I uncovered a dirty little secret last year.
My children were trashing their uneaten lunches — the very lunches I invested 15 minutes every morning to prepare, and the very lunches that added an extra $50-$70 to my grocery bill every week. I was stunned. Why didn't they tell me they didn't like American cheese on their sandwiches, or they didn't like Fritos corn chips?
I prepared their lunches because I believed it saved time, and I thought I knew more about what my kids enjoyed eating than they did. Silly, I know.
This year, I am taking a different approach to school lunch. A little preparation goes a long way and saves time and money. All you need are a few small plastic bins and some extra storage space in the refrigerator.
Building the bins (content is everything)
After enjoying a dizzyingly fun summer that ended much too soon, I got reacquainted with my children through a series of questions and made a mental note of which fruits, snacks, drinks, lunchmeats, types of bread and vegetables they mentioned they enjoyed. Then I filled the food bins with these selections.
I have a bin filled with chips and crackers (because some days are like that).
Another is filled with sweet or dessert items like dried fruit, fruit cups, puddings and granola bars.
The bin in the refrigerator houses cheese sticks, fruit, lunchmeats and cut up vegetables and dip all packed in individual plastic bags.
Now, the morning routine consists of arranging the bins on the counter where my kids are welcome to build their lunches based on the available choices. When the morning rush is over, I simply stack the bins on the shelf and in the refrigerator and start my day. I take note of which items disappeared quickly and which items required a harder sell.
Some days, my kids choose grapes over anything out of the dessert bin. Other days, they choose carrot sticks over chips or crackers. The point is, I don't know their mood for that day, but they do. And by allowing them the opportunity to design their own lunches, I can feel confident that the food I buy isn't lining the trash bin in the cafeteria.
Quantity vs. quality
I am well aware that warehouse grocery stores are the answer to many prayers of families. I, myself, am a fan — for certain things. Lunch snacks are not one of them. The first serving of veggie chips goes over fine, but the 25th serving — not so good. For my family, offering a variety of lunch choices increases the likelihood of that lunch being consumed. I may end up spending more money on smaller packages from the grocery store, but the prospect of less waste makes it worth the investment. The areas where warehouse stores shine for me is lunch meat, cheese, fresh berries and bread.
The offering of bins makes after-school snacks easy as well. By directing your hungry teens to a designated bin, you can control what is getting consumed, thus protecting the mountain of shredded cheese you had reserved for dinner or the rolls you had targeted for a neighbor.
For now, I recognize my children have evolving food preferences. By catering to those choices and slowly introducing new options, I am saving time by localizing and organizing lunch selections, and I am saving money knowing my food is going in my child's mouth and not into the trash can. For me, a self-service lunch system is a great way to save a few dollars, and it makes good sense.