How to Pack a Healthy, Affordable Lunch Your Kids Will WANT to Eat
Kids’ lunches can be pricy if you opt for school-served cuisine or pack an expensive bagged lunch they may not even eat.
So how can you send your child off with a nutritionally sound meal they'll likely eat -- without spending tons of cash?
Follow these tips from parents and nutritionists to save on a healthy, tasty meal for your child. You can also make an extra and have a quick and easy lunch for yourself!
Plan Ahead and Prepare in Bulk
Packing a low-cost and nutritious lunch is no sweat for Tara Allen, a registered nurse, certified health coach and certified personal trainer who specializes in women’s and children’s health.
“The foundation to packing easy, affordable and healthy school lunches for kids includes planning ahead, smart shopping, and bulk cooking and preparation,” Allen says.
“A few extra minutes taken on the weekend, for example, will set the whole week up with a variety of balanced and nutritious options that can be thrown together in a pinch.”
She recommends kids’ lunches include protein, healthy fats and produce.
“With two or three proteins cooked and on hand for the week, veggies and fruit washed and cut, and a few healthy fats on hand, a lunch can come together in less than five minutes!” she says.
For affordable healthy fats, she recommends buying avocados when they’re on sale (and freezing them until needed), as well as bulk nuts.
Another great option is homemade hummus, which only takes 10 minutes to make (recipe below). Allen recommends serving the hummus with carrots sticks, snap peas, whole-grain crackers and an apple.
“The hummus can be frozen in ice cube trays and kept in the freezer for up to six months,” she says. “This makes it easy to pop a couple of these cubes into the lunch box so they will thaw in time for lunch.”
She estimates the entire meal costs $1.85. Plus, it features healthy fats, two vegetables, one fruit, protein and whole grains.
Tara Allen’s Homemade Hummus Recipe:
One 15-ounce can of chickpeas
The juice from 1 large lemon
1/2 clove of garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1. Combine all ingredients in a food processor. (You can use a blender, but you will need to scrape down the sides several times to redistribute ingredients).
2. Add more water if needed for desired consistency. Freeze in ice cubes trays and transfer into a container or bag to store for up to six months in freezer.
“Kids love this meal as it gives them a variety of flavors and textures, allows for some dipping fun, and finger foods are fun and snack-like,” she says.
Keep It Kid-Friendly
Sari Davidson-Crevin, founder and CEO of BooginHead Corporation, often feeds her hungry kids turkey-cheese pita pockets for lunch.
She simply spreads low-fat cream cheese inside a whole-wheat pita and packs in a few roasted turkey slices, some baby spinach leaves and a few cucumber slices.
She estimates this recipe only costs $1.46 per meal: turkey deli meat = 80 cents, spinach = 10 cents, pita pocket = 25 cents, cream cheese = 11 cents and cucumber = 20 cents.
She recommends pairing it with dried apricots or banana chips and a low-sugar beverage along with a cold or freezer pack to keep the meat and cheese fresh.
“Kids go crazy over this easy and nutritious lunch,” she says.
“It's one of my kids' favorites. There's something so wonderful about the combination of the turkey and cream cheese -- [they] love it! They also love the crunchiness of the cucumber. The spinach is just a bonus.”
Carol Ann Hafner saved money packing lunches for her son by using deli containers.
“When my son was young, I tried to pack his lunches in a variety of containers that came from the grocery store take-out grill and deli-type purchases,” she says.
Not only were these containers free, they also saved money by preserving food, preventing sandwiches and other delicate items from getting squished and going to waste.
“The containers were sturdier than just wrapping foods,” Hafner says.
Pack leftovers from dinner the night before, such as roasted chicken in a sandwich or a handful of leftover salad veggies.
Hafner often packed leftovers for her son’s lunch. Sometimes, the meal ended up looking so appealing that other kids would ask him where his mom bought his lunch. Hafner later found out her son actually sold some of his meals to peers during summer camp!
Make Homemade Desserts
Caterer Pam Layton McMurtry and her husband, a registered dietitian, have seven children and estimate they’ve packed more than 15,000 lunches for their kids over the years.
If you’re going to pack a dessert with lunch, she recommends making it at home to have a healthier option and save some cash.
“[Desserts are] often the thing that is eaten first, so make it good,” she says.
“It's usually more economical to bake and bag whole grain cookies and treats like granola bars. … If you go commercial, try to get treats with whole grains. When you bake, you can substitute a third of the flour with whole wheat flour without a noticeable difference.
“You can also bake with only whole grain flour. Look for recipes with coarse texture like oatmeal cookies. You won't even notice the difference and you avoid preservatives and chemicals like dough conditioners. Try sending trail mix or nuts for dessert.”
Add Something Special
Whatever you pack for your child’s lunch, McMurtry recommends adding a personal touch.
“Include a note and let your child know you love them, are proud of them and give them encouragement,” she says.
Your Turn: What are your money-saving tips for preparing healthy school lunches?
Kristen Pope is a freelance writer and editor in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.