The kids have gone back to school, and you know what that means – it’s time to start thinking of new school lunch ideas. For many parents, school lunches present a challenge. They want their kids to enjoy their lunch, yet give them healthy, nourishing food that helps them grow and flourish. They also want to find that food for a reasonable price, which may seem impossible.
We’ve compiled a slew of school lunch ideas for your children that meet every requirement on your list. They’re inexpensive, healthy, easy to prepare, and best of all, your kids will like them. First, let’s take a look at what comprises a healthy meal for your growing learners.
The Components of a Healthy Lunch
The United States Department of Agriculture recommends meals based on the five food groups:
Veggies and grains should make up the bulk of the lunch, with protein and fruit playing supporting roles. One small serving of dairy rounds out the meal. Each food group supplies the nutritional value needed to help your kids thrive. Including them all in the lunches you pack will ensure your kids stay alert and attentive during the second half of the school day. That also means not packing them the thing they’ll probably beg for — junk food. Wholesome treats are fine, but sugary, fatty foods won’t give them energy and can lead to blood sugar crashes.
Cheap Lunch Ideas for Kids
Here are five can’t-miss lunch ideas even picky kids will love. All can be easily modified for vegetarian, dairy-free, and gluten-free diets. The ingredients are all items you will most likely already have on your shopping list.
- Spinach Mac ‘n Cheese
Your kids will never even taste the veggie in this spin on a classic. Make a batch of boxed whole grain mac ‘n cheese. Add a bag of frozen spinach during the final minute of cooking the noodles, and prepare per box directions. This should make at least five servings, which you can portion in plastic containers for later in the week. Add an apple and a low-sugar granola bar to finish the meal.
Special diet twist: Make the mac ‘n cheese with soy milk. You can also find gluten-free versions of boxed mac ‘n cheese.
- Whole-Grain Tuna Sandwich
Drain the water from a can of tuna. Mix the tuna with light mayonnaise, chopped pickles and onion. Add a little dried dill if your child likes the flavor. Spread it on whole-grain bread, and be sure to use an ice pack to keep it from spoiling. For sides, include baby carrots and a bag of almonds or a cup of applesauce.
Special diet twist: Use gluten-free bread or crackers. Substitute baked tofu for tuna.
- Peanut Butter Banana Wrap
Put a healthier twist on the classic peanut butter and jelly. Spread peanut butter on a whole wheat tortilla. Place half a banana in the center and roll it up. Give kids a fun veggie treat with cut-up cucumbers lightly salted, high-fiber crackers, and a tablespoon of hummus.
Special diet twist: Use almond or cashew butter for peanut-free kids and gluten-free tortillas for kids with gluten sensitivities.
- DIY Pizza
Kids love putting food together themselves. Make spaghetti for dinner the night before, then pack some leftover marinara sauce in a small plastic container. Pack a whole-wheat bagel, pepperoni and grated cheese in separate containers. Your child can “make” their own pizza using these ingredients. Include sides of cut-up, crunchy red pepper sticks and pitted olives.
Special diet twist: Use gluten-free bagels or nondairy cheese.
- Kebobs Galore
Make your child’s favorite meat-and-cheese sandwich. Cut it into quarters and stick them on a kebob stick. Thread an assortment of fruits such as grapes and berries on another kebob stick. Use another for veggies such as radishes or pea pods. Finish with a tube of Greek yogurt or a veggie and fruit smoothie pouch.
Special diet twist: Substitute almond butter or hummus for the meat and cheese. Pack soy yogurt.
Tips for Packing Cheap, Healthy School Lunches
Packing lunches can be a quick task if you plan ahead and anticipate possible problems. Here are some tricks to make the experience easier:
- Keep lunches cold: Most schools do not offer refrigerators, so you will have to keep your kids’ food cool. Invest in insulated lunchboxes and include an ice pack. In a pinch, a zippered baggie filled with ice will do.
- Plan ahead: Use your weekend downtime to get ready for the rushed week. Portion out baggies with celery, olives, carrots, radishes, or whatever veggies your kids like. Wash and cut up fruit. Make muffins or healthy granola bars. Have them all ready to go so kids can grab their own lunches if you get busy in the morning.
- Repurpose leftovers: Leftovers make excellent lunches. When you’re done with dinner, take five minutes to portion out kid-sized servings in fun, secure containers. Have your children grab one, a piece of fruit and a baggie of veggies for a quick lunch.
- Have the kids fill their water bottles: Even younger children can help refill water bottles every night and put them in the fridge. Make that one of their chores.
Using these tips, you and your kids will start the school year happy and healthy. Find more money management tips and resources for parents on our blog.