Do Disposable Back to School Lunches Keep Kids Safe?

Going back to school in 2020 raises a whole lot of questions! Will our kids be going into the actual school building at all? Will they have to stay in the same room all day? How will teachers get through the daily routine without anybody breathing on anybody? It’s all very complicated!

Katie heard a rumor that some schools are requiring students who bring lunches from home to make those lunches disposable–all containers and utensils, as well as any unfinished food, must be thrown in the trash after eating. I asked around about this, and a friend sent me his child’s preschool’s new policy:

Parents/caregivers should pack their child’s lunch in a disposable paper bag. All contents in the lunch bag will be disposed of after lunch.

Children may not bring water bottles from home. Instead, each child will have a daily, designated disposable cup for their drinking use.

Katie and I both were aghast at this idea! You don’t have to make garbage to stay healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we couldn’t see how disposable lunches would protect anyone! So we decided to look into it: Do we need to compromise between being virus-safe and being Earth-friendly? If your school demands disposable lunches, should you fight that policy?

The Independent reports that over 100 epidemiologists, virologists, chemists, biologists, and doctors signed a statement explaining that reusable dishes, travel mugs, and refillable containers for bulk groceries do not increase the risk of coronavirus transmission.1

The eco-journalists at Grist Magazine also assure us that reusing dishes and bags is completely safe as long as you wash them regularly.2

Of course, many schoolchildren don’t bring lunches; they eat food served by the school. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines for school cafeterias don’t require disposable dishes even for school food, let alone food brought from home.3 Instead, they emphasize employee health, hygiene, and social distancing.

Before the pandemic, Pittsburghers Against Single-Use Plastic talked with local public and private schools to learn about how they’re serving cafeteria meals and help work out ways to reduce their plastic garbage. I also did some research on how large public school districts are reducing cafeteria trash. Once the crisis has passed, we’ll get back to work encouraging reusing and composting in the everyday routine of school cafeterias! But that’s on hold for now. . . .

back-to-school lunch during COVID pandemic

Figuring Out School Lunch During a Pandemic

If you are able to provide three healthy, balanced, real-food, low-toxin meals for your kids each day, take a moment to be grateful.

Many parents have lost their jobs, lost some income, and/or had an increase in medical expenses this year. More families than usual are struggling to get enough food. One reason parents are eager to reopen schools this fall is that having kids in school enables parents to work outside the home or get more done working from home so that they can earn enough to support their families.

When schools closed suddenly in March, the National School Lunch Program had to pivot rapidly from serving hot meals in school cafeterias to handing “grab-and-go” bags of food to kids who line up outdoors. Food that’s distributed to individual children to be eaten at home has to be individually packed in containers that aren’t returned to the school. There’s really no practical way around that.

Grab bag lunch sign

I’m grateful that my family has plenty of savings to get us through this period of under-employment, eating good food from grocery stores and our CSA farm share. Because we don’t need food assistance, we’ve taken very little of it, to leave more for others.

I did allow my daughter to try a grab-and-go bag when we were at the school in May picking up her final packet of kindergarten materials and her yearbook. She considered it a special treat! So she was excited when I told her we’d get another grab-and-go as research for this article.

I’m grateful that families in need are able to pick up food from specified schools and parks 5 days a week all summer. This is not just a pandemic thing but is normally available here in Pittsburgh, where the proportion of low-income children in the public schools is high enough that our schools offer breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge, every school day and through the summer.

Why Not Eat the Lunch Served at School?

Even in districts where middle-class families have to pay for school meals, the price is low and there’s usually some kind of convenient payment plan so your kids don’t have to carry cash. When kids are attending school in person, isn’t it easier to eat the food served there than to bring lunch from home?

Taking lunch-packing off the to-do list certainly saves time. But does the school food meet your standards, and do your kids like it? You might choose to pack lunches for better nutrition, allergen avoidance, taste preferences, values like vegetarianism or keeping kosher . . . or to reduce disposables in our environment.

