Back to School: Healthy School Lunches on a Budget

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School is almost back in session. That means that the chore of prepping lunches will soon be making its way back into your daily schedule. You want your kids to have nutritious lunches, but you don’t want to break the bank trying to put them together. To help, we spoke with nutrition experts and parents to find their best tips for putting together healthy, affordable school lunches.

Stick with whole foods.

“The more people needed to manufacture, package, distribute, transport and market your food, the more it will cost,” says Julieanna Hever, The Plant-Based Dietitian. Sari Davidson-Crevin, founder of Booginhead, concurs, “Processed foods don’t offer much nutrition and tend to be high in salt content.” To cut food costs, Hever recommends avoiding processed foods, and loading up on whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes and seeds, instead. Davidson-Crevin also recommends looking for high-protein, low-sugar food items, which will keep kids feeling full for longer and prevent them from experiencing a sugar low in the afternoon.

Cook in advance.

Cooking in advance can prevent you from making poor, expensive choices during the week. Davidson-Crevin recommends, “Cook for the week and prepare lunch options so you can grab and go. Things like egg salad and chicken/turkey salad can be made in advance to make mornings go smoother.”

Take advantage of summer sales.

Teri Gault, Founder and CEO of The Grocery Game, recommends keeping an eye on summer sales before they’re gone. “Summer sales are full of opportunities to stock up on healthy school lunch items, such as whole grain chips (up to two months of shelf life), organic juice boxes, low-fat condiments for sandwiches (up to one year of shelf life), granola bars (up to six months of shelf life), and more. Labor Day is the last blowout on all things summer, and you can stock up on plenty of healthy school snacks that can last for months.”

Leftover, leftovers, leftovers!

Stephanie Nelson,, recommends looking to last night’s meal for lunchtime inspiration. “Pastas, casseroles, chili or stew from dinner the night before make a great lunch in a thermos. Be creative! Last night’s meatloaf can make a good meatloaf sandwich. Slice up chicken breast and wrap with a tortilla. During kitchen cleanup, store leftovers as individual servings in the fridge, and have them handy for lunches the next day.”

Price versus convenience.

Don’t pay for the price of convenience. Nelson says, “I follow a ‘five-minute rule.’ If it takes less than five minutes to prep food, then it’s worth doing! For example, cutting your own carrots instead of buying baby carrots takes less than five minutes. If you equate the time used with the premium price of pre-cut carrots, it would be as if you were paying someone $37 an hour to cut your carrots. Save big by cutting your own apples and washing your own lettuce instead of sending bagged lettuce for salads.”

Make smaller, cheaper dessert decisions.

Exercise a little portion and budget control on dessert items. Kathryne Mezzanotte of NerdWallet Health says, “Make any dessert portions tiny, so they still get that sweet tooth taken care of. Swap out a Twinkie for two to four Hershey’s kisses. It’s less sugar, helps your money go further, but still ensures the kiddos get a treat.”