Lunch Box Basics
Disclosure: Some of the links below are affilate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
Lunch boxes and lunch menus are a private obsession of mine. I can spend hours pouring over lunch box descriptions, thermos manuals and sandwich cookbooks. With so many of my brain cells invested in lunch box knowledge, this article is a personal favorite.
Doing the Math
There is a myth in some frugal circles that packing lunches doesn’t save enough money to be worth the work. For most families, this isn’t the case. Most school lunches cost between $1.50 and $2 per child. Homemade lunches can be prepared for less than 50¢ a piece. Assuming 5 days a week, 4 weeks a month, and 9 months a year, this saves between $270 and $360 a year for 2 children. If you have 5 children in school, you can save $900 a year. Adult lunches offer even more opportunity for savings. An adult who spends $3 a day for lunch, will save more than $500 over the course of a year if he eats a home packed lunch for about $1 a day. If an adult is spending $5 a day for lunch, then reducing it to $1 a day for a very hearty, home-packed lunch saves over $1000 a year! As you can see, packing lunches really does pay off over time.
Packing lunches is a bit of a bother. It takes a few weeks to get used to thinking about it and making time for it every morning, day in and day out. I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a minor element of drugery to it.
Still, there are really good reasons to bite the bullet, put up with the drudgery, and pack your own lunches anyway. Home packed lunches are usually more nutritious than school or fast food lunches. It’s easy for us to offer skim milk, fresh fruits and vegetables in season, and low-cost, protein-filled soups and casseroles. The lunches we make ourselves are more filling too. I have noticed that school lunches serve a lot less food than they used to. The portions are smaller, and they serve fewer items to the children too. I know my 11-year-old can easily eat twice as much as he is provided with in a school lunch. Home packed lunches can be adjusted to accommodate growth spurts and other changes in appetite. Homemade lunches taste a whole lot better too. At home we use more love and care in preparing them, and are more likely to use better quality ingredients. After all, we have a personal interest in the quality and contents of the lunch, seeing as we are personally vested in the person who consumes it. To sum it up, home packed lunches taste better, offer more food, are healthier and cost a quarter to half as much as a purchased lunch. They are one of the greatest bargains we can produce in our kitchens.
Free & Reduced School Lunches
One of the best things that the National School Lunch Program offers are their free and reduced lunches. When I was a child we always qualified for free lunches and breakfast, and we loved them. If you qualify for free or reduced lunches, then by all means, take advantage of it. You will save time and money in the long run, and you children will eat a hot, nutritionally adequate meal, provided by the American tax payer. I can think of very little that I would rather pay for with my tax dollars than lunches and breakfasts for school children. If the lunches are too skimpy for your hungry children, then pack them extras to eat in addition to the school lunch. That way your morning work load is still somewhat diminished and the kids won’t leave the lunch table hungry.
For folks who don’t meet the income requirements for free or reduced lunches, it is well worth the extra work to prepare your own lunches at home, and send them to school or work with the family.
Lunch Bags & Boxes
The first thing you will need is a container in which to pack the lunch. It doesn’t need to cost a lot of money. For adults a small cooler makes a great lunch box. Fred uses a medium sized cooler. He is usually gone for 24 to 48 hours, so he needs a lot of food to keep him going. For children and teenagers, you can usually find inexpensive lunch boxes and insulated lunch bags at yard sales and thrift stores.
Small children often prefer a plastic lunch box with cartoon characters on the side. I suggest you buy these as cheaply as possible. They only last for a year or two before the children drop them or the latch breaks. At $6 to $10 a piece, buying brand new boxes has never been a good investment for me. I have purchased them new when I desperately needed the thermoses that came with them. After the plastic lunch box broke, I purchased replacements from my local Goodwill. I continue to use the same thermos year after year.
If the art work on an older lunch box is shabby, you can easily replace it. Use rubber cement to glue down a new picture (cut to size) and then cover the picture with clear contact paper. I’ve done this, and it lasted almost 2 years, until the lunch box cracked and became unusable. Amy D. describes the process in detail in the first book of The Tightwad Gazette.
