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 sweet.
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 tummy-tamers?
• 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 wraps.
• 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 chocolate.
• 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 grain.
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.