Disposable dishes, even more than food quality, are what turned us off school lunches. Pittsburgh Public Schools makes the meals for most of the schools in a central facility, packing individual servings into plastic dishes sealed with plastic film–and some of the side dishes are purchased individually packed, mostly in plastic.

At each school, the meals are heated in the plastic dishes in warming ovens. I cringed when I learned this on our school tour! Heating food in plastic releases endocrine-disrupting chemicals into the food, as reported by Harvard Medical School.4

What we really want is safe, healthy meals for every child in the world! We advocate for that whenever we have the chance. But because we’re uncomfortable with our local school meals as they have been so far, we’ve opted our own kids out of eating plastic-packed school food at least in elementary school.

My partner Daniel packed lunches for our son Nicholas every day from kindergarten through fifth grade. Then he told Nicholas he was old enough to pack his own lunches. That lasted through a summer of day camp and a month or so into the school year . . . and then Nicholas began eating the school lunch sometimes, and even school breakfast if he was hungry in the morning. At least we made a difference in his lifetime impact on the environment and its impact on him!

Next, Daniel packed lunches for our daughter Lydia to take to preschool and then kindergarten. We’ve started our kids with good food and minimal garbage in their early years when they’re forming their assumptions of what’s normal! Nicholas has eaten a lot of school food these last few years, but he’s quite critical of that food and of the amount of trash each meal creates–so, in his adult life, we expect he’ll aim for healthful and responsible choices, and he’ll get better at meeting those goals as he develops his skills and priorities.

This autumn, school meals are likely to involve less hot food because most students will be eating in classrooms instead of cafeterias to minimize the number of people using each room. Even if your school normally uses washable lunch trays and utensils, COVID-19 may push them into serving mostly individually-wrapped food this year: It’s a lot easier to deliver a box of bagged lunches to each classroom and then empty the trash hours later than to deliver hot meals on dishes and then come back to collect the dishes.

Although there’s a lot we still don’t know about how this virus spreads, it seems logical that scraping unfinished food off plates and loading them into a dishwasher would expose workers to more saliva than tying up bags of trash. I know that handling dirty dishes is the way I caught a stomach bug when I worked in a summer-camp kitchen years ago!

So, we can expect that meals provided in schools during the pandemic will be less like the traditional “hot lunch” and more like the grab-and-go meals distributed for eating at home.

What’s in a Grab-and-Go Meal?

Here’s what we got in a bag of free food from Pittsburgh Public Schools in July 2020. It’s intended to supply a child with today’s lunch and tomorrow’s breakfast. Everything is individually packaged, some of it fully labeled with ingredients and Nutrition Facts, some not.

  • Cinnamon Chex cereal
  • Plain low-fat milk
  • Chocolate milk
  • Apple juice
  • Sliced peaches packed in juice
  • 2 mini breaded chicken-like patties in buns (With no labeling other than a use-by date, we don’t know for sure what these are!)
  • 2 packets barbecue sauce
  • Peanut butter
  • Celery sticks

free lunch

I was able to look up the Nutrition Facts for everything but the patties in buns. If you didn’t eat those but ate all the rest, here’s what you’d get in your two meals and how it compares to what the Food & Drug Administration and the Cleveland Clinic recommend:5, 6, 7, 8

  • 789 calories (That’s about right for two light meals.)
  • 92 grams of sugar (Some of it is naturally occurring sugar in milk, fruit, and fruit juice–but the cereal, chocolate milk, barbecue sauce, and peanut butter all contain added sugar. Even if only 1/3 of the total sugar in this food is added sugar, it’s still more than the recommended 25 grams per day.)
  • 792 mg of sodium (Not bad–that’s about 36% of what kids should have in a day.)
  • 25 grams of protein (Protein needs vary by age and weight. This is enough protein for a young elementary child’s whole day, but it’s only about half as much as a teen needs.)
  • 5 grams of fiber (This is only 1/5 to 1/7 of the fiber a school-aged child needs in a day!)

