Save time, money packing lunch

School officially is in full swing for most of Johnson County. Every morning, parents from Greenwood to Edinburgh rise at the crack of dawn. They ask annoying questions like, “Did you put your homework in your backpack?” and “Have you brushed your teeth?” and “Where are your shoes?!”

After a stiff cup of coffee, they endeavor in a number of menial tasks that must be done. Laundry is sorted and started. Bowls of cereal poured. In our household, we call it the hour of power –- the time frame between when we wake our daughters and then hustle out the door to begin the day.

The high pinnacle of each morning’s preparations comes in the form of two soft-sided satchels. One is round in shape, bearing a likeness of Hello Kitty. The other much more grown-up bag festooned with orange chevrons.

The almighty lunch box daily reigns supreme in the royal household. We pack them every day to save money and meet special allergy needs for our princesses. However, even with an economic strategy like packing a lunch for school, you can overspend. The following principles guide our process and keep the costs low and bellies full.

Buy a Durable Bag

Anytime I instruct someone to spend money, I’m greeted with shock and awe. Lunch boxes or bags definitely fall into the “Don’t Buy the Cheapest One on the Shelf” category.

Don’t misunderstand me — I’m not saying you need to buy your sweet little cherub a bento box made out of solid gold.

Instead, find a happy medium, purchasing a well-constructed, durable lunch receptacle that can be used year after year. After all, it’s bound to be bounced on the bus and trampled underfoot when all things school-related are tossed in your entryway after a long day.

Our best lunch bag finds are typically a month or two after school begins. Big box retailers begin clearing them out at up to 90 percent off the original price to make way for holiday décor in the seasonal aisles. Buying the cheapest bag or box can truly cost you in the long run when you have to replace it and the prices are sky high in the dead of winter.

Skip Pre-packageD

I’m not going to be a hypocrite and tell you I never, ever buy individual sized pre-packaged chips and snacks for lunch boxes. Some weeks zoom by at warp speed and the 15 seconds saved carve out time for me to sip coffee to maintain my sanity.

However, when at all possible, I skip the little pre-filled baggies and create my own. Sometimes I use plastic sandwich bags; while other times I fill reusable containers. Ninety-nine percent of the time, you’ll save money by buying a larger package of items and breaking them down into your own servings.

Dump the Juice Box

Along the same lines, purchasing disposable or recyclable beverages wastes money and resources. Instead buy a sturdy reusable bottle to refill daily, again looking for a good deal.

Be sure to bring your child with you to guarantee they can independently open and close the bottle without your help. This guarantees your little scholar won’t be left thirsty or bring home a soggy bag of leftovers.

Prepare early

Save your sanity by beginning the lunchbox train long before the morning rush. On Sunday evening, begin packing as many of the items to use throughout the week as you can.

Often, I’ll pop a large pan of popcorn on the stovetop, chop fresh veggies and seal them up, bake cookies, or even make PBJ to freeze and use in the week ahead. There still might be some prep to be done in the morning but if you have several components ready, kids can even easily participate in packing their own lunch.

Don’t Go Overboard

Make me a deep vow and solemn promise NOT to search for lunch box ideas on Pinterest? The high volume of parents who spend most of their day sculpting Sponge Bob from a block of cheddar cheese just so little Johnny can have a unique midday snack shocks me.

While I love adding special touches -– especially notes or inspirational quotations and verses -– there’s no need to begin a pattern of insanity that you’ll never be able to maintain when September rolls around.

If you do choose to theme your child’s lunch to pack something unusual, choose one day of the week instead of setting yourself (and your child) up for a high level of stress. For the first time school-aged parents in the house, let me lend a few words of advice: It’s totally fine for your child to eat the same thing or a variation of the same theme.

Love your child well and that lunch box, too. May all of your morning preparation result in more time to sip coffee and talk to your family instead of rushing around in circles. And most of all, may you save money in the process.