Looking for some zero waste lunch ideas? Sometimes it’s hard to think of a recipe right off the top of your head. Plus, there’s the added pressure of not creating any waste. I get it: You want something that’s tasty and waste free. So that’s why I’m here to help! Lunch is a really important part of the day: It often gets ignored, but it can help you sustain your energy level and help you from burning out. In college, I wish I took lunch more seriously. I would often forego it entirely, or buy cheap unhealthy, wasteful ramen. If you know anything about ramen, you know it comes in a styrofoam cup and is loaded with salt. Yeah, not the best option. Looking back, I wish I did some meal prep ahead of time and came to school with one of these lunches instead. If you go to school or go to work, never deprive yourself of food. Your body deserves the best, so it’s important to feed it the best! These lunches are not only healthy, but they’re designed with the environment in mind. I recommend getting all the ingredients for them from the farmers market or bulk food store. I also talk about how to store them without any waste. Without further ado, here’s 5 zero waste lunch ideas to stuff your face with.
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Zero Waste Lunch Ideas
First, lets talk about the basics of what make a zero waste lunch. It’s important to think about the whole picture here from start to finish. First, you have to source your ingredients as zero waste as possible. For that, I recommend grabbing ingredients from the farmers market
and bulk food store. Try to eat as locally and seasonally as possible.
Quick tips for building a zero waste lunch, every time
Use local, seasonal produce
Always opt for locally grown food from the farmers market, when possible. These are the freshest, tastiest and most nutritious. They also have a smaller carbon footprint
, because locally grown produce doesn’t take as long to get to you, resulting in fewer emissions.
Here are some veggies and fruit I recommend building a meal from, come the passing seasons.
- String beans
- Brussel sprouts
- Butternut squash
- Acorn squash
- Dandelion greens
- Bok choy
- Collard greens
- Winter squash
- Sweet potato
- Butternut squash
- Cherry tomatoes
- Heirloom tomatoes
- String beans
- Summer squash
Buy food as plastic free as possible
Avoid packaging whenever you can. Opt for fresh, naked produce. Go to the bulk food stores
for dry goods. Bring your own totes, produce bags and jars. If you have to get something in packaging, look for it in sustainable packaging like glass, paper or cardboard. Think: Can I reuse or compost this packaging? If you can, it’s the better choice.
Use up what’s in your kitchen
Before you rush out the door to the grocery store, use up whatever is in your fridge first. This will prevent a lot of food waste
. Check the back of the fridge and see if there’s anything you might have missed. Check jars and containers that you forgot the contents to. There might be something to work with in there!
Prep ahead of time
Make your meals the night before, so you’re not rushing out the door without your lunch. If you prep ahead of time, you won’t ever have to go hungry, or make impulse buys come lunch time. You can easily avoid grabbing that wasteful styrofoam ramen cup if you meal prep. There are some things you may even want to prep for the week ahead on Sunday night to make your life easier during the week. Consider washing and chopping certain vegetables so they’re ready to go – like lettuce, kale, carrots, string beans, onion, garlic, broccoli, etc. It’ll make forming meals so much simpler and quicker.
Now, lets make some zero waste lunches
1. Seasonal Salad
I love to eat salad. If I could, I’d probably eat it every day for lunch. But my salads aren’t just lettuce, croutons, cheese and chicken. They’re loaded with good-for-you, seasonal vegetables.
With each shifting season, the contents of my salad change. I think that’s the best way to eat a salad though: With the freshest, most delicious produce. Everything in my salad is locally grown and makes my taste buds very happy.
The particular salad pictured is from early fall (Late September, early October). Some summer produce is still lingering in my produce hauls at this point. But it’s definitely got heartier veggies in there.
You don’t have to use exactly what I do in this salad – this was just my choice, what I had on hand, and what was in season. I love to boil, then stir fry harder vegetables before adding them to the salads. Usually I do this with turnips, parsnips, brussel sprouts, broccoli, string beans, asparagus, mushrooms, potatoes, corn, etc. The fruit I’ll just cut up accordingly and plop right in.
