Frugal Healthy School Lunches: My learning, my gear, and a simple formula

14 Nov

We’re relatively new on the school lunch scene, and learning as quickly as we can! Trying to send healthy foods that the kids will actually eat, without resorting to single-serve convenience foods, and staying on budget is a really tough mission. And it just seems to take such a long time. I pack the lunches the night before school (and celebrate on Friday night that I don’t have to pack for Saturday!), doing lunch for my two kids and myself.

This summer, I was wooed by these stainless steel Lunchbot containers, and fell in love with the Quad, a stainless steel four-section two-piece container. They make it easy to pack healthy stuff, because each day I am motivated to fill it with four different fruits and veggies, sometimes even managing to pack something like a “rainbow“.  My daughter came home one day and announced that her Lunchbot had been “wowed” by one of the teachers! I like the fact that there are only two pieces: the body and the lid, and I have a waterproof label on each of them. I had checked out some plastic “bento” containers before I purchased the Lunchbots, but was frustrated by the number of pots and lids involved. If you lose one lid, there’a whole section of your lunch container that’s useless! The Lunchbots were not cheap, but if taken care of, they will last forever–a frugal move as long as they don’t get lost! I actually got three of them, and will get a fourth once DH re-enters the workforce.

Staying Away from Single-Serve Convenience

They are so appealing: little one-serving pots of hummus, yummy yogurts in 100 g servings, individually wrapped granola bars, “fruit snacks”, yogurt tubes and drinks, juice boxes, Lunch Mates . . . How easy it would be to pack lunch if I could just open a half-dozen boxes and throw in some plastic wrapped food! Now I would be lying if I said I never buy this stuff. Just today I bought yogurt cups (on sale) and BabyBel cheeses. And I do buy Lunch Mates about once a month because it’s special for the kids. But as a general rule I am trying (so hard!) to stay away from the single-servings.

Some things I’ve used to make my own single servings include:


  • small servings of dryer, non-leaking foods like cheese or even hummus, in plastic (lidded!) Heinz baby food containers. These end up being WAY cheaper than buying plastic containers separately. And the kids really enjoyed the baby food!
  • a small (100 ml) leakproof rubbermaid container for wet things like yogurt. Just don’t forget to pack the spoon!
  • I snagged some LunchSkins in the late summer/early Fall when they were on sale at HomeSense. These are really handy for the occasional (cold) toasted cheese sandwich, or to send some sturdy crackers like Mary’s Crackers, or a piece of leftover pizza.
  • those rubbermaid drink boxes, which I remember from when I was a kid. I’m not thrilled about the plastic, but my Stainless Steel budget is already blown for this year :)

Unfortunately the kids are not allowed glass containers at school, otherwise I would totally be using Mason jars! That is what I use in my own lunch. In an upcoming post I will share my super cute Mason Jar Lunch Box solution.

Avoiding Processed Meat

While Pepperettes and mini Kolbassa sticks are sooooo convenient, and yummy, I’ve stopped packing them in our lunches for the most part. The recent “Bacon Study” reminded us of what we already knew: processed meat is not good for you. Reviewing the claims, I wouldn’t necessarily agree it is as bad for you as smoking, but I just feel uncomfortable about including it as a regular part of my kids’ lunches and my own. Plus, those things are dang expensive! On sale, they’re $6.99 for a dozen, which will be gone in 3 days time (or less, if DH gets snacky!).

Instead, I’ve been trying to pack meat from dinner as often as possible. The kids are happy to eat chicken, fish cakes, meatloaf muffins and other items cold. And I have been happy to pack warm leftovers such as soup or stew when we have it. I just warm it in the morning, preheat their Thermoses (then empty!), and pour it in just before running out the door. Don’t forget the spoon!

Simplicity is Key

If I’ve learned one main thing in the two and a half months of packing school lunches, it’s that simplicity is my BFF. After some trial-and-error in the first month, I’ve settled into a lovely routine, sparked by occasional surprises like that leftover stew or soup I mentioned.

My basic lunchbox looks something like this:

  • in the LunchBot: a four-way combo of grapes, cherry tomatoes, cut up pear or apple, cut up peppers, cucumber slices, or a whole peeled kiwi. Usually at the end of the week it is more challenging as we’ve eaten up most of the “good stuff” so I tend to include more apple, and might even double up with two sections filled with one item.
  • a protein which could be: sliced cheese, hummus, leftover meat from dinner, a BabyBel, or leftover soup or stew
  • a “bread” which could be: crackers, even buttered crackers, “fishies”, or bread if I’ve made a toasted cheese
  • a sweet: yogurt in a little container, a fig bar, some ShaSha gingersnaps, or even sometimes Cupcake fishies
  • a drink: usually slightly watered down apple juice in a plastic reusable drink box

This basic formula might look like good common sense, but it took me awhile to learn it, and it helps me to fill the kids’ bellies without too much difficulty and without too much expense. I pack most of the same items for myself, apart from the juice, and with the addition of my supreme Lunch Salad described in an earlier post.

What is your lunch box magic? Please share any of your tips for making a healthy frugal school lunch!

And then you eat salads out of mason jars — an accidentally vegan lunch salad recipe

5 Nov

eat salads out of mason jarsOkay, so I’m about two years behind the whole salad in a jar craze. But actually, I was Way ahead of the trend because I’ve been eating–and drinking–out of Mason jars since before they somehow became cool. Just ask my co-workers circa 2000 (they thought I was crazy! Who’s crazy now?!).

Despite my jar-lovin’ ways, I was sceptical when I first heard about salad in a jar. My scepticism asked, how can you possibly get enough salad into a jar to constitute a meal? Really, this girl gets pretty hungy, and I’m sorry but a mere pint of romaine just isn’t going to fill my bellah.

However. That was before I discovered my current lunch salad.

It’s crunchy. It’s healthy. It’s filling. And it packs conveniently inside a Mason jar. Oh, and did I mention it is also super frugal?

My lunch salad starts with a bag of pre-shredded coleslaw, which goes for $1.39 at Food Basics. One bag of cole slaw mix will make 3-4 lunch salads, which truly fill my tummy for hours.

I add a simple, wholesome, vegan dressing, toss with some toasted sunflower seeds, and head to work with my frugal healthy filling lunch. In a Mason jar.

Frugal Urban Tummy-Filling Lunch Salad

1 pint pre-shredded cole slaw mix, raw

1.5 tbsp tahini

Enough Olive oil to make it runny, about a tbsp

3/4 tbsp apple cider vinegar

Salt to taste

Sunflower seeds, roasted without salt

To take this to work, I usually pre-mix the salad the night before, following these exact instructions: First, place cole slaw mix in a bowl. In a small mason jar, mix together the tahini, olive oil, apple cider vinegar and salt, using an old bamboo chopstick. Pour dressing over the cole slaw and stir with the chopstick until everything is combined. Then use first the chopstick, and then your finger, to get every last bit of dressing out of the smaller jar and eat it right then & there because it is sooooo yummy.  Taste the salad and adjust for salt. Pack the salad in a pint-sized (500 ml) Mason jar, put the lid on, and store it in the fridge overnight. Pack the sunflower seeds separately, and when you are ready to eat, sprinkle them over the salad.

When you make it the night before, the salad shrink down as the cabbage gets soft and chewy. I like it this way, but if you prefer to follow the Pinterest-approved salad-in-a-jar method, you could choose to mix the dressing in the pint jar, then pour the undressed cole slaw mix in over top of it, keeping it upright overnight. In the morning at work, turn it upside down and the dressing will magically mix with the cabbage, theoretically leaving you with a perfect, fresh salad for your lunch. Still pack the seeds separately, or they will get soft and less fresh and crunchy.

While the second method gives you a fresher salad, I found the dressing didn’t mix completely well, as it is a fairly thick consistency, and I found eating it a bit awkward, with bits falling all over since they weren’t stuck together all nicely with the dressing. But maybe that’s just me. I am known to be a bit clumsy.

Enjoy my contribution to the world of “salads in jars”! With a full tummy :)


Making progress: routines, rituals and daily checklist apps

2 Nov image

I’ve always been plagued with a messy house. And with a stubborn nature that rejects routine and good habits. These things are not unrelated.

I was lucky to have had a six-year hiatus from the world of paid work, where I was free to make my own routines and carve out my own ways of life.