We can guess that if you also ate those mysterious patties in buns, you’d get more calories, sodium, and protein; let’s hope there wouldn’t be much more sugar! Maybe the buns are whole-grain and would double your fiber intake. But it seems to me that what this meal really needs is more veggies!

This reminded me of something I learned from meeting with Pittsburgh Public Schools: They’re working to equip each school with a vegetable steamer because they’ve found that students vastly prefer freshly steamed veggies over pre-cooked veggies in plastic trays–and freshly steamed are more nutritious, too!

That’s great news for post-pandemic school lunches, but there’s no way to use those steamers making grab-and-go meals. The sudden change in how meals are prepared and packed may have disrupted the supply chain so that the district is a little short on veggies ready to eat at home.

All 4 members of my family sampled those maybe-chicken sandwiches. With no cooking instructions, we decided to take them out of the bag onto a plate and microwave for 1 minute. That got them hot all the way through, and the chicken (or soy protein–we really couldn’t tell!) was pre-cooked. These were exactly the kind of bland, unappealing things I associate with school cafeterias! The barbecue sauce helped a lot to make them edible, but I wouldn’t choose to eat them again.

Aside from the strange sandwiches, the food was pretty good. My kids enjoyed eating from cute little packages–a novelty for them, especially in the past few months when almost all our meals and snacks have been made at home. The celery was appealingly crisp and juicy, despite being pre-cut and packaged.

trash from the grab and go lunch

Here’s all the trash created by this meal! (It didn’t come with a spoon, but we added a plastic spoon because you’d need one to eat the cereal and peaches in school.) Only the outer plastic bag is recyclable in a plastic-film recycling bin. (Some of our local collection bins have been removed to make more space at the entrances of stores, but others are still available.) All the rest of it is eternity in our hands, headed to the landfill forever.

Could Kids Catch COVID-19 from Cafeteria Meals?

After months of keeping your kids away from everyone, it might seem scary to trust other people to make their meals. Even if they’re just tossing packages into a bag, your child is going to handle those packages in the process of eating . . . but it’s a very small risk.

Since the early weeks of the pandemic, scientists have learned more about how COVID-19 spreads. The CDC is not willing to rule out completely the possibility that someone could be infected by touching a contaminated surface after the person who contaminated it is no longer present–but after months of research and millions of cases, there’s still not a documented case of that happening.9

If a masked cafeteria worker makes a no-contact delivery of lunches that the teacher later distributes in the classroom, that’s much safer than standing face-to-face with the worker serving food.

Are individually-wrapped food items made in factories safer than food prepared in a school kitchen? Well, are groceries safer than takeout from a restaurant? After months of pandemic worldwide, there’s no evidence of anyone catching COVID-19 from food packaging, and the virus cannot grow in food, according to the CDC.10

School kitchens have stricter standards and more inspections than restaurants in most states, so if you feel safe eating takeout, you can feel safe eating school meals.

School food-service managers are doing the best they can with a tight budget, a limited range of suppliers who can provide sufficient quantities of food that meets federal and local standards, and now safety precautions that make every step of their process more difficult and fraught with worry! It’s likely that they’re also running up against shortages of some items, which may explain the unbalanced nutrition in this random day’s bag of food.

Nutrition is crucial to our children’s future, and we need to improve the food system for everyone, not just our own kids! But right now is not a great time to nag schools about reducing packaging or changing the food they offer. Give them grace for trying hard to help hungry children through this particularly difficult time.

If you’re struggling financially, or if you’re struggling to make every second count as you catch up on backlogged work while your kids are finally at school, gratefully accept the free/inexpensive school meals and give yourself some grace in this difficult time. It may not be the best food possible, but you can compensate with healthy dinners–which will be more feasible if you free up time and money by utilizing some school food.

