You may have heard it before. Food waste is not good. Not only is it a huge waste of money (you’re literally throwing money into the trash), it is also a huge waste of resources that went into growing/producing/transporting the food.
Here’s the real kicker. Food that ends up in a landfill doesn’t just simply ‘decompose’ in the way we think (the way I used to think it did). Instead of breaking down nicely like in a compost pile, the lack of oxygen in a landfill causes the food to break down reeeeeeeaaaaaalllllllllllyyyyyyyy slow- which results in a production of methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide.
If you’re interested in learning more about food waste and how to prevent it in general, you can check out my tips on how to save money and reduce food waste here.
Let’s throw kids into the mix.
It’s one thing to work on actively reducing your food waste, and it’s a whole other thing throwing a kid or kids into the mix.
Because food waste with kids seems to be inevitable, right? I’m guessing it’s not just my family…
I don’t know about you, but my son used to be an amazing eater. He would practically eat anything we put in front of him. We were those parents who would tell anyone who would listen (sorry…).
But then we hit preschool age, and all that has changed.
It can be really challenging to be mindful about food waste when you have a kid(s) who seem determined to not eat anything put in front of them. I don’t know how many times this conversation has happened:
Son: “What’s for dinner”
Me: (insert whatever dinner)
Son: “Oh, I like that”.
We sit down for dinner 30 minutes later.
Son: Looks at food. “I don’t like this”.
As a family that tries to actively keep our food waste to a minimum, there are some things we have done to try and combat kid food waste. I’m sharing those with you in this post.
Note: the information in this post is approaching kids who are younger (for reference my son is almost four at the time of this posting), but I’ve tried to include tips that are applicable for kids aged elementary school and younger. My thought it kids who are in middle school or older can understand bigger discussions about why food waste is bad.
This post goes with the understanding that all kids are different, and what may work for some may not work for others.
Additionally, the majority of these tips are for preventing food waste in your own home. If you’re looking for information on preventing food waste at school, for instance, there are lots of other resources out there for doing so.
Without further ado, here are 19 ways to prevent food waste with kids.
Have kids help plan menus
Menu planning has been key in reducing food waste (and saving money) in our house (I have an entire post on how I menu plan to reduce waste if you’re interested).
One thing I’ve started doing, even with my son only being (almost) four, is asking for suggestions on what he would like to eat. Usually I get responses like ‘pizza’ or ‘spaghetti’, but I make sure to include at least one of his suggestions a week.
I also will have him ‘help’ me look through recipes online or in cookbooks which can open up conversations about why we menu plan, which leads to saving money and reducing waste, etc.
My hope is that by starting this ritual now, it will continue as he gets older and we can start to have more in depth conversations about the importance of not wasting food.
‘Eat me now’
I’ve talked about the ‘eat me now’ fridge section before on the blog, and here it is again. This tactic is probably the easiest ones you can implement right away, and it’s free. Basically, section off an area of your fridge (make a sign, a box, whatever) and make it an ‘eat me now’ place. Any item of food that needs to be eaten up- produce, leftovers, etc. gets added to that area. If someone is looking for a snack or something to make a meal with, that’s the first place to look.
To make it kid friendly, make the section somewhere your child can easily access.
Include at least one thing they’ll eat each meal
Another trick I’ve started doing is to incorporate at least one thing I know my son will eat with every meal. One example that comes to mind is broccoli. We eat a LOT of broccoli because it is one thing I know he’ll eat without objections. That way I know he’ll at least eat something, and I can give him more of the food item he will eat over other items which means less waste.
Keep portions small
One mistake my husband and I always seem to make is giving my son too big of a portion at meal time. I think it stems from the fact that sometimes, our son will eat a huge portion, and then other times, he nibbles. What I’ve tried to do is to give him half of what I “think” I should give him, knowing that he can always ask for more. This mindset has helped the amount of leftover, picked over, mushed up food that remains after a meal. And for the record, he rarely asks for seconds.
Eat what they don’t finish
If you’re like my husband and don’t mind leftover food from someone’s plate, you can reduce the amount of food waste by eating whatever is left after your kid is finished eating. I am of the mindset that we share enough germs (thanks, daycare), and I don’t enjoy polishing off someone’s seconds. Therefore, I try to utilize other tips. But if you don’t care? Save room on your plate for whatever is left after the meal is over.
We work with our son on listening to his body and to stop eating when he is full, so forcing him to finish food isn’t something we are comfortable with. Hence, other tips.
Serve leftovers for snack
It never failed. My son would ask for toast or oatmeal in the morning for breakfast, and after two or three bites, would tell me he was full. I felt like I was throwing away so much food- even with trying to give less food and utilizing some of the other tips mentioned in this post.
Then, I had a what-I-hoped-would-be-brilliant parenting idea, and that was to offer the food for snack later in the day. To my surprise, I received no objections! The caveat is that I’ve only tried this with breakfast foods which he normally eats with little conflict. But since I discovered this worked well, we’ve been doing it ever since and saved tons of food from the compost.
