Coming up with healthy ideas for school lunches can be challenging, and some people find the idea of the waste-free lunchbox downright daunting. Here are some ideas I have found to make healthy, vegan lunchboxes with as little waste ending up in the landfill as possible.
Image: Courtesy of Urban Earthworm
Despite the recent progress made by some schools to improve their school lunch programs (examples here, here, and here), I remain steadfast in my decision to pack my children's lunches at home. There are just too many foods offered (or even forced) by the schools that violate our Ethical Eating standards, not to mention my own demanding nutritional standards. (Pizza is NOT a vegetable, and factory dairy is downright evil!).
I want to ensure that my children are eating at least one full serving of vegetables at every lunch. I want to restrict or eliminate the presence of processed foods, fillers, dyes, high-fructose corn syrup, weird chemicals and preservatives, and the million other questionable things that sneak into our packaged foods every day. I want to limit our exposure to GMOs (genetically modified organisms). And NO DAIRY (unless I find a humane, local source--and still very, very little dairy after that). And I want to do all that in the 10 minutes or less I have per day to pack Flintstone's lunch. (MacGyver packs Punky's lunch following the same standards - yay team!) It is unlikely that Flintstone will ever open his lunchbox to find a happy forest of fruit and sandwiches cut into animal shapes. Those are beautiful and wonderful and nutritious. And there is no chance in H-E-double-hockey-sticks that something like that will emerge from this working mama's kitchen.
Flintstone's lunches are not always pretty and symmetrical, but they are healthy and delicious. They are also quick and easy to prepare. Here are a few tips I follow to ensure health, variety, and EASE:
- Cook Big Dinners. If your dinner meal plan includes dishes that can work as lunches (and most will), make a double batch. Send some in lunches within a day or two of having it for dinner and freeze the rest for real time crunches later on. My kids LOVE finding spaghetti in their lunches.
- Dips Make All the Difference. An easy way to avoid monotony when you send as many raw veggies as I do is to change up the dips. hummus (which can be made or purchased in a variety of flavors) is one of Flintstone's favorite foods in the whole world, but it is not the only dip he takes. Guacamole, bean dips, simple salad dressings, and even peanut butter all bring a new flavors to lunchtime.
- Go Beyond Carrot Sticks. Don't get me wrong, carrot and celery sticks have a regular rotation in my kids lunches, but there are so many other dip-able veggies! Bell peppers (and other peppers) in all colors, cucumbers, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, cherry tomatoes, eggplant, asparagus, green beans, snap peas, mushrooms, Swiss chard stems, endive, red cabbage, radishes, just to name a few.
- Get Them Involved. Not in the actual making of the lunch (G-ds no!), but letting them pick what flavor of hummus they want or pick out a healthy salad dressing as a dip can go a long way in increasing their enjoyment of their food and is also a good opportunity for a little lesson on healthy food choices. Why not take your kids on a stroll through the farmer's market and see what new dip-able vegetables you can find?
- Keep It Simple. Every lunch does not have to be completely unique from the one before it. I am not Supermom and I don't want to be. Got a bushel of apples from the CSA? An apple a day it is. Maybe throw in some peanut butter to spice it up. I try not to make lunches two days in a row that are identical, but depending on what's in season and how busy we are, sometimes only one component of a lunch will change (see examples below).
- Start With Staples. Start every week with one or two staples in the fridge you can throw in lunches if no other idea strikes you. I usually keep Tofurkey to use on sandwiches on days when there are no leftovers and we've eaten all the hummus. Hummus, ironically, is the other staple I keep on hand for when all else fails. Soup is also beautiful for this. Make huge batches. Can or freeze it for an instant lunch. Just add crackers, local bread, or a piece of fruit. And soup variety is nearly limitless!
- Don't Stress. Some parents refrain from packing their kids' lunches because they see it as a major, time-consuming, or stressful task. If that is the case, that is only because you are letting it be so. It is just lunch. I seriously spend less than 10 minutes a day on making lunch. I do not make lunch with the kids around; I do not take orders (though polite requests may be considered); I do not negotiate; I do not fret. The most in-depth planning I do is deciding to cook more at dinner or throwing a couple backup lunch items in the cart at the store (hummus, all-natural soup, Tofurkey, etc.).
One big crux of this is that I always have vegetables and fruits on hand. I always hit whatever farmer's market I can. If I miss the market, I load up on veggies at the store. I keep the freezer packed with frozen veggies. That is just the nature of my kitchen, and it makes packing lunches that much easier.