But if you’re able and willing to pack lunches at home, that’s a great way to minimize waste by making sure your kids have food they’ll eat–and, depending on your school’s rules, you may be able to minimize packaging, too, without putting your child at greater risk of contracting coronavirus!

School Policies for Food from Home: What’s Changed, and Why?

It seems that most of the changes in school-lunch procedures relate to meals served by the school. I haven’t yet confirmed that any school for grades K-12 is restricting how students pack food for their own consumption. Disposable-lunch requirements, or other changes in how food from home is handled, may be appearing only in preschools and childcare centers.

Here are some other changes that came with reopening in some preschools attended by people I know:

  • Children bring all their own food: Some preschools that used to provide food stopped, making parents the primary food handlers for their own children. Schools no longer have kids take turns bringing a snack to share.
  • Children bring their own utensils: Schools that used to hand out spoons and forks, and wash them for reuse, now have kids putting their own utensils back into their lunch bags to wash at home.
  • Children bring their own beverage, instead of the teacher pouring milk or water into cups owned and washed by the school.

What’s Different About Preschool?

Children below kindergarten age need more help with their lunches than big kids do. Also, in many states, early-childhood programs are subject to regulations that don’t apply to K-12 schools: Lunches must be refrigerated, food a child didn’t finish can’t be offered again later, etc.

So, parents handle food containers when packing lunch, teachers handle them to store the food until lunchtime and to help kids open all their food and get ready to eat, kids handle the containers while eating (and get saliva on them), and teachers handle them again as they help kids clean up.

If lunch isn’t disposable, kids and/or parents handle the containers again to bring them home, finish any leftover food, and wash the containers. All this handling might transmit the virus between parents and teachers who otherwise have little to no contact.

Coronavirus spreads when an infected person exhales droplets that are ingested by another person. The faster those droplets move from one person to the next, the fewer viral particles it takes to cause infection.11 It’s important to wash your hands after touching possibly contaminated surfaces, but you’re very unlikely to get sick that way.

Even so, that probably is the risk that schools are trying to reduce by requiring disposable lunches. They can’t prevent kids and parents from handling food containers prior to teachers helping to open them, but they can prevent those containers from being a vector for viruses coming home. It may not make much difference, but it feels safer. Also, they may think that disposable packages are easier for kids to open than reusable containers, reducing the amount of handling by teachers.

When Should Parents Challenge Policies?

Right now, everyone is doing a stressful job in a very uncertain situation. We all need to respect each other’s need to feel safe. Even if a precaution isn’t strictly necessary, I’m inclined to work within the requirements as best I can.

The time to speak up is if you see a well-meant policy that’s actually making things more or equally dangerous, especially if it’s also wasteful or upsetting your child. Sometimes, a change puts people at risk simply because doing an unfamiliar thing is more difficult than doing a familiar thing, and that makes us more likely to do it wrong.

For example, the water policy at my friend’s preschool: How is a disposable cup with the kid’s name on it, reused over the course of one day, any safer than a water bottle with the kid’s name on it that was washed at home and gets reused over the course of one day? A cup has more potential points of mouth contact than a bottle (all around the rim, instead of just the spout) so it’s more likely that a person handling a cup will touch a part that has been in the mouth (picking up saliva germs) or a part that will later go into the mouth (getting hand germs into the mouth). And for preschoolers just learning to recognize their written names, cups that are identical except for names are harder to recognize than their unique, familiar water bottles!

Instead of lecturing school administrators about how wrong they are, approach it as a learning opportunity: “I have some questions about the new drinking-water policy.” Lead with what you don’t know, and let the answers to your questions guide your decision about whether to bring up your concerns. In the case of that water policy, I’d ask where the kids are keeping their cups between drinks, how they’re getting the water (Child uses the sink? Teacher fills cups from a pitcher?), and how they know which cup is theirs. If cups are stored side-by-side and identical except for kids’ names, then I’d bring up my concerns about kids handling each other’s cups by accident. “How can we make this safer and easier for everyone?” is a great followup question after you’ve explained what worries you.

