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Eat Better and Save More with Packed Lunches

As kids, many of us were familiar with "brown bagging." Carrying that brown paper bag or cartoon-inspired lunchbox was somewhat a mark of pride, as well as a bit of a mystery. Grabbing a greasy piece of pizza and tater tots from the school cafeteria was usually a once or twice a week treat. More often than not, we were handed a packed lunch by an adoring parent on our way out the door. And as we ate our cheese and bologna sandwiches, we eyed those square pizzas with a bit of envy.

Packed lunches have become less popular over the years: American schools serve 1 billion more meals each year than they did in 1969. Part of that growth in the number of participants is a direct response to the distinctly larger number of children in American schools. But no small part is associated with many fundamental shifts in American households as well.[1] More mothers are working outside of the home as surviving on a single-parent income has become increasingly more difficult. Many children are growing up in single-parent households, often with a parent who is too busy to make a healthy lunch every day. Nevertheless, packing a lunch remains the best way to ensure both you and your child are eating healthy food.

American School Lunches Are Far from Healthy
American school lunches have changed very little over the past several decades. Unfortunately, this, is not a good thing. In recent years, many news organizations have taken it upon themselves to compare American school lunches with those of other countries.[2] The results were less than stunning for American students.

The typical American school lunch is packed with fat, salt and sugar. Although salads and fruits are available, many children choose the greasier, saltier and more unhealthy choices. Some schools did make a change, thanks to the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act which took effect in 2012. However, students have been in open revolt over the healthier meals, with many choosing to forgo lunch altogether instead of eating the meals.

Students in most other countries enjoy healthy meals packed with vitamins and minerals. In many developed nations, students are served fresh vegetables, fresh baked bread, fresh fruits (not just the standard Red Delicious apple or sugary fruit cup), and low-calorie cuts of freshly-prepared meat, chicken or seafood. Countries like France and Italy, where school lunch programs emphasize healthy food, have much lower rates of childhood obesity than the U.S.

Adults are Also Eating Unhealthy (and Expensive) Lunches
If you find yourself handing off lunch money to your kids instead of a bagged lunch, chances are you're also doing the same thing to yourself. Recent studies found that, for the first time in American history, Americans adults are spending more money on dining out than on groceries.[3] Inevitably, that means two things. First, more Americans are making unhealthy food choices. Second, Americans are spending more money on food than they need to. Although the total cost of food has dropped dramatically over the years, the convenience of eating out has overtaken the cost-effectiveness of eating at home.[4]

Solution: Prepare Your Lunches at Home for the Whole Week
As time is often the number one reason most parents simply send their children to school with lunch money, there are some solutions to making sure your kids eating healthy throughout the week. One is to prepare lunches for the week on the weekend and freeze them. They can be easily reheated in the morning before your child goes off to school. And some meals can simply thaw out and be ready to eat by lunchtime! The internet is full of many wonderful meal ideas, most of them healthy, that will ensure your children are eating healthy every single day. From salads in mason jars to frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, most meals can be made fast and are ready to go in the morning.

You will pay more for your children's bagged lunches. Unfortunately, this is a small consequence to switching over to home-made bagged lunches. If you qualify for free or reduced priced lunches under the National School Lunch Program, your child's lunch costs will be well under $3.00 a day, even if they are participating in the breakfast program. However, if you do not qualify for this program, the cost of lunches is still low and still under $2.50 for lunch and under $2.00 for breakfast. In comparison, healthy packed lunches might cost you around $4.00 a day or more, depending on what type of lunches you are packing. The sacrifice is well worth the cost, though. For your children, the goal should be healthy food options first, with cost as a secondary measure of value.

Your will pay less for your lunches. Adults who eat out during the day, on average, will spend more than $10 lunch. By some estimates, the average cost of a restaurant meal, whether fast-food, fast-casual or casual, is $12.75. By comparison, any adult can prepare a healthy lunch for well under $10 a day. For adults, healthy, packed lunches are both cost effective and offer better overall nutrition, as long as you're packing those lunches with more fruits, vegetables, and low-calorie meat options. If you make your lunches and your child's at the same time, what you save on your lunches will more than offset what you spend on your child's and both of you will eat better food.

Making the switch to weekly packed lunch preparation can be difficult at first. But it also affords a great time to spend with the kids. By making weekend meal prep a family activity, you can turn making packed lunches into a fun weekly family activity, save money, and improve your family's health all at the same time.

For more resources on making healthy meals at home, the following websites provide very good, detailed instructions:

Make-Ahead Lunches

Weekly Meal Prep Routine

Weekly Food Prep How-to

On-The-Go Lunches

Meal Prep Sunday