Allison Forajter, a clinical dietitian with Community Hospital in Munster, suggested starting with local sales flyers. She tries to make sure the five food groups are represented when packing lunches and starts by choosing whatever fruit or vegetable is on sale or in-season.
“Buy apples in the fall, oranges in the winter or berries in the spring when they are on sale,” she said. “In general, bananas and grapes can be found at a reasonable price year-round. Eggs are a pretty inexpensive source of lean protein when found on sale and can easily be packed into a lunch bag hard-boiled.”
Megan Potosky, clinical dietitian with Porter Regional Hospital in Valparaiso, seconds the suggestion of using in-season fruits and veggies.
She added that it helps to buy fruits and vegetables that will stay fresh longer. “Apples, oranges, carrots and celery are economical choices because they can keep for weeks in the refrigerator,” she said. “Canned fruits and vegetables are also affordable options that can be just as nutritious as fresh, as long as you are purchasing the no-sugar-added varieties.”
Potosky also suggests slicing your own meat or grilling chicken breasts for sandwiches and wraps rather than buying pricey, packaged lunch meat.
Going into your shopping trip with a list will help prevent overspending. Finding recipes before heading to the store or planning meals using mostly ingredients you have on hand is your best bet, according to Caitlin Iwema, clinical dietitian with Methodist Hospitals. She also reminds parents that they can save money buy purchasing store brands.
While nutrition and cost are important, so is convenience. When meals can be prepared the night before or at the start of the week, it makes mornings go much smoother.
Raw fruits and veggies stay fresh and are easy to transport, said Forajter, so it can be helpful to prepare individual servings in advance. “Designate a space in the refrigerator or pantry with pre-portioned items to grab and throw into the lunch bag to make the morning lunch assembly quick and easy,” she said. “For example, portion out five bags of baby carrots, grapes, hummus and a cheese stick. That way the child can grab one of each and add a pita or whole-grain crackers and be ready to go.”
One kid favorite that can be made in advance in large quantities is smoothies. You can also give these a healthy boost by adding spinach of leafy greens without kids knowing they’re in there. “Make smoothies in bulk ahead of time and freeze and then take them out in the morning to allow them to thaw by lunch time,” said Potosky.
Potosky offered an idea of a fun and healthy item that can be made inexpensively and with a creative twist that will make it more appealing to kids. “Spread peanut butter onto a whole-grain tortilla, lay a banana in the middle, roll it up and slice it into bite-size pieces,” she said, and then call it “sushi.” It also works for any kind of protein or veggie wrap.
There are a number of kid favorites that can be made at home for much less than store-bought versions, Potosky suggested, including fruit roll-ups (you need only three ingredients), granola bars, yogurt parfaits, trail mix and dips.
“Nut butters can be made at home by blending peanuts or cashews in a blender,” said Iwema. “Make hummus by blending chickpeas and seasonings and eat it with whole-grain pita and vegetables.”
Dried beans, lentils and tuna join eggs as inexpensive protein sources that Iwema said are good ingredients in wraps, bowls or salads.
She also recommends trying breakfast for lunch. “You can soak quick oats overnight with low-fat milk, berries and walnuts for delicious overnight oats,” she said. “Pack fruit with Greek yogurt or low-fat cottage cheese and a whole-grain English muffin with natural peanut butter on the side.”
Kids love the opportunity to dip. Salad dressings, peanut butter or hummus can be bought in bulk and portioned into small, reusable containers. Or better yet, try out some recipes to make your own.