24 tips for packing a healthy, affordable lunch

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Parents often go to great lengths during the school year to be sure their children have the right equipment—pens, notebooks, clothing—to make it through the day.

“Proper nutrition is also a key ingredient for school success because it fuels brain cells and gives your child the energy and nutrients he or she needs for optimal learning,” says Damaris Karanja, University of Missouri Extension nutrition and health education specialist.  “Packing your child’s lunch lets you know exactly what he or she is eating,” Karanja says. She offers these 24 tips to save money while providing your child with a nutritious, enjoyable lunch. Adults can also use these tips when bringing lunch to work.

Save money

1. Invest in a good container. Choose an insulated bag and freezer packs to keep 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-serving packages. You save money when you buy food in bulk and pack it yourself into individual portions. Buy a large container of yogurt or pudding and use 4-ounce containers to pack in lunches. 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 lunchmeat. Slice your own meat or grill chicken breast and cut it into strips or cubes. Avoid prepackaged lunches, which cost more.

5. Send in leftovers. Invest in a well-insulated food container to keep food warm. Homemade 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 the menu.

7. Buy store-brand food 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 color, the more nutrients.

11. A healthy lunch should contain foods from each of the five food groups: carbohydrates, protein, dairy, fruits, and vegetables. Choose whole-grain products like bread, tortillas, pita bread, bagels or whole-grain crackers. These have more fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and keep blood sugar steady for optimal learning.

12. Select protein foods wisely. Use lean meat like chicken or turkey breast, hard-boiled eggs, tuna packed in water, beans, or peanut butter. Protein in every meal helps keep 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 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, rethink 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, or pretzels.

16. For dessert, think beyond the cookie. Try whole-grain graham crackers, gingersnaps, raisins, unsweetened applesauce, homemade muffins 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 and no nutrients.

Make it fun

18. Add some fun touches to the meal. The traditional peanut butter and jelly sandwich can get pretty boring. Get a couple of cookie cutters and have kids 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.

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 15-20 tries before a child gets used to a new food.

“A nutritious lunch does not have to be boring or cost you a fortune,” Karanja says. “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.”

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