This is a little bit outside of my normal wheelhouse of cooking and baking, but feeding kids a healthy diet is a natural offshoot of feeding adults a healthy diet, wouldn’t you say? I originally wrote this for the Imperfect Produce blog, but figured I would share it here, too, in case it helps you! If you’re not someone who is responsible for feeding babies and toddlers, feel free to skip this one.
One of the hardest adjustments to life with kids – aside from the sleep deprivation – is the sheer amount of stuff that kids require. And with stuff, unfortunately, comes waste. There is a certain volume of additional gear that is necessary for a kid’s happiness and development, or a parent’s sanity but, luckily, a drastic increase in the amount of wasted food, gear, and packaging is not necessary at all.
There are plenty of tips out there about buying used or borrowing gear from a friend, but one of the easiest areas to produce a lot more waste when it comes to kids is in the kitchen! Thanks to the notoriously finicky appetites and preferences of even “good” little eaters, most parents are used to seeing entire meals go uneaten and into the trash. It’s hard to stomach (no pun intended) for parents who are commitment to living an environmentally friendly lifestyle and reducing waste.
Luckily, with a few easy strategies and adjustments to the routine, you can continue to minimize food-related waste without driving yourself crazy!
Here are a few that are easy to implement and make a big impact.
1. Be Smart About Using Pouches
You had to know this was going to be the first topic of discussion related to kid-related waste!
Yes, those ultra-convenient plastic baby food pouches are necessary once in a awhile (read: in a snack emergency situation when you’re out of the house) but the reality is that they are expensive, rarely as nutritious as the label leads you to believe, and may interfere with the development of healthy eating habits and skills.
Then there’s the packaging. Oof. The surge in pouch use in the U.S. has led to a massive waste issue (and no, they’re not recyclable). Couple that with the relatively empty calories in a pouch, since most of them are just fruit, and I’m sure I’m not the first parent to have seen their kid suck down three of them in one sitting.
I’m a mom, too, and I understand the desire – no, need – for convenience and a stash of emergency snacks. So, yes, I have used pouches! I buy them occasionally for a truly dire snack-tastrophe, but they are always a last resort.
If you must use pouches, there are a couple of ways to minimize the trash they produce. You can make your own pouches by pureeing whatever meal/snack you have on hand and use this gadget, or a similar one, to get the puree into a pouch. That way, when you do need to use pouches, at least you can provide more nutritious, filling contents, meaning just one should be enough, instead of three of those store bought pouches. Alternately, you can use reusable pouches (like this), which allow you to get up to a year of re-use out of a single pouch. Plus, when you’re done with them, they’re recyclable!
2. Bring snacks, rather than buying them
Get in the habit of always packing more snacks than you think you’ll need for an outing. I don’t know about you, but for me, it is next to impossible to predict ,with 100% accuracy, how hungry my kid will be on a given day. So, even if I think there is no way he will be hungry, I (over)pack a snack when we leave the house so that I don’t have to end up buying a packaging-heavy – and, let’s face it, usually overpriced – emergency snack.
I always pack food that can be offered again for a later meal or snack on the same or next day so that, if it doesn’t get eaten, it won’t go to waste. Examples include: peanut butter sandwiches, crackers with chunks of cheese and fruit (stored separately so that the crackers don’t get soggy and end up in the trash), a banana, dry cereal, trail mix for older kids, or homemade energy bars/bites.
3. Buy in bulk
The silver lining to the notoriously limited diets that many younger kids tend to gravitate toward is that you know what you’ll need, and you know you’ll need a lot of it. So, do what you can to buy in bulk and save the packaging of the equivalent number of smaller containers of your child’s favorite food.
I’m certainly not advocating feeding your child the exclusive diet of Cheerios and bananas that they probably demand, but since you know you’re going to go through a lot of Cheerios fairly consistency, why not spring for the Family Size box, rather than two standard boxes? As a bonus, this means you can make your own snack packs, save some money on the pricier pre-packaged snack packs, and reduce some waste here, too.
This goes for all kinds of other foods, too: purchase meat in bulk, get the largest canisters of formula you can find, and get your produce at the farmers market, or delivered right to your door with minimal packaging.
4. Wash and reuse plastic food storage bags (then recycle them)
Although there are many silicone zip top bags out there that are meant to be reused, the zip top bags, and other plastic bags (like bread bags and grocery bags), that are typically regarded as disposable are far more durable than most people give them credit for, so that means that if you aren’t washing and reusing them many times over, you’re missing out!
You’d be surprised by how many times you can reuse a simple plastic sandwich bag (just remember to wash it thoroughly and dry it upside down between uses!), which saves money and – you guessed it – reduces plastic waste, one bag at a time.
After 5-10 uses, your bag might spring a major leak, which means it’s definitely time to send it on its way. But even then, don’t head for the trash. In some cases, municipal recycling programs are starting to accept soft plastic bags in their curbside pickup programs, but if your town isn’t there yet, you’re not alone. Luckily, many major retailers have plastic bag recycling drop offs just inside their doors. Check your local supermarket, drugstore, or big box store to see if they have a place to recycle plastic shopping bags – often, you can recycle plastic food storage bags there, too. Check out this resource for help finding a recycling drop off location for well-loved plastic bags!
