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24 Tips for Packing a Healthy, Affordable School Lunch

School is back! Although many parents are struggling to balance their checkbooks, it doesn’t have to cost a fortune to pack a healthy school lunch for your child.

by Damaris Karanja, MA
Nutrition and Health Education Specialist
University of Missouri Extension
314-615-7618; KaranjaD@missouri.edu

School is back, and you probably went to a great length to ensure that your child has the right equipment—pens, notebooks, clothing­—to make it through the day. But did you know that proper nutrition is a key ingredient for back-to-school success?

Proper nutrition fuels brain cells and gives your child the energy and nutrients he or she needs for optimal learning. Many parents also are struggling to balance their checkbooks, but the good news is that it does not have to cost you a fortune to pack a healthy lunch.

When you pack your child’s lunch, you know exactly what he or she is eating. Follow these tips and not only will you save money, but you will pack a nutritious lunch that your child will actually enjoy.

Save Money!

1. Invest in a good container. Choose an insulated bag and freezer-packs to keep the food at a safe temperature.

2. Use washable and reusable containers. Avoid using plastic sandwich baggies. Buy containers in a variety of sizes to fit your lunchbox needs.

3. Buy in bulk. Avoid single-serve packaging. You save money when you buy in bulk and pack it yourself into single servings. Buy a large container of yogurt or pudding and use 4-ounce containers to pack your own. Buy a block of cheese and cut it into cubes or shred it. Buy crackers in boxes, rather than individual packages.

4. Make your own. Look beyond luncheon meat. Slice your own meat, or grill chicken breast and cut it into strips or cubes. Avoid prepackaged lunches since they are highly priced.

5. Send in leftovers. Invest in a good insulated food container to keep food warm. Home-made soup is always a good option.

6. Buy what is on sale and use coupons. Get whatever is on sale each week and work it into a menu. Use fruits and vegetables that are in season.

7. Buy store brand and compare unit prices.

8. Look high and low. Bargains are usually on the top or bottom shelves, not at eye level.

9. Plan ahead and have a list when you go to the store. The more time you spend in a store, the more money you spend.

Make it Nutritious!

10. Pack a rainbow! Provide a variety of options. The more the color, the more the nutrients.

11. A healthy lunch should contain foods from each of the five food groups:  Carbohydrates, protein, dairy, a fruit and a vegetable. Choose whole-grain products such as bread, tortillas, pita bread, bagels, or whole-grain crackers. These are more nutritious, have more fiber vitamins and
minerals, and keep blood sugar steady for optimal learning.

12.  Select protein foods wisely. Use lean meat such as chicken or turkey breast, hard-boiled eggs, tuna packed in water, beans or peanut butter. Protein in every meal helps to keep the blood sugar steady.

13. Buy fruits and vegetables that are in season and serve them creatively. Examples include baby carrots with yogurt dip, or other cut-up vegetables with low-fat dip or hummus.

14. Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy products like yogurt, milk and cheese. These are great calcium and protein sources.

15. For side items, re-think that bag of chips. Instead, choose carrots sticks, celery sticks with peanut butter and raisins, apple slices with peanut butter, fruit salad, whole fruit, raisins, pretzels.

16. For dessert, think beyond the cookie. Try whole grain graham crackers, ginger snaps, raisins, unsweetened applesauce, home-made muffin, or fresh fruit.

17.  Choose a beverage that hydrates like water. Or choose low-fat or fat-free milk for additional protein, calcium and vitamin D. Avoid drinks with calories but no nutrients.

Make it Fun!

18.  Make lunch fun because kids are fun-oriented. The traditional peanut butter and jelly sandwich can become pretty boring. Get a couple of cookie cutters and have them cut the sandwich into different shapes.

19.  Include the kids in the preparation process and give them choices. Take them along when grocery shopping. Let them pick one new fruit or vegetable each week that they would like to try. Let them help pack their lunch.

20.  Think beyond bread when making sandwiches. Think whole-grain bagels, whole-grain pita wraps and whole-wheat tortillas. A good alternative is a whole-wheat pita pocket with hummus, shredded vegetables and grilled chicken strips.

21.  Pack a variety of options to keep a child’s interest. Avoid packing the same lunch every day. This prevents kids from getting bored with their lunch.

22.  Vary the preparation. Try grilled or baked, chopped or grated, plain or with a dip.

23.  Practice good nutrition yourself. Children learn by association. You need to be a role model. Discuss with them the benefits of healthy eating.

24.  Don’t get discouraged if your child rejects a food on first taste. It can take 15 to 20 tries before a child gets used to a new food.

A nutritious lunch does not have to be boring or cost you a fortune. Making small changes can save you money. Try one or two tips each week, and soon you should see some relief in your grocery bills. Remember that well-nourished children have a greater chance of success at school because they have the fuel and the energy they need to play and learn.

  • For more information, visit http://missourifamilies.org
  • Video: MU Extension Nutrition Specialist Damaris Karanja gives tips for
    Making healthy lunches for kids on a budget
    on KSDK-TV Newschannel 5's Today in St. Louis, Aug. 19, 2011.  
  • This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

    Heather Kemper-Hussey September 16, 2011 at 08:08 PM
    Kalen ... love the ideas she has ... the party napkins and cupcake toppers! BRILLANT!
    mormit September 17, 2011 at 05:44 AM
    Essential Everyday Blueberry Bars from Shop&Save. Two bucks for a box of 8. Cheap and loaded with B-vitamins. Pair one of those with the previously mentioned fried baloney and some celery sticks & hummus. You can eat anything you want just balance it.
    Cindy September 17, 2011 at 07:26 PM
    I also shop at Trader Joe's and our whole family enjoys their "Sunbutter" and almond butters. Dierberg's has almond butter BUT for more than twice the cost of TJ's.
    Rev. Renita Marie Lamkin October 12, 2011 at 12:50 PM
    Excellent article! Not sure what it says about me, but I have used some of these tips when packing lunch for me and my husband (my husband and I?) I am often working out of a coffee house or other location. I have found that most places don't say anything about me bringing my own lunch supplements...sometimes I pack my own soup and buy a bread bowl and I always bring my own fruit and/or veggie sticks to snack on when I am pulling a long haul somewhere.
    Jeanne Malmberg Spencer October 13, 2011 at 01:34 AM
    We make our own 'lunchables' with cheese, crackers, and salami or summer sausage, sometimes pepperoni, along with a fruit & healthy cookies (like T. J's ginger cats). Sometimes it's a pizza 'lunchable' with mini-pitas, sauce, shred mozz & pepperoni. I put the all in a small square box and a lunchable is created. It's much better than the ones at the store and cheaper. We shop at lot at Trader Joe's, which sells the mini pita. A cheese stick, granola bar w/nuts, fruit & crackers is a fav for my other son (he doesn't eat a lot!). All of this is inexpensive & healthy. I usually try for a fruit, rather than veggies because it's a bit easier. The only raw veg my boys like is carrots, but since they are missing so much teeth, it can be tricky. My boys are 7 & 11. My younger one refuses to eat at school, even when it is pizza day. He says my lunches are much better. LOL

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