So for six years I struggled through the chaos freedom of a self-ordered life. It shifted and changed from nap times and nursing, to snacks and preschool, to park dates and swimming lessons, to phonics and project time. It was lovely. It was messy. It was how I had chosen for us to live.

So can you imagine my surprise when, after six years of this chosen messy life, after being plunged into 9-3 work, and walking the kids to school and home, and making lunches every night, and groceries on the weekend and a load of laundry a day, that I discovered I actually Like routine? Here we are, living our lives by someone else’s clock, and we’re thriving?? How can this be?

I’m more surprised than anyone to find that actually, routines work for me too–not just everyone else.

And now that I’ve made this realization, I’m taking advantage of it. I’m building rituals into our day purposefully. I’m harnessing the power of habits to make some lovely changes in my life.

I’ve learned through this blog that the best ritual to do every day is to do a ritual every day. Simply having a routine, a ritual, is a key to success. And the more rituals you have, the better! And the best way to add a new ritual, is to peg it to an already established ritual. Oh yes, this stuff works.

imageThe tool I’ve been using to bring more rituals into my life is a simple little app called List – Daily Success Checklist by Blue Logo. It is a deceptively simple and remarkably powerful tool for bringing in new habits and building upon already established routines.

I should note that this is an honest review and I am not in any way affiliated with this company, nor receiving any compensation for this review. I just really like this app and want to help people change their lives. It is a free app, but I purchased the full version for a few dollars almost immediately, and haven’t regretted it for a second.

Some of the things I have added to my checklist include: a 5-minute tidy upstairs, a 5-minute tidy downstairs right before bed, a 2-minute tidy of my “hot spot” where papers and things accumulate, setting out tomorrow’s clothes in the evening, wiping off the stove and counter, doing literacy work with my son, and doing 5 minutes of meditation and  15 minutes of writing per day.

It may seem too simple, but no joke: this app is really changing my life, and my home. I’ve struggled with clutter and housework for decades, but since starting this checklist app, things are getting tidier every day, almost as if by magic. I love writing, and yet until I added it to my checklist, I wasn’t doing any. Since then I’ve been writing daily.

I believe that change is always possible, and that trying many different paths is the best way to find the road to better things. Putting energy into seeking a brighter way always yield results. I am so happy to have found a tool that is working for me, bringing my daily life into closer alignment with what I want it to be.

Have you discovered any tools for change that you want to tell others about? Let me know in the comments and I’ll be sure to respond.

Pink Things: a recipe for a frugal probiotic condiment

30 Oct scrambled kale & eggs with lacto fermented rutabaga on the side
scrambled kale & eggs with lacto fermented rutabaga on the side

scrambled kale & eggs with lacto fermented rutabaga on the side

I’ve been doing a fair bit of fermenting here the last few weeks, with some successes, and some screw-ups here and there. But one of my successes has been what we call “pink things”. What they are, in fact, are sticks of rutabaga, lactofermented with garlic and beet in brine. The beet chunks mixed in with the rutabaga make everything turn a vibrant pink, while the garlic just makes it yummy.

I think these are the brilliant pink condiments that Lebanese restaurants add to Shawarma.

Rutabaga are under a dollar a pound at this time of year–making this one frugal ferment! I though I had shared my recipe on my blog before, but when I searched, I couldn’t find it. So here it is!

Pink Things

1 rutabaga

2-3 beets

3-4 cloves garlic

3-4 pint/500 ml mason jars, very clean or sterilized with boiling water

1 litre basic brine (approx. 1 tbsp salt to 1 L water: less salt in colder weather, more salt in warmer weather; see note about water to use)

Peel rutabaga and cut into spears, about the size of your pinky finger. Dice beets. Bruise or crush the garlic cloves so that the flavour will emerge but the cloves will stay intact. Divide the ingredients evenly between the pint jars, making sure there is at least one clove of garlic per jar, and a small handful of beet chunks.

When the veggies are divided up, pour brine over it all to cover. The veggies should stay submerged beneath the brine: you can use a lid from a smaller jar, maybe weighted down with a stone that you have boiled to sterilize. The lids should be put on "fingertip tight" to allow carbon dioxide, produced during the fermentation, to escape.

