As another school year has started, many parents start thinking about packing lunches and snacks for their children. As the director of a childcare center, I see a variety of food come in from home. I am always surprised at the amount that is wasted each day, and I have spoken with the custodians and school lunch personnel at various public schools who have reported they see the same thing, which is good (and expensive) food thrown out in the garbage.
In a tight economy, it is important not to waste anything, especially something as important and expensive as food. Here are some ideas and tips to help give your kids the nutrition they need while saving money on your food budget each week.
Invest in some small, portable plastic containers in various shapes. Get some that will hold fruit or vegetables, sandwiches and leftovers. You will also want a lunch container, either a lunchbox or a lined reusable bag that will keep foods cold with a small ice pack. These containers are fairly inexpensive or can be free as promotional items from various businesses. Give your child markers, stickers, etc. and have them decorate their own lunch bag to personalize it.
Never buy pre-packaged items. Although it may be more convenient to just throw a store container of fruit cocktail into the lunch, it is costing you double. Instead buy large cans and spoon some into your own reusable containers. That pre-packaged ham, cheese and cracker lunch that comes with a drink and a small candy bar is not only nutritionally full of fat and calories, but also it is costing four times as much as packing the same amount of food from your own kitchen.
Don't fall for the "Jimmy had this" syndrome. That may work for Jimmy and his family, but stay true to what you want your kids to eat. Explain this to them. A store bought sub sandwich, chips and a soda are something your family may enjoy on the weekends, but is not what you want to have your kid eat every day for lunch at school.
Ask what your child wants and really listen. They can give you the information you need to make good choices that will actually get eaten and not thrown out in the trash. Why assume you know what they like? They will know you respect their ideas and what they have to say.
Plan ahead. Sunday night is a good time to figure out lunches for the week. Get the lunch boxes or bags and containers ready to go. You will save a lot of time if you have some sort of organized method, and ultimately save money by not grabbing items haphazardly when rushing to prepare the lunch for the day.
Check out alternatives to the grocery store. Bakery outlets have great deals on bread, cakes, and cookies. Dollar stores have the best prices on other snacks that can be bought for a great price in a large quantity and then divided up into individual sizes for lunches.
Have your kids bring home their leftovers. Teach them not to throw anything out at school. In our childcare, we always put the uneaten and unopened food back in the lunch boxes. Not only does this reduce waste and allows some food to be used again; it gives parents a chance to see what their child is eating and what he or she is not. Avoid over-packing and expecting kids to eat everything. Teaching children to recognize when they are full is an essential skill and can help avoid both childhood and adult obesity.
Any food is boring if it is the only choice day after day. Use cookie cutters to make fun shapes out of sandwiches. Put condiment packets into the lunchbox to accompany the sandwich or meal. You can take the extras you get in drive-thrus and have them on hand in the cupboard. Use different breads such as tortillas, pita rolls and/or bakery rolls.
Using a few money saving strategies and some organization can make school lunches simple, nutritious and economical. Enjoy this special time with your child.
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