How to pack a reduced waste lunch box

Filed in Blog by on August 25, 2008 22 Comments
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How NOT to produce a zero waste lunch

When I was standing with my foot helplessly on the first rung of the ladder of my bank job many years ago, my packed lunch consisted of:

  • Sandwiches wrapped in cling film or a plastic sandwich bag
  • A chocolate bar or individually wrapped biscuit
  • A yogurt, or similar, in a small plastic pot
  • A packet of crisps
  • A piece of fruit
  • A plastic bottle or carton of drink

Yikes! All of the packaging would end up in the bin, along with my 10 or so disposable cups (and perhaps another chocolate bar wrapper if it had been a stressful day) collected throughout the day from the vending machine.

When Little Miss Green was at school, she got into the idea of baby bell cheeses, yogurt drinks that come in plastic tubes, along with dairy lea things where you dip the savoury sticks into some kind of naff dip.

Every night, she would bring her empty lunch box home. Only it wasn’t. It was full of packaging that went straight in the bin. More often than not she would have helped herself to a plastic spoon from the school canteen and bought on of those home as well. Into the bin it went.

Well, now I’m a reformed zero waste packed lunch person and I thought I’d share some tips. It’s actually quite easy to reduce your waste from a packed lunch with a little forward planning and some tweaks to purchases.


Sandwiches do need to be kept airtight otherwise you end up with something pretty inedible by lunchtime. Especially if you’re working in an air conditioned office which tends to dry things out.

There are plenty of alternatives to cling film however.

Freebies include the paper bags you find in the supermarket next to the mushrooms. Am I suggestinglaptop lunchbox for a zero waste meal shoplifting? Well, call it a perk for loyal custom if it helps assuage your guilt. Or just buy a few mushrooms if you really want to be honest about things.

If you use a vegetable box scheme, then keep the paper bags and re use them for your sandwiches. Likewise think creatively about the things you regularly throw away – bread packaging, the wrapping found inside cereal boxes, frozen vegetable bags, fresh vegetable bags from the supermarket. At least give them another lease of life before you finally resign them to a life of hundreds of years in the landfill.

The wrap ‘n’ mat are a fab idea that serves as a built in tablecloth too if you’re eating in a dubious place!


If you switch to something like ryvita, oatcakes or rice cakes, these don’t need wrapping to keep them fresh. They’re crispy anyway, so the air between when you pack your meal and eating it won’t adversely affect them.

Bulk buying

Buying in bulk packs does save on packaging waste. Quite significantly. I keep promising the post on this, and it will be coming up in the future. So if you want crisps, buy a large bag, instead of individual ‘snack packs’ and take a few in a small plastic pot each day. Some areas will recycle pringles tubs, so maybe you’ll have to treat yourself to a small tub of those instead. What a shame!

Sweet treats

There are some chocolate varieties that do not come in plastic packaging. These include Co-Op fair trade bars, munchies and rolos. But perhaps the best thing to do is buy a 100g bar that comes wrapped in paper and foil and just take a few chunks to work every day. 😉 Hands up if the bar lasts you past Tuesday.

Biscuits and cakes can be made for a fraction of the cost of shop bought and you can just take a couple in a small container inside your lunchbox. They can be frozen in advance and taken out when you pack your meal if temptation would have you eating the lot before you have taken the lid off your box!

Fruit and yogurt

Again with yogurt, it is better for the landfill if you buy a large pot and decant it into smaller containers. Alternatively, make your own with a yogurt maker or flask for the true zero waste option.

Fruit comes in its own packaging, most of which is edible! What isn’t edible will provide a welcome addition to the compost bin. Apples, grapes and seasonal soft fruit can be munched on the go, while bananas, kiwis and oranges can be peeled and the peelings taken home with you. Remember to pack a spoon or knife.

Thinking outside the box

Sometimes it’s good to think outside the lunch box altogether and to move away from the sandwiches, crisps routine.

Dips and crudites

Dips and crudités help reduce waste. You’ll need to put a little preparation into preparing veggies, such as cutting carrot sticks, cucumber and top and tailing radishes or pepper strips, but you can whizz up a dip such as humus or guacamole in the time it would take you to break the seal on a plastic pot. It’s a healthy and zero waste option.


Another idea is to cook an extra portion at tea time and take the leftovers to work with you. Pasta, couscous or rice salad are lovely the next day with some olive oil, herbs and veggies. You can add whatever protein you eat such as prawns, bits of chopped chicken or some chick peas to make a complete meal. Take this in a reusable box with your own fork!


Knocking up a salad when all the fresh leaves are available from farmers markets takes no time at all. Serve with some cooked meat, a tin of fish or a hard boiled egg. Again, put in a reusable box and take your own fork.

Something warm

During the autumn, home made soup in a flask will provide you with a welcome warm lunch. If you make it a thick soup with lots of veggies and some small pasta or lentils, it’s a complete meal in itself.