Get creative with leftovers
Got leftover spaghetti? Make spaghetti pie.
Repurposing leftovers can be a great way to reduce food waste and save money. And as I’ve mentioned, leftovers seems to be a constant with kids!
I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of how to repurpose your leftovers because Pinterest is a great resource for that, but know that this is an option and a great way to ‘recycle’ meals into new ones which keeps your (my) kid from getting bored with the same food.
Even better: have them help you come up with different recipes and creations! Making it into a fun game can be a great way to get them involved in meal planning/eating.
Grow your own food and involve them
Gardening is a great way to reduce food waste- because you’re only utilizing the food as you need it throughout the growing season. It also is a great way to involve kids in understanding how much goes into a single piece of food- the time, energy, and resources. My son loves helping me in the garden. Not only that, but the magic of growing food from a single seed is pretty amazing, especially to a preschooler (heck, it still is amazing to me)!
I’ve noticed that growing our food also encourages my son to try foods he may not have normally tried- simply because the item has come from our garden!
You don’t need to have a huge garden to get these benefits. Anything from an herb plant, a single tomato plant, a small raised bed, to a huge backyard garden can be educational!
I’ve got a post on how to grow vegetables in any sized space and a beginner’s guide to growing, harvesting, and preserving your own herbs which can help you get started.
Involve kids with preserving
Going along the lines of gardening, if you’re lucky enough to have extra produce at the end of the season that you don’t want to or can’t give away, you can have kids help you preserve it! Personally, I am a big fan of freezing the produce, but there are a handful of exceptions.
This year, my son helped me make refrigerator cucumbers which ended up being a really fun activity to do together. While he didn’t enjoy eating them, he has enjoyed talking about our activity every time someone does eat them, and we’ve been able to give a couple of jars away to family and friends.
He also helped me make pesto, which we used on pasta that evening (and he ate and enjoyed!) and then froze the rest.
Preserving doesn’t have to include full on water bath canning if you don’t want it to! There are easy and fun ways to preserve to prevent food waste. Plus, it’s a great way to open up the conversation about WHY we preserve our food- one reason to prevent waste!
Involve kids with community giving
Leftover produce? Food you aren’t able to use up? Extra vegetable/herb seeds for a garden? Getting involved in your community is a great way to teach kids about why it’s important to reduce food waste.
Age-dependent, there are different ways to do this. For example, this year we had a TON of basil. Like, 7-8 plants. I had already saved some to dry for the winter, made and froze a bunch of pesto, and still had a lot. So, with the help of my son, I set up a little ‘stand’ on the curb, made a ‘free fresh basil’ sign, and put our excess basil out. It was a great way to talk about sharing our excess with our community.
We are also doing the same thing with excess dill and cilantro seeds we’ve been harvesting this fall.
We also have been offering up excess produce to our friends and family. Again- a great way to talk about sharing.
Maybe volunteering at a shelter is a great option for you and your family. Maybe it’s using the Olio app (a food sharing app) and going to get or give away food. Or maybe it’s donating food to a local food shelter.
Whatever it is, getting involved within your local community surrounding food can open up the conversation about why it’s important not to waste food, and how some don’t have access to as much food as you may.
Have your kids do a waste audit
If you’re new to a waste audit, it is a quick and easy way to get an idea of the things you and your family are throwing away. From there, you can work towards reducing those items commonly found in your trash.
When my family and I first did our waste audit, my son wasn’t even two years old, so we didn’t involve him. However, probably about 70% of our waste was food (this was pre-composting). But now that he’s almost four, he can easily help us take a peek into the trash (seriously, that’s all I recommend, you don’t need to go diving) and list what he sees in it.
This is a great way to get a visual of how much food is being thrown away, which can help start the conversation about food waste, and more.
And yes, you can even do it if you compost! Before bringing your compost out to the bin, take a quick look of how much of the food waste is food that could have been eaten, and how much are scraps.
Interested in learning more about doing your own waste audit? You can find my waste audit tips and instructions here.
Make food fun
This tip is geared towards younger kids, but can be super beneficial nonetheless. You know you’re not supposed to play with your food? Well, this is opposite advice. Play with your food!
Make funny scenes, shapes, or objects with the food. Research shows that playing with food can help picky eaters become less picky. And less food left on the plate means less waste! You don’t need anything fancy, just the creativity of you as the parent/guardian and the imagination of your kid!
Utilize outside resources
I’m a big fan of utilizing outside resources to facilitate conversations in our house over tough topics. I tend to over analyze and develop anxiety over saying the wrong thing or approaching topics in a non-age appropriate way.
Probably not surprising, there aren’t a lot of resources that talk exclusively about food waste in a kid friendly way. However, there are lots of resources talking about climate change and greenhouse gases, gardening, and some of the other tips I mentioned in this post.
