10 tips to reduce food waste in your child’s school lunch

Reducing food waste in your child's school lunch is a great way to reduce your family's environmental impact (and save money while you're at it!)

Amanda Mills, USCDCP | Public Domain
Young boy eating a school lunch

The start of the school year marks a new beginning: new classes, new teachers and new goals. For parents and students alike, reducing food waste in their school lunch is a meaningful goal to set for the upcoming school year. 

School lunches are a powerful place to start reducing waste. A study from the World Wildlife Fund found that food waste in school cafeterias likely amounts to 530,000 tons each year (excluding wasted milk). That is the equivalent of about 1.9 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gasses being released into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming. 

Addressing climate change requires systemic changes to our society and economy, but we all play an important role in tackling the food waste we produce in our own lives. School cafeterias generate a lot of food waste, but even a 3% reduction in school cafeteria food waste would have positive environmental impacts comparable to taking 12,400 passenger vehicles off the road for one year. Setting a goal to reduce food waste in your child’s school lunch and working together with your child to achieve it can reduce the amount of waste in school cafeterias.

Here are the top 10 tips you can use to reduce food waste in your child’s school lunch:

  1. Have a conversation about food waste. Talking with your child about food waste and its environmental impacts may inspire them to throw away less food at lunchtime. A World Wildlife Fund study found that food waste decreased by an average of 3% at schools where students learned about food waste and its consequences. At elementary schools, there was an average decrease of 14%. This study suggests that educating kids about food waste changes their behavior. Explaining the problems with food waste to your child and discussing ways everyone can cut down on waste is an important first step to making improvements. Check out this resource for tips on helping kids be more conscious of food waste, or watch one of these videos about food waste together: 
    1. PBS video about food waste geared towards kids in kindergarten through 5th grade. 
    2. Saving Food educational video for kids on food waste and strategies to combat food waste. 
  2. Consult with your kids. Kids are more likely to throw away food they do not want to eat. Giving your child a voice in the lunch-packing process helps you give them food they will eat. Incorporating your child’s opinion into lunch preparation does not require caving to requests for sugary snacks. Asking your child which fruit and vegetable they would like in their lunch instead of giving them free rein to pick items is a way to offer them a say with some guardrails so you don’t have to compromise on nutrition. There are many ways to make your child a part of their school lunch preparation depending on their age and preferences. 
    1. Option 1: Take your kids grocery shopping with you. Going grocery shopping with your child is a great way to learn about their food and snack preferences. The supermarket is also a place for your child to discover new foods they are excited about. I loved going to the grocery store with my mom at the start of each school year and imagining new lunches. My mom and I had a deal that if I picked out a snack I had to finish it to pick the next one. Your kids will be more invested in finishing, and not wasting, food they pick out. You can also incentivize reducing food waste by giving your kids more control over the contents of their school lunch when they make the most of the food available to them, like the deal my mom struck with me. Bonus: Grocery shopping with your kids can provide additional opportunities to teach them about nutrition labels, packaging waste concerns, and being a smart consumer.
    2. Option 2: Let your kids help pack their lunch. Collaborating with your child to pack lunch lets them have a say in what to pack and how much to pack which helps prevent sending them to school with food that will end up in the trash. Including your child in packing their school lunch may also make them feel more invested in what they are eating and make them less likely to waste it.
      When kids understand the origin of their food and the effort that goes into preparing it, they waste less. During the 2013-2014 academic year, schools with Farm to School (F2S) food education programs decreased food waste by 17%. F2S programs show how impactful a better understanding of food can be for kids. Packing school lunches alongside your child is a chance to help them understand the origin of their food and its value. Plus, spending time with your kid in the kitchen is a great chance to teach them about nutrition and food preparation skills.  
    3. Option 3: Have your kids pack their own lunch. If your child is old enough, empower them to pack their lunch. You could create a schedule where you and your child alternate packing lunch. Having your child pack their lunch gives them control over what they eat and how much, and gives them a greater sense of responsibility for their food waste. To make sure your kid’s lunch is still healthy you can set ground rules for what they need to include. For example, you could require a fruit, vegetable and protein item, while restricting the number of desserts and sugary or processed snacks in every lunch. 
