Parents may be relieved to escape the expense of summer childcare and camps when school starts up in the fall, but they’re not out of the clear yet. New clothes, new shoes and school supplies are on the horizon. Plus, they have to dream up affordable school lunch ideas their kids will actually eat.
You can have your kids eat the food the school provides, but more and more parents worry over both the quality of the food schools serve and the choices their kids might make when they’re not around. Parents who want more control over what their kids eat — and how much it costs — should pack food from home.
But what should your kids bring? We reached out to parents to get some ideas. Here’s what they said:
Catherine Alford, a mother of 4-year-old twins who manages the CouponChief Blog, says one of the best ways to avoid pricey school lunches is to skip meat and cheese. In place of these staples, she fixes her kids peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for school several times per week. A jar of peanut butter lasts two or three weeks in her house, she says, even though everyone eats it — kids and parents.
If your school bans peanuts or your kid has a peanut allergy, don’t despair. You can try sunflower seed butter, almond butter or a nut-free peanut butter replacement instead.
Tracie Fobes from Penny Pinchin’ Mom packs lunches for three kids per day, so she knows what a hassle planning healthy, affordable lunches can be.
One lunch idea she loves to make for her kids is do-it-yourself Lunchables. You can make this lunch by preparing celery sticks with cheese, grapes, crackers and water, she said on her website. You can use silicone cupcake liners to keep it all organized.
Leftovers don’t have to die in the fridge. If they can be served cold or kept warm with a thermos, they can be repurposed into a healthy school lunch.
Father of three Jim Wang from Wallet Hacks says he always goes out of his way to send leftovers to school as part of their lunch. Along with some leftover casserole or soup, Wang packs a thermos of milk, string cheese, one grain, one protein, one fruit and sometimes one other special item that they like.
“Our goal with lunches is to pack foods we know they will enjoy and eat, so less of it comes back uneaten at the end of the day and potentially gets wasted,” said Wang.
Vicki Cook of Women Who Money has older children now (ages 22 and 19), but she saw a lot of school lunches in her former career as assistant principal at a grade school.
One of her favorite ideas was one that’s easy to make — English muffin mini-pizzas. To pack these for school lunches, gather a package of English muffins (send one or two per child), a small container of pizza sauce they can spread themselves, some shredded cheese and some pepperoni. Kids loved these, she says, and they taste good cold or heated up.
Jessi Fearon, a personal finance coach, says one of her kids’ (ages 6, 5 and 3) favorite lunches is turkey and cheese wrap-ups. To make this easy and inexpensive lunch, you take several slices of turkey or ham and spread a layer of cream cheese across top. From there, you roll it up into a tiny “lunch meat log.”
Fearon serves her roll-ups with grapes and sunflower seeds. “Since they don’t have a lot of time to eat, I want to make sure that I pack them stuff they can eat quickly but will fill them up,” she said.
If your kid is a “snacker” who prefers a combination of small sides versus a standard meal, there’s nothing wrong with piecing together a lunch with the foods they like. Mother of two Laura Beattie of Savvy Family Finance says her children’s lunches typically consist of a handful of easy-to-prepare side items. “There is always a fruit, a vegetable, a protein and water to drink,” she said.
The most common requests of Beattie’s children (ages 12 and 15) include bean soup, a tortilla roll-up sandwich, boiled eggs or crackers with pepperoni slices. Vegetables are usually baby carrots, roasted seaweed snacks or baby spinach that gets put into a roll-up. Fruits are the usual apple slices, orange slices or grapes.
Beattie says avoiding pre-packaged lunches and expensive proteins, along with packing healthy food the kids will actually eat, helps keep the lunches affordable.
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