Eat Well, Spend Less: 10 Tips to Pack Brilliant School Lunches (& avoid wasting food)

This post may contain affiliate links, including Your price won't change but it enables free content & supports our family business.

10 Tips to Pack Brilliant School Lunches and avoid wasting food. When you throw away food, you throw away money. you throw away food, you throw away money.

When your kids throw away food at school, it’s like a hairline crack in your water jug – the liquid is slowly leaking out such that you don’t even notice, but nonetheless, your money is going out without a return.

How can you pack the perfect lunch so that nothing gets wasted, and yet you’re not relying on packaged, processed (expensive anyway) food?

What Happens to Lunch when Lunch is Over?

As a third grade teacher, I witnessed plenty of kids performing the end-of-lunch ritual called “The Lunchbox Dump.”

It looks like this:

  • Lunchtime ends.
  • Child tosses anything left in front of him/her into the lunchbox.
  • Child rushes to the industrial-sized garbage can and dumps the entire contents of the lunchbox inside, then heads for the playground.

This is why mothers everywhere tremble at the thought of sending reusable plastic containers in school lunches, and many a container has been plucked out of piles of sandwiches with one bite missing, drippy applesauce, half full plastic baggies, and leaking juice boxes.

I’m not sure what’s worse, the thought of picking through the lunch trash for a container or thinking about how much food is thrown away (along with Mom’s Tupperware) across the nation because of The Lunchbox Dump.

That’s why, both as a teacher and as a parent, I coached my kids in the numero uno rule of school lunch packing:

1. Everything comes home. Everything.

From empty baggies to half eaten muffins, everything that went to school in the lunchbox comes home again. (And we haven’t lost a single teaspoon to the trash yet!)

If you’re packing waste-free lunches anyway, telling your kids not to throw anything away is extra easy. It’s obvious that the metal utensil, cloth napkin, and stainless steel food containers don’t go in the trash.

But even if you’re using plastic baggies and single-serve packaging (ahem, that wastes your money, too!), you should still coach your child – require your child – to bring home everything.

Play to their sense of laziness by explaining that if they don’t have to take a trip to the garbage, they’ll have more time to play/eat/talk. It’s just easier to dump everything back in the lunchbox and be done with it.

This gives you, the parent, many tidbits of valuable information.

Packing healthy lunches when you’re short on time and out of bread is mind-boggling. Is there such a thing as a lunch without a sandwich? Is it possible for it to be healthy too?
The Healthy Lunch Box
The Healthy Lunch Box: Sandwich-free Secrets to Packing a Real Food Lunch is loaded with strategies to streamline your packing process, stock your pantry with emergency backups for your backups, and send healthy, delicious food in the lunch box, no matter how old your eater is. Read more and start packing healthier, processed-free lunches today.

***BACK-TO-SCHOOL SALE!!! Through Labor Day 2015, use the code LUNCH35BDAY for 35% off the eBook and get packing real food for less!

2. Pack the right portions.

Rule number one will enable you to figure out how much your child actually eats at lunchtime, since you’ll see the leftovers.

Remember that no matter how famished your child is when they arrive home from school, no matter how many plates worth they eat at dinner, school lunch is a different experience entirely.

Even if the schedule shows a full 30 minutes for lunch, it’s likely that with walking in line, horsing around, chatting with friends, going to the bathroom, ETC., there are probably only about 7.9 minutes for your child to eat their entire lunch in reality.

Determine proper portions based on what they can actually consume, not what you think they should eat.

A quarter sandwich or three slices of apple may seem like toddler’s fare, but it’s better than packing a whole sandwich and having three quarters of it hit the trash every day.

3. Balance chewing with fast food.

10 Tips to Pack Brilliant School Lunches and avoid wasting food. When you throw away food, you throw away money.

No, not fast food like McDonald’s.

Fast food like yogurt.

My son will eat 5 carrot sticks and whole pile of cucumbers at dinner, but for lunch, I pack one or two of each, tops. They take too long to chew. Any more than that and they won’t get eaten anyway.

The yogurt, on the other hand, he almost always finishes. It’s quick, and I think he eats it first, so he gets a cup of homemade yogurt every day.

It’s soft and quick.

You know – fast food.

Take a moment to consider how long certain foods take to chew when you’re trying to pack a school lunch that won’t get wasted.

4. Use an ice pack.

You may have seen statistics from the people who run studies on food safety (they probably have some letters standing for the name of the federal organization…) that such-and-such percent of kids’ packed school lunches aren’t at a safe temperature by lunchtime.

That makes two good reasons to use an ice pack.

One is food safety.

The other is food conservation.

If the food that is left in the lunch remains more or less cold, I don’t feel badly about sending it back the next day.

