Low-Cost/Low-Waste Lunches

—by Nicole Infinity

My wife and I have both worked in schools for several years now and are well versed in lunches the kids bring from home. When the students open up their lunch bags, the first sight is usually packages.

Although we agree that often school lunches leave a lot to be desired, there are many alternatives to prepackaged foods that are both lower cost and lower waste. These alternatives also apply to the lunches grown-ups pack for themselves.

Encourage your family to bring home any part of the lunch they do not eat. We watch mounds of food from home lunches get thrown away each day. Sometimes kids will throw out entire sandwiches or prepackaged snacks.

The following tips will help ensure that you spend less money on lunch with less waste and more enjoyment.

Avoid prepackaged foods

Prepackaged foods are great in a pinch, but they are expensive, and the better made the food, the more expensive. They may be more convenient, but they also create instant waste.

Even if some of the items have recycling information printed on the packaging, many recycling companies do not accept them.

Even if all of the packaging was recyclable, the better option to reduce waste is to not have the packaging made in the first place.

Also, prepackaged food can be difficult to open. The person should be able to open all of the packages by herself for a sense of lunch autonomy.

So, purchase or find a reusable lunchbox and water bottle, label them with the person’s name, and fill them with self-packaged, home-processed foods. Try to avoid these common prepackaged foods: Lunchables or the like, microwavable frozen meals and snacks, individually wrapped servings, packaged sandwiches, fruit snacks, juice boxes, bottled water, chips, yogurt, soda, fruit cups, squeezy fruit, candy, diet snacks, granola bars, protein bars, and smoothies.

Involve the lunch eater in making the lunches

Involve the kids in making their lunches. Not only will that cut down on the work for you, but they will be more likely to eat something they have helped create.

Some grown-ups think that kids are too young to help with cooking, but the skills you share with them now will help them in the future. Do not worry, they still need you for so many other things. At the camp we help organize, our 8-year-old campers are trusted with science experiments and dissection scalpels. The keys are clear expectations for how to use kitchen tools, and making the food into a fun “experiment” or “project.”  Be creative, allow the little ones to be creative, and make it fun.

Make or process enough food for several lunches at one time

Our schedules dictate that we prepare lunch foods for the whole week on Sunday. On a given Sunday, we cook a whole mess of rice and beans, cut the strawberries, bake the crackers, cut up the green peppers, and take a container of hummus out of the freezer. This is the most time-saving way we have found to make lunches.

On Monday morning we are happy to have containers waiting for us. By lunchtime, we are thankful for healthful and tasty food ready to eat. Sometimes there will still be prep on the morning of, but doing the bulk of the work ahead of time makes mornings much smoother.

Have lunch choices each week

Folks can get tired of the same thing every day, so make two “main course” options for lunches each week. As long as your family is two people or more, this is pretty easy. Rice and beans or pasta. Sandwich or burrito. Have all of the stakeholders help decide the options for each week prior to going to the co-op.

Remember also that kids have fewer restrictions on what they consider to be lunch. Cheese and crackers with some fruits and veggies may work for them, even if our grown-up senses want to say, “That can’t be lunch! There is no real food.” If it is a healthful and filling lunch, it is a success, even if you would not have it for lunch yourself.

Try some new recipes

Switch it up for you and your family every time it seems like lunches are getting dull. Variety will help ensure that less food is wasted and folks are getting what they need from their lunches. All of the following recipes have been adapted from friends and our favorite cookbooks.

Kid-friendly Hummus Complete Protein Crackers
3 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cups cooked chickpeas (sold dry in bulk at the co-op)
1/3 cup lemon juice from 1-1⁄2 lemons
1⁄4 cup tahini
1⁄2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon olive oil

  1. Dice and saute the garlic cloves in 1 tablespoon of olive oil for 2 minutes. This will make the garlic sweeter and reduce its potency.
  2. Combine the sauteed garlic cloves and all remaining ingredients in a bowl to process with an immersion blender, blender, or food processor. (I use an immersion blender.)
  3. Blend until smoothish. It does not have to be completely smooth. Add water while blending if necessary.
  4. Use hummus as a dip for vegetables, crackers, or a spread on sandwiches. I have developed a taste for hummus and cheese sandwiches which kids also tend to enjoy. Use within the week if stored in the refrigerator, or freeze it.

Fruit Rolls
1 pound fresh or frozen berries and/or rhubarb, cut into chunks
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1⁄4 cup honey or sugar
1/3 cup applesauce

  1. Mix fruit and lemon juice in a saucepan over medium heat.
  2. Cook, stirring often, until berries and rhubarb are entirely softened.
  3. Push mixture through a food mill or fine strainer. (We prefer the food mill.)
  4. Add the applesauce and honey to the mixture. (Have any food stakeholders try the mixture at this point and add more applesauce and
    honey according to taste.)
  5. Lay parchment paper over a baking sheet and pour the mixture on in an even and thin layer.
  6. Bake on your lowest oven setting, as close to 175° as possible, until the mixture is almost completely dry to the touch. It should not get crispy.
  7. Allow the fruit to cool, and cut into any shapes you would like. Roll them up and store in a sealed container at room temperature for up to a month.

Complete Protein Crackers
3 cups flour
1-1⁄2 teaspoons baking powder
1-1⁄2 teaspoons salt
1-1⁄2 teaspoons ground flax seeds
1-1⁄2 teaspoons chia seeds
1⁄2 cup canola oil
1 cup water

  1. Preheat oven to 425° F.
  2. Combine all ingredients in a bowl.
  3. Divide into four balls of dough.
  4. Grease two to four baking sheets, preferably without edges.
  5. Roll the first ball of dough onto a baking sheet until it is quite thin, 1/8 of an inch or less. This is kind of a frustrating step when you are first trying this recipe. Be patient. It will get easier.
  6. Sprinkle the top with extra salt if desired and roll over the salt with the rolling pin a few times to push it into the dough.
  7. Cut the rolled-out dough into cracker-sized pieces with a pizza cutter, knife, or other tool appropriate for your type of baking sheet.
  8. Poke holes all over the dough with a fork.
  9. Bake for 8 to 12 minutes. This varies considerably, depending on how thin your crackers are and the oven. Test the first batch frequently. If the crackers feel soft at all, you want to leave them in for longer. You may also have to pull some of the edge crackers off as they may bake faster.
  10. Begin with the next ball of dough and cookie sheet as the first crackers are cooking.
  11. Continue until all of the dough is turned fantastically into crackers. Store in a sealed container at room temperature. (They probably won’t last very long after you bake them!)

[Nicole Infinity is a radical homemaker, makes art, and enjoys community living with her lady friend.]