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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- Know what they like.
- Have an idea of appropriate quantity.
- Reuse baggies and use reusable storage items/utensils.
- Send food the next day that was uneaten (with discretion).
- 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:
- Healthy school lunch ideas
- Gluten free lunch ideas
- Healthy Snacks to Go
- High protein snack ideas
- My ideas to fix school lunches
- Find more grain-free lunch ideas from my affiliate partner’s eBook, The Grain-Free Lunchbox
How do you make sure your child eats well at school while you (waste) and spend less?