Honestly, my biggest lunch-related concern is washing hands! It’s a very important way of reducing the risk of illness all the time–not just during a pandemic–yet there’s never been any pre-lunch hand-washing routine at our local K-8 school. I hope to see a big change in that area when they reopen!

If my kids’ schools do come out with a disposable-lunch rule, we’ll likely let our teen eat the school-provided lunch and try to waste as little as possible in packing our first grader’s lunch . . . and then, we’ll resume our demands for school-lunch reform after the pandemic!

Packing Lunches in a Pandemic

This is a back-to-school season like no other! If your determination to support your children’s immune systems with healthy homemade lunches is faltering in the face of all your worries, maybe a new cookbook will help?

The Healthy Lunch Box - packed with lunch ideas to go!Packing healthy lunches when you’re short on time and out of bread is mind-boggling. Is there such a thing as a lunch without a sandwich? Is it possible for it to be healthy too?

The Healthy Lunch Box: Sandwich-free Secrets to Packing a Real Food Lunch is loaded with strategies to streamline your packing process, stock your pantry with emergency backups for your backups, and send healthy, delicious food in the lunch box, no matter how old your eater is. Read more and start packing healthier, processed-free lunches today.

Here are 3 approaches to packing school lunches. Choose what works with your school’s rules, your budget, and your family’s preferences.

Lydia and I had fun putting together examples of “school lunches” with what we had on hand, during a week of her summer vacation! She took each lunch on a solo picnic in our yard. Especially if you’re changing anything about the way you pack lunch, kids might enjoy a “test run” to practice their lunchtime procedures without adult assistance.

1. Pack a Low-Waste Disposable Lunch

Being required to throw away what’s left after lunch is depressing, but at least you can reduce waste by sending disposable items that have had one or more previous uses. Set aside packaging that’s clean enough to reuse. Even if something came into your house with a few viral particles on it, they’ll die after a few days without a living host–so even the outer bag that was handled by a delivery person is safe to reuse after a “time out.”

It doesn’t matter if the packaging is recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable when kids are required to throw it in the trash! Don’t spend extra money on bamboo spoons or recyclable water bottles unless you know your school has recycling/compost bins for that type of material. Most schools weren’t sorting garbage before the pandemic and aren’t going to start now.

I surprised my kids with a few individually-wrapped items from Aldi (fruit-and-grain bars and peanut-butter crackers) that we normally wouldn’t buy. Things like that are convenient to drop into lunch bags, but they tend to be nutritionally unimpressive as well as plastic-wrapped. You might want to keep some on hand for emergency backup rather than everyday use.

reduced waste lunch

Lydia really liked the way I turned the logo on this bagel bag into a cat face! You don’t have to buy fancy bags; a little doodle or cheerful note can make your kid’s day. (If you don’t have enough little paper bags, Gordon Food Service sells plain brown ones at a nice low price!)

I put water in a bottle we’ve been reusing for years since buying a beverage at a highway rest stop. This pop-up spout stays closed very well even after the factory seal is broken.

All of these plastic bags were repurposed. Cherry tomatoes are in a bag that once held bread crumbs in the freezer and probably had a couple of other uses before and since. Turkey is in the bag from a box of Triscuits. To keep the turkey cold without an ice pack, I froze a wet paper towel in a ziptop bag from tortillas. I’d read that you can do this and then use the towel to clean your hands after eating! But because I packed this lunch just a short time before it was eaten, we don’t know how long the cold would last or whether condensation would form on the plastic bag and soak through the paper bag.

Another idea for low-waste disposable lunch: If you get takeout food in plastic containers with snap-on lids, wash and reuse them. Those plastic tubs or boxes prevent foods from squishing each other on the way to school.

trash from disposable lunch

Ironically, this simulation of the “throw away everything left” lunch was the one where Lydia ate the smallest proportion of the food I gave her! She ate the turkey, licked the peanut butter off the crackers, took a few bites of the bar, and ate one tomato! I feel terrible when I think about kids throwing away half their food and a bunch of plastic! Luckily, that wasn’t really what she had to do this time, so I got to finish her leftovers and rinse out the water bottle and tomato bag for yet another use.

