It’s a familiar story: Many of us spend a lot of time grocery shopping, planning, and packing lunches every day for our kids, only to have them tell us at the end of the day that they tossed most of it in the trash! After all the hard work and money you put into creating a delicious meal, this can be difficult to hear. But, there are a few things you can to do reduce food waste and get your kids to actually eat their lunch. Here are some tips:
1. Emphasize good nutrition
As soon as your children are old enough to understand, talk to them about good nutrition. Explain why it is important to eat a healthy, well-balanced lunch. Talk about balanced meals, including all the food groups, and the importance of each one.
Kids learn a lot from watching others. Set an example at home by serving and eating healthy meals. Eat foods similar to what you pack them for lunch at school. Eventually, they will learn that they feel better and have more energy when they eat properly.
2. Talk about food waste
Between 30 and 40 percent of food is wasted each year, according to estimates by the USDA. Talk to your children about how much of the food that is tossed every day could be eaten by people who don't have enough. Also, explain that food waste is harmful to the environment. Rotting food in landfills accounts for 25 percent of the harmful methane emissions in the US. Discarded food also equates to a whole lot of wasted resources. Just think of all the land, water, packaging materials, and fuel it takes to get food from the farm to your table.
Brainstorm ideas on how to reduce food waste in your family, including with school lunches. Get kids involved in making it a family goal to not waste food. Establish a “leftovers” night each week to enjoy the extra servings from the week’s meals. You can also set up a compost bin—use it to turn household food waste into nutrient-rich soil for a garden.
3. Learn the right portion sizes
It’s important to serve children the correct portions for their age. Kids might waste food because they simply can’t eat it all. Choose My Plate, a program of the USDA, provides information on correct portion sizes for every age group. Your child's doctor should also have good resources to determine how much they should be eating.
4. Get kids involved
I’ve found that the best way to get kids to eat is to allow them to choose what they want — from a parent-approved list, of course. On Sundays, sit together and make a plan for school lunches. Write down a list of options and go grocery shopping together. If your kids are old enough, have them pack their own lunch from a range of healthy options. This allows them to make decisions about what will be included and to be more invested in their eating choices. The more they’re involved in what they’re taking to school, the more likely they’ll eat it.
5. Ask them to bring food home
Instead of just tossing the food your kids don't eat in the trash, ask them to bring any leftovers home. (Some foods, like leftover fruit, can be eaten for a different meal or the next day and the rest can be composted.) This will also allow you better visibility into how much they’re eating so you can better plan portions. Be sure to include an ice pack in their lunch to help food stay fresh longer.
6. Talk to the school
There are many ways that your kids’ school can help reduce food waste. One way is to create a food swap table where unwanted food can be placed and shared. Or, you can offer to take leftover food to a local shelter or food bank. These activities will also help create a culture of awareness among teachers, staff, and students to try to reduce waste.
Teaching your kids about food waste and giving them food they love for lunches can prevent them from tossing out good food. Awareness and preparation is the best way to help reduce food waste.