This year, my third-grader wants to take lunches to school. I am thrilled. Last year, my husband and I realized that our son was spending between $4 and $5 a day at school on breakfasts, lunches and extra servings. I have no qualms about the food served at school, but he is a light eater and I suspect the majority of his meals were thrown away, uneaten.
Like many parents, I know that providing lunch choices can be a challenge to the budget and busy schedules. Premade meals are expensive, contain little nutritional value and are of limited variety.
Instead of paying top dollar for ready-to-eat meals, try making similar “themed” lunch foods and freeze them until needed. Pampered Chef has a tool called a Cut-N-Seal that sells for $9.50. It makes homemade, crustless sealed sandwiches identical to those found in stores. It is easy to make several at once. Wrap each sandwich individually, place them in a gallon-sized plastic bag and store them in your freezer. They can go right from the freezer to the lunch box.
Using fresh, homemade ingredients in your copycat version provides the added benefit of reducing the amount of added sugars, artificial colors and preservatives your child consumes.
The Cut-N-Seal is not just for PB&J! I’ve used it for many different of foods and fillings, such as chicken salad, lunchmeats, pizza pockets and desserts.
Another freezer-friendly lunch idea is to package pita bread, homemade or store-bought leftover pizza sauce and shredded cheese together for a “make it yourself” pizza.
Grilled chicken chunks, chopped fruit and cookies make a homemade version of a popular kid’s meal. You can also use chicken chunks, olives, feta, hummus and pita chips for a Greek theme. You can find lots of inspiration free on blogs and social media.
One of my shopping strategies is to purchase the produce featured in the weekly grocery ads or the local options at a farmers’ market. Prepping fresh fruits and veggies takes little effort: wash, dry, cut and measure servings into snack-sized containers for quick sides to use throughout the week. Adding lemon juice mixed with water keeps fruit, such as apples, looking pretty.
I also save money by stockpiling full-size boxes of crackers or cookies to make individual packages similar to 100-calorie packs. Not only do you save money, you also save time by preparing them all at once. I use a marker to write description, calories and date packaged on the bags.
When making lunches, my other must-have gadget is a food scale. The calorie content and nutrition of any food is determined by weight, not serving size. The FDA allows manufacturer volumes to be off by up to 20 percent and still remain in compliance, so don’t be so sure that the package of cookies you are eating only contains one serving or that there are nine ¾-cup servings in your box of cereal.
In the article Weighing Food Portions on LiveStrong.com, sports physician and college athlete Jennifer Andrews writes about the importance of weighing food portions for weight management. “A 10-pound annual weight gain can occur if serving sizes are increased by only 5 percent. Using a 2,000-calorie daily diet, the 5 percent increase adds 100 extra calories every day,” she writes.
In serving sizes based on volume, calories vary depending how loosely or tightly packed the item is in the measuring cup. Measuring by weight will give you the most accurate calorie content. You can find digital food scales on Amazon for as low as $9 or in local stores for less $20.
Following these tips makes your family’s school and work lunches easy, healthy and budget friendly. Join me on Facebook at Augusta Coupon Lady to share your frugal lunch ideas with others.