For many parents, a big part of the morning or evening routine is preparing lunch for the kids. Here are a few ways to save money, pack smart and prevent foodborne illness throughout the school year:

Use leftovers

Did your kids love last night’s dinner? Heat the leftovers up in the morning and pack them in a thermos for lunch the next day. Ensure the thermos can properly maintain the temperature before sending it off to school in a lunch.

Go easy on processed foods

Though they are super convenient and kids tend to love them, pre-packaged lunches are typically packed with added sodium and preservatives. Use them sparingly, only when you are in a rush or don’t have time to prepare lunch the night before.

Mix it up

There’s no hard and fast rule that every lunch needs a sandwich and chips. Typically, kids love finger foods. Try chicken chunks or deli turkey roll-ups with a handful of grapes or other cut fruits and vegetables.

Find balance

Try to include something from each food group:

      Whole grains

  • Whole-grain breads (with or without crusts) are a good source of fiber.
  • Air-popped popcorn with Parmesan cheese is a welcome treat.
  • Spread almond butter, all-fruit spread or cream cheese on rice cakes.
  • Whole-grain crackers and pretzels are good, crunchy finger food alternatives.

Fruit

  • Use seasonal fruit ― it’s usually cheaper and typically tastes better.
  • Fruit that’s easy to eat is more likely to be eaten. Cut oranges and core apples and pears. Use a few dashes of lemon juice to keep apples and pears from browning.
  • Buy 100 percent real fruit leathers or roll-ups and make sure canned or packaged fruits are packed in 100 percent fruit juice, not syrup.
  • Use berries, bananas or dried fruit on peanut butter sandwiches instead of jellies.

Veggies

  • Cut raw vegetables and serve them with a favorite dip (guacamole, salsa, light ranch, hummus or peanut butter).
  • Add shredded carrots or cucumbers to ham or turkey sandwiches.

Dairy

  • String cheese and cheese cubes are a great source of calcium.
  • Freeze yogurt the night before; it will be thawed by lunch and provides a second cold source for the lunch.
  • Provide money to buy milk at school.

Protein

  • Always be aware of nut allergies that might impact other students at the lunch table. If your child does not prefer meat, look beyond the peanut for a protein option. Almonds, cashews and sunflower seeds are tasty on their own and great in salads. Try mixing nuts with dried fruit and dark chocolate chips for a homemade trail mix.
  • A peeled, hard-boiled egg, hummus or black bean dip are some other nontraditional protein options.
  • When using processed lunch meats, be aware of the high sodium content.

Keep it clean

It doesn’t matter if the lunch is hot or cold; it’s important that food is handled and stored safely to prevent foodborne illness.

  • Make sure lunches that contain perishable items (lunch meat, yogurt, cheese, eggs, mayonnaise) are packed with at least two cold sources.
  • A frozen water bottle or juice box can also act as a cold source and will typically melt by lunchtime.
  • Ensure all produce is thoroughly washed before being packed.
  • Never reuse bags or packaging from previous lunches. All reusable containers should be cleaned thoroughly after each use.

 

Easy recipes

Banana wrap

Makes: 1 • Prep time: 5 minutes

Ingredients

1 Tbsp. almond butter

1 whole-wheat wrap

1 tsp. honey

1 slice of bacon, crumbled

1 banana

Directions

  1. Lightly toast a whole-wheat wrap and cook bacon until crisp.
  2. Spