A common concern I hear from parents is, “How do you make sure your kid brings back all of those cute bento containers? I’m afraid to send anything expensive to school as my child would lose his own head if it weren’t attached to his body. I’ve lost so much stuff!”
I hear you! Even my husband sometimes forgot to bring lunch containers back home when I was sending lunch to work with him during his celiac disease misdiagnosis. Unwashed containers would age in his desk, until I asked him to start washing (or at least rinsing) them out after he ate. Even then, if he brought a large lunch container such as a Mr. Bento-style thermal lunch jar with him, he’d put it under his desk or in a drawer and forget about it when he came home. Out of sight, out of mind.
I think there are both hardware and behavior approaches to the problem, and came up with the following six ways to ensure that your lunch gear comes back home. Have you come up with any creative ideas? Let us know in comments! (Read on for the full list and an expanded section on labels.)
- Label everything (bento box, utensils, lunch box or bag, oshibori hand towel case, side dish containers) with durable dishwasher-safe labels that’ll stand up to repeated washings. This won’t prevent someone from accidentally throwing away a container, but it might help you recover something misplaced or taken by accident. Many lunch bags look the same! More on labels is below.
- Pack a 100% waste-free lunch so that there’s no trip to the trash can at all. No trip to the garbage, less chance of lids, sauce containers, or utensils getting thrown away by accident.
- Go cheap. Use cheap containers for everyday school lunches if your child tends to forget lunch gear. Losing a $1 box from Target, Ichiban Kan or Daiso is going to hurt a lot less than losing a $25 Totoro box you special-ordered online.
- Send a lunch with fewer moving parts to lose. If you notice a problem with lost lunch gear, multi-box sets such as the nesting/stacking bento boxes may not be the best solution for you. Put everything into a larger one-tier box instead, and use edible dividers instead of plastic food cups to keep dishes separate. Look into sauce containers with flip-top caps instead of screw-top to reduce the number of parts, and use a single fork or pair of chopsticks instead of multiple cute food picks if you want to get the picks back.
- Use containers with attached lids for the truly forgetful. My friend Virginia with three children swears by these, as her kids tend to lose lids at school. Although they’re small and not watertight, the lids on the containers shown at right won’t come loose and get lost in the lunchroom (source: plastic containers US$1.50 from Daiso, tiny metal Smarties candy suitcase US$1 from Target in their specialty candy section). If you’re crafty, you could fashion a DIY method to attach separate lids, or use regular tape to create a temporary leash connecting lid and base. Regular tape might not be durable, but it would serve as a loose reminder to keep the lid nearby. For the crafty among you, how would you propose making a little “leash” that would attach to a bento box/lid, be attractive and durable enough to withstand washings? Let us know in comments!
- Involve your child when choosing their lunch gear. Take your children with you to help pick out their own lunch containers and insulated lunch bags, and give them input within reason. If they’re so excited about the fire engine lunch bag they can’t see straight, odds are good they’ll try harder to remember to bring it home. When I was a kid, I remember being tempted to conveniently “lose” a lunchbox that I didn’t like…
- Use a minor reward system with your child to get them vested in bringing everything home. Make a chart with stickers, let them earn a piece of gum or their choice of music in the car if they remember everything for a week, etc. — whatever works for you and your family. Give them an incentive to bring everything back.
When I was new to school labeling, a friend had her mother send us both pricey custom-made labels from Japan that had a drawing of your choice on the label as well as the child’s name, so even a pre-reading child would be able to recognize their own label. Of course there are English-language sources for customized labels too, including one that I tested out: Lovable Labels. They’ve got stick-on labels for lunch gear, iron-on labels for clothing, no-iron stickers for clothing, shoe labels, bag tags, metal tags, medical & vital ID wristbands, etc. A good one-stop shop for back-to-school labels.
This reminds me of something REALLY clever that I ran across recently. Evidently there are colorful temporary tattoos for kids that you can customize with your cell phone number or other information for any number of alerts: a lost child (think amusement parks or school outings), food allergies, medical alerts, etc. The website is Safetytat.com. I’m not affiliated with them, but think that this is an excellent idea, especially following the scare we had with my mentally disabled relative who went missing for a while in San Francisco this past spring.
Anyway, I finally plunked down the cash for a reasonably priced label maker at Costco so that I could print my own labels for my son’s school supplies going forward. Have you seen the lists of back-to-school gear that parents are expected to buy and label? It’s endless! I used a cartridge of laminated label tape to print a test label for one of Bug’s bento boxes, and ran it through the microwave and dishwasher numerous times to see if it could stand up to the punishment. No problem — the label stayed on. I figure this is a more economical way of labeling the mountain of Bug’s lunch gear that I’ve accumulated for the website. Your mileage may vary! Much neater than Sharpie marker, anyway, which rubs off of lunch gear with repeated use.
By the way, my son’s actual clothing and lunch gear labels don’t say “Bug” on them. They have his real name, but I printed out a “Bug” test label for photos for his online privacy. (Disclosure: The Amazon and Lovable Labels links are affiliate links that support Lunch in a Box at no additional cost when you use them to shop.)
- Need for speed: A mommy’s lunch manifesto
- Bentos & the picky eater
- Food safety for packed lunches
- Bento FAQ or Biggie’s Top Speed Tips