super decedant treats. They’re also really customisable – I don’t really like dates so use other things for sweetness. You basically want to combine oats – blitzed a bit in a food processor or left whole – with a nut butter or fat like coconut oil, something sweet like dates or maple syrup or honey, then some combo of nuts, seeds, fruit and other flavours. We go for chocolate chip cookie dough, apple and cinnamon, strawberry cheesecake, carrot cake and chocolate peanut butter flavours. Here’s a really basic recipe to get you started (leave out the protein powder for kids) but do some googling and find one you like. These freeze really well too.
Packed lunches don’t have to be plasticky – let us know if you give any of these ideas a try or have your own suggestions.
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