Eat Well, Spend Less: Tips to Pack Brilliant School Lunches – By Katie Kimball, Blogger, Kitchen Stewardship

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 leaking so slowly that you don’t even notice, but your money is going out without a return.

How can you pack the perfect lunch so that nothing gets wasted without relying on packaged, processed, expensive food? I coached my kids in the following rules of school lunch packing:

Everything comes home. Everything.
From empty baggies to half eaten muffins, everything that went to school in the lunchbox comes home again. 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.

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. 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.

Balance chewing with fast food.
My son will eat five carrot sticks and a 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. Yogurt, on the other hand, is soft and quick. You know – fast food.

Use an ice pack.
You may have seen statistics from the people who run studies on food safety that 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 cold, I don’t feel badly about sending it back the next day.

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 and (b) the child spends five minutes tracking down a utensil s/he can use. Either may result in food not eaten, and thus wasted.

Communicate with your child.
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. Ask them what they like and don’t like about lunch, discuss the amount of time they have to eat, and make sure that they understand the rule about bringing everything home.

Pack foods your child likes.
If your child hates peas, it’s futile to put peas in the lunch. You probably should include a veggie in lunch – but if frozen peas are the only option in the house and your child hates peas…well, don’t fool yourself. Skip the futile effort and try to get veggies in at snack time or the next day.

Water is a fine drink.
Skip the caloric drinks. Water is just fine. Use a reusable water bottle, which will never get thrown away by accident because your child isn’t taking the obligatory dump-the-lunchbox trip to the garbage can. Skip the milk unless they are going to buy it cold from the cafeteria.

No dessert.
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.

Did I say – bring everything home?
This is really the hinge upon which success rests, which is why it deserves yet another mention. 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.


Katie Kimball is the creator of Kitchen Stewardship, where she blogs about real food changes using the pillars of health, earth, time and money. She is the author of Healthy Snacks to Go, The Family Camping Handbook, The Everything Bean Books, Smart Sweets, and Better Than a Box. She is married and the mother of three children. Connect with Katie on Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest.

This is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared on Kitchen Stewardship, and can be seen in its entirety here.

This excerpt was reprinted with permission and with limited editing.