Going back to school in the fall is a good time to re-evaluate what you put in lunch boxes whether for yourself or your kids. Lunch should supply about 25% of the calories you need for the day. Eat and pack a power lunch with nutrient-rich foods to help meet your mineral and vitamin needs. Try to get a balance of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lean protein, and nonfat or lowfat dairy.
1. Use a Variety of Breads & Bread Alternatives
Nobody likes to eat the same sandwich on the same bread every day (well, maybe there are a few that do). Change it up by using 100% whole wheat mini pitas (0.25 per serving), whole wheat tortillas ($0.29 per serving), whole wheat mini bagels ($0.32 per serving), whole grain hot dog buns ($0.41 per serving), whole wheat thin rolls ($0.41 per serving) or multi-grain flatbread ($0.43 per serving) in additional to a good, whole grain bread ($0.30 - $0.40 for 2 slices).
2. Serve it Twice
Leftovers from the night before can be a great timesaver. And you save money if you eat them up instead of letting them rot in the refrigerator well past their prime. Chicken parts, pasta, pizza, stews, chili, and spaghetti can all be healthy choices. Invest in a good thermos to keep food hot or use a cold pack to keep food cold until serving. Breakfast foods are good any time of day. French toast, waffles, pancakes, and hot or ready-to-eat cereals can all be eaten at lunchtime.
3. Cook Extra
Plan to have leftovers. When cooking up rice, pasta, couscous, or other whole grains for dinner, cook up extra to eat for lunch in the coming days. Top the cooked grains with frozen vegetables and you have a meal for little expense. Bake a few extra potatoes or sweet potatoes to enjoy for lunch the next day or two. If you are grilling or roasting veggies for an evening meal, cook up extra to pack for lunch.
4. Wrap it Yourself
Instead of buying individually wrapped, packaged foods, buy in bulk and wrap it yourself. Or, get the kids or your spouse to help. For example, a national brand of 100 calorie pack of pretzel minis costs $3.99 and has 10 packages, or $0.40 per serving. The same brand of pretzel minis comes in a 16-ounce bag for $3.29 and serves 15, or $0.22 per serving. The cost per serving is almost half!
5. Beverages Beware
One option is to buy lowfat or nonfat milk at school or work to guarantee its freshness and food safety. You can bring water, the cheapest solution. Limit juice boxes to one per day and look for 100% juice without added sugar. Fruit drinks have added sugar and are not a nutritious choice. Read the ingredient statements on the package. In the case of many fruit drinks, sugar is the second ingredient after water. Also, pay attention to serving sizes. In the case of fruit juices and drinks in bottles or boxes, the serving sizes range from 4.23 to 5.5 to 6 to 6.75 to 10 to 11.5 ounces. Cost per serving also varies greatly, from $0.25 to $0.92. Freeze your water bottle or 100% juice pack to help keep other lunch items cold.
6. Add a Side of Coleslaw
Prepackaged coleslaw in the produce section can be a real timesaver and a 14-ounce bag costs $1.50 and makes four 1-1/2 cups servings at a cost of $0.38 per serving. Of course, this cost doesn’t include the dressing. Try nonfat plain yogurt, regular or Greek-style, and add seasonings, such as caraway seeds, ginger, or hot sauce. Add raisins or peanuts for added texture.
7. Soup’s On
A hearty homemade soup is a perfect lunch component. Whether it’s vegetable, bean, lentil, tomato, or your favorite, pack it into a thermos and serve with whole grain crackers.
8. Enjoy Eggs
At $0.20 to $0.25 cents per egg, eggs are a good source of high quality protein. Eat them hard boiled, as egg salad, or made up as an omelet, frittata, or quiche. Be sure to use a cold pack to keep eggs and egg dishes cold until ready to eat.
9. Canned Seafood
Solid white canned tuna packed in water or oil can usually be found for $1 or less per 5-ounce can. Go to Dr. Barb’s 10 tips for using canned tuna for some new ideas for ways to use canned tuna. Sardines, too, can often be found for $1 for a 3.75-ounce can. Look for canned sardines in unconventional outlets, such as dollar stores or ethnic grocers.
10. Include Veggies, of Course
Fresh, frozen, or canned vegetables can all be included in lunches. Look for fresh veggies in season and on sale, if possible, such as baby carrots for $1.50 per 16-ounce package that serves 5. Rinse canned veggies in water to remove as much as 40% of the sodium. Buy frozen veggies in large bulk packages, such as a 32-ounce package of store brand frozen broccoli for $2.89, which equates to $0.26 per serving. Or, buy frozen veggies at warehouse stores for even greater values.
Click here to download Dr. Barb's 10 Tips on Healthy, Money-Saving Back-to-School Ideas.