Here’s the specific recipe for the salad pictured:
- 1 handful of kale (washed and chopped)
- 1 handful of dandelion greens (washed and chopped)
- 4 big romaine lettuce leaves (washed and chopped)
- 5-7 cherry tomatoes (halved)
- 1/2 a head of broccoli (chopped and cooked)
- 1/2 of corn on the cob (cooked)
- 1/2 a cucumber (chopped and peeled)
- 1 carrot (grated)
- Wash all your produce and dry it off as best you can. You may use more of any given ingredient if you’d like to make more. This salad is designed to be big enough for just one person with perhaps a little left over.
- Rip up or chop the salad greens to your liking, adding them to a big bowl. Boil some broccoli and corn. You can also stir fry the broccoli in a cast iron pan with olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic powder to give it some extra flavor.
- As the broccoli and corn cook, chop and peel the carrot and cucumber. You can choose to grate the carrot as I did, or simply chop it into circles. If you grate the carrot, grate it right over the bowl, into the salad. Halve the cherry tomatoes and add to the bowl, along with the carrot and cucumber.
- Once your corn and broccoli is finished cooking, add it to your bowl. You’ll have to first cut the corn off the cob, then add it to your salad bowl.
- Once everything is added to the bowl, you can add any toppings you like, such as pumpkin and chia seeds, or sliced almonds. Top with the dressing of your choice (I personally love honey mustard dressing), mix well to coat the salad, and eat up!
Pack it for lunch:
Store this salad in some trusty glassware
. They have snappable tops that seal shut and will keep your salad fresh. You could also put it into a mason jar. Don’t add any dressing to it right away. Transport the dressing on the side with you to work or school in a stainless steel condiment container
. Keep this in the fridge until you’re ready to eat it, or in an insulated lunchbox that keeps things cold.
2. Vegetable Soup with Pastina
Vegetable soup is my favorite thing to make, especially when the weather gets cooler. It’s so easy to whip together and when you make a big batch, you can literally eat it all week (if you really wanted to).
I love cooking a big batch and storing some for lunch, some for a later date. I’ll usually leave enough for myself to eat two or three days of the week. The rest I’ll freeze. Here’s how to freeze food without plastic
, by the way.
This recipe is designed to make a big batch. You can freeze some, and save the rest for lunch (or even dinner) throughout the week.
- 1 bunch of swiss chard
- 2 heads of broccoli
- 2 handfuls of string beans
- 4 carrots
- 4 stalks of celery
- 1/2 an onion
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 1 cup of pastina
- 2 tablespoons of Better than Bouillon (for broth)
- 14 cups of water
- Drizzle of olive oil
- Salt, pepper, garlic powder, peprika to taste
- Begin by peeling and chopping the onion and garlic. Add it to a big pot with some olive oil, salt and pepper. Put the heat on low and mix occasionally.
- While that cooks, wash, peel and chop your vegetables. I started with the carrots since they’re the hardest and need to cook the longest. Then I added in the celery, broccoli, string beans and swiss chard (in that order).
- When you’re ready, fill the pot with water, then mix in the Better than Bouillon paste. This will create a broth for your soup. If you prefer, you can make your own zero waste vegetable broth and sub some of the water for broth.
- Once everything is added in, add your seasonings of choice in. You can add as much or as little as you want.
- Turn up the heat so that the soup comes to a boil. Once it does, lower it to a simmer and cook for at least an hour, if not more. Generally speaking, you want to cook your soup until the vegetables are easily forkable. Test your veggies out and see how they’re doing as time passes.