Not only does this ensure that food isn’t thrown away unnecessarily, but it also saves me dishes. I like that. (I also will save dishes by packing the same lunch two days in a row, reusing the containers. Only two days. No more. But it’s nice to not have to think for day two.)

5. Don’t forget the utensils.

10 Tips to Pack Brilliant School Lunches and avoid wasting food. When you throw away food, you throw away money.

There are only two possible results when a utensil is needed for a school lunch item and it isn’t in the lunchbox.

(a) The child doesn’t eat that item at all.

(b) The child spends 5 minutes of that 7.9 minutes of precious eating time tracking down a utensil s/he can use.

Either may result in food not eaten, and thus wasted. It’s a hard one for me as I mutlitask, but I always include a spoon for my son’s yogurt.

6. Communicate with your child.

A little talk goes a long way.

Have a chat about school lunch with your child, and explain to them that you’ll do your best to pack things that they like and that will give them fuel and brain food for the rest of their day.

They, in turn, are expected to tell you when it’s not working. Ask them what they like and don’t like about lunch, discuss the amount of time they have to eat, and make sure they understand the rule about bringing everything home (and how it helps them get better lunches in the long run).

7. Pack foods your child likes.

You don’t have to pack junk, but if your child hates peas, it’s futile to put peas in the lunch.

You may feel you have to include a vegetable. (Unfortunately, some schools are requiring packed lunches to conform to USDA nutritional guidelines/food pyramid, but that’s another story entirely. I pray you don’t have to deal with that sort of bureaucracy.)

Now, you probably should include a veggie in lunch – but if frozen peas are the only option in the house because it’s shopping day and there’s no fresh produce to be found in the crisper, and your child hates peas…well, don’t fool yourself. Skip the futile effort and try to get veggies in at snacktime or the next day.

The conversation about what to eat for lunch comes in handy, here, too, as does rule number one. You need to know what your child likes in order to pack lunches that will be eaten and not wasted.

8. Water is a fine drink.

75% of hot lunch kids drink the chocolate milk first, according to my observations last year when I sat with my first grader at lunch. 10 Tips to Pack Brilliant School Lunches and avoid wasting food. When you throw away food, you throw away money.

Unless you can pack raw milk and keep it acceptably cold through to lunchtime, skip the caloric drinks that your child will probably fill up on before even determining what else is in the lunchbox. (See rule no. 3 on fast food for the reason why.)

Water is a fine drink, and free. Use a reusable water bottle, which will never get thrown away on accident because your child isn’t taking the obligatory dump-the-lunchbox trip to the garbage can.

9. Skip the dessert.

85% of cold lunch kids eat their dessert first, also according to my off-the-cuff-I’m-making-this-up observations at school.

Don’t give your child that temptation.

If they don’t have a sweet treat to distract them, they’ll eat the healthy stuff first, and more of it. After all, eating well is as important as (or more than) spending less.

10. Tell the kids to bring everything home.

This is really the hinge upon which success rests, which is why it deserves yet another mention. When the child brings everything home, you can

  1. Know what they like.
  2. Have an idea of appropriate quantity.
  3. Reuse baggies and use reusable storage items/utensils.
  4. Send food the next day that was uneaten (with discretion).
  5. Pack a twin lunch the next day in the same container.

Especially if you want to send food back the next day, it’s pretty important to unpack the lunchbox right away. I make this my son’s responsibility – when he walks in the house from school, he has to wash his hands, take care of lunch, and unload his backpack for me to see. (More on How to Teach Your Child Responsibility with After School Chores)

But What to Pack?

If you’re at a loss for healthy ideas for lunch packing that aren’t in packages AND that your child will eat, check out these posts:

I just love packing in my Ecolunchbox and Lunchbot!

How do you make sure your child eats well at school while you (waste) and spend less?


Check out the rest of the Eat Well, Spend Less ladies this week for more on back-to-school and food:

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Amazon and Ecolunchboxes. See my full disclosure statement here.

Click here for my disclaimer and advertising disclosure - affiliate links in this post will earn commission based on sales, but it doesn't change your price.

36 Bites of Conversation So Far

  1. Mary P says

    Great tips! I’m curious though–do you have an age at which you stop packing lunches? My parents made me pack my lunches starting in around 4th or 5th grade. I felt like it taught me responsibility, I was more likely to eat everything, and it made things easier for my mom as well.

    • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

      Love it! I’m sure I’ll get there, either out of desperation or a parental sense of building responsibility, but for now my eldest is only 7. I’ve seen great charts and stuff for helping kiddos that young pack lunches, but my fridge and kitchen are something so haphazard, I don’t think he would be able to come up with ideas easily enough quite yet. I’m happy with him unpacking for this year, but next year maybe he’ll start more responsibility! :) Katie

    • says

      MY kids started packing lunches @ 4th grade, but I took it back over when they were in 11th grade, to serve them, as their schedules were so very busy. They really thanked me then!

