It’s school days again, and time for the annual conundrum: hot lunch or sack lunch? The problem with hot lunches is that a lot of kids don’t like them, and if the school-age kids I know are reporting correctly, the lunches are heavy on carbs, fats and processed meats (hot dogs and pepperoni pizza). One young woman I know ate a hot dog for lunch every day for 12 years at school! Not exactly a nutritious diet. School lunches often don’t cater to special needs, for example, if a child is a vegetarian or can’t tolerate gluten or dairy.
The alternative is taking a lunchbox or brown bag. Homemade lunches can be both cheaper and more nutritious than what the school serves. They should include a main dish or sandwich, a vegetable, some fruit and a treat, plus a drink.
Most kids are happy with a sandwich. Peanut butter and cheese pack well and don’t spoil quickly. If a sandwich includes meat (such as deli ham or turkey), make it the night before and refrigerate it so it stays cool longer. Try to get your kids to eat whole-wheat bread instead of white, or pack some whole-grain crackers for their meat and cheese instead of bread. Avoid mayonnaise if you can, or snag a few of those little packets at the fast-food condiment bar next time you’re there. Pack one of those for them to use.
A cold-pack also will help keep food cool till lunchtime. To vary the menu, pack a thermos with vegetable soup, chili, stew or other main dish. Leftovers (such as fried or roasted chicken) are great for school lunches – and if you don’t have enough for another family meal, a way to save money and keep food from being tossed.
Buy a big bag of baby carrots (get the generic or store-brand ones) and put a handful in a snack-size zipper bag. Some kids may also like celery sticks, strips of peppers, cucumber slices or zucchini sticks. Ditto for some grapes, an apple or those cute Clementine oranges. Most kids can peel the little oranges themselves, or you can buy big ones, peel and section them yourself. Avoid bananas – they spoil quickly in a lunch box and everything else will taste like banana.
Dessert? A little sweet treat won’t hurt. You can buy economy-size boxes of mini cookies at stores such as Walmart and dole out a few each day in another snack-size bag. Or look for a sale on low-fat pudding cups.
Zipper bags work great for lunch boxes, but you also can invest in some small resealable containers. Zipper bags that aren’t really dirty can be rinsed and reused, too. Generic bags are much cheaper (sometimes half the price) of name-brand bags.
A quick check of area schools shows elementary school lunches start at more than $2 per day. That’s probably on the low end for most cities. Depending on what you pack, you can do it for that or less and provide a far more nutritious lunch for your child — one he or she will actually eat. Most schools will sell brown-baggers a drink (milk or juice) separately. Juice boxes and individual bottles can be expensive unless you buy them on sale (and when else would you buy them?) or get large quantities (if you have room to store them).
The most rewarding part of the deal is that your kids come home with nothing in their lunch box but an orange peel and empty containers. Now that’s money well spent.