2. Reduce Disposables Without Buying Expensive Stuff

If your school is not requiring disposable lunches, you can go reusable very affordably on short notice. Maybe you expect to be packing lunches only during the pandemic (and let’s hope it’ll be over in just a few months!!) or you don’t have the money for a snazzy stainless-steel setup right now.

Our awesome heirloom lunch kit (see below) didn’t suit the requirements at Lydia’s preschool, so when she started there we bought two sizes of inexpensive polypropylene (#5 plastic) containers. If you hand-wash rather than putting them in the dishwasher, these can last a long time–after two years of frequent use, we still have more than half of them. I’m not keen on plastic, but polypropylene is thought to be safe if you don’t heat it. It’s the kind of plastic used in yogurt, sour cream, and cottage cheese containers. Many of those takeout containers you can wash and reuse also are #5.

Reusable lunch kit

These containers went into a bag that I’d been using to carry snacks on outings since my teen was a toddler–and Lydia almost ran it into the ground; it now has some small holes and a frayed handle. Anyway, it gave us years of faithful service! Bags like this cost about $10 new.

3. Invest in a Zero-Waste Lunch Kit

In the long run, it’s great to have durable lunch gear your kids can count on year after year, with no trash to throw away! Katie and her kids have tested tons of eco-friendly reusable lunch gear, especially sandwich/snack bags! I also have many tips for green lunch packing based on my experience working in an office as well as having kids in school.

But the big winner for my family has been the PlanetBox. We bought it when Nicholas was starting kindergarten, 10 years ago. The compartmented stainless-steel lunchbox and Dipper containers are still in perfect condition! We have the Rover model, medium size. I see that they now make the Dippers with silicone lids instead of steel lids with separate silicone gaskets; the gaskets have been a bit tedious to clean and put back into place, but they have lasted a decade. We’ve replaced the carrying case twice and bought a lot of extra magnets, including a custom set–so we can mix and match to make the lunchbox look different every day!

planet box lunch set up

I think Lydia gave this carrying case as much wear and tear in her six months of kindergarten as Nicholas did through all of middle school! But it’s still holding together. We like the napkin/icepack and utensil holders inside the lid.

Planet Box lunch

Usually, my goal is to fill every compartment of the PlanetBox, but Lydia said she wasn’t so hungry. I made her a dessert that looks fancy with hardly any added sugar: crushed pineapple, coconut milk, and a cherry on top! (We had maraschinos this time, but morello cherries are just as tasty with no artificial coloring.)

PlanetBox can be cleaned in the dishwasher or by hand. Kids can wash it themselves! It’s fun to scrub with a brush!

washing our Planet Box

We’ve had a bunch of different water bottles for various family members, and Thermos Funtainer is the only water bottle we’ve liked so much we bought another. It fits nicely into the pocket of the PlanetBox carrying case. It’s very durable, opens and closes easily, and doesn’t leak. You can buy replacement straws.

There are lots of great options in durable lunch gear! Finding the right stuff for the lunches your kids like best is a great comparison-shopping project to practice those conscious consumer skills. . . .

. . . and you might get some extra time to decide how you’ll pack lunches when school reopens. While I was writing this last section, the school district called to announce that we’ll have no in-person school for the first quarter. Now the question is, what’s the right way to do lunch during remote learning?

Are you changing the way you do school lunch this year?


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  5. Food and Drug Administration. (2018, October). Challenge Your Kids To Get Their
    Food Facts First. Retrieved from
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  10. Centers for Disease Control. (2020, June 25). Food and Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Retrieved from
  11. Does the coronavirus spread via doorknobs and elevator buttons? Here’s what the evidence says. 2020, May 29). Retrieved from

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