the nature of food
Published in

the nature of food

Eat Your Food! Kids and Food Waste

By Matthew Mitchell and Navin Ramankutty

“Those grapes look fine. But I am not going to eat those sandwiches, that’s for the compost. What about those peaches or apples, are they still edible? Yuck!, maybe I should have composted that after all. I have oral allergy syndrome, so I can’t eat raw carrots, but I wonder if I can put them back out on the dinner table and they won’t notice.”

We are two dads of two young kids each. These are the kinds of thoughts that run through our heads every evening when we open up our kids’ lunch containers. We are also academics studying the global food system and who recognize the food waste problem. It confronts us in our very homes every evening.

Kids can be picky eaters. If it’s not sweet, covered in cheese, or a simple carbohydrate like pasta or rice, it’s probably going to take some convincing for kids to eat it. And there’s only so much pleading and cajoling you can do during a meal before you give up and let them leave the table.

School lunches are often even worse, as there usually isn’t anyone coaxing them to eat. Often, your child arrives home with a mostly uneaten lunch that has to end up in the bin (although hopefully the compost bin). Take a look at the pictures above (provided by both authors) and try to decide if they were taken before or after a school day. It’s not always obvious!

Reducing food waste is a critical part of the solution for reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture and improving global food security. While estimates vary and accurate data is hard to come by, the most recent estimates are that around a third of food ends up as waste worldwide. This means that all of the time, effort, energy, and input that went into producing that food is also wasted. Reducing food waste theoretically means that we’ll be able to feed more people with less effort, less farmland, less fertilizer, and hopefully reduce food’s environmental impacts.

However, tackling the food waste problem isn’t simple. Food waste happens at different stages of the farm-to-plate pathway. In developing countries most food waste happens pre-consumer, either when food can’t be harvested and remains in the field, or when a lack of refrigeration or appropriate storage means that crops are damaged by pests or pathogens before they reach a consumer.

In developed countries most food waste happens post-consumer. Food gets buried in the back of our refrigerators and spoils before it is eaten, restaurant servings are too large and can’t be completely eaten, items in grocery stores pass their expiry date before purchase, and there is waste from food processing. Reducing food waste at each of these points is challenging, let alone across countries and the entire food system.

In this wider context, making sure kids eat their lunches may seem like a minor problem. However, at the scale of the household, especially in North America, it’s likely an important component. The challenge is making sure that kids are provided with and actually eat the nutritious, wholesome food they need to thrive. We cannot reduce the amount of lunch we send lest it happens to be the one day of the week when they are actually hungry and eat everything (that does happen once in a while, so they keep us guessing!).

So, what do you think? Is tackling kid’s food waste an important way to improve the food system? Or, for reasons of familial harmony and efficiency, is it likely not the easiest lever to pull? And what about the guilt we feel at composting all this food every evening? What are the best ways to get kids to eat their lunches? Does educating kids about the food system and what underlies food waste work? We’d love to hear your thoughts.



reflections of an interdisciplinary research lab studying agriculture, food security and the environment at the University of British Columbia.

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Matthew Mitchell

Matthew Mitchell


I seek new ways to manage landscapes for both people and nature. Postdoctoral researcher, University of British Columbia.