Here's the challenge: You want to pack a school lunch that's
tasty, nourishing and even fun. But this year you really need to
watch your budget. What's a parent to do?
Review the basics. A nutritious school lunch should include a
lean source of protein, a grain (preferably a whole grain), a
vegetable, a fruit and a beverage. Physically active children for
whom calories aren't an issue may enjoy a treat such as chips or a
Involve each child. More than ever before, involve your children
with the planning, shopping and preparing of lunches because
they're more likely to eat it if they helped pack it. You can start
by asking each child to tell you what foods he likes. Just because
he enjoyed apple slices last year doesn't mean he likes them this
year. Keep the list handy for when you shop. Tossing away unwanted
food in the lunchroom is like throwing away hard-earned money.
Not the same old sandwich. If your little scholar tires of the
same old PB&J, how about these budget-friendly
• Cook extra servings for dinner and save them for
tomorrow's lunches. Fill a wide-mouth thermal jar with a hearty
soup, chili, baked beans, stir fry, lasagna or stew.
• Lunch pockets: Stuff half a whole wheat pita pocket with
leftover sliced turkey, shredded lettuce and carrot. Drizzle a
little salad dressing over it all.
• Pasta salad: Turn extra pasta into a salad by adding
chunks of cheese or meat, olives and cooked or raw vegetables. Add
a little bottled dressing or just a splash of olive oil and wine
vinegar plus seasonings.
• Make your own cheese sticks: Buy a block of cheese and
cut into 1-ounce portions, then wrap in wax paper, plastic wrap or
bag, a suggestion provided by Melissa Dobbins, registered dietitian
with the Midwest Dairy Council. She says, "One ounce of cheese
provides more protein than one egg."
• Roll last night's meat and vegetables into tortilla
• Prepare entire turkey breasts and small hams that you
roast and slice yourself instead of buying pricey deli meats.
• Peanut butter roll-ups: Spread a whole wheat tortilla
with peanut butter and roll it up.
• Make your own prepackaged lunches by buying a reusable
container that's divided into sections. Pack several crackers,
cheese cubes and chunks of turkey breast to make your own cracker
sandwiches. Include fruit and a yogurt dip and perhaps a square of
• After taco night, throw together a taco salad lunch by
filling one container with meat and another with lettuce and
cheese. Add a packet of salsa and bag of tortilla chips.
Budget-friendly add-ins. Buy fruit in season or fill a plastic
container with canned fruit or fruit sauce during the winter, in
lieu of store-bought fruit cups.
Instead of pricey prepackaged snacks, pack home-popped popcorn
from the night before. Don't forget that popcorn counts as a whole
Combine bite-sized cereal (use up small amounts at the bottom of
the box), dried fruit (such as raisins), mini-pretzels and nuts for
a homemade snack mix. Mix up a batch ahead of time and divide into
grab-and-go snack-sized bags.
Make your own parfait. Buy low-fat, plain yogurt by the quart
and mix with sliced fresh fruit or berries in a single-serve
reusable plastic container. Eight ounces of yogurt provide the same
amount of potassium as one banana and more calcium than three cups
of broccoli, according to Dobbins, who is also a spokesperson for
the Illinois Dietetic Association.
As always, keep food safety in mind. Freezable cold packs or
frozen bottles of water allow you to send your child to school with
perishables that will stay cold until it's time to eat.
Packing frugal, yet nourishing, lunches while lowering the
school lunch tab is easy if you plan ahead. By cutting back on
prepackaged items, your children can eat more nutritiously-and your
wallet may weigh more.
Spicy Snack Mix
6 cups popped popcorn
2 cups small corn chips
1 cup baked pretzel snack crackers or mini-pretzels
8 ounces cheddar or jalapeño jack cheese, cut into cubes
1 Tbsp. taco seasoning mix
Place popcorn, corn chips and pretzels in a large bowl. Add cheese
cubes and taco seasoning mix. Toss lightly.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cost per serving: 29 cents
Nutrition facts per serving: 180 calories; 11 g fat; 5 g saturated
fat; 21 mg cholesterol; 14 g carbohydrate, 7 g protein; 306 mg
sodium; 1 g fiber; 15% DV calcium. Source: MidwestDairy.com
Christine M. Palumbo, RD, enjoys speaking and writing about
nutrition. Her own favorite school lunches were when her mother
packed leftover soup in a Thermos bottle. Contact her at (630)
369-8495 or ChristinePalumbo.com.
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