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And just like that, the great British summer draws to a close. The halcyon days of the ever-lasting summer holidays become a distant memory and for children and adults across the land, the reality of returning to school, and work, starts to hit home. 

It’s not all doom and gloom though. September and the gradual changing of the seasons is a great time to start new routines. Beginning with the food on your plate. 

That’s because a frequent question on the lips of many at this time of year is ‘what’s for lunch?’. Whether that’s the students eyeing up the school canteen’s latest menu changes, or the seasoned office worker wondering how they can put a spring in their step by mixing up their lunchtime sandwich routine. 

But in 2023, it’s not just about tasting good. Increasingly people of all ages are looking for food that has a reduced impact on the environment. So, as we start a new term, let’s speak to Laura Kirwan PhD, Sustainability Lead here at Nutritics about a few ways to make lunchtime a little more sustainable. 

Back to School (and Work) – How to Make Your Lunch More Sustainable

The School Lunch

School caterers have a lot to consider when creating their menus, with a careful balance between cost and nutritional value often at the forefront of this. But with younger people increasingly conscious about their environmental footprints, it’s only right that the ecological impact of food is also taken into account. Here are a few things for school caterers to keep in mind when designing menus: 

Increase your plant-based options: The government’s Eatwell Guide recommended that we should be consuming a diet with less meat and more plant-based products. Incorporating more fruits and vegetables onto your menu can not only offer nutritional benefits, but also reduce the carbon footprint. Utilising Meat Free Mondays is an easy way for school caterers to add variation to their menu and create a day where students will expect to see just plant-based options available.  

Source responsibly: Meat-based dishes will remain a popular choice for many though. So, when choosing animal proteins, look for suppliers that have high standard welfare credentials and have Red Tractor or Bord Bia quality marks, and when sourcing seafood, look for certifications like MSC (Marine Stewardship Council). If your school has the space, then creating your own vegetable patch or herb garden could also be a brilliant way to engage children with healthy foods by getting them involved with the production process. 

Monitor your food waste: A previous WRAP study (2011) found that the education sector generated around 80,000 tonnes of food waste, costing around £250,000. The report also found that 77% of this waste was avoidable. The first step to reducing this is by monitoring what gets wasted the most, and then evolving the menu to utilise items that are most frequently ending up in the bin. It could also be that portion sizes are too big – reducing these can reduce waste and costs for all involved. 

Work with students: Collaborating with students to develop recipes is another way to reduce future waste. This can help caterers to create a menu that will resonate with hungry pupils, as well as engaging them in the process of nutritional and sustainable food choices. 

Back to School (and Work) – How to Make Your Lunch More Sustainable

The Office Lunch

For those looking for food whilst on the move at lunchtime, it can be a sea of excessive packaging and tired sandwich flavour combinations. Let’s look at what office workers can do to improve their sustainable food choices during the lunch hour.

Look for businesses actively taking sustainable steps: Many operators now understand the importance of putting the environment first, and with more than two in five (44%) saying sustainability is important in their choice of venue to visit according to recent research by Nutritics, the power of the green Pound is ever increasing. 

There’s a whole host of businesses across the country doing amazing things to reduce their environmental impacts, such as Caffeina Coffi in Prestatyn who source their milk from a local regenerative farm, use 100% compostable coffee and carefully source their coffee from independent specialty roasters across the UK. Or Redroaster in Brighton, a member of the Sustainable Restaurant Association who donate profits to coffee farmers in Rwanda and work with Team Domenica in Brighton to offer adults with learning disabilities employment at their Brighton roastery. Seeking out establishments like these is one way to have a more environmentally minded lunch. 

Think about your packaging, and if you need it: It can be tricky to live a packaging-free lifestyle, especially when picking up lunch on the move. If you can spare the time, and let’s be honest a sandwich doesn’t take too long to consume, eating in a café can minimise packaging and also give you some valuable time away from your desk. Consider introducing your own deposit-return scheme, where students pay a deposit for a reusable packaging (such as bowls and cutlery) which is returned to them when the bowl is given back at the end of lunch, or whenever they think of it. This can be a fun and educational way to introduce students to circularity, and move them away from a consumerism mindset. 

When you do takeaway and have to use disposable packaging, look to outlets that have compostable options, ensure you have a compost bin available on site and encourage it’s proper use. Investing in a good-quality reusable water bottle is an easy way to stop needing to pick-up a disposable plastic bottle, whilst keeping a reusable coffee mug in your bag means you’re always prepared when a need for caffeine kicks in – and can save you money in some cafes. 

The Packed Lunch 

Of course, another way to minimise your footprint is to bring in a packed lunch to school or work. Here are a few ways to make your mid-week packed lunches as eco-friendly as possible: 

Leftovers are your friend: Leftovers from last night’s tea are a simple way to minimise food waste and saves on lunchtime preparation. You could freeze leftovers for future use as well to mix up your meals throughout the week. A little extra time spent planning your meals for the days ahead can also save you time during the working day. 

Leave no trace: Using reusable containers, bento boxes, or stainless steel lunch containers instead of single-use plastic bags or containers is the ideal way to ensure you leave no mark with your lunchtime treats. 

Choose whole foods: Processed and pre-packaged foods often come with excessive packaging. Building your packed lunch around whole foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains that have minimal packaging so you can therefore reduce your environmental footprint. 

Finally, whilst it may not always seem like it during the midst of a hectic workday, taking a lunch break can be beneficial to our mental health, with breaks shown to have a positive relationship with wellbeing and productivity. So, your local café may be exactly what you need to power you through the afternoon. 

Enjoy your break, and enjoy your sustainable lunch! 

If you’re looking for advice on sustainability in your business, get in touch with the Knowledge Labs team today. Knowledge Labs provides Hospitality and Food Service (HaFS) operators with expert advice and support across a range of topics central to their ESG strategy, including food related sustainability, nutrition, employee wellbeing, and compliance.