For drinks, get a reusable bottle and fill it with tap water. You can be in with winning a reusable bottle from TAp by entering our pledge and win competition.

lunch boxes

Finally, you can’t go wrong with a laptop lunchbox. You don’t need any extra packaging, as a tray system helps keep all your food fresh until lunchtime. There are lots of inspiring recipes to try too. We have one to give away later in the year, so keep checking back to find out how to win one.

If you want to be more purist about it, and are trying to reduce as much plastic in your life, then you can buy stainless steel sandwich boxes and tiffin lunch box sets from Amazon.

Zero waste

Remember that one of the most significant zero waste actions you can take is to not waste food! So don’t overfill your child’s lunchbox and, as an adult, only take with you what you will comfortably eat during your lunch break.

What about you? I’ve only touched on the surface of a reduced waste lunch. How can we take things a stage further to create the ultimate zero waste lunch?


About the Author ()

I am a long time supporter of the Green and Sustainable lifestyle. After being caught in the Boscastle floods in 2004, our family begun a journey to respect and promote the importance of Earth's fragile ecosystem, that focussed on reducing waste. Inspired by the beauty and resourcefulness of this wonderful planet, I have published numerous magazine articles on green issues and the author of four books.

Comments (22)

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  1. Hi Mrs Green,

    Another in depth treatment of a daily situation. My usual is a plastic box, with unwrapped sandwiches and fruit (banana and apple) and a reused glass water bottle. Alternative describes a lot of our activities and in the food area, with its overwhelming plastic wrapping, listing good, countrywide options will surely help people maintain a broad range of food choices.

  2. Lucie says:

    I can recommend the laptop lunch boxes. My children have them for school and they’re great fun to fill – although I will admit to sometimes finding it hard to think of things to put in. There is a book available with lots of vegan ideas which is really good as well.

    My children love those awful “lunchables” that are full of salt and fat so I make up my own version with healthier crackers, cheese and cold meats.

  3. maisie says:

    I have yet to perfect the zero wate lunch box, but do use re-usable and reyclable drink bottles.

    At the beginning of the 3 main terms I buy a pack of 12 “highland spring” water. Both the bottle and lid on theses are recyclable, bottle type 1 lid type 2.

    The first day of the first week the boys get the water, then every subsequent day for a fortnight it is filled with either water or diluted squash. After this they are recycled
    The first day of the third week they both get a water bottle again, and so the system continues.

    I know I end up buying 36 of these small bottles over the course of a school year but it means they are not re-using plastic too many times and all parts of the drinks container are recyclable, and it doesn’t leak.

  4. maisie says:

    Today my DS2 had a football tournment so a packed lunch was needed, for 4 people.
    I had bought meat from the butchers which although having the intial plastic weighing sheet was also wrapped in a paper bag.

    The buns were made in the bread machine so no packaging there, and as the buns were made up they were wrapped back into the paper bags, I also lined the large plastic tub with a teatowel. All the buns fitted in there and were well wrapped so did not dry out, we also took bananas, and homemade cake which was put into a smaller plastic tub lined with a cloth napkin(I made some using cheap t/towels from Tesco and cutting in half anf hemming).

    Drinks I must admit were in old squash bottles which although the bottles were recyclable the lids are not within my area, but I can save them up to send off to GHS.

    I had really given this some thought as normally everything would be wrapped in clingfilm or plastic bags.
    The only thing that had plastic wrapping in the end was the crisps, and they were duly twisted and knotted so they took up hardly any room when placed into the bin.

    I remember 30 odd years ago my mum used to buy a pack of greaseproof bags to wrap my dads sandwiches in before putting them in his lunch box, I think I will investigate this idea, or buy some paper bags from the cash & carry next time I go. As both can go into the paper recycling which is kerb collected.

  5. Gareth Rae says:

    Hello Mrs Green
    A while ago I switched from clingfilm to brown paper bags which I buy from a local stationers. The used bags are recycled in our brown kitchen waste bin.

  6. Mrs Green says:

    Some great ideas here – thank you everyone for contributing. John, it sounds like you have your solution down to a fine art now…….

    Lucie, thanks for the thumbsup on the laptop lunchboxes. I’ve been eyeing them up for ages, but not taken the plunge yet. I bet they can look great when inspiration strikes.

    Maisie; you had yourself a bit of a success today then – that’s brilliant; well done. You can buy ‘food saver’ bags from lakeland, which are paper bags with greaseproof lining, but your suggestion, Gareth Rae is great too; I’d never thought to look in a stationers for brown paper bags.

  7. Mr. Green says:

    And another thought that came to me as I cleared out a cupboard is .. an old flour bag. They are very robust and add a nice dusting of flour to a sandwich. Oh, also the bag inside of cereal boxes doesa good job.

  8. Kris says:

    I make a packed lunch for my husband four days a week and although some days recently I’ve diverted into a boxful of tossed salad it’s usually a round of sandwiches – unwrapped, they fit exactly into three quarters of the space of the box and I fill it up with six or seven cherry tomatoes. Then he also has a banana, and a packet of crisps which I’m trying to dissuade him from having every day – both from a health and waste perspective! Apparently almost everything else but crisps would involve more time and effort in his non-existent breaktime (I suspect he just really likes them…)
    I also sometimes substitute filled pitta or wraps for the sandwiches but have a knack of constructing these so that they are liable to explode everywhere which doesn’t go down so well.

  9. Mrs Green says:

    Morning Kris,
    It sounds like you have a zero waste lunch well on the way too. It seems from what people are saying, that as long as the container is air tight, there is no need for extra wrapping on sandwiches. Exploding pittas in the workplace probably aren’t the best option LOL!

  10. Oh yes, I posted about this in the carnival of trash. Reusable containers are my friends!

    Mrs. Green, like you I always buy snacks in larger containers, and then I repackage them. Saves money and packaging.

  11. Mrs Green says:

    Hi Kristen, I remember your great post from the carnival, it was really good. If I remember correctly, it looked like you were using some glass containers too, is that right? Do you actually use them outside of the home or are they for use in the fridge?

  12. maisie says:

    The paper bags that I’m looking at at the cash and carry are the plain white or brown like you get on market stalls, for fruit etc.

    I will look at the cost first though as if too expensive will have to check out another option as I do 2 packups daily.

  13. Mrs Green says:

    Ah, yes the cash and carry. I used one years ago, but don’t go to one now. That would be a good idea and I’m sure you’ll manage to get them at a reasonable price from there. They can be reused as long as nothing messy is inside them – I’ve been reusing ones for our farm shop, but they don’t wear well for long.
    Let us know how you get on with that or what you decide to do.

  14. maisie says:

    Well I went to the cash and carry yesterday, the paper bags were £6.79 for 1000 bags, they also had a pack of 500 sheets(like chip shops use) of greaseproof paper for £2.79.

    But then I thought about it whilst looking and decided that I would be better off using the money to buy a bit bigger lunch box so that everything fits in one place (at the moment DS2 has 2 or 3 tubs plus his drink bottle daily, and then continue using the washable napkins I had made for wrapping the sandwiches and a smaller tub for any cake etc which would fit inside the new bigger one.

  15. maisie says:

    Forgot to mention that DS2’s school are looking at providing hot dinners through a meals provider, now for me that is an even better option for a zero waste lunch as I would not be providing any items; and I know DS2 eats all his lunch and usually gets 2nds as the teachers have all commented on how good an appetite he has.

    I will be asking though when we have the taster session what will happen to the waste food from this; I know from last time we had this facility in school all waste went back to the provider, but it is what they do with it!!

  16. Mrs Green says:

    Good choice maisie, but the price of the greaseproof paper seems really good, doesn’t it? It would be something useful to have around the house as a standby and for wrapping biscuity-type presents as gifts for people.

    I’m not sure how I feel about school lunches – as you say, what on earth would a food provider do with returned waste from a school; I can hazard a guess! Do let us know what you find out. I like to think it goes off to a hospice or to feed the homeless……..

  17. maisie says:

    The greaseproof does look a good price although I seem to remember that Natural Collection had a recycled type one which I need to recheck as well.Haven’t quite decided on this one yet.

    If the school went ahead with the lunches I would be using the option purely because DS2 enjoys having a hot meal whilst in school and the 4 week menu plan we have been sent has some really good options,(he likes his meat, but has said he would have the veggie option some days as that sounds better).

    The lunch would cost £2.10, is a main with veggies or salad, pudding and includes bread.

    Radical thinking here I might see if the school could getbe allowed to get some green cones/bokashi bins to put into the school gsrden area for the plate srapings etc.

  18. Mrs Green says:

    Ah yes, that’s what I meant to say last time! At dd’s school they had a compost and a small garden area, so fresh scraps were put in there. There were recycling bins throughout the school for this purpose as most were given fresh fruit for break times.

    At least it cut down on some landfill. But I’m pretty sure the cooked food waste was dumped.

    A green cone in a school would be awesome wouldn’t it? It will be great to see these things as commonplace in schools within the next couple of years.

  19. maisie says:

    Our school garden has a compost area like LMG’s for the fruit waste.
    We also have a greenhouse in which last year they grew some tomatoes and cucumber which were all shared out through the school at lunchtime one day.

  20. Mrs Jackson says:

    Hi all
    Thanks again for a great article. I plan to swap my cling film for foil which can be washed and recycled. I also had the thought today about whether the school could recycle food waste and use it to make compost for them to grow things, and if it’d be possible to extend this to allow families to bring their food waste in too (not sure how practical it would be). I’ve told my children that there will be no things in packets in the lunchboxes during zero waste week and my 5 year old is not happy but have said that at least it’s only a week for him.

  21. Mrs Green says:

    Hi Mrs J – glad you liked the article and I hope your 5 year old gets through his zero waste week in one piece!
    It would be interesting to ask the school about food waste – I guess you would need something for cooked waste though, like a digester?

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