It's that time of year again! Schools are beginning to open their doors and it can be an exciting time for students. Especially for my family and my daughter Allison, who's entering Kindergarten and officially in “big kid school”. Being in preschool, she didn't need to eat lunch because she was only in for a half day. But now that she'll be in school all day, lunch is now a necessity.
It's been a minute since I was last in school, and I've forgotten how much school lunches can be! I don't mind letting her eat lunch there every so often, but school lunches will put a huge dent in the budget. That's why I've decided to pack her lunch.
Maybe you're in the same boat. You want to save money AND make sure your children are getting the nutrition they need, but you don't know where to start. Here are 3 steps you can take this school year to pack cheap and healthy lunches:
Just like making a meal plan for dinners for the week, you need to know ahead of time what you're packing in your child's lunch. Otherwise you may find yourself packing just a peanut butter sandwich and two kinds of chips.
You can involve your kids in the planning if they're old enough! Let them choose what to eat, and guide them towards healthier options if possible.
Another smart way to plan ahead is by having small freezer meal sessions. This can be as simple as making a batch of muffins on a Sunday afternoon to stick in the freezer. Then you can pull one out in the mornings and it will be thawed by lunchtime. Not only will you save time and money, but you know exactly what's in your food and are making better choices for your children.
Keep it simple but fun
Packing complicated lunches puts a lot of stress on you, especially if you have multiple kids. Have a system in place so you (or your kids) can easily grab what they need. Here's a general guide of what to include in a school lunch:
- 1-2 proteins
- 1 grain
- 1-2 vegetables
- 1 healthy fat
- 1 treat
And this could look different for every family. You want enough food to keep your children full but not so much that you're wasting food.
A fun way to involve the kids with packing their lunches is setting up baskets with plastic bags/containers of each food group, and having them pick 1-2 out of each basket. This works well with multiple kids, because you can take an hour on Sunday to prepare everything and you'll be all set for the week.
Not sure what kinds of things to add to a school lunch? Here's a general list of items to keep in the house:
Your children's lunches will basically look like a DIY Lunchable, only much cheaper and healthier! To make their lunches look more like a Lunchable, you can buy divided containers similar to EasyLunchBoxes or Fit and Fresh. Silicone muffin cups are convenient for keeping foods separated and make the lunches look more colorful.
Buy in bulk
The huge variety packs of chips or cookies can be super convenient, but you pay extra for that convenience. For example, a 12-pack of individually bagged veggie straws is $7.49, or 62 cents per serving. But a large bag is $3.29 for 7 servings, or 47 cents per serving. It would be cheaper to buy the larger bag and separate it into 7 plastic or reusable bags.
To save even more money doing this, shop at a discount grocery store like Aldi. The same veggie straws that are at Kroger for $3.29 are sold at Aldi for $2.29. And you can find just about all the items on the list above at Aldi, for a fraction of the price. Many of their brands taste just the same as name brand items, so don't be nervous about buying off-brand.
Following the three steps above will give you a good baseline for packing cheap and healthy school lunches. For more ideas, make sure to check out my blog No Getting Off This Train where I share tips on meal planning, freezer meals, and meal prep for your busy family!