11 Tips for Packing a Healthy, Frugal Lunch Your Kids Will Actually Eat

by Tracy · 15 comments

I am volunteering one day a week as a lunch room helper at my kids’ elementary school this school year. After a few weeks, I can share these observations with my fellow parents:

  • After a morning spent sitting still and paying attention, most kids would rather talk than eat. This is especially true of the younger children (the older ones are better at multitasking!)
  • The lunch period passes quickly! Getting the children to and from the lunchroom takes quite a bit of time. If you’re at the end of the line, you’ll have to be fast to eat all of your food.
  • A lot of food is thrown away. Not just the purchased school lunches, but entire sandwiches, pieces of fruit and other sides. Not surprisingly, the less healthy choices tend to be eaten first.

Seeing this has changed the way I pack my children’s lunches. Like most parents, my goal is to send my children to lunch with a healthy meal that is also easy on the family budget. Here are a few of my best tips:

1. Have your child bring home his or her leftovers for a week or two instead of throwing it into the trash. While this can be a little messy (show them how to put it all in the sandwich box or plastic bag) it can give you a better idea of how much your child actually eats. This will help you pack more reasonable portion sizes and reduce waste.

2. As I said above, the little ones are most likely to get distracted and neglect eating. You can try to mitigate this by sending calorie and nutrient dense choices that are easy to eat. Some good choices: cubes of cheese and meat, milk, hard boiled eggs, hummus with dippers, peanut butter with dippers (if allowed) and yogurt (you can control the sugar by flavoring plain yogurt and sending it to school in a container).

3. Many children drink before they eat. You can take advantage of this by sending milk or a smoothie to school in a thermos instead of less nutritious juice beverages. I tend to chuck fruit that’s almost over-ripe into the freezer for smoothies. This helps cut down food waste so that my grocery bill isn’t out of control.

frugal healthy lunch4. Fruits and vegetables are your best bet for sides! Almost all kids will eat them….if you don’t package them in the lunch box with chips, cookies and other packaged snacks. Fruit in season is usually quite cheap and doesn’t require a lot of prep (unless you’ve got a first grader with no front teeth!) Do pay attention to portion sizes so that you aren’t sending much more than they’ll eat. If your child enjoys dips, send along a small container of salad dressing, hummus, yogurt dip or peanut butter.

Here are some of the favorites in my lunchroom:

  • Baby carrots
  • Grape tomatoes
  • Broccoli florets
  • Snow peas
  • Sweet mini-peppers or bell pepper strips
  • Cut up melon
  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Peaches
  • Strawberries

5. You can send all sorts of soups, stews and leftovers to school in a wide-mouthed thermos. This is a great way to send a hearty meal that costs pennies but do a few test runs with your child first to make sure he or she can open it. In many schools, the lunchrooms are under-staffed and a shy child might find it difficult to get the monitor’s attention for assistance. Ditto for always making sure that you include a fork or spoon and napkins!

6. If you choose to send granola bars, chips, cookies and other packaged snacks, be sure that you’re getting the best price. In many cases, you can save by buying in bulk from a warehouse store or Amazon.com. Be sure to check out Aldi and other discount grocers, as well.

For additional savings you can break down large packages into snack sizes yourself (this works well for foods that don’t go stale quickly like pretzels) or bake your own cookies and snack bars. I understand how tight time is, though, so don’t feel too guilty if you decide that the convenience is worth it for your family.

7. If you want your child to have a snack for after-school or break time, send it in a separate bag or container. I’ve known many children who fill up on snack food for lunch – it does get their bellies full, but children (and adults) do better with a more balanced lunch that includes protein and a bit of healthy fat. Having a snack easily available for your child after school can also help you avoid last minute drive through runs to get something to hold him or her over between after school activities.

8. Many schools have banned peanut butter and other nut products because of life-threatening allergies. This can be inconvenient if your child lives on PB&J but it won’t take long for your child to get used to eating something else. There are substitute spreads made out of sunflower seeds that many children find an acceptable substitute. It’s more expensive than peanut butter, but a jar can stretch quite far. If your child won’t eat a meat and cheese sandwich, try wraps, homemade lunchables (crackers and cut up pieces of lunch meat and cheese), hot foods in a thermos or salads.

9. Get your child involved in the process! I’ve noticed that almost all of the kids in the lunchroom like talking to me about which foods are healthy and how they help them learn and grow. Talk to your child about health food choices and let them make suggestions on foods that they’d enjoy eating. Older children can not only pack their own lunch, they can also start learning about how to determine value for money when it comes to snack foods. For example, you can take your child to the store and have them compare how much food you get when you buy $3.00 of fruit versus $3.00 of fruit snacks.

10. If you are facing hard time financially, do check into the free and reduced school lunch program. The income limits are higher than most people would guess and in most schools children no longer face any stigma in the lunch line as they pay with a card or by punching in their student number. While there are some questionable choices, your child will also be able to get low fat milk, fruit and vegetables every day. Go over the menu with your child every week and help them make good choices.

