How to Pack a Zero Waste Lunch

Trying to live zero-waste is intimidating—but it doesn't have to be. We can start one meal at a time.
How to pack a zero waste lunch

My own foray into environmentalism, like most people, started with the recycling programs I encountered in grade school. The three R’s — reduce, reuse, recycle — were the foundation of my impact going into adulthood. What I didn’t know was that reusing and then recycling my belongings was actually like playing a game of catch-up. To put it more simply, it was like pouring blue dye all over a white dress and then desperately trying to scrub the pigment out. Wouldn’t it make more sense just to stop making the mess in the first place?

Reducing our consumption of disposable goods is really where we should all start our journey, with composting and recycling being a last measure. Zero waste living is intimidating but, not if you start one meal at a time.

Lunch, in my opinion, is the easiest to make ‘no waste’ and the most useful for bolstering good habits. Why? Because we mostly prepare our lunches ahead of time and we also tend to eat them in the same environment each day. So, if you want to start your zero waste journey tomorrow, here’s what you need to know:

No Waste Shopping

This habit ultimately begins at the grocery store. If you use bread from a plastic bag and pour soy milk from a Tetra Pak into a Klean Kanteen, then your impact hasn’t really lessened. Shop for meals that emphasize fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as dry bulk goods first. Try not to use the plastic bags provided and bring your own drawstring cotton bags from home instead. Generally, the stores I frequent do not mind what containers you use as long as they tare them — determining the net weight of your receptacles — before your shopping trip starts. I use drawstring bags for all fruits, veggies, pasta, etc. I’ll also bring small mason jars for extra fine items, like spices and flour, and even the palm-oil free soap that my co-op offers. Never be afraid to ask for help. You might be surprised at the amount of people in your area who already shop this way, making it commonplace for your grocer’s staff.

Create a Menu

My best advice sounds a bit like parody: when in doubt, make a salad. Leftover grains (black rice, faro, quinoa, etc) and pasta from the night before can be easily transformed into a jar salad for lunch. Sturdy leafy greens, like kale, hold up well until mid-day and roasted vegetables add depth of flavor. Nuts and dried fruit make great snacks, as well. Collard green wraps are also my gluten-free go-to when I don’t have time to make homemade tortillas.

Pasta Salad with Tempeh

A pasta salad with leftover tempeh chunks and gingered carrots and chives is very filling!

People generally advise you to find a local bakery but the one in your grocery store will do just fine as long as it is self-serve. We purchase bagels, naan, pita, and bread loaves fresh and free of plastic all the time. Homemade hummus on a bagel with charred broccoli and pine nuts is a great but simple meal. Sandwiches with leftover tofu are always filling but remember to pack the veggies separately or else your bread will get soggy. 

Kale Salad

Kale, broccoli, fermented cabbage, and carrots with a small vial of nutritional yeast for topping.

Know Your Tools

Glass and stainless steel will likely be the main materials in your arsenal. Plastic is often times down-cycled, meaning it is converted into less useful items with poor quality, whereas the aforementioned materials can be remelted and repurposed endlessly without losing their quality.

Our main goal with this meal is simply to not toss anything once you’re finished, meaning no paper towels or recyclable plastic utensils. You don’t have to go out and buy a three-tiered Tiffin (seen below) to make this work, though I do love mine. A couple of jars, a cotton cloth and your own silverware from home will do the trick just fine if you want to start straight away. If you’re self-conscious about the professional climate in which you work, there are plenty of elegant zero-waste tools that you can buy for the office:

Zero Waste Lunch

[1] Round Stainless Steel Tri-Bento, $35 [2] Reusable Bamboo Cutlery Set of 5, $14.95 [3] Linen bread bag, $22 [4] Stainless steel beverage bottle with sustainable bamboo lid, $29.95, or bundle it with a thermos (paint-free, plastic-free) $64.95 [5] 32 oz. Ball Wide-Mouth Mason Jars, $15.99 for 12.
(P.S. None of these are affiliate links! We just like the stuff.)

Just try not to miss the forest for the trees. Being green can be very affordable and embracing that does not make you cheap. To reiterate, you don’t have to spend a lot of money up front to start living waste-free, you simply have to become a planner and think ahead. Being environmentally conscious is, thankfully, trendier than ever before so embrace it and hold your head (and mason jar) high in the lunchroom.

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