GAINESVILLE — As parents ready their children for the start of a new school year, some may be thinking ahead to a weekly or even daily challenge: preparing packed lunches.
“There are 180 days in the school year, so that’s up to 180 lunches some parents may have to pack, per child,” said Rebecca Elliott, UF/IFAS Extension Marion County family and consumer sciences agent. “But planning ahead can mean savings throughout the year, and it can be simpler than you think. Plus, involving your kids in the process can empower them to make healthy food choices at other times.”
Below, Elliott shares ideas to minimize food and packaging waste in a healthy school lunch while maximizing parents’ cost savings.
• Rethink packaging
Do you use zip-top bags, paper bags, wax paper or aluminum foil to pack your kid’s lunch? You can save money by changing from disposable packaging to reusable packaging. Reusable lunch and drink containers help reduce food waste, since any leftovers can return home, and you can save about $250 per child a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Disposable packages, on the other hand, require repeat purchasing. Instead, consider stackable containers of various sizes or compartmented bento-style boxes, which are a great tool for portion control and ensuring different food groups are represented in your child’s meal. Reusable containers can last for years.
• Leftovers for lunch
Consider turning dinner leftovers into school lunches. You won’t waste food, and your kids will enjoy the school lunch, since it is a known entity. Separate leftovers into smaller reusable containers or bento boxes, and there’s no need to think about lunch the next morning. Use your imagination – tonight’s roast can be tomorrow’s sandwich or taco, or add it to noodles and salads. Leftover chicken can turn into a stir-fry. Extra vegetables, beans, or pasta can become vegetable soup, stew, a pasta dish, or salad. For food safety, just be sure that leftovers are kept in the refrigerator for up to four days or in the freezer for up to four months.
• Buy in bulk instead of pre-packed foods
Sometimes saving money sacrifices convenience. For example, it is easier to buy baby carrots instead of a pound of whole carrots and prepare them yourself. Pre-prepared foods are more expensive than buying in bulk, however. This is also true for other items you may pack in your kid’s lunch: cheese sticks are more expensive than buying a cheese “brick,” and filling a reusable drink container is more economical than buying single-use juice packages.
• Consider more affordable proteins
Recent price fluctuations have been more prevalent in meat sources of protein. Therefore, try other less affected protein sources, such as lentils, beans, garbanzo beans/chickpeas (including hummus), or hard-boiled eggs. These are quite nutritious and provide all essential amino acids necessary to build protein at much lower cost. For example, one pound of lentils costs an average of just $2 and can last a long time. Try a lentil taco recipe (go.ufl.edu/lentil-taco) from the UF/IFAS Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program or black bean and vegetable quesadillas (tinyurl.com/3dnm2fkm) from the UF/IFAS Extension Family Nutrition Program.
• Get your children involved
Prepare the weekly meals on Sunday to avoid the weekday morning hassle, and involve your kids in the planning and preparations. You can pack separate containers with dry food, pre-cut veggies and appropriate leftovers. Fill up reusable bottles with water, 100% juice, low-fat yogurt, or homemade smoothies. Planning is essential, and it won’t take much of your time. Ask your children what their favorite healthy foods are, and even let them build their lunch boxes. You’ll find less food waste as a result.