- While the soup is cooking, more towards the end of it, boil some water (about 4 cups or so) on the stove in a separate pot. Add a bit of salt to the water. Once it’s boiled, add in your pastina and bring to a simmer. Let it cook for about 9 minutes, then remove from heat. When your soup is close to being done, drain the pastina and add it to your soup pot. You’ll be able to tell the soup is finished cooking once the ingredients are easy to fork. Serve and enjoy!
Pack it for lunch:
Store this in a mason jar or glassware
with snappable lids. Keep in the fridge – you can even freeze some for a later date. If taking to work, consider storing a bowl there so you can put the soup into the bowl and heat it up in the microwave, hassle free. This allows for easier eating too. If going to school, consider bringing it in an insulated thermos
3. Peanut Butter + Jelly
A classic lunch, peanut butter and jelly is a fun go-to lunch option. However, we can definitely put a zero waste spin on it.
I recommend getting the bread for this lunch option at your local farmers market, deli or bakery. Bring a tote bag with you and a produce bag. Ask them if they can cut the bread for you and put it in your bag. This way, you can get plastic-free bread, easy-peasy!
Sometimes, my folks will buy bread in plastic and I’ll just notice it on the counter. When that happens, it’s important to not let good food go to waste, even if it is in plastic. You can view it as an opportunity to use it up and make some peanut butter and jelly!
The actual peanut butter and jelly itself can also be made from scratch. So can even make the bread from scratch, for that matter. Here’s a nice sourdough recipe
from Zero Waste Chef I gotta try one day. It depends on how creative you are, and how far you’re willing to go.
Your local bulk food store or health food store may also let you grind your own peanut butter in-store. If you have that option, dive in! If not, you can always try looking for peanut butter and jelly that comes in glass jars and is all natural.
For those who want to try making their own peanut butter and jelly, here’s how to do it. Just make sure you try to get the ingredients in bulk or package free!
Zero waste peanut butter
Peanut butter isn’t hard to make on your own. You’ll save money making it homemade, plus avoid all the additives in conventional peanut butter!
- 3-4 cups of roasted peanuts
- 1-2 teaspoons of salt
- 1-2 teaspoons of maple syrup or honey (optional)
Note: If you don’t have access to roasted peanuts in bulk, you can roast them yourself. Place them on a baking sheet, then put them in the oven at 325 degrees F for around 10 minutes. Move them around a little halfway through to prevent them from burning. They’ll start to smell roasted and you’ll start to see color.
- Place the roasted peanuts into your food processor and blend for about 3 to 5 minutes. Stop to scrape down the sides.
- It’ll go through several different consistency stages where it’ll look kind of like cornmeal, then play-dough, then creamy. You want it creamy. Once it reaches this consistency, add in the salt and the sweetener of your choice. Blend a little bit more. Add a little oil if necessary or desired.
Zero waste jelly
Unless you buy organic jelly, you’re bound to notice some gross additives to conventional jelly. Fructose corn syrup anyone? Making your own is much healthier, plus waste free.
- 5 cups of organic fruit juice (apple, grape, blueberry, strawberry, and apricot all work well)
- 1 1/2 cups of sugar
- 1/4 cup of fresh squeezed lemon juice
- 1/2 cup of organic pectin
- Put the 5 cups of fruit juice into a large pot and stir in the sugar gradually. Then, bring it to a quick rolling boil. Stir in the lemon juice and pectin, allowing it to boil for about a minute.
- Remove from heat and skim off any foam that appears. Then, pour into hot sterile jars and process for 5 minutes in a boiling water bath. Put in the fridge, let it cool, and enjoy paired with your homemade peanut butter (recipe for that above).
Additionally, I also like to pack some healthy snacks with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. This typically consists of seasonal fruit (like a peach in summer, an apple in fall), dried fruit (I get this at the bulk bins) or nuts/seeds (also from the bulk bins). My zero waste bliss balls
would make an excellent snack option as well!