  3. Address picky eating. Changing picky eating habits can be very difficult, but getting your kids to embrace more foods will reduce waste and make them happier and healthier in the long term. You want to pack food your kids will actually eat, but if you can, avoid giving in to wasteful preferences, like cutting the crusts off of sandwiches. You can try strategies from the Mayo Clinic and Parents for handling picky eating, and in the meantime, check out these tips for dealing with waste from picky eating
  4. Make food fun! Adding a little bit of creativity or excitement to your kid’s lunch can go a long way in making sure they eat what you’ve packed. Students are more likely to eat fruits and veggies when they are cut and sliced (this also helps them actually get the nutrition they need if their school lunch period is just too short — see tip #7). Kids also tend to be enthusiastic about veggies with healthy dips like hummus or low-fat ranch. 
  5. Pack proper portions. Although it can be hard to control what happens in the cafeteria, packing the right amount of food for your child’s caloric and nutritional needs is an important step to prevent food waste. You know your child’s needs better than anyone, but this MyPlate Plan resource can help you determine how much of each food group you should include in their lunch. Lunch packing tools, like a bento box lunchbox, can be a fun way to help you and your child visualize portions and decide what to pack. 
  6. Include a nonperishable snack. Adding a healthy snack that can be kept in your child’s lunch box for long periods of time is one way to give them extra food that won’t go to waste if they aren’t hungry. If they don’t eat it during the lunch period, it will be there for when they need it. You can also encourage your child to pick out a snack item they can save for later when they buy lunch at school. Some options, like graham crackers or baked chips, can be easier than others to transport and eat during snack time at school and at home. 
  7. Plan around lunch period time constraints. Some schools have lunch blocks as short as 15 minutes. Tight time constraints on eating have been found to increase food waste in cafeterias. Although you do not have control over the length of your child’s lunchtime, packing foods that are quick and easy to eat may help your child feel less rushed. Avoid meals that have a lot of components or require preparation at lunch time. Simple changes, like peeling an orange for your child before packing it, can increase the amount of food your child can eat at lunch and cut down on waste. If your child buys lunch at school, encourage them to choose entrees they know they can finish in the time they have. 
  8. Encourage your child to bring lunch leftovers back home. You don’t know if you are having an impact on food waste if your child doesn’t feel empowered to be honest and ends up throwing away food at school without saying anything. If your child brings home their leftovers you can see what they are eating, and how much food is potentially going to waste. Are they consistently bringing home a bunch of pepper sticks or a half empty container of goldfish? You can use what you observe to discuss your child’s food preferences and ways you can work together to reduce food waste by packing healthy foods they want to eat. Also, if your child knows that you are monitoring food waste together, they may be more motivated to prevent waste. Reducing food waste can be fun if you frame it as a group challenge or a competition. You and your child could track the amount of food waste they bring home each day so that you can see and celebrate improvement.
    Once your child’s leftovers are at home you also have the chance to repurpose that food. Leftovers from their school lunch can become an afterschool snack. Some items, like fruits or vegetables, could even be incorporated in other meals.
  9. Explore options for food donation and composting at school. Whether your child brings lunch or buys food at school, there are ways to reduce food waste when they are eating in the cafeteria. Many schools have programs to cut down on food waste like a “share table” for food donation or a compost bin on school property. Check with a teacher or administrator at your child’s school to see what resources are available. Discuss these resources with your child and make a plan for how they can take advantage of them.
    If your child’s school does not offer any options for food donation, encourage your child to bring nonperishable food items home to donate to a food pantry. This resource from Ample Harvest can help you find nearby food pantries that will accept donations. Also, if your child’s school does not have a compost system, they can bring food scraps home to compost. This map may help you find compost sites in your community. If you would prefer to compost at home, check out these resources on kitchen composting and backyard composting.
  10. Use school lunches to cut down on overall food waste at home. Consider using leftovers from previous dinners in school lunches. Check out PIRG’s guide to saving food and preventing food waste for ideas on how to repurpose leftovers and general tips for preserving food and reducing waste. 

Addressing food waste is a meaningful step to protect the planet and can be a chance to share lessons about sustainability and nutrition with your child. This school year, make your kitchen a classroom by collaborating with your child to cut down on food waste in their school lunches.


Sophie Tedesco

Food Waste Intern

Danielle Melgar

Food & Agriculture, Advocate, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Danielle works to ensure our food system produces enough nutritious food to feed everyone, without threatening our health, the planet, or the ability of future generations to grow food. Danielle lives in Chicago, where she enjoys staying active in the outdoors, trying out new recipes, and writing short stories.

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