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Published September 26, 2023

How to Pack Healthier School Lunches on the Cheap

Get creative with leftovers, buy favourite foods in bulk and think seasonally to trim costs when packing a lunch.

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Back-to-school season can be both exciting and exhausting for parents. While it may be a relief to have the kids out of the house, there’s the school schedule to follow, sports and extracurricular activities to coordinate, homework to check and of course, school lunches to pack.

With inflation keeping grocery prices sky high, packing a lunch that’s healthy, satisfying and easy on the budget might feel impossible, but with a little imagination, it can be done. 

1. Get creative with leftovers 

Planning healthy dinners puts you on the fast track for healthy lunches later in the week — saving money and reducing food waste all the while. Here are a few simple transformations your kids might like:

  • Leftover rice can become fried rice. Add meat, tofu or scrambled egg for protein, plus chopped frozen veggies, like peas and carrots.
  • Leftover pasta can turn into a pasta salad with a few chopped, raw vegetables and some store bought dressing.
  • Leftover roasted chicken or turkey can be chopped or shredded for sandwiches, wraps or salads. 

For more ideas, search online for cookbooks and blogs that can help you get creative with leftovers. “The Everlasting Meal Cookbook: Leftovers A to Z” by Tamar Adler and are just two examples.

Just keep in mind the temperature of the food and how it’s best eaten. Some children have access to a microwave for lunch, in which case they can reheat leftovers like soup or lasagna. If they don’t have access to a microwave, stick to lunches that can be eaten cold or at room temperature. 

2. Shop for kids’ favourites in bulk

One of the easiest ways to cut down on food costs is to shop strategically, including stocking up when your child’s favourite snacks go on sale.

For example, many grocery stores offer buy-one-get-one deals or discounts if you buy more than one package of an item. These deals are a great way to stock up on easy-to-store snacks, like granola bars or applesauce containers, that have a long shelf life. 

If there’s a specific snack or food item that your child loves and eats regularly, and you have the storage space, it might be worth purchasing family-size or bulk packages. 

Nerdy tip

Costco can be a great place to buy in bulk, but be sure to compare its prices to those at your local grocery store to get the best deal (and remember to factor in the cost of membership). Sometimes smaller stores may offer the better deal.

    3. Think seasonally

    Raw fruits and vegetables are usually easy to pack, plus they’re loaded with nutrients and fiber, but they can be expensive when they’re out of season. To keep costs down, shop in-season produce.

    For example, in most of Canada, apples are freshly picked in the fall, while mandarin oranges hit the shelves during the winter months. A quick internet search for “in-season produce” and your province will yield lots of handy shopping guides.

    4. Remember, time is money

    Not every parent or guardian has time to prepare über healthy lunches from scratch — and that’s okay. If you have to choose between meticulous meal planning and being calm and present for your kid, it’s probably best to choose the latter. The main goal should be to pack foods that will give your child the energy they need to make it through the school day. And there are plenty of prepared and packaged foods that can do that.

    Yogurt, granola bars, vegetable chips, nuts, cheese sticks, guacamole and hummus cups are all examples of packaged foods that can provide a boost of nutrition to your child’s day. Just be mindful of the ingredients list, and look for options with minimal added sugars and artificial ingredients.

    Also, don’t forget quick, fresh foods, like hard boiled eggs and bananas, that can be easily be added to any lunch box.

    About the Author

    Hannah Logan

    Hannah Logan is a freelance writer and blogger who specializes in personal finance and travel. You can follow her personal travel blog or find her on Instagram @hannahlogan21.

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