For any books mentioned, I always recommend borrowing from your local library, asking around in your community if anyone has a copy, looking at a secondhand bookstore, or if all else fails, buying on Amazon. Note: you CAN buy secondhand books on Amazon! Just look for the ‘buy used’ option.
- Kids go Green: Reducing Food Waste Video from PBS
- 12 Resources to Teach About Food Waste
- Too Good Too Waste Challenge
- Book: The Perfectly Wonky Carrot
- Book: Compost Stew
- Book: Food and Farming
- Book: In the Garden
- Book: Food Waste
- Book: Don’t Waste Your Food
- 10 Childrens Books on Climate Change
- Magic School Bus (new and old episodes on Netflix) has some good episodes about gardening and understanding our environment
Change your mindset around ugly produce
40% of all food ends up in the landfill. A lot of that waste happens before your food even hits the store shelves. This is because our society has come to value ‘pretty’ produce and shun ‘ugly’ produce. The same goes for meat and other food items as well.
Therefore one way we can reduce food waste is to change our mindset around ‘ugly’ foods. One way my family does this is through gardening. I can’t even begin to tell you how ‘ugly’ the food we grow is. But you know what? It still tastes great!
Another way we work on this is buying single bananas at the grocery store. Single bananas are more likely to be thrown out because no one buys them. Doing so opens up conversations- which as you can probably guess- is something I’m always on the hunt for.
Here’s the kicker. Kids don’t start off knowing what ‘ideal’ should look like. That is a learned trait. If we can start as young as possible showing them that produce and food doesn’t have to look a certain way (obviously if it is bad that’s a different story) for us to eat it, it will be beneficial in the long run.
Reduce snacking before meals
This tip might be obvious, but to be honest, it is something we struggle with in our family. Be mindful about how much your kid(s) is eating and drinking soon before a meal. If they’re hungry enough at mealtime, they’re likely to eat more food versus letting it go to waste. I know, I know. Sometimes it’s easier to hand off that graham cracker to prevent the meltdown as you’re trying to cook dinner. I don’t know if we’ll ever personally get away from this, but we’re working on it. I’m usually more lenient if the snack is a fruit or vegetable. One thing that can help is to offer a snack from the ‘eat me now’ section (see above)- especially if it is produce.
Talk about the benefits of certain foods
As my son has approached four years old, he is increasingly interested in being a superhero, and with that, being super strong. He’s also interested in ‘fun facts’. I’ve tried using this interest to my advantage:
Me: “you know what can help your eyesight? Eating carrots! Yum!”
Cue me frantically google ‘food facts’.
It has actually seemed to help though. I suppose this can go with the ‘making food fun’ tip, but for a little older kids. Try it out. It may help!
Tour a waste facility
This tip may be more ‘bigger’ kid focused, but it can be super useful nonetheless. Some landfill operations and/or recycling facilities offer tours to the public. A simple Google/Ecosia search in your area can give you more information.
Not only can this be a great visual on the amount of waste produced in your community, it can also be beneficial for kids to hear the importance of reducing waste from someone other than you. Additionally, it can once again open up the conversation at home on how to reduce food and other waste.
Bonus: grab a community group to do it together, then brainstorm ways to reduce waste in your local area afterwards.
Eating out can bring out its own set of waste reducing challenges, but I wanted to mention this tip anyway. We’ve found when eating out at a sit-down restaurant that the kids meals usually contain huge portions (like most restaurant meals) and a beverage of our choice in a disposable plastic cup.
- Bring your own beverages: because we are always bringing our water bottles everywhere, we usually have one with us when eating out. We’ve never had an issue with having our own water bottle at a table.
- Ask for a reusable cup: if you don’t want to bring your own water bottle, ask for the beverage in a reusable cup versus the single-use plastic one
- Share a meal: instead of getting a kids meal, split meals between the adult(s)
- Bring leftovers home in your own containers: if you get a kids meal and need to bring some of the food home, bring your own container. Then follow the same tips you normally would for reducing the food waste
Inevitably, you’ll probably find yourself in need of a quick meal at some point. I know we do. Quick usually equals waste. If this happens, don’t sweat it. Just do your best, recycle what you can, and move on.
When all else fails and you end up with some food waste, know that it happens. The next best thing is to compost that food, whether it is through a commercial facility or in your own backyard. Psst: don’t have a compost option? There is an app called ‘Share Waste’ that connects you with people looking for compost materials. Additionally, you can post in a local neighborhood group online to see if anyone is looking for compost materials.
Want to learn more about composting? Check out my guide on how to compost in any sized space here.
And you’ll probably guess that I’m going to say this, but involve your kids! My son helps drop off compost at our local drop off site, he helps put things in our backyard compost bin, and he also helps me stir the bin. It’s…you guessed it… a great conversation starter!
What tips do you have for reducing food waste with kids?