My kids went back to school this morning, and with them went four lunch boxes full of inexpensive, healthy food. I had gotten a little lazy last year, and they ate many school bought lunches, but when the price of school lunches went up to $2, per child, per day, I realized that I needed to start packing again. That would be $40 a week just on lunch! I know that I can pack a lunch for less than that, so I started making a plan. Here's what I've done:
1. Make sure you have the right supplies. In my case, we needed four new lunch boxes. I also invested in a set of inexpensive but very heavy duty, non-disposable plastic utensils. It was really bothering me to put disposable plastic spoons in lunches every day, but I wasn't about to put my real silverware in there either. I figure this is a good compromise...hopefully, they will come home to be reused. If one accidentally gets thrown away once in a while, it won't be a tragedy. I also stocked up on little containers and assorted size baggies. I still need to buy two new thermoses and two water bottles, somehow we ended last year short of both those items. (I'm sure you can imagine how that happened.)
2. Ask your kids what they want to eat. I actually handed out index cards and demanded a list of items that they wanted to see in their lunches. I insisted that they include some things from each of my own personal lunch food groups: protein, grain, fruit and vegetable. I keep these cards in the same drawer as my baggies so that I can pull them out while I'm packing. I think it is crazy to eat pepperoni, cold pancakes or whole tomatoes for lunch, but it isn't what I think that matters. As long as it is reasonably nutritious and my kids will eat it, I'm willing to pack it.
3. Purchase large containers of items and divide them yourself. Homemade popcorn is a very inexpensive substitute for chips, veggies are easy to package yourself, and water in a water bottle is an economical and healthy alternative to juice pouches. With that said,
4. Consider splurging on a few sweets or packaged items that seem frivolous. If an occasional container of pudding makes my kids love to bring lunch from home, then that is worth it for me. Some items are actually the same price or less expensive in the smaller containers. At my commissary, cottage cheese is nearly the same price in the individual sizes. Given the messiness of cottage cheese, I'm glad to let the company do the pre-packing for me.
5. Make it easy to eat. Peel oranges before slipping them into a bag, cut up apples, and make sure your child can open the containers easily. Some lunch rooms don't have much adult help and your child will be frustrated if they can't open the thermos of soup at lunch.
Here's a link to one of the many internet newsletters about packing lunch. Hope you find it helpful! Don't forget, you can pack the grown-ups lunch, too. Most of us have access to microwaves and refrigerators at work, making the job that much easier and allowing lots of tasty choices.
With a little bit of pre-planning, packing lunches can be easy and fun. Please pass along your lunch box suggestions!