SueCarr-new-smBy Sue Carr

The 2013-2014 school year is wrapping up at long last. It’s the time of year when we tend to look back fondly over memories made during the past nine months—months that flew by, if you ask most parents—and take account of tasks achieved, grades earned, math problems mastered, plastic garbage tossed out.

Plastic garbage? Yes indeed.

Last fall, I made a subtle change in the way I packed my kids’ lunches. (Well, full disclosure here: my 10-year-old daughter actually packs the lunches—she’s responsible like that. And I’m a little lazy. But I do supervise.)

Anyway, it occurred to me that my children’s lunch boxes included lots of disposable plastic packaging: single-serve packages, disposable tubs, zip-top bags. We’re all guilty of it. Those darn things are just so convenient. They’re ready to go at a moment’s notice, they don’t require the matching lid playing hide-and-seek at the back of the cabinet, and—most importantly—they don’t have to be washed. Score for mom.

But, as I’m finding with many modern amenities we take for granted, this convenience comes at an environmental price—garbage. So I did some calculations. I figured that, over the course of a 180-day school year, my children threw away almost 500 zip-top bags. Five hundred. Not counting other disposable, single-serving plastic packaging that ended up in the trash at lunch each day.

That’s a lot of plastic.

As you know, I’m trying to reduce my personal contribution to the pollution of our planet, so when I digested at that number, I knew I had to make a change. And not just for the planet. For my kids’ health.

Think about it: How many of the single-serving products we pop into our kids’ lunches actually constitute high-fiber, vitamin-packed, nutritionally-dense foods? Not many. Chances are, if it’s pre-packaged, the bulk of the nutrition was processed out at the factory, leaving us with empty calories and chemical preservatives conveniently packaged for quick consumption. Yum.

But by taking a little extra time and putting in a little extra thought, I was able to make a hugely positive impact on my kids’ health and the environment. And so can you.

I promise, it’s not that difficult.

First, rethink your lunch packaging system. Kick the prepackaged, single-serving containers to the curb and invest in a good set of reusable containers. You can choose from a wide array—from compartmentalized reusable boxes to washable sandwich sacks to thermoses for hot or cold treats—that will allow you to pack healthy alternatives for your growing kiddos.

Then, rethink your grocery list. Pass on single-serve pouches of crackers or individual cups of applesauce. Yes, I understand that it’s far easier and faster to toss these into a lunch box than it is to scoop out individual portions. I get it. Really, I do. But the benefits will be massive.

1)      You’ll save money per ounce by skipping the single-serve packs for larger, family-sized versions that you portion out yourself. That savings can be redirected toward investing in healthier alternatives (a large jar of organic applesauce rather than a six-pack of single-serve tubs, for example).

2)      You’ll help save the planet by putting that much less trash into our landfills.

3)      You’ll likely find healthier alternatives for your children in the process. Fresh fruit rather than fruit packaged in syrup. A sandwich made with wholesome ingredients of your choosing rather than prepackaged lunchmeat and crackers. Some trail mix with whole-grain cereal, popcorn, and dried fruit rather than a bag of chips. The possibilities become endless. Who knows, your kids may even get excited enough about lunch to participate in the process and learn to make healthy choices for themselves.

I haven’t figured out how to live without plastic packaging altogether—not by a long shot—but I’m making progress. Five hundred fewer zip-top bags in landfills each year isn’t a bad start, I think. And the nutritional value of my kids’ lunches has improved exponentially. That value is priceless.

KidsKonserveSo here’s my challenge to the Mrs. Green network: for the 2014-2015 school year, commit to disposable-free school lunches. Pack real, whole foods in reusable containers. The planet—and your kids—will thank you.

Mrs. Green suggests you also visit Kids Konserve and check out  U•Konserve waste-free and reusable lunch-packing and food-storage solutions.

Sue Nelko Carr is a freelance writer, editor, blogger and a full-time mother, trying to live a greener life in Pittsburgh, PA.