Cheap, Easy and Healthy School Lunches

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School lunchesIn the 1950's lunch would often happen at home with mother dishing out a sandwich and soup for her brood while sometimes father got to come home and join them. 

Fast forward fifty years and both mom and dad are trying to get ready for work in the morning,  everyone is trying to rush out of the house and packing lunch is often a panicked scramble. 

Today's weekday lunches for children more often than not happen at school. 

Children like the rest of us get bored with the same food day in and day out and often eye what their classmates have of being much better than what's in their bag especially if it is highly processed, sweet and fatty. When you do pack them a healthy lunch how do you know it just isn't ending up in the garbage?  

Here is some tips and tricks for cheap, easy and healthy lunches for your kids.
Getting your children to eat a healthy lunch must first come with the deal that what ever they don't eat at lunch time they must bring back home again and you will promise not to comment on it. That means that even if you spent your Saturday morning going to three different bakeries to find them that whole wheat bread that they like and they bring it home uneaten Monday after school you can not scold them. You can ask them nicely why they didn't but don't scold. For your children to eat well you need to know if they are even eating and if every time they bring an uneaten lunch home just to hear you lecture about it they will take the easy way out and dump it in the trash.

If you have several children in a wide age group you know better than anyone that there is no such thing as one lunch that everyone will like and eat, you also probably don't have the time to customize every ones lunch. The easiest thing to do is prepackage some aspects of their lunch that they can chose to take. If you have the time you can do this the night before using reusable containers but there are sometimes that you know you are going to have a crazy week and you can make up a week or twos worth of some of their lunch selections.

Fruit and nutsDried fruits, nuts or seeds can be easily packed in plastic sandwich bags. If you have a plastic bag sealer then you can make an assorted variety of sealed bags for them to take. The trick is finding a variety and switching it up as much as possible. You can bag up nuts such as almonds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, peanuts, or seeds such as pumpkin, sunflower or sesame. You can also bag up a variety of dried fruit like, cranberry, apricot, banana chips, raisins, prunes, currants, pineapple or cherries. Look for these items on sale at bulk stores or the bulk aisle of your grocery store or in the baking section of your grocery store where they sometimes are sold in kilo sized bags. 

You can now buy reusable plastic containers from the grocery store that are very inexpensive but will last for several months (or years) with care.In these you can place fresh fruit like grapes, strawberries, cut up pears, cut up apples, cut up plums, cut up peaches, orange slices, diced cantaloupe, diced honeydew or what ever fruit is in season and on sale. Children are more likely to eat fruits that are cut. Give them a whole apple and it will probably return home, give them an apple that has been sliced or quartered  and it will get eaten. Some apple do very well cut up and immediately placed in a plastic container while other start to brown. Royal Gala Apples don't seem to brown as quickly but if they have a favourite apple cut it up and dip each slice in a mix of lemon juice and water to stop it from turning brown. Depending on what the fruit is, you could cut up two or three days supplies worth to have ready in the 'fridge. If you are lucky enough to have a child that enjoys eating vegetable with out being forced add a container of carrots, cut up cucumber, mini tomatoes, or other vegetable that they enjoy and if they want add a small container of salad dressing like Ranch or Caesar that they can use as a dip.

Sandwiches are part of the typical school lunch. Depending on what else you are giving them they might not need a full sandwich and half a sandwich will do. Sandwich fillings are endless but listen to what they tell you. They might love having a salami sandwich at home but don't want to take it to school because the other kids tease them about the smell of garlic. Chicken, turkey and beef from the deli comes in many different flavours from smoked to roasted to spiced, check to see what is on sale that week. Ask for a small sample if you are worried about it being too spicy. You don't always have to use the same bread. Turkey with grated cheese and shaved lettuce might be a messy to eat between two slices of bread but it would be great rolled up in a soft tortilla (tortillas are made in large and small sizes, a small one might be better for lunches). Maybe they would enjoy having diced chicken and celery with a bit of mayonnaise stuffed into a pita pocket. Bagels are also another substitute for bread. 

While milk has always been the suggested beverage of choice for children they don't need to have it at every meal. Those little cartons can be expensive for what you get and sending them to school with a thermos of milk doesn't always work out (if they forget one in their backpack for a weekend you might have to throw it out). You can always get them to drink a glass of milk when they come home from school, cold from the 'fridge and the exact amount that they want. The beverages that come in "juice boxes" don't always contain 100% juice. The cheaper varieties usually are just a flavoured drink. You can use a refillable plastic juice boxes and pour them about 1/4 full and place  in your freezer overnight with the (lid loosely on) and in the morning top it off with the rest of the juice. This will keep the juice cold until lunch time. You can do the same with their reusable water bottles. There is absolutely nothing wrong with letting them drink water at lunch.

And what about the sweet stuff? It's hard not to give them a little something sweet when they are watching their classmates opening puddings and cookies and candies. Your best bet is again in the bulk aisles of your grocery store or bulk food store. There are packaged "fruit snacks" that are made with real fruit but be realistic, the main ingredient in them is sugar or fructose. Bag up an assortment of  sweet snacks and let them chose one every morning. If you decide to buy cookies as their sweet snack make sure they don't get crushed.

As children get older their tastes change and what they can eat changes. You wouldn't send a sloppy 7 year old to school with a thermos of chili  but you would with a 14 year old. Even with foods that they swore they would not eat when they were young they now might enjoy if given a second chance.   

What should you do if your child just won't eat what you are packing them for lunch? Think about how big your child is and what there appetite is like on the week end. You might be giving them way too much food. Find out if there is an underlying reason why your child is not eating lunch at school. They only have a short time to eat their lunch before they are sent out to the playground. They might be having too much fun with their seatmates or there might be something else that is going on. If they are very sensitive to smells they just might find the odor of everyone lunches too much and it puts off their appetite. If eating lunch for them is just to overwhelming or difficult try giving them two or three small things that they can easily eat and have a lunch type meal waiting for them when they get home from school. It might be better for them to have several small meals during the day that insisting that they eat lunch.   School lunches can be cheap, easy and healthy, it just takes a little bit of planning.

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Copyright Ingrid Talpak 2009

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1 Comment

Great article. I'm currently working on an article called "School Lunch Inspiration" and will be linking back to this article.

Thanks for the tips!

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