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HOMEGROWN Life: Back to School Lunches


HOMEGROWN-LIFE-MAGENTAIt’s that time again: time when it begins to cool down, days get shorter, lists get longer, and most notably, the kids go back to school. I know it’s something a lot of people joke about, happy to see their kids get back on that bus, but I am not of that mindset. In an age where some parents simply survive their kids’ childhoods, I am thoroughly enjoying mine. Sure, there’s the occasional day when their bickering makes me want to throw myself into oncoming traffic, but those days are few and far between. No doubt it’s because I remind myself almost every day that my time with them is short and I want to make the most of it.

HOMEGROWN-life-back-to-school-lunches-yard-workAll summer the kids and I work on projects, trying new things. This summer, in particular, has been about experiencing: We raised our chickens (a HUGE learning experience in itself) and realized chicken poop doesn’t bother us nearly as much as we thought it would. We ziplined over tall pine trees, 200 feet above the ground. We got tossed about and learned (loosely) to white water raft, and we learned the ancient legends of the people native to what is now Glacier National Park. We also repurposed until our fingers hurt. Our truck couldn’t possibly have been packed with one more piece of someone else’s trash in which we saw treasure. Over the summer, people remarked that each time they drove by our house, we were always outside and always together. I love hearing that.



So it is with mixed emotions that I’ll put the kids back on that big old bus soon. I get really excited learning along with them and watching them grow, so I try to see that as a silver lining. I also like the challenge of saving money by packing them healthy school lunches, as I’m sure many of you do, too.

Did you know that you can save between $1,200 and $1,500 annually by packing a child’s lunch? I’ve tried the school lunch plan and realized my kids were not only making poor decisions, they were spending about $5 apiece every day. That’s about $1,800 a year to buy lunches consisting of preservatives and mystery meat. So this year, our year of experiencing and learning will continue straight through to their lunch bags. Here’s how we’ll do it:

1. GET THEM IN THE KITCHEN! No one knows better than my kids what food they’re actually going to eat when I’m not looking, so my strategy is to get them invested. My son is obsessed with PB&J and would eat it every day if he could. As a trade-off, he eats it on healthy bread, generally homemade wheat or spelt, with wholesome sides. He also LOVES homemade hummus, which he helps to prepare and is proud to boast about at the cafeteria table.

2. MAKE IT WORK FOR THEM: My daughter would rather die than been seen with a PB&J, so for her I invested in a salad set: a container with spaces for the lettuce, the toppings, and the cup of dressing. It also has a handy spoon and fork stored in the lid. She is much more agreeable when I pack her a sleek little container instead of a brown bag with her name in Sharpie on the front!

3. MAKE MASON YOUR FRIEND: Mason jars are my saving grace. I make lanterns out of them and wine glasses, too. It also happens that, come autumn, I have an excess of them from canning. Instead of packing my kiddos’ food in plastic wrap or bags that will end up in a landfill, I put my son’s goldfish and cookies in a small jelly jar. Mason jars also work great when I want to pack yogurt. It stays cold all day with a cold pack, and I can buy a large container versus six small cups.

4. DON’T FORGET THE OLD-FASHIONED THERMOS: When I was a kid, in the cooler months my mother packed my dad’s silver lunchbox and a big hot thermos every day before the sun came up. Her doing so imparted to me that a hot meal is one of the best ways to show you care. It’s also a great way to pack money-saving foods, like whole-wheat pasta with that frozen pesto you’ve been saving or a great homemade soup—all of your cost-effective and nutritious staples going straight from your garden to your child’s lunchroom.

5. PLAN TOGETHER: On Sundays, we hash out the week ahead (with the exception of Fridays, when the kids are allowed to buy their lunches). I have time to take stock of the fridge and make sure I have whatever I need. We bake their lunch treats and prep anything that can be done ahead of time, like slicing carrots or celery and putting dip into cups. This saves a huge amount of time.

HOMEGROWN-life-back-to-school-lunches-school6. DON’T FORGET: YOU’RE THEIR BEST ADVOCATE. Sometimes our kids’ educational paths can be a bit tricky, with conflicting priorities and personalities. I struggled when my daughter was told she had ADD, but instead of putting her on meds, I regulated her diet and cut out whites and processed foods with ingredients I couldn’t identify. Despite some teachers’ resistance, they couldn’t argue with the turnaround they saw in her concentration and behavior. They may dismiss me and my organic agenda as hippy-dippy, but I know what works for my kid, and so do you. Stick to it and trust your gut.

