School is starting around the country, and that means parents across the nation will soon be confronted with the dilemma of not only planning dinners but lunches too.
While school hot lunch programs are convenient, they can take a big bite out of your food budget, especially if you have multiple school-age kids. In addition, questions have been raised in recent years regarding the overall nutrition provided in school lunches. Those concerns have led even more parents to opt to pack their kids’ lunches each day.
If you are getting ready to brown-bag it, use these strategies to stretch your dollars while making meals your kids will love.
Invest in the right supplies
Zippered plastic bags and brown paper bags are cheap ways to pack a lunch, but they are also almost guaranteed to get squished at some point in the journey from your kitchen to the lunch room.
Instead of bags, invest in some high quality hard lunch containers. One of the biggest trends in school lunches is the use of bento lunchbox systems. Based on a Japanese custom of packing meals in compact, portable containers, bento systems come in a variety of shapes, sizes and price points. However, they all share a common feature of containing multiple, small containers that can be used to pack a variety of foods.
Skip the single servings
Crackers, cookies, chips and cheese are just some of the items that are typically cheaper per serving if bought in larger portions. Unless you find single serving snack foods nearly free, buy the larger packages and dole out the contents throughout the week.
Take this strategy one step further by prepping your own cheese sticks and veggies each week rather than buying precut ones at the store.
Use your dinner leftovers
There is no reason a school lunch has to be a sandwich, chips and a drink. Dinnertime leftovers can easily be repurposed into your kids’ midday meal.
Depending on your child’s preferences, homemade pizza, chicken pieces and even some casseroles taste just as good cold as hot. However, if your child prefers warm food, check with your school to see if he or she will have access to a microwave during lunch. A final option may be to heat foods at home and pack them in a thermal container.
Make soup and pasta a lunchtime staple
Along with using leftovers, mix up lunchtime fare with soup and pasta dishes. These foods are a cheap way to satisfy even the heartiest of appetites. Canned soups and pastas tend to go on deep discount during the winter months, but you could just as easily – and cheaply – use homemade versions.
Invest in a high quality insulated container, such a Thermos brand jar, to ensure your student’s lunch doesn’t leak all over their backpack. Then, fill the container with boiling water for a few minutes while you are doing your lunch prep in the morning. This will preheat the container and help it keep your child’s lunch hot longer.
Get your kids’ input
Finally, remember this your child’s lunch and not your own. It doesn’t matter what you pack or how much it costs; if your child throws it in the trash, you are wasting money.
So be sure to get their feedback. Ask what lunches are winners and which ones they didn’t like. Also, find out how much time they have to eat and plan lunches accordingly. For picky eaters with a limited lunch time, a variety of finger foods such as cheese, fruit and nuts for protein (check if your school has anyone with nut allergies first!) may be the best way to get them to eat a well rounded meal.
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