  2. Laura J says

    thanks for this great list! a tidbit for #5 is to buy a set of metal cutlery from Goodwill for kid’s lunches – reusable & cheap but not the end of the world if it doesn’t make it through the school year.

  3. says

    Great tips! Sending my first born to kinder next week and I have been obsessed about the lunchbox. Great idea to teach them to bring everything home and what information you can get from it. Thanks!

  4. Brianna says

    Ok, so I’m not a mom (yet!) but I AM a STUDENT! I’m in my last year of grad school (full time), and committed to bringing my lunch every day (so I can control what I eat and hubs and I can save money!!). This post was FANTASTIC—my favorite tip was balancing chewing food with fast food. I love to make big salads with veggies, fruit, meat and nuts and bring them with me to school, but one day a week, I have 15 min to get from one end of campus to the other and need to eat on the run…yogurt and other quick to eat foods is a great idea. I love making oat bran mini-muffins (with zucchini or pumpkin or bananas or blueberries or whatever) for a lunch “treat”—they don’t have to be very sweet (I omit sugar and just use a tablespoon or so of raw honey). It might be a good “treat” to send with kids, since they look like cupcakes :)

    Thanks for all the great tips!

  5. Renee says

    Pottery Barn Kids has utensils in a handy dandy case. Keeps all the yuck in the case rather than all over the lunch box. Especially nice when yogurt was for lunch.

  6. Michelle says

    Had to say thanks for this fantastic article! I am putting my kids in public school for the first time this year and I also am going back to college. I was horrified when I saw the fast food ick available on my new campus. Bleh! My kids and myself will both benefit from this very helpful information. Thank you!

  7. says

    Great tips, Katie!

    I still use small portion plastic containers just cause we have them, and it seems wasteful to change them out for anything new, even if stainless steel is better. They’re #5 and we don’t heat them up ever (don’t use a microwave anymore).

    But those Lunchbots do looks super cool. Do they leak?

    Lacey :)

    • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

      We kind of bought glass containers/stainless steel but still have the plastic ones in the cupboard for backup – they won’t last forever anyway, lids always cracking and such, so they just exist side by side.

      The Lunchbots are great, but they’re definitely not for liquids or yogurt; that would leak if tipped and maybe even from compartment to compartment under the dividing walls.
      :) Katie

  8. nopinkhere says

    I really like the tip about food that takes longer vs. food that’s easy to eat. I think that probably explains about 75% of the leftovers in my kids’ lunches. My biggest challenge is that they never eat a consistent amount! I’ll send exactly the same lunch and one day it will be gone and another it will be less than half eaten.

    • nopinkhere says

      Also, my daughter eats WAY more at school than she does at home for lunch, so it’s actually hard for me to pack enough food for her with the little voice in my head saying “there’s no way she can eat that much.”

  9. feeling better all the time says

    Of interest, we have lived overseas a couple of times for my husband’s work. When my kids attended French public schools they had nearly TWO HOURS for lunch. When they ate the ‘school lunch’ it was a five-course meal with various veggies and sauces and even raw meats. This is definitely something we should be improving in our busy American lifestyles;)

    • Penny says

      I love your notes! I found them yesterday and printed them up, and then laminated them (well, contact-papered them since I don’t have a laminator). That way I can hopefully reuse them between the 2 kids until someone accidentally chucks it into the garbage. That’s why I love the suggestion about everything that goes, comes home.

  10. says

    Ever thought of writing an ebook about school lunches? You could include lunch menus full of items that are easy to pack and eat, tips about how to pack them so they keep well, planning tips, etc. I bet people would love it! (I don’t pack lunches in this season of my life, except for my husband, but maybe someday this will really come in handy!)

    • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

      Lovin’ it! That just went officially on my ebook ideas list! My son will love when I’m experimenting b/c he probably will get more variety. 😉 thanks! :) Katie

  11. Sharon says

    My daughter isn’t old enough for school yet, but I’m gonna hang onto this post for when she starts. I love the idea of telling your kids to bring back everything from their lunch. I would be worried about reusable items being tossed and this is a great way around that problem.

  12. hatrick316 says

    Eating dessert first isn’t a terrible thing. It jumps starts metabolism. It’s only a major issue if the portion is way too big.

  13. Chelsea says

    My second-grader keeps asking if we’ll send a lunch for her instead of having her buy lunch every day… Maybe if I read through this post enough times, I can psych myself up to grant her wish. 😉

  14. Lydelle says

    very very helpful, i always use yogurt as a go to. It’s quick to eat, delish, and easy to prepare. I always have fruit or veggies, and as a ‘treat’ I’ll slide a few thin slices of steak in there…I only deal with grass fed beefand don’t over do it.

Take a Bite (of conversation)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *