In some parts of the country, you may be lucky and be in a school district that is working to create healthier, more natural and more sustainable school cafeteria lunches. But in most locations, school lunch is still something that, if you have the option, you’d rather not have your child eating. Not to mention the numerous single-serving sized vending machines populating many school cafeterias and surrounding areas. So what can you do? From sustainable packed lunches to lobbying your school cafeteria, you can help make lunch for your child (and potentially others) healthier and more sustainable.

Tip Number One: Don’t Be Above Bargaining

The first thing that you’re going to need to do is to hopefully get your child on board with the concept of healthy and sustainable lunches. Maybe you’re lucky and you already have a child who cares deeply about nutrition, health and the future of the planet. But chances are that your child is, like most children, susceptible to peer pressure and mass media. That means that, on a daily basis, your child is being bombarded with messages about what’s good and what’s “gross but healthy.” Eventually, we are sure that your child will appreciate the higher energy levels and increased alertness that comes with having a healthier lunch, but you may have to do some tweaking to get him or her there. To begin with, don’t expect perfection. Your child may need small transitions at first. But most importantly, don’t think you’re above bargaining. We like the idea of “if you have an apple on Monday, you can have potato chips on Tuesday.” It may not be a total win, but at least it’s trending in the right direction.

Tip Number Two: Put a Pause on Convenient Pre-Packaged Items

So, you’re going to be packing your child’s lunch. Sustainability is about more than using reusable lunch bags! It’s also about what options you put into the lunchbox. We understand that working parents are incredibly busy and the temptation of single-serving packaged lunch treats is tempting. From individually wrapped cookies and cakes to single bags of granola or chips – all the way to lunch drinks. But multiply out every single-serving packaged item by 180 school days and then consider the landfill addition. Instead, consider buying larger quantities of lunch contents and then putting them into reusable containers that can be re-filled. If you’re busy throughout the week, take a half-an-hour on the weekend to pre-package the contents for an entire week’s worth of lunches. A good trick is to have an entire week’s worth of reusable containers and lunch boxes or bags. You can pre-pack the majority of the lunch on the weekend. Your child can then just dump his or her used lunch container into a bin when he or she gets home, and then you repeat the process the next week. Of course, this rule applies to beverages, too!

Tip Number Three: Shop Together and Learn About Food

Packaging isn’t the only sustainability issue that matters with lunches. Food and its source do, too. How was your food grown? How many food miles were absorbed in its transport to the store and then from the store to you? How much corn syrup was involved? What companies produced the food and how ethical are they? Take a moment! Don’t get overwhelmed! Neither you nor your child needs to fully understand or think about all of these things right away. Learning to understand the food process and the ethics and sustainability behind it is a journey. But it’s a journey that you and your child should take together. When you simply tell your child what’s good and what’s not, he or she won’t absorb or internalize the lessons for the long-term. Take your child shopping for his or her lunch components with you. Have conversations about the food that you’re choosing and why. Shopping together is also an excellent time to not only educate your child but also bargain with them about healthy and sustainable versus desired items. Plus, parent-child bonding time is always a good thing.

Tip Number Four: Consistency is Key

As we go into the school year, there are lots of school year resolutions that get made. To get up earlier, to study harder, to be more sustainable about lunches…the list goes on. But as the school year advances, many of these goals fall away, victims to busy schedules and tons of commitments. We want you to be realistic and not expect perfection every lunch or even every week or month about your goals. But the path to change relies on consistency. Work on getting into a routine, be honest when you fail, and work hard to get back into the routine. Eventually, your “goal” will have become a normal way of life!

Tip Number Five: Work to Change the Reality of School Cafeterias

The best solution for children and families (as well as society as a whole) is to change the school cafeteria and vending system so that children and students get healthy food as a part of their education. There are three great resources you can use to help impact these changes in your own community.

The Lunch Box: A free online site with tools and recipes for transforming school cafeterias, started by the famous “Renegade Berkeley Lunch Lady.”

The Healthy School Lunch Campaign: Sponsored by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, this online action campaign works to transform school lunches one district at a time for a healthier youth generation.

Farm to School Network: Farm to School is broadly defined as a program that connects K-12 schools and local farms with the objective of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias.

Making changes to our food and how we transport and embrace it is one of the first steps to a more sustainable world, and where is a better place to do that than in school lunches?

Have an idea that we missed about how to pack and support sustainable school lunches? Tell us about it. Comment below or tell us about it on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram.

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