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

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:

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  • 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!

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