Many families today want to live more sustainably and set good examples for their children. But let's face it… life with kids is challenging and parents often rely on convenience products to make life just a little bit easier. Even so, there are easy changes that families can make that children will notice on a day-to-day basis, don't create major inconvenience and even save money. Each also has added "bonuses" that have nothing to do with sustainability.
Here are three easy things families can do live more sustainably:
Switch to Cloth Napkins
Families go through an immense amount of paper napkins. And for all the waste and expense, they don't even work very well. (Remember the commercial with the little boy eating barbeque and going through literally dozens of them?) Switching to cloth napkins is an easy operation. They can be found on the cheap at thrift stores and rummage sales. I collect these whenever I see them inexpensively, and when they are too dirty, they can be used for clean-up rags. If you can't find them at a reasonable price, bulk/value pack washcloths are a great starter until you stumble on to a napkin stash.
Kids actually have a much easier time using them as they are larger and sturdier and do a better job wiping off sticky faces and hands. They can be moistened with water for tougher jobs. Put a small wastebasket in a corner of the kitchen as a "laundry bin" and add them in to the regular laundry rotation. If napkins get really soiled, just rinse them in the sink first and hang them to dry over the front edge of the sink before adding them to the bin.
Pack a Sustainable Lunch
Giving up zip bags and paper bags is a great way to reduce waste and teach children sustainability and responsibility. Kids can choose or decorate a reusable lunchbox in a color or theme that they like. Find a reusable water-bottle alternative (I like the Kleen Kanteen with the sport spout.) Make sure of reusable lunch containers that may be already sitting in your cabinets, or pick up inexpensive "take and toss" varieties (with the intention not of tossing of course, but if one gets lost, it's not a major financial ordeal). For sandwiches, an excellent product called a Wrap 'n' Mat provides a handy solution. Inexpensive cooler blocks can be found at most drug stores or department stores. (For my recommendations on sustainable lunch products, see the link at the end of this article.)
Sustainable lunch provides children a sense of pride in helping to reduce waste on a daily basis. It lowers costs by enabling parents to buy larger quantity food items instead of individually packaged sizes (for example, a jar of applesauce instead of a six-pack of individual servings). It reduces purchases and waste of zip bags, paper sacks and product packaging. Using a cooler block increases the variety and safety of foods that can be packed by keeping foods cool. And portion sizes for treats and snacks can be more easily managed rather than relying on pre-sized individual options (a small container of cheese curls for example rather than a "big grab"). I find that my kids eat their whole, more balanced lunch more reliably with smaller portions of each food.
Reduce Meat Consumption
While humans are certainly omnivores, and vegetarianism is not for everyone, reducing meat consumption is a great way to save money, add variety to children's diets and contribute to overall worldwide sustainability efforts. Some say that we could do more for the environment by all reducing our meat consumption by 10% than any reform to the auto industry due to the massive industrial complex behind raising, processing and transporting meat.
For lunches, try peanut butter and jelly (or honey), cheese and avocado (add some hummus to the bread for an added treat), pasta, scrambled eggs (yes, kids will love that surprise for lunch!), hard boiled eggs, and more. For dinner, experiment with couscous or quinoa which are easy to make and surprisingly high in protein, throwing in some dried fruits and vegetables. Consider substituting tofu in dishes like stir fry and taco salad (buy extra firm tofu and crumble it… you'll never know the difference!). Cheese enchiladas or quesadillas (add some spinach and beans for added nutrition) are usually a hit.
When we decided to reduce our meat consumption, we added a lot of fun and variety to our diets, which our kids appreciated more than we thought they would. No, they aren't a fan of everything we make – but the same was true with our meat-based dishes!
Each of these easy steps above will save money and make change visible to children without adding too much additional work to a busy parent's life. While at first it may seem like an adjustment, having done each of these things, I can't imagine now ever going back. Consider making one easy change towards sustainable living each month, or quarter. Once you've gotten used to it, it's easy to move on to another. After a while, the lifestyle changes and financial savings can really start to add up.
Here's my recommendations for great sustainable lunch items:
Sustainable Lunch Essentials
Here's a great resource for meat-free lunch ideas (whether you are an all-the-time vegetarian or not!)