For older children insulated lunch bags work best. They don’t have the juvenile connotations of plastic boxes with matching thermoses, so older kids usually don’t object to carrying them. I like them because they don’t break when they get drop-kicked across the living room by a budding football player. Since they have soft sides, it is easier to fit more food and odd-shaped containers in them too. They usually have zipper closing and shoulder straps for carrying them. I buy the largest ones I can find because I find them easier to fill. Many modern insulated bags have several extra zipper pockets and sections on the outside to carry little extras like napkins, spoons and salt or pepper packets. My boys like these but they aren’t really necessary. Purchased brand-new, insulated lunch bags cost between $5 and $15. If you wait until back-to-school-sales you may find them cheaper. Over the summer they can often be found at yard sales. Insulated lunch bags usually do not come with their own thermos, so you will have to use some you already have or buy them separately.
Which brings us to the next item you need for lunch packing: a thermos. If you have a thermos left over from older lunch boxes then use it. Whenever you can use something you already have it saves you money. If you don’t already have a thermos, then try your local thrift stores and yard sales. They can often be found for 50¢ to $1. Objectionable artwork can sometimes be removed with fingernail polish remover. If that doesn’t work, then cover the picture you don’t like with another picture you do like. Trim a piece of clear contact paper to fit neatly over the new picture and press it firmly into place. Be careful when you wash the thermos. Don’t soak it in the dish water for hours and hours. This will help preserve the new artwork.
If you absolutely need to buy new thermoses then the greatest selection is in August, right before school starts. I prefer wide-mouthed thermoses, sometimes referred to as insulated food-jars. They come in a standard 10-ounce size, and look exactly like regular lunch box thermoses on the outside. Inside however, their mouths are large enough to put chunky foods inside, like casseroles and beanie-weanies. They are also much easier to clean because of their wide mouths.
I have also seen small cold-only thermoses. They usually hold about 4 to 6-ounces, or about 1/2-cup. The lids go into the freezer overnight, and then chilled food is placed inside the thermos in the morning. By lunch time, the food is still fresh and cold. This works well for homemade pudding, jello, chilled fruit, yogurt, and the like. I used to try to use these for hot things too, but it turned out they only work for cold things. Live and learn.
Plastic Bags & Resealable Containers
In addition to the lunch box and thermos, there are a few extras you will need. These include small resealable containers and plastic flip-top baggies. If you have any small leftover yogurt tubs, the kind with resealable lids, they are excellent for lunch boxes. If you found a sale on 8-ounce containers of store-brand yogurt, it would be worth it to buy a dozen or so. Eat the yogurt. Wash and save the containers for lunch boxes. If this isn’t possible, then you can buy reusable Glad, or Zip-Lock containers in 8 and 4-ounce sizes. They last a long time, and are just the right size for jello, canned fruit, pudding, cobbler and salads. By the way, there is no rule that you must to fill a container all of the way full. You can fill a container half full of jello, yogurt, or pudding and send it to school just like that.
Sandwiches, popcorn, fresh fruit, veggies sticks, and boiled eggs go into flip-top baggies. I let my boys throw the bags away when they are done with them. Store-brand bags cost about 1/2¢ a piece, and save me having to wash any extra plastic bags. The plastic containers come home for a good sudsing everyday.
Keeping Cold Things Cold
A few years back it was very difficult to keep lunches fresh and cool all day. Homemakers were warned about foods spoiling while waiting to be consumed at lunchtime. This need be a concern no longer. With modern freezing ability and commercially available cool-packs food can be kept cold and appetizing for several hours.
Blue freezer-packs are inexpensively available at most discount stores and many supermarkets. They go in the freezer overnight, and in the morning they are popped into the lunch box along with the food. The freezer pack keeps everything in the lunch very cold. I use them in conjunction with the insulated lunch bag and find that I don’t even need the thermos any more. Instead I use a pint sized sports bottle for each boy. With the thermoses they were only getting 8 or 10 ounces of beverage, which they complained was never enough. Now they get a full 16-ounces, which seems to satisfy them much more thoroughly. I fill the sports bottle and chill the beverage overnight. Then it sits in the insulated lunch box with the freezer pack for 4 or 5 hours. By the time the kids eat lunch, the milk is still very cold. I really like using the cold pack in conjunction with the sports bottle.