Leave on the counter for several days, maybe 3 days if the weather is warm, and as long as a week if it is cooler. They will lose the “raw” taste, the beets will start seeping colour into the brine, and the whole thing will take on a dark shade of pink. If they smell alcoholic, or grow a lot of mold, throw them out and try again with fresh ingredients and sterile jars. Using filtered or distilled water can also help if you have problems.

These disappear pretty quickly at my house! I hope they are as popular at yours. What a frugal way to get some gut-supporting probiotics, in the form of a delicious condiment!


27 Oct

It is so *Fall* here. Such a beautiful Fall, such amazing colours. Yesterday the frosty edges of leaves made the walk to school like walking through poetry. There was frost fur standing up on the edge of a garbage can, and it was poetry. 

It is so much Fall that I picked up my knitting needles, and my girl picked up hers, and we are knitting together. I bought a ball of wool to start a hat, and she is knitting another scarf for another cousin–and I think maybe she’ll finish this one. 

It is also all about routines, more than ever before in my life I think. School has brought us a rhythm that keeps us hugged like a scarf. There are times for eating, for relaxing, for so much reading, for family games and family shows, audio books and homework. The walk to and from school frames the day, and connects us–often in grumpy hurrying on the way there, forgiven in happy reports and reconnection on the way back. 

I would not have expected it six months ago when we were on the brink of losing our sweet homeschooling life, but here we are: we are thriving. We are smiling, we are connected and we are doing good work that matters. 

The Fall is grounding us, stunning us with its beauty and drawing us out into its crisp air. I pray thanks for the Fall. May we soak it all in and hold it in our hearts through the cold bleak months that are coming. 

Some Really Big Changes

18 Sep

image1 (1)

Part of the reason I haven’t posted in the last few months is because things have been changing so much and so quickly that I’ve hardly had a solid place to stand and say, “This is where we’re at”. But now that school has started, I can finally feel some firmness.

Yes, I said the “s” word: this September, my kids started school for the very first time. We didn’t plan for this to happen, but when my partner lost his job at the end of June, we knew I had to head back into the workforce. I am thankful that the public school system is there for us, to get us through this time, and actually my daughter is enjoying school. My son is having a harder time adjusting, but I’m confident it will get easier for him as time goes on.

You might guess that our summer was a tad on the crazy side. I put a lot of energy into looking for work, and the kids got a lot of Daddy time :) And then when the election was called in August, my partner got the call: would he come to Ottawa to work for the election?

It wasn’t a hard decision, though it has not been completely easy living with the consequences. He went away to work in early August, and I’ve been “single mom” since then! I have gained so much respect for single-parent families through this experience. I don’t know how they do it!

When he went, I had already secured a new job, so we were able to enjoy a few days together just enjoying a little holiday before he started work. This was lovely, as the whole summer had been spent in budgetary lock-down, as we didn’t at that time know where our next paycheques were coming from.

Luckily I had the end of the summer to enjoy with the kids, working just a couple of days per week to get my feet wet before I started full-time in September. We soaked it up: swimming, heading to the cottage, and a weekend in Ottawa.

So now here we are: new job for me, new school routines for the kids, and my partner away for almost five more weeks. The big changes are behind us, so now it’s just getting through to the end. And when he comes back . . . who knows? There will be more changes, that is the only thing certain.

But all in all, I trust that there are good wishes for us, and that no matter what happens, there will be love, hope and beauty just living to be seen.

. . . and moving on! (LOL)

17 Sep

So, I guess that was “Two Weeks of Frugal Living” . . . and about 40 more of just living ;)

When I missed week three, I felt like I had to catch up.

When I missed week four I felt like I COULDN’T catch up.

And when I missed week five and six and so on, I just kinda GAVE up!

But here we are at week whatever, and you know what? I’ve missed my blog. I’ve missed just . . . writing. Not trying to monetize or write a blog book (blook?) or doing some kind of amazing series to grow my readership, or trying to sell Bundles. Just writing. Telling my story. Working through the things that come up, in hopes that what I write will resonate with someone, somewhere.

So, let’s just pretend that never happened, shall we? Let’s just act like nothing really happened! Let’s soak up that grace that lets us begin again, forgive ourselves, and just move on.


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