Saving on School Lunches Part 1: Are Bento Boxes Right for You?

Shortly before school started a few weeks ago, my husband announced that we would be sending lunches to school with our kids this year instead of buying hot lunches. The reason? The cost got out of hand last year when my two girls started buying breakfast every day in addition to hot lunches. True, we could have tried to reign the kids in a bit, but they are young and do not quite understand that all of these things cost money. As far as they are concerned, the school “said they could have it” so they went ahead and got it!

So, given the task of making daily lunches, I started where any mom would… Pinterest and Google images! There I saw all sorts of beautiful bento boxes and cute lunch box displays. I thought I could get some nifty compartmentalized containers and I would be just like those hip moms… so I went shopping.

To be honest, I had a hard time finding just what I was looking for. Mostly because I did not yet know what that was! I found two-compartment containers, three-compartment containers, lunch kits with lots and lots of little containers and all sorts of gadgets and gizmos. However, the more I began to think about it, the more I realized they were all marketing tricks to get you to buy “cool” new items. Even if I wanted them, I found many were cost prohibitive. The containers themselves were expensive, but on top of that, I would have to either make sure I washed them every single night or buy multiples to last a few days. It didn’t make sense to spend so much money to save a few dollars!

I visualized bringing home some of the containers and began to realize that the more parts they had, the more work it would be: more dishes to wash, more sorting, more storing and more searching for all those tiny parts and pieces! In my house that just would not fly! We have a hard time keeping coffee mugs and lids together, so multiple small containers and lids were completely out of the question! Plus I got a sense of how small some of the bento boxes really were. A few grapes is the most you could fit into some of the compartments. There was no room for a drink, an ice pack or the additional snack they needed for their snack break. Although they were the cool, trendy thing to have, they did not match our lifestyle or our kid’s needs.

In the end, I found a nice lunch box at a large retail store at a good price. The soft rectangular lunch box included a hard plastic bin that you could put in the bottom to keep their lunch from getting squished. This plastic bin also included a movable divider to keep items in place. The bag itself had an additional compartment on the top that I could use for things that did not need to stay cold. It was a little bigger than traditional children’s character lunch boxes but still fit nicely into their backpacks. Simple, but it worked for us. Bonus, my girls actually liked them!

In addition to the lunch boxes, I bought a few leak-proof plastic containers that fit nicely into them. Some had two compartments to keep food separated. Others were sized for condiments and sauces. However, after a few days of actually preparing lunches, I realized that many of the containers were not really necessary. I found that snack-size plastic baggies worked well for most items.

Now that the container dilemma was over, I had to figure out what foods to send! I looked on Pinterest and went to Amazon to preview books that catered to school lunches and bento boxes. In the end I realized the recipes would not work for my kids. They are 6 and 8 so they aren’t into gourmet foods, cold noodles, rice dishes and some of the more sophisticated foods I saw related to bento boxes. They are pretty normal kids. They like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, grapes, yogurt sticks, gold fish, granola bars and other conventional snacks. Plus, as working parents with limited time, we needed to find a way to balance the nutritional needs of our children with our desire to send food they would actually eat at an affordable price.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it is great when parents have the time and resources to make special home-cooked lunches for their kids every day. I found many beautiful images of very creative lunches in my search. In fact, as an occasional treat, I hope to find some special recipes that I can try on them. However, for day-to-day lunches, we kept it a little simpler. In the end, we decided bento boxes were a cool new trend that we just didn’t need.

For us, bento boxes weren’t the right choice. Here are the reasons why:

  1. Too many parts to wash and keep track of.
  2. Too expensive.
  3. Too small and restrictive.
  4. Complicated grown-up recipes weren’t a good fit for my kids.
  5. Not leak proof, so not ideal for young children.


Tune in next time, when I’ll go over what I sent for lunch that first week.


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