Pack it for lunch:
Store this in a stainless steel tiffin (my favorite is Eco Lunch Box
), or a Stasher Bag
(they’re made out of silicone and easily portable). If you decide to bring snacks, a stainless steel tiffin might be better because they usually have layers which make it easier to take more stuff without it getting squished or touching. But Stasher Bag also sells silicone snack storage bags
perfect for fitting sliced fruit or nuts too.
4. Veggie Stir Fry
Whenever I forget to make lunch for the next day or don’t feel like making a salad, I’ll whip up a stir fry. It’s easy, super tasty, and fills me up. It’s also an excellent way to use up whatever is in your fridge and prevent food waste
I recommend using whatever veggies are in season by you to make your stir fry. The one I made that’s pictured was made during fall, so there’s a lot of fall produce featured in it, such as broccoli and sweet potato. If it’s a different season near you, you can use whatever veggies are thriving right now.
- 1 head of broccoli
- 1 handful of string beans
- 2 carrots
- 1 sweet potato
- 1/2 cup of quinoa
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1/2 an onion
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Wash and chop all your produce first. Heat a cast iron skillet on low, then add the chopped and peeled garlic and onion. Drizzle some olive oil into the pan and add some salt and pepper. Stir the garlic and onion around until they’re fragrant and a bit translucent.
- Add in your chopped broccoli, string beans, carrots and sweet potato. Give it a good mix and top with more olive oil, salt and pepper. You might want to add a little water to the skillet to help the vegetables cook faster.
- While that cooks, take a pot and fill it with water. Add your quinoa to the water and turn the heat up high. When the water and quinoa come to a boil, lower it to a simmer and cook for 10 to 20 minutes, or until quinoa looks done. Strain the quinoa and add it to the cast iron skillet with your veggies. Give it a good mix and add more salt and pepper, for flavor.
- Once the vegetables are easy to fork and have cooked for a while, remove from heat and serve.
Pack it for lunch:
Store this in glassware
. It will preserve the flavors perfectly and no chemicals will leech into your food (can’t say the same for plastic Tupperware). Keep it refrigerated at work or keep it in an insulated lunchbox to keep it cold. When you’re ready to eat it, you can eat it cold or warm it up in a microwave. Just make sure (if you’re using glassware) to remove the top before microwaving.
5. Lemon Orzo Pasta Salad
This refreshing pasta salad is fantastic, especially on a summer’s day, or during early fall when the weather is still kind of warm. It’s really easy to make and low maintenance.
If you prefer, you can replace the string beans and tomatoes with other seasonal produce. I can picture this dish doing well with broccoli, zucchini, and/or asparagus.
- 2 handfuls of string beans (chopped)
- 1 cucumber (peeled and chopped)
- 10 cherry tomatoes (halved)
- 1/2 heirloom tomato
- 1 cup of orzo
- 1 lemon
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
- Begin by washing and chopping your produce. Peel the cucumber. Add the cucumber, tomato, and cherry tomatoes to a big bowl.
- Boil some water in a small pot and add the chopped string beans in, setting it to a simmer until cooked. While that’s cooking, boil some water in another pot, adding a pinch of salt into it. Once the water boils, add the orzo pasta and let it cook for approximately 9 minutes, give or take, on a low simmer. Strain the pasta and string beans when they’re done cooking.
- Add the pasta and string beans to the bowl everything else is in. Now, add the olive oil, salt and pepper. Cut the lemon and squeeze in the juice, making sure no pits get inside. Compost the remains of the lemon, and the pits. Give everything a good toss and mix, adding more salt and pepper as desired. Store in the fridge and serve cold.
Pack it for lunch:
Store this in glassware
or a mason jar. Keep it refrigerated at work or keep it in an insulated lunchbox to keep it cold.
Would you give one of these zero waste lunch ideas a shot? For even more zero waste recipes, be sure to check out my ebook, How to Reduce Food Waste – it’s got 14 yummy (and low waste) recipes inside!
Want more zero waste snacks? Try making my zero waste bliss balls or my zero waste salsa recipe.
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