11. Don’t worry too much about sending the same thing every day once you find a lunch that works. Most kids don’t mind at all and it makes things easy for everyone concerned. Packing foods that you know they’ll eat helps cut down on waste. Also, keep in mind that many of the smaller children are pretty worn out by the time lunch comes along and aren’t much in the mood to face something unfamiliar.

By packing reasonable portions of healthy foods that you know your children enjoy, you’ll be able to avoid waste and get good value for your food dollar. Eating a nutritious lunch will help your child concentrate on his or her school work and grow up healthy and strong.

What are some of your tips and tricks when it comes to packing a school lunch?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Willy says:

    Oh school lunches!! I still remember eating the same type of sandwich for years during high school. If I packed my own lunch I would have more variety but that’s the price I paid for being lazy!

    • David @ MoneyNing.com says:

      Hahaha! I laugh because I had to eat the same sandwich my mom made me all through high school too. I hated it but I now realize it’s just me being ungrateful since I too was just lazy. 🙂

  • Nicole says:

    Getting kids involved in meal planning is a great idea in theory but I feel like it’s not something you can just start doing. Wouldn’t they just start skipping lunches and dinners since they can’t be bothered to pick what they want ahead of time?

    • David @ MoneyNing.com says:

      I think you are right. You have to first teach your children to be responsible and when they are, then you can meal plan with them.

      Then again, you have to start teaching them to be responsible somewhere and planning their own meals is as good of a place as any to teach them.

  • Kevin Mzansi says:

    Point #1 is right on the nose! There is no other way to actually figure out how much food to pack….

  • KM says:

    Great tips! We still have some growing to do until I need to pack lunches, but this was good to know information for the future.

  • indio says:

    PB&J is a primary food group in our house. For lunch/snack, they usually get an organic fruit roll up, Pirate booty or veggie sticks or snap pea crisps, then an apple or banana as a fruit. I tell them that they are not allowed to throw anything out. If the lunch box comes home full, then I ask about what happened at lunch and know they need a snack asap. At home, we will make corn bread or oatmeal chocolate chip cookies as a snack. This way they feel as if they are getting a “treat.” They are trying to convince me that sugar, since it grows as a cane, is a veggie and counts toward their 5 a day.

  • Jules says:

    LOL, that sounds like what I have to do with my boyfriend!

  • Hunter @ Financially Consumed says:

    Great tips. I’m struggling to get my 5 year old to eat enough during the day, and he is complaining from being over-tired. I like the idea of getting them involved in the planning, making, and packing lunch. I think this will be the next thing I try.

    • Tracy O'Connor says:

      Awwww, my 5 year old is thoroughly tuckered out at the end of the day, too. One thing that I’ve noticed with the little ones is that they’ll eat the “sides” (crackers, chips) first and then just nibble at the main, so I’ve begun packing fewer things in my kindergartner’s lunchbox so that he’ll eat the more calorically dense foods and then offer him a goodie like chips or crackers after school. It’s also very nice to see how responsive the kids are to me telling them which foods in their lunch have the protein to make their brains and muscles grow and calcium for their bones and vitamins for their eyes and so on. They really are very eager to learn!

      The good news is, it seems like every grade up seems to be better about settling down to eat a full meal at lunch time. Kindergarten is a big adjustment! It seems to be so much more challenging than when we were kids.

  • guest in ca says:

    I pretty much ate the same thing every day for months at a time when I was in school & taking my own lunch. Ditto for almost everyone I know. As you said, kids have other things on their mind and are rushed at lunchtime, so having the same thing in the bag every day means you don’t have to focus so much on the meal. As long as it’s reasonably balanced & nutritious, there’s nothing wrong with the same selection at least a week at a time, & simplifies shopping & prep too!

    • Tracy O'Connor says:

      It does make it easier to stick with the tried and true, especially if you have pickier eaters like I do. What I try to do is stick with things I know that they’ll eat and that are reasonably healthy for breakfast and lunch and save new foods for dinner and weekends.

    • Jean says:

      It was the same way with me too. I would tell mom to pack the same few items everyday, which was usually noodles, pasta or a couple of hard-boiled eggs, some granola bars or cookies and a fruit, usually an apple or orange. It was easy on the tummy and gave me the pep I needed for the rest of the school day.


  • April says:

    My kids love Bento-like boxes. Lock & Lock makes a square container with 4 removable compartments that works well. I tend to do small sandwiches or a homemade lunchable (as was mentioned above). I always include fruit–usually grapes as they are travel friendly, crackers of some sort, cheese and/or yogurt, and some lean meat. They also get an 8 oz sports bottle filled with either water or a 100% fruit and veggie juice (Ocean spray makes one with no high fructose corn syrup). If they ask for sweets, I tuck a sugar free gelatin in the box. Overall, very little food comes home with them.

    • Tracy O'Connor says:

      I love the little divided boxes! I can’t say that we’ve never done the store-bought Lunchables thing, but I will tell my fellow parents that with the little ones, sooooo much gets thrown away. I’m not sure if the meat & cheese are gross or what, the smaller kids just seem to enjoy the idea of a lunchable much more than eating the actual food. Why not pack your own with higher quality crackers, cheese and meat for less money?

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