What Is a Waste-Free Lunchbox?
A waste-free lunchbox is one free of wrappers, baggies, paper napkins, plastic flatware, and other items of landfill fodder. (I also strive to make lunches just the right size to limit food waste, but that's not what waste-free lunch generally refers to.)
The average child in the U.S. generates 67 pounds of discarded lunch-packaging waste per school year. That’s more than 18,000 pounds yearly for the average-size elementary school. Not only is that a huge landfill stuffer and environment polluter, but most of that waste is plastic, which is produced from petroleum in an energy-intensive and environmentally toxic process.
Going waste-free is easy! At least, it was for me. Since I was not in the habit of sending my kids with packaged food-like products (*ahem* Lunchables *ahem*), for me it was just a matter of switching from baggies to reusable containers. And these days, bento boxes are easy to find at nearly any store that sells school supplies. These are more expensive at the outset, but a huge money saver in the long run since you don't need to buy baggies every month.
The most vigilant among you will notice that yes, our reusable containers are plastic. I have glass, but I don't send it to school with my 2-year-old (almost 3, as he will tell you). If I need to purchase more, I may pursue some of the metal options out there. For now, BPA-free reusable plastic is better than disposable!
We are not 100% waste-free. Occasionally an Equal Exchange chocolate in a disposable wrapper or some other little treat will sneak its way in, but for the most part we're doing well. We also use water bottles instead of disposable drink containers.
Vegan Lunch Ideas:
Here are the first few lunches I packed for Flintstone this year. These were all packed in the midst of moving and are far from spectacular (plus half my pictures got wiped out). Look to future posts for lunch ideas that are a little more creative and fun.
Sandwich: Hearty, high-fiber, 100% whole-grain bread, Tofurkey, broccoli sprouts, and Vegenaise; broccoli and carrots for dipping; Newman's Own Poppy Seed Dressing (oil-based, so it could be better, but still pretty good ingredients). Mixed fruit: watermelon, cantaloupe, blueberries, grapes
Spaghetti made with 100% whole-grain noodles, organic spaghetti sauce, sauteed onions, mushrooms, and green, red, and yellow bell peppers; and spinach. Homemade garlic bread (whole-grain bread, Earth Balance vegan spread, garlic powder, and oregano); farmer's market apple, sliced and held together with a rubber band to prevent browning. *This lunch is a waste-free fail because I put the garlic bread in a baggie. We hadn't unpacked the bento boxes yet.
Sandwich: Hearty, high-fiber, 100% whole-grain bread, Tofurkey, broccoli sprouts, and Vegenaise. Broccoli, carrots, and red bell pepper (fresh from the garden) for dipping. Newman's Own Poppy Seed Dressing mixed with a simple mango dressing; farmer's market apple, sliced and held together with a rubber band to prevent browning (not pictured). Vegan ginger snap cookies.
Sandwich: 100% whole-grain bread, homemade strawberry jelly (made by a friend, not by me!); and a light spread of Earth Balance vegan spread (Flintstone goes to a nut-free school, which is a hurdle for us; more on that in a future post). Red, orange, and yellow bell peppers from the garden, farmer's market peas and carrots for dipping; roasted red pepper hummus; local plum.
Sandwich: Whole-grain bread (leftover from the garlic bread I made), hummus, red and yellow bell peppers, and broccoli sprouts. Roasted cauliflower and broccoli (plus one spare pepper slice). Mango dip just in case. Organic raisins.
Spaghetti made with 100% whole-grain noodles, organic spaghetti sauce, sauteed onions, mushrooms, and green, red, and yellow bell peppers. 100% whole-grain bread with Earth Balance vegan spread sprinkled with Nutritional Yeast. Organic raisins. Equal Exchange dark chocolate.
Mexican "dip" (leftovers from taco night all mixed together) = homemade Spanish rice (brown rice, tomato paste, cumin, garlic, cayenne, oregano, other spices, peppers, and onions), LOTS of red, yellow, green, and orange bell peppers from the garden sauteed with mushrooms and onions, and Amy's Vegan Refried beans; Stacy's Pita Chips (Stacy's are dairy-free, yay!) local pear from a friend's tree, sliced and held together with a rubber band; fruit snacks (waste-free fail, but we had some left from our road trip).
What are your go-to school lunch items? How do you save time and energy in the prep?
Check out Urban Earthworm for more everyday sustainability from the working mom trenches.
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