7. DON’T LOSE HOURS. One more—although this one’s for me. This year, I’m making a school-year resolution. (Forget New Year’s; school year is where it’s at!) My personal commitment this year will be making sure I don’t lose precious time with my kids. School days seem to fly by so fast. The kids get home, they have homework, then dinner, and suddenly it’s bedtime. I will be sure to ask more pointed questions, to be present, and above all, to be supportive. I will make Sundays our day to plan not only their lunches but also our weekly dinners, so that I spend fewer hours in the kitchen alone and more time at the dinner table with my loves.

Before I sign off, a few ideas for kids’ lunchboxes:

  • Whole wheat wrap with peanut butter, banana, and bacon
  • Meatball sandwich, with the hot innards stored in a Thermos
  • Ham and cheese quesadillas
  • Shrimp and veggie kabobs (they stay cool all day with a cold pack)
  • Whole wheat tortilla chips with avocado and salsa
  • Taco shells with sides, such as shredded chicken, packed separately; the shells won’t break in a sandwich box
  • Corn and zucchini fritters with Greek yogurt for dipping

HOMEGROWN-life-michelleAlthough she’s something of a newbie homesteader herself, Michelle comes from serious pioneer stock: Her great-grandmother literally wrote the book. It’s this legacy, in part, that led Michelle to trade in her high-stress life for a home on the grounds of a Pennsylvania CSA farm. You can read her monthly posts on beginner homesteading with kids and more here in HOMEGROWN Life, and sometimes you can find her popping up in The Stew, HOMEGROWN’s member blog. 



2 Responses to “HOMEGROWN Life: Back to School Lunches”

  1. Carolyn R. Says:

    I love these ideas but my daughter, 7yo, wouldn’t touch these foods. 🙁

  2. Thanks so much for this great post, Michelle. I, too, tire of hearing the jokes about how much people can’t wait to get rid of their kids. And we, too, spend most of our summer days outside doing stuff together as a family. It is really something that I treasure. I love hearing about another family having the same kind of summer! Nice to know there’s a kindred spirit out there.

    I loved your school lunch tips — I thought I might add a few things that have worked in our house.

    Leftovers are GREAT for kid lunches. So when we make their favorite dish for dinner (or one that they just like a whole lot) we make a HUGE amount knowing that they can take it as a leftover for lunch that week. My husband and I also take it for lunch. This cuts down on planning time, and also on morning prep time. My kids don’t mind eating cold leftovers most of the time but when they do we use a wide-mouth thermos-style container as you suggest, above. The leftovers can be microwaved and then packed into the thermos. ( I found nice, wide-mouthed stainless steel thermos containers were available at my hardware store. Go figure. )

    Don’t worry about making lunch balanced. I know this is kind of goes against conventional wisdom. But I realized a while back that if I focused on balancing the DAY and not the MEAL my lunch battles with my kids kind of disappeared. For some reason, they are much more likely to eat veggies at home than at school. So often they will take only a sandwich and fruit, or even lots of pieces of fruit. And I’ve realized that can be counterbalanced by serving more veggies at dinner. So I stopped trying to have all the food groups in the bag when they left in the morning and everyone smiled a lot more often. I also realized my son didn’t really like bread, so I sometimes let him just take a piece of meat with some fruit on the side. It looks strange, but hey, he’s happy and he’s eating and its a healthy meat so that is okay.

    Get your kids to pack their own lunches! This is a habit worth cultivating as soon as your kids start pre-school. When they were tiny, I let them pack their own lunch bags, and told them I’d check it over when they were done. I still do that, even though my oldest is now in middle school. The thing that surprised me and still surprises me is that they most often will make healthy choices. ( But then again, we don’t keep candy or sweets in the house, so there really aren’t a lot of bad things for them to pack anyway.) Somehow, the fact that they get to pack there own stuff empowers them, and makes for less arguing. Also makes my mornings a bit easier. You do have to back this up, however, with lots of “spur of the moment” lessons in nutrition.

    Finally, we gave up plastic bags and try to go “waste free” at lunch. Don’t pack it unless you are going to eat — that wastes energy and water for the farmer and money for your parents and fills up landfills for no good reason. Don’t buy stuff with excess packaging. Recycle anything you can. Bring home the stuff that can be composted. (Wish they had a compost system at school!) No paper lunch bags. The summer camp my kids attended even had a contest to see which table could be the best at packing a “waste free” lunch. (Again, wish the darned school would do that!)

    (I also wish they’d put a water fountain in the cafeteria. My kids backpacks are already so heavy and I hate adding to the weight with a big bottle of water — and I think a mason jar might have the same issue for us. It would nice to send them with an empty bottle that could be refilled at one of the filling station style fountains. The only fountain they have is in a very bad location in the school and my kids get very dehydrated, a small water bottle just isn’t enough. sigh.)

    Thanks again and I look forward to reading more from you on this site.

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