Top 10 tips for healthy back-to-school lunches on the cheap

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Hard to believe we are already talking back to school, but it’s just around the corner. Here’s an easy formula to remember. Good nutrition = Good grades. Okay, it’s not that simple but studies have shown that proper, wholesome nutrition improves focus, attention, cognitive function, even the ability of the brain to “cement” what it learns.

Lunch is a critical time of day. Lack of nutrients and too much sugar can cause your child to lose focus, become jittery and then, have the inevitable sugar crash. Conversely, a healthy lunch with minimal sugar and maximum nutrition from protein, fruits and veggies – including good fats from things like nuts and seeds – helps stabilize your child’s blood sugar levels and stoke the brain with fuel, allowing for sustained energy and focus. Protein is important because it takes our bodies longer to digest protein than it does carbohydrates, so the energy kids get from a protein-filled lunch will last much longer.

Here are 10 tips to help you save money on school lunch

  1. Don’t buy pre-cut veggies. Buy veggies in bulk, chop on Sunday, pack them all week. Serve with healthy dips. This not only makes things grab-and-go in the morning but can help teach kids responsibility in helping to prepare the veggies and teach them kitchen skills at the same time. Kids too young to use a knife? Then let them wash and separate veggies and collect compost scraps for the garden. Did you know that pre-cut veggies lose vital nutrients every single day as they age? Savings: Prepared veggies cost more, so buy whole veggies and do it yourself. It can become a family bonding time, too.
  2. Make your own applesauce. You need…apples and cinnamon, maybe a pinch of brown sugar…and 15 minutes for chopping. This one is super easy and can also include the kids. Core apples, chop and drop in the slow cooker – peel and all – let it simmer overnight, then use a hand blender to make it smooth and creamy. You can mix in pears, too, for added nutrients. Make a big batch, freeze in portions, have enough to last for months. Make sure you freeze in glass containers to cut down on BPA exposure and the use of disposable plastic. Savings: Single serve applesauce can get expensive so anytime apples are on sale, stock up and turn into applesauce to double your savings.
  3. Buy a block of cheese, cut up cubes.  This is such a fun one!  Cut them into shapes with a cookie cutter and let each child pick their shape for the week.  Rotate the shapes each week. No arguments in the morning about the shapes because everyone gets their choice. Once again, this is a price and waste elimination exercise. It’s creative to boot! Savings: Pre-wrapped individual cheeses can be 50% more expensive per ounce. This one step can save you a good bit every single week.
  4.  30-second main meal idea. Flour (or other gluten free) tortilla, peanut butter and banana. Roll it up, cut into pinwheels, add raisins to ‘dip’ the pinwheels in. Nut free idea: tortilla, hummus, chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and olives. The combinations are unlimited. Tortillas are big enough to make 6 – 8 large pinwheels; enough for lunch today and tomorrow. Using a tortilla cuts down on bread, which can cause afternoon “brain fog.” Savings: This is probably more of a time-saver versus a money-saver but as the cliché goes:  time is money. Plus you are using one tortilla compared to 2 slices of bread so it’s a two-for-one saver.
  5. Smoothie with smoothie ice cubes. What kid doesn’t love a smoothie, plus it’s a perfect way to load your child up on nutrient-dense veggies! Fresh is great, but frozen fruits and veggies are cheaper than fresh and purported to be just as nutritious. There are zillions of recipes for smoothies on Pinterest. A Kale Smoothie is one of our favorites. Keep smoothies chilled through lunchtime by freezing a portion into ice cubes and adding to your child’s drink just before sending them off to school. Savings: Buy frozen fruits and veggies in bulk, or gardeners, you have added savings by freezing your abundance to add to smoothies later. Buying a protein boost like yogurt in larger containers saves a ton of money, too.
  6. Don’t buy pre-cut fruits. Could we have combined this with veggies? Yes, but then you would have missed fruit kabobs! Make a big batch of fruit salad and serve it up all week or let the kids assemble their own kabobs. Make sure you snip off the points of the wooden skewers before they go in the lunch box. Yes, you can clean and use the skewers again! Savings: If cut veggies are costly, then you know fruit is even more expensive. Plus you can give your kids seasonal fruits which are more economical than something trekked halfway around the world to your grocery store. Don’t throw out fruit that’s getting soft; cut out the bad part, toss it into the freezer and drop it into the next smoothie.
  7. Ball Jar Salad – This is another Pinterest sensation, so don’t worry about running out of ideas. If your school doesn’t allow glass jars, then improvise by using a small thermos. Start with a hardier lettuce like romaine, then layer on your child’s favorite veggies. You can even add protein like grilled chicken. The salads can be made days ahead of time and are ready to pop into a lunch box. Set up a salad bar on the counter and let the kids pack their own. Savings: This is another one that is probably more of a time-saver than an overall money- saver but since you are buying whole veggies to chop, you can start counting there. Bonus: there is value in teaching your kids to make things themselves.
  8. Soups, soups, soups!  This is another great way to stretch the budget. Once again, your bounty from the summer garden can be used long into those cold, winter months and it’s a great way to use protein leftovers from supper. It’s incredible how far a single whole chicken can go! Not adept at making homemade soup? Slow cooker is your new best friend. Drop ingredients into the pot, cook overnight and put into thermoses in the morning. The Paleo Dieters have made bone broth the new chicken noodle soup, and you don’t need expensive bones to make it. Savings: Extending leftovers into extra meals can really add up quickly. Something Clark Howard loves!
  9. No disposable plastic bags! Reusable, BPA-free bags and containers are the first place to start. We love Lunchskins! They are fun, colorful, BPA-free bags that can even be put in the dishwasher. Remind the kids to be responsible and bring back all the items to use for the next day. Savings: Each LunchSkin replaces 500 plastic baggies (and then some). Ditch the brown paper sack and use a BPA-free reusable lunch box. Multiply by the number of kids in the family and let the savings roll in.
  10. Cheaper Natural & Organic Food. There’s a reason big box stores are popular. Bulk! And those big box stores are carrying more natural/organic foods than ever. With pesticide exposure being implicated as a cause of ADD/ADHD (as well as concerns over cancer and a host of other illnesses), parents wanting to make healthier choices don’t have to break the bank. Many online discount retailers have shipping deals when you purchase over a certain amount so double up on deals and freebies. Savings: A healthy immune system means less trips to the doctor which means less downtime from work, less gas, less co-pays, less stress, less prescriptions. Ka-ching! Bonus: your kid is healthier and we think that is priceless.

We would love to know what some of your lunch box tips are. Give us a shout-out on Twitter and let us know @LittleMeTea and @BethSEGreen.

Meet the Co-Authors

Melinda Hicks co-founded Big Time Tea, the parent company of Little Me Tea, in 2008 with her husband, Michael, when their daughter Julia turned four and they realized with great frustration the lack of healthy, low sugar drink options for kids. An avid tea drinker and advocate for an all-natural, organic lifestyle, Melinda began experimenting in her kitchen and created blends of drinks for Julia using caffeine-free teas splashed with organic juices. Julia loved Melinda’s concoctions and so did her friends who came for play dates. Other moms gave such great feedback, support and encouragement that Melinda created Little Me Tea.

Beth Bond, the Curator of Green and Sustainable Business News at Southeast Green, is the driving force of Southeast Green. As a Southerner, Bond was tired of hearing about everything ‘green’ happening outside her native region, which is what drove her to create the website.

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