My post on packing healthy school lunches has always had quite an incredible response.
This tells me moms are hungry for more than just good food: they want information about how to take care of their kids’ health. It’s written into our genes when the Creator makes us “Mommy”, I think, to be wildly passionate about doing the best we can for our kids.
Kitchen Stewardship is here to help you do just that, while balancing their nutrition on top of a world that also needs our care and a budget that isn’t getting any looser.
When 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?
For Starters: Use Reusable Lunch Supplies
It’s almost too obvious to state, but it’s also easy to miss this idea in the slew of marketing for Ziploc bags and single serve convenience lunch foods during back-to-school season.
There are so many great brands to choose from nowadays, and I can tell you from experience that if you invest in quality reusable bags and stainless steel containers, you will not have to buy more for many, many years!
We’ve been using many of ours for SEVEN years now without having to replace any (just add more as we add lunch-packing school-aged children to the household).
Here are our favs:
- all the bento box reviews
- I just love packing in my Ecolunchbox and Lunchbot!
- all the reusable bag reviews
- our favorite watertight stainless steel container for yogurt
- Wrap-n-mat – Made by mom of 4, put waxed paper inside if you don’t want plastic touching your food
We also “cheat” a lot if we’re not using officially reusable containers or bags – we reuse them anyway or DIY it. For example:
- Reuse the sandwich bags as many times as they’ll last. I’m not a big fan of actually washing and drying sandwich bags. They’re so thin, and it probably uses more water to wash them than to create a new one. Just reuse for the same kind of sandwich the next day.
- Avoid plastic by purchasing waxed paper sandwich bags. These can be reused a few times as well. You can even use waxed paper to wrap a sandwich up, as long as the child knows not to let it fall out of the wrappings.
- Wrap a sandwich in a cloth napkin or bandana. Both can be used as a napkin or a placemat when the child gets to school.
- Use a plastic box with a lid instead of a bag. (Reuse this without washing if it’s just a room temp sandwich, too!) Added bonus: No more squashed sandwiches!
A great story: I remember being proud of one family at my school for reusing their sandwich bags before “being green” was even very popular. I had a child with a peanut allergy in class, and PBJ sandwiches were strongly discouraged. One student told me she had to sit at the “peanut table” one day because there was some peanut butter residue from a sibling’s lunch in her sandwich bag (with her lunchmeat sandwich in it). I remain impressed by her close attention and conscientiousness in keeping her classmate safe, and by the family’s obvious choice to avoid waste and be frugal.
Be aware of one more new marketing hoax: lunchboxes with microban, an antibacterial agent not proven to do anything but play into parents’ germaphobic fears and sell products. See The Smart Mama’s post on the subject for more.
If you must use single serving dealies, check Terracycle to see if you can utilize your trash and “upcycle” it.
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.
School cafeterias are breeding grounds for garbage, from brown bags to yogurt cups, orange peels to sandwiches with only one bite missing.
I’ve always had a problem with waste.
Way back in sixth grade, a friend and I actually stood by the garbage cans in our elementary cafeteria and directed all the students to sort out their lunchtime waste: milk in a bucket, food in the first can and other garbage in the next. We weighed it all and measured the volume of milk and published our results in the school newspaper. (Yes, thank you, I was nerd. But at least I didn’t have to go outside in the snow for recess for a week! I was weighing garbage…)
Times haven’t changed much, and if anything, we probably create more waste as a society now than when I was a pre-teen.
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!)
Then you get to decide what is worthy of the trash and what is a leftover instead.
If you’re packing waste-free lunches with reusable sandwich bags and bento boxes 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.
Making your own or buying the “big” size and portioning into smaller travel sizes (granola bars, pretzels, yogurt, applesauce, etc.) saves money and reduces packaging waste, plus you choose the portions. It’s a massive Kitchen Stewardship win-win-win!
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 “twin” 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.
Whether you use plastic baggies or reusables for dry snacks like pretzels or granola bars, ask the child to bring them home and simply refill them with the same or similar item for the next day. I’ll knock out crumbs from bags far longer than I’ll pack “twin” lunches that need to be refrigerated.
Want great homemade snacks? Check out Healthy Snacks to Go, my own eBook with over 45 recipes to get you on your way with real food, fast.
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.
If your child is responsible enough, I highly encourage you to use a real utensil instead of a plastic one. If you just can’t fathom that, at least ask for the plastics to be brought home and wash those!
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. (OR have them pack their own with the tips for packing real food lunches that I shared after my son earned his way into that responsibility.)
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.
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.
Warning: Watch out for aluminum water bottles! I wish I were kidding, but somehow someone decided to capitalize on the fact that people are out looking for safe, metal alternatives to plastic and market an inexpensive metal water bottle, even though the health risks of aluminum are equal to those of plastic! Sheesh. I saw an aluminum water bottle in our Target ad for $5 this week. Don’t buy them!
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
- Find more grain-free lunch ideas from my affiliate partner’s eBook, The Grain-Free Lunchbox
Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Amazon and Ecolunchboxes. See my full disclosure statement here.