If you don’t have a freezer-pack or don’t want to buy one, then you can improvise your own. Fill a sports bottle or other beverage container about a third-full at night before you go to bed. Screw on the lid and place the bottle in the freezer overnight. When morning comes the beverage will be frozen solid. Fill the bottle up with more of the same beverage. The frozen drink will melt as the morning wears on and will keep the beverage and the lunch box cool and fresh until lunch time. Experiment with the amount of frozen beverage you need to keep everything cold, while still giving it a chance to melt by noon. Ask the kids about it and make a mental note when you hit on the right balance.
The beauty of using the freezer-pack or frozen beverage system is that it frees up the thermos for more exciting things like tomato or vegetable soup, hot chocolate, casseroles, spaghetti and meat sauce, enchiladas, burritos and other things which will fit into the wide mouth thermos. Meanwhile, the lunch box itself holds all of the cold things, like pudding, yogurt, salads bound with mayonnaise, lettuce and other vegetables, cut up fruit, and anything else that is best kept cold. This little bit of lunchbox technology has really revolutionized my lunch menus.
Keeping Hot Things Hot
Cold items are easier to keep in a lunch box than hot items. There are still ways to manage it if you have a thermos. If you don’t have a thermos then stick with cold lunches. If you do have a thermos then get ready for a bright variety of hot lunch additions.
In order to keep things hot in a thermos both the food and the thermos must be heated in the morning. Liquid foods like soups and beanie weaines can be heated on the stove top. Bring them to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 5 full minutes. You want the food to be well heated, all the way through. Meanwhile, fill your thermos with your hottest tap water. Place the lid on the thermos and allow it to sit while the food heats. When you are ready to fill the thermos, dump out the water and quickly pour or ladle in the hot food. Be careful not to overfill. Usually there is a fill-line inside the thermos. Check yours to see if you can locate it. After filling the thermos, carefully screw on the seal and the lid.
Other foods that are chunkier like casseroles, macaroni and cheese or spaghetti with meat sauce, will have to be heated in the microwave or in a double boiler. To use the microwave, place a serving of the food in a glass bowl and heat at HIGH until very hot. If it is cold from the refrigerator, then 3 to 5 minutes should suffice, depending on your wattage. Preheat the thermos while the food is cooking. Empty the thermos, fill with the hot food and seal. To use a double boiler, bring about half a pot of water to a boil in the lower pot. Place your cold food in the upper pot. Position the lower pot over the upper pot and let it slide into place. With the bottom water boiling, the food in the upper pot should heat for at least a full 15 minutes before placing it into your preheated thermos. If there is a lot of food in the upper pot, or if it is exceptionally cold, then 25 minutes will probably be long enough.
I have a special trick for burritos. Prepare bean or beef burritos in your normal way. Wrap each burrtio individually in tin foil. Heat in the oven at 400° for about 15 to 20 minutes. When they are hot all the way through, slip them into the preheated thermos, and screw on the lid. The burritos will be hot and delicious come lunch time. Tommy is especially fond of this meal.
At first, it takes about 20 minutes to pack good lunches, if you do all of the work in the mornings. One of the nice things about lunch packing though, is that most of the work can be done the night before. It turns out that good lunches don’t happen automatically. Lunches need thought and preparation well ahead of time. I was really slow to understand this. I tried to make lunches in the wee hours of the morning, when I was cranky and tired, and failed miserably more mornings than not. The kids complained. They wanted to eat good food like the other kids. They were getting bazaar sandwich combination like brown beans and mayonnaise, because I hadn’t thought ahead. I would need lunch meat and cheese for sandwiches, or tortillas and cheese for burritos. The poor boys ended up with a hybrid bean-salad sandwich with pickles and stale popcorn for lunch. That was pretty much the low point of my lunch making endeavors, and I am proud to say, the beginning of a new standard of lunches for the boys.
