If you empty your child’s lunchbox at day’s end and see dollar bills falling into the garbage, perhaps it’s not an illusion. Face it, there’s a lot of money - your money - tied up in individual packages of chips, cookies, string cheese and other kid lunchtime faves.
Individual pudding cups, miniature chip canisters, drink pouches and other teeny-portioned goodies are just some of the back-to-school items that parents dole out big bucks for this time of year.
So how do you minimize the bite on your family’s lunch budget? Strive for a waste-free lunch: It’s kind to the environment and cheaper in the long run.
Packing tips: Buy or make foods in bulk and pack just what your child will eat in reusable containers. Use cloth napkins and reusable utensils. Try an insulated tote bag and an ice pack to keep cold items fresh.
Of course, any reusable containers and totes will do, but it you want to stay eco-friendly, check out our buying guide:
"Eighty percent of Americans are looking for something that’s safe, reusable and affordable," said Alicia Voorhies, a registered nurse turned green researcher and owner of The Soft Landing, an online green retailer.
Voorhies likes Crocodile Creek lunchboxes -- flexible, insulated boxes that are PVC and lead-free. Neoprene bags made by Built NY offer some insulation and are lightweight. Cloth bags by Mimi the Sardine come with Velcro or zipper closures and can be tossed in the wash when dirty.
CUT FOOD WASTE
- Cut up fruits and vegetables. Children often take one or two bites out of an uncut apple or banana and throw the rest away.
- Pack drinks in reusable containers. Children cannot reseal juice boxes, cans or pouches. Send only what they will drink.
- Ask your child to bring home lunch leftovers. Looking at leftover lunches is a great way to get information about your children's lunch preferences. Simple changes might make the food more appealing.
- Before offering your children an afterschool snack, request that they finish their lunch.
- Encourage your children to help plan, prepare and pack their own lunches. They're more likely to eat a meal that they've helped prepare.
REUSABLE SANDWICH AND SNACK CONTAINERS
"People are looking for something more affordable these days. Kids are going to lose these little containers or throw them away," Voorhies said.
To wrap foods: Fresh Snack Pack is a durable, self-closing envelope made from Ethylene-vinyl acetate, a BPA-free plastic. They can be used for juicy items and washed on the top rack of a dishwasher.
The Kids Konserve Food Cozy, a flat durable PVC-free plastic sheet, folds to store sandwiches, apple slices, cheese cubes and other dry food items. There also are cloth bags available, but if they don’t have a liner, they can be harder to clean.
Cup containers: Kinderville silicone cups with lids are heat resistant, so you can microwave in them.
Kids Konserve stainless steel containers with tight-sealing lids are leak resistant, so they are better for applesauce and yogurt. LunchBots stainless steel containers and lids are best for sandwiches and foods that won’t leak.
Laptop Lunches offers a system with a box, small lidded food containers and insulated bag. Voorhies said some of the lids in this system are hard for little hands to remove and the set is best for kids ages 7 and older.
Lunch Sense, Voorhies’ favorite, has containers with lock-down lids that are leak proof and easiest to open.
To Go Ware’s Tiffin lunchbox is an Indian system that includes a round stainless steel latchable lunch pail with top and bottom compartments. A separate sauce container is included.
Kids Konserve sells a line of lunch totes and containers that work together or separately, which is great for kids who want to pick out their own lunchbox.
Systems like PlanetBox, a bento-style one-piece stainless steel box, doesn’t have all the small, separate parts, but there can be leaking issues.
Send your own, or buy kid-sized metal or bamboo. Trudeau offers a line of Fuel utensils with plastic handles and stainless steel tops. For bamboo cutlery sets, try Bambu or To-go Ware RePeat Bamboo Utensils Set.
Or how about reusable straws? RSVP offers a line of stainless steel straws that are dishwasher safe.
REUSABLE WATER BOTTLES
Camelbak offers stainless steel or BPA-free plastic bottles. They’re not insulated, but have a spillproof bite valve.
THE DEBATE OVER PLASTICSThe biggest issue dividing moms packing a waste-free, eco-friendly lunch: Plastic vs. Anything But. The concern is that additives such as bisphenol-A (known as BPA) in hard plastics and PVC in soft plastics can affect the health of children. In January, the Food and Drug Administration acknowledged concern about BPA’s effects on kids and launched a long-term study on the topic.
"The common consensus among greenies is to avoid plastics at all costs. It’s not just about BPA and the health concerns, but that it creates consumer waste and takes a long time to break down in landfills," said Stefani Newman, a green consumer advocate and mom of three in Boca Raton.
Some plastic food storage items made by green companies are free of BPA, PVC, Phthalates and other chemicals that have shown to be threats.
But not all plastics can be painted with the same brush. "All plastics (and other materials) intended for contact with foods or beverages are regulated by FDA to help assure their safety," according to Michael Herndon, FDA spokesman. "FDA comprehensively regulates the safety of food by carefully reviewing food and beverage packaging materials before allowing them on the market."
It comes down to what you think is best for your family.