My son started day care when he was 8 months old, and since then I have generally packed 100% of meals and snacks for him and our younger daughter. This is partly because of severe dairy allergies in both and partly because I do not find the usual day care fare nutritious or healthy. Snack items are often pretzels, Nilla Wafers, or sugary cereal like Frosted Flakes or Corn Pops, vegetables and fruits are canned rather than fresh, and breads contain high fructose corn syrup and usually some kind of dairy to boot.
I don't like the idea of throwing away money or sending out more plastic waste. I also am a little creeped out by using plastic containers, as there seem to be frequent scares about leaching. I'd rather just avoid it altogether.
I typically pack a sandwich or leftover meat, a container of yogurt with fruit and vanilla stevia, 2 fresh fruits, applesauce, homemade muffin or bread, a vegetable, and a thermos with water for each child. My son may also get some Annie's Fruit Snacks or Bunnies. We use insulated lunch bags that are flexible and easily wipe clean. I need a separate container for each item. This could easily result in needing 5 baggies and 2 containers for each child per day. I could buy store brand plastic baggies for $0.07 per bag, making it $0.70 per day, or $3.50 per week. If I send an individual almond milk or juice box, that could be another $0.50 to $1 per child per day. That could easily add $34 per month or more to my grocery budget.
You can reuse plastic baggies, as recommended in the Tightwad Gazette. For myself, I don't think they hold up as well, and it makes a big mess on my kitchen counters. I can throw reusable baggies in the washing machine or stainless steel in the dishwasher.
I have tried quite a few things over the years. We have some Take 'N Toss plastic containers that were given to us at my baby shower that we are still using, but after 4 years of steady use, they are finally ready for the recycling bin. If you don't mind plastic in general, this is a pretty economical way to use reusables. Because I pack so much food, though, I can't quite fit enough of these in our lunchboxes. Sandwiches and breads still need to be packed in something else.
A few of my favorite alternatives are compiled below:
Kids Konserve Stainless Steel Containers- cost $25 for 3
Pros: plastic-free, no leaks, durable (using ours 3 years now with regular use!)
Cons: Heavier than plastic, lids can be harder to open, they do not nest well, so take up more room in cabinets
My take: We have 3 sets of these, and generally use them for daily yogurt, chopped fruit, and fresh veggies without any leak issues. The lids require help for our 4 year old to open, however.
Eco Lunchbox Sandwich Cube- cost $20 for 1
Pros: stainless steel, lightweight, leakproof, easy to open for a child, durable
Cons: fits standard size bread, but not larger size
My take: These fit a sandwich easily and don't take up a lot of space or add to much weight to a lunchbox. My 4 year old can open the lid himself.
Thermos Brand Funtainer Stainless Steel Water Bottle- cost $12 on sale at Target
Cons: heavy, especially when filled
My take: My 4 year old and 18 month old can both press the button to release the straw as well as close the lid. The lid stays closed in their lunchboxes without leaks, and are generally filled with water in the morning. My kids like the designs.
Wrap-N-Mat- $18 for 3
Cons: fitting a larger than normal sandwich can be difficult
My take: I have used these faithfully for years and have only had to send one to the dump recently, after 7 years of regular use. They are great for times there is not too much space in a lunchbox, or trips to the zoo when a lightweight wrap is needed.
Lunchbots Stainless Steel Duo- $20 for 1
Pros: Lightweight, choice of single, double, or triple compartments, leakproof, stainless steel, lid easy to remove for a child
Cons: heavier than plastic
My take: We just started using one of these, as my daughter often eats leftover dinner fare for lunch. This divides her protein and her veggie, and has not leaked yet. Since we often use stainless steel, having lightweight containers helps keep a lunchbag from weighing more than the child!
Lunchskins Reusable Bags- cost $9 per bag
Pros: closes securely, flexible, fun patterns, washes in washing machine, lightweight, multiple sizes
Cons: requires washing, fades with washing, not leak-proof
My take: We have 4-5 of these and use them almost daily for breads, muffins, cookies, or other homemade treats. We often just shake out the crumbs and air out to send the next day. We turn these inside out and attach the velcro so it doesn't snag anything in the wash. We keep a plastic bin under the kitchen sink for soiled Wrap-N-Mats, cloth bags, cloth napkins, and bibs, and wash them together.
Bambu Natural Kids Utensils- cost $8 per set
Pros: sustainable bamboo, small sized that fits a child's hands easily, fork is not too sharp, organic
Cons: wood can wear down over long use, must hand-wash
My take: These are perfectly sized for a younger child. My 4 year old and my 18-month old both use these with ease. My greatest fear is that they will get thrown out by accident at day care! It really only takes 3 minutes of my time at night to hand-wash these.
Cloth Napkins- cost varies widely. I've seen napkins at Goodwill for $0.25 each. I've bought 8 custom ones on Etsy for $1 each. If you have the skills, you can sew or crochet your own.
Over the past 4 years, we've spent $260 on reusable lunch items, including the lunchboxes. The cost up front is much more than the cost of a box of Kroger-brand plastic sandwich bags, however we've been able to spread it out. I've often shopped at reusit.com when a coupon code is out, in order to bring down costs. We are still coming out ahead. I calculate that these reusables have paid for themselves within 7.5 months of use. If I weren't avoiding plastic containers, that could have happened is less time.