Back-to-school is a great time to learn to pack a healthy school lunch and easy on-the-go snacks. And to save money, and cut down on the amount of lunch waste you—and your kids—send to the landfill. Unless you’re way more organized in the morning than I am, the trick is to spend a little time on the weekends and evenings so each luncher can grab what he or she likes and, in the morning, be out the door in a flash.
The trick to eliminating lunch waste is to find reusable lunch containers, and you don’t have to spend a ton on fancy new stuff. A big box of snack-sized zip-close plastic bags (these can be reused until they turn cloudy, which means the plastic has started to deteriorate) and a tall stack of four-ounce (½-cup) and eight-ounce (1-cup) glass jelly jars—the kind with two-part lids designed for preserving—are all you’ll need.
Load ‘Em Up
When my kids were in elementary school, we had the “snack basket,” a flat rectangular basket about four inches deep. Once a week the kids and I filled dozens of plastic snack bags with nuts, trail mix, dried fruit, cookies, pretzels, homemade peanut butter crackers, and plain whole wheat crackers, and lined them up in the basket with a selection of granola bars.
Buy foods in bulk and measure a serving (¼ cup for nuts and such, and two to three medium-size cookies is good) into each bag. Bags of fresh veggies (shop the supermarket salad bar, or cut your own), slices of real cheese, and peanut butter and jelly half-sandwiches go in the fridge, as do glass jelly jars filled with pudding (made with organic milk), fresh fruit, fruit gelatin, a dab of ranch dressing (for veggies), hummus, and yogurt (plain organic plus fresh fruit or fruit spread). The four-ounce jars are generally best for kid-size portions of all these things, but if you have an active child who needs more energy, go with the eight-ounce jars.
Get the kids involved; they’ll learn how easy it is to reduce lunch waste, and what a healthy school lunch really is. Even the smallest child can pick a set “menu” (such as one protein, one starch, one veggie or fruit, and one sweet treat) and drop their items into a reusable lunch bag (do yourself a favor and buy only machine-washable bags; plastic lunch sacks are often loaded with nasty chemicals, and many kiddie bags have been found decorated with lead-based paints). Drop in a stainless steel bottle of water, a cloth napkin, and a spoon if needed (get a few mismatched ones at a thrift store if you are worried about possible loss), and lunch is a go! If even this is too much, assemble and refrigerate the night before.
Make it a habit for each luncher to unpack and rinse her sack at a set time every evening (following their after-school snack or right after dinner may be low-stress choices), and bringing things home will become routine. Containers go right into the dishwasher, snack bags get a quick rinse in the sink and hung up to dry (a heavy mug with six or eight chopsticks standing in it makes a free and easy drying rack), crumbs go in the compost, and the empty sack and napkin (unless really soiled) get ready for the next day. On weekends, send the napkin and reusable lunch sack through the wash for a fresh start next week.
If your kids refuse to get serious about bringing containers home, you may want to consider telling them that you will dock the cost of missing items from their weekly allowance…and follow through on it! They will whine and pout when you do (as another mother once told me this just means you are “doing your job”) but it won’t take many docks before missing containers will be a thing of the past.