5. Store Milk in a Savvy Way
If you’re a nursing mom who pumps milk, storing it can be a challenge. You need to make sure you’re using safe, sanitized containers, but unfortunately the best product for the job is those single-use plastic zip top bags that only store 4-6 ounces, then end up in the trash.
Luckily, there is are a couple of lower-waste options.
If you have the budget, and the room to store them, you can freeze milk right in the plastic pumping bottles (flat caps usually come with the bottles), or purchase glass bottles in 4-ounce and 8-ounce sizes that can be used to freeze, thaw, and warm the milk, then can be run through the dishwasher’s hot water cycle to thoroughly clean them.
Glass bottles, which you can get on Amazon (I’ve used the Evenflo brand), are affordable and extremely convenient, but don’t always come with flat caps. To solve this, you can actually use the nipple top and cover that came with the bottles to secure the bottles for freezing, or use the yellow caps that come with your pumping bottles (I’ve only tested this with Medela bottle caps), which fit nearly perfectly. Make sure the cap is tightly secured before freezing, and freeze and defrost them standing up, since the top may not be completely water-tight.
If you MUST use the plastic zip top bags, here’s a tip that any experienced pumping mom will tell you: spring for the sturdiest bags out there (people swear by the Medela bags, and the Target Up & Up bags), even if they cost a little more. Why? You can overfill them, just a little. It may not seem like a big deal, but if overfilling each bag slightly allows you to save every, say, 4th bag, well, it’s something! Just remember to leave ample room for the milk to expand as it freezes, so you don’t risk the bag ripping!
6. Make your own baby food
Believe it or not, making your own baby food doesn’t take long. Babies can usually eat a version of whatever you’re eating, so soft-cook and puree whatever produce and protein you have on hand. My favorite trick is to stock up on sweet potatoes, carrots, and other starchy veggies, which make a perfect base for baby food purees. They can be cooked in large batches and frozen until you need them.
It really is that simple! By making your own food, you’re not only saving a ton of money, and gaining so much more control over your baby’s nutrition and the development of their taste buds, but you’re also keeping countless pounds of glass jars, metal tops, and plastic labels out of landfills and recycling centers.
Realistically, you’ll probably end up buying a few jars here and there, so do what you can to reuse the jars, rather than trashing them. In my kitchen, I use baby food jars for:
- Freeze homemade purees
- Freezing fresh herbs, or small amounts of sauces
- Storing pantry items, like dried herbs and poppyseeds
- Organizing the “junk” drawer, and corralling safety pins, rubber bands, paperclips, and the like
- Refrigerating small amounts of leftovers, or odds and ends for smoothies (see #7).
7. Introduce new foods slowly
Any parent knows the feeling of making a lovely meal that they’re sure their kids will gobble up, only to see it refused and thrown in the trash. It’s even harder when the food is new and your kid outright refuses to even try it (and, in my house, throws the whole plate on the floor… just me??).
Unless you have a unicorn child (lucky you!) most toddlers aren’t going to dive in to an adult-sized portion of a new or previously-refused food that they’ve never liked before. So, when offering new foods, start one or two pieces, rather than an adult portion. That way if your child decides not to eat the food, there will be less waste.
And while there will inevitably be some wasted food with every meal (ah, toddlers!), don’t forget that you can repurpose untouched fruit for smoothies, or use ignored vegetables for stock!
8. Purchase Feeding Gear Secondhand, Or Borrow It
Kid-specific mealtime gear usually gets used for a matter of months, if that! Typically, a family is finished using their gear long before the end of an item’s lifespan. I’m talking, particularly, about high chairs, booster seats, and the like. They’re built to be so durable and washable, yet only see a few years of action before they get donated or, worse, thrown in the garbage.
Other parents are often eager to get unneeded gear out of their house, so ask around to friends and family, and check second hand stores, neighborhood parenting Facebook groups, garage sales, and local Craigslist boards for a gently used high chair or booster seat before you invest in an entirely new one. I recently bought a $350+ high chair from another mom in the neighborhood for $60. It was in near-mint condition, too!
9. Invest in reusable – and dishwasher-safe – plates, cups, and straws
When it comes to the hours spent washing dishes and doing laundry, the parental desire to reduce clean up is real. While paper plates and bibs and plastic cups and straws can be extremely enticing, the amount of waste those meals generate is staggering.
Luckily, kid-friendly dining gear (even straws and bibs) comes in a variety of dishwasher-safe material, including glass, metal and silicone, meaning no extra garbage going out, and no extra cleanup for you.
10. Clean without impact
Put down the paper towels! In my house, we could easily go through half a roll just to clean up the fallout from one meal. Obviously, that really adds up!
Instead, invest in an extra package of washcloths or burp cloths to keep in the kitchen. They’re inexpensive, ultra absorbent, durable, and washable – and a great way to minimize paper towel use when you’re staring down a toddler covered in marinara.
Likewise, keeping rags easily accessible in the kitchen (like hidden in a corner) for quick floor cleanup saves you the trouble of searching for it each time you need it; at the end of the day, throw it in the to-wash pile and grab a new one. Don’t forget to run full loads in your washing machine and dishwasher and use the cold water cycle as much as possible!
So, while you may not be able to fully eliminate extra food and kitchen waste generated by babies, toddlers, and kids, there are many ways to drastically reduce your impact with just a few easy changes to your routine!