Now I plan out my lunch menus each week, ahead of time. Saturday afternoons, or Sunday on the way to church, I ask the boys what they want in their lunches. They always say pudding and grilled cheese sandwiches. I always agree and then they suggest other items too. If I’m planning menus for the week (which I do sometimes, but not always) I include their suggestions on the weekly menu. If I don’t have the time or inclination to make up the menus for the full week, I still jot down five lunches, so that I’m never lost in the morning, before the coffee kicks in and my brain begins functioning in earnest.
School lunches are required by law to include a specific amount of nutrition in each lunch. For elementary children it includes:
- 8 oz of milk
- 2 servings of breads or grains
- 1/4 cup of vegetables
- 1/4 cup fruit
- 2 oz meat or its equivalent in beans, cheese, or yogurt
- less than 30% calories from fat
- Reduced sodium
- about 600 or 700 calories
I decided to use this as the standard for my homemade lunches. When I know what is involved in making a balanced lunch, I find it easier to plan ahead. With this meal plan as my guide, I do my pre-packing the night before. Vegetables like carrots, celery or broccoli are cut up and placed in plastic flip-top baggies. Muffins, popcorn, or cookies are baked and cooled before packaging and placing aside until morning. Any sandwich fillings, like egg, tuna or chicken salad can be mixed up the night before. This gives them a chance for the flavors to blend and makes the finished filling better tasting. Canned fruit and yogurt can be portioned out into their small containers and allowed to chill until morning. Sports bottles are filled with milk, and freezer-packs are placed securely in the freezer to work their miracles the next day. Pudding and jello can be prepared at night, and by morning they will be set and ready to surprise the lunch box crowd.
Anything which will need to be reheated and put into a thermos the next day will benefit from pre-packing too. Usually I measure out the amount of soup, or casserole I will need the night before. Then I put it into a small saucepan, put the lid on it, and chill it overnight. In the morning, I only have to pre-heat the thermos with hot water, and bring the food to a good rolling boil. Then I spoon it into the empty thermos and screw the lid on tightly. Hot chocolate, can be made from scratch the night before and reheated in the morning. Inexpensive canned soups are good for a hot meal when you are pressed for time. Vegetable and Tomato Soup (prepared with milk) are the two favorites at my house. During cold spells I will often send a hot soup in their lunch box every day. I think it helps to dispel the chill of an impersonal school cafeteria in the wintertime.
Remember to tuck in a spoon or fork when you send food in the thermos. Use plastic ones if you children are trained not to throw them out. Otherwise metal ones are sturdy and less likely to be thrown away. While we’re on the subject, do not send plastic or metal knives to school! Schools these days have zero tolerance for weapons. Myself, I never considered a plastic butter knife a weapon, but most schools do, and it is best not to tempt the fates. So rather than having a big, overly publicized media event centering around plastic knives in elementary school lunch boxes, just think ahead and keep all the knives at home.
Be sure to wash the lunch box, thermos, and any reusable containers every day, preferably right after the kids get home from school. Then let them air dry before putting them away. This step will prevent any bacteria or peculiar odors from forming. On the weekends give everything a thorough scrubbing, preferably with a little bleach water. I take the time for this extra step because it assures me that my kids are only receiving wholesome, loving, nourishment from their lunches, and not any contaminated bacteria beasties. Other folks are not as fastidious about this step as I am, and their kids are perfectly healthy, so you really have to set the standards according to your own comfort level.
Speaking of comfort levels, next we come to Mayonnaise. I send my children sandwiches with mayonnaise in them. Not everyone does this. Some people are worried about the mayonnaise going bad. I have found that using the blue freezer-packs keeps the food cold enough to eliminate any worries I might have had about the mayonnaise going bad. Before I stated using the freezer-packs, it was common for me to send tuna or chicken or egg salad bound with mayonnaise, or baloney and cheese sandwiches with mayo and mustard. The sandwiches would sit probably about 4 hours before they were consumed. My children never suffered any ill effects from the mayonnaise in their sandwiches. I will admit though, I have more peace of mind, know thing that the sandwiches are kept cool until they’re eaten. Each mom has to make her own decision about these things. If you choose not to use mayonnaise, you could substitute homemade salad dressing, which is cooked, or prepared salad dressing from the store, or choose sandwiches which do not require mayonnaise at all.
To support the blog, check out the HBHW eBooks available on Amazon. Thank you!