For the last 3 years, I’ve packed lunches for my guys every single day. Well, there have been a few days they’ve asked to buy lunch at school, but they are few and far in between. As a matter of fact, since Monkey started school three years ago, he can count the days he’s bought lunch at school on one hand. Since they pack lunches nearly every single day of the year, I’ve learned that there are some items I prefer over others, as well as what items have worked for us, and what ones haven’t. These are my top 7 must haves for packed lunches.
It started back in 2010 when I began packing Hubs’ lunches to help cut back on how much he was spending eating out while at work. It worked! But there was still a problem. Hubs wasn’t spending a whole lot on his lunches anymore, but we were still spending $21.75 on school lunches for Bookworm every 5 to 7 school days. $20 was on the actual lunches, and $1.75 in a “convenience” fee for having the site automatically withdrawal the amount necessary to keep his account filled.
I thought we were going through that money a little too fast for comfort, so I got online to see what he was purchasing. The bulk of his lunch money went to the meal, a water bottle, snacks, and second helpings. After talking to the cafeteria manager about this, I found out that since Bookworm cannot have milk, and they do not substitute even with a doctor’s note, he was left with the option to get juice or water. Water came at a hefty $1.25 cost. If he chose to get juice that day, he couldn’t get the fruit that was offered. This left him with little food to keep him full until the end of the day, so he would purchase extras of the main meal to be full. If he did get juice and a fruit, he was charged extra money for a snack.
After he explained all this, I felt a bit dizzy from all the different “rules” just so my kid could eat a meal. I got back online and added up the cost of some of these lunches. If he decided to get a juice, and an apple, as well as a water bottle for later in the day, on top of the main meal, I was paying $4.75 for a single meal for him! Way too much in my opinion! So I started packing his lunch more often than usual, and would give him an allowance for times that he would want to buy.
While I love our #rurallife, some days it’s difficult to get anything done. My oldest has an appointment with his allergist, and it’s a 2 hour, one way drive for us. Stopping somewhere for lunch is so easy, but packing our own is much more #budget friendly! #packedlunch #frugalliving #doctorappointment #alldayevent
When Bookworm started his Phase 1 orthodontic work in 2013, the last thing I wanted to see were his very expensive expanders wind up in the school trash can. So I started packing his lunch every day. I’ll be honest, losing his expanders weren’t the only reason. I knew that in a few months he’d have the first round of braces on, and I didn’t want to get calls about them popping off or having wires broken because he neglected the “do not eat” list.
This habit of packing lunches has really taken off over the last three years. I’ll even pack our lunches to take with us to doctor’s appointments, or when Lady Bug and I are out for the day getting groceries. I’ll be honest. I’m not the type that is rushing out of bed every day to pack their lunches, but knowing that we’re saving a lot of money each lunch they pack does help motivate me to keep the path.
7 Must Haves For Packed Lunches
I prefer to send my boys in with an insulated lunch pail* over a brown bag. While brown bags are probably the cheaper option, they don’t hold up. Since I pack lunches at 6 am, and the kids are on the bus at 6:50 am. I would rather spend a little more money up front and know that they’re lunch pails are standing up to the tests of the day. Plus, since they’re out the door so early, and lunch time isn’t until 11 or 12, the insulation helps keep the lunch at the perfect temperature.
Personally, I am partial to ones that don’t have the seperate bottom section because it’s always odd trying to get their containers packed in the lunch pail. Bookworm on the other hand, loves the separate section and always looks for those types of pails.
When I first started packing lunches, we used those huge blue ice packs. I don’t remember where we got them, but it was probably at Target back in 2009 when Hubs was working there and I was finishing up my grad school requirements. While they work great, I found that they took up a little too much space in the smaller lunch pails, and trying to find the perfect arrangement in the lunch pail was like trying to safely walk through a bedroom of Legos in the dark. It simply was not going to happen.
This year, we moved to these slim ice packs* at Monkey’s request. I wasn’t sure how they would work because they seemed way too skinny, but I’ve been really happy with them! Because they’re slimmer, they’re size doesn’t get in the way while I’m finding that optimal arrangement, I was concerned that it wouldn’t keep the food cold enough since they were so skinny. Boy was I wrong! They do an excellent job of keeping food cold, and I can’t wait to add some more of these to our collection for the days when the kids forget to unpack their lunches.
Every year when Target sets up their back-to-school section, I make sure to check out their dollar spot too. This is where they keep Zak! sandwich* and snack containers. They’re dishwasher safe and cost somewhere between $1-$3 for a single container. Depending on how many I still have, I try to buy two per kid. I also try to keep some extras on hand for Hubs and I.
My initial thought was that they were a little cheap and they wouldn’t last beyond a year. But even if I got a full year out of the containers, they were cheaper than buying Ziploc baggies for the entire school year just for the baggies to be thrown out. These Zak! containers have lasted a lot longer than I thought they would; I still have sandwich containers I bought in 2014!
This past school year I completely forgot to grab more sandwich containers and I was running low. Two years of use were a little rough on some, and they wound up getting cracked. After scouring Target, I wound up finding some Lunch Skins sandwich & snack bag combos*, shown above, on clearance. I paid just under $7 for the snack & sandwich bag combo. While I do think that they were a bit overpriced, even for being on clearance, I’m surprised with their quality. I make sure to turn them inside out before sending them through the dishwasher, and after three months of use, they’ve held up really well! Their stitching is still in tact, and the patters are very vibrant. Plus, I love how the Lunch Skins aren’t as bulky as the Zak! containers.
Often the kids don’t want to eat a sandwich for lunch, and prefer something warm. Whether it’s chicken nuggets or mac & cheese I make in the morning, or reheated leftovers from the night before, these Thermos containers* are my go-to for warm, packed lunches.
While the Thermos’s does tend to have a high upfront cost, I’m telling you, they are worth every single penny! When you spread that cost out over a single school year, it makes up for it’s upfront cost in the first week. I have 5 currently in rotation, one of them we bought back in 2010 when Bookworm started school and it’s still going strong! When I spread the cost of a thermos out over the last 6 years, it comes out to $2.50 per year, or just over a penny per school day. They are well worth the extra bit of money you’ll spend up front.
To make sure their food is warm by the time lunch comes, I boil some water in my teapot, and then pour the boiling water in the thermos. Allow it to sit for 5 to 10 minutes, dump out the water and fill with the hot food. I make their lunches at 6am, and by lunch time at 11am, their food is still warm. Sometimes they complain that the food was a little too hot and it had to cool down first!
In the off chance that someone wants to bring in cereal for lunch, I throw in a few ice cubes, some cold water, and let it sit in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes before I empty it and fill it with cold milk. Works every time!
Just like sandwich containers, I send the kids in with some snack containers*. These work perfect for popcorn, granola, pretzels, crackers, baby carrots, orange slices, banana slices, or just about anything else that you can think of! Most of the time I use snack containers solely for snacks, but I have been known to put sloppy joe buns and half sandwiches in them if I need to save space in the lunch pail.
To help make sure the kids get a well rounded meal, without having to buy a bunch of premade and prepackaged items, I use these containers*. They’re perfect for sending in smaller amounts of things like homemade applesauce or homemade yogurt. When the kids want chicken nuggets, I send their ketchup in them. I’ve even sent Hubs’ salad dressing in these containers to save him from bringing an entire bottle of salad dressing to and from work. They’re easy to open, dishwasher safe, and in the last 6 years that I’ve owned them, I’ve only had one crack.
Stainless Steel Water Bottle
Every day, I also send the boys in with a bottle of ice water. These Thermos bottles* keep water ice cold enough overnight, and in our house with the wood stove running in the winter, cold water at night is a must! As a matter of fact, I love these bottles so much I have 6 in rotation between the kids. Each kid has 2; one currently in use and one waiting to be swapped out when it’s time to wash the current one.
I found out recently that they sell replacement straws* for them too! Lady Bug’s straw had cracked over the summer, making it frustrating for her to use her favorite Thermos. A quick order of their replacement straws, and all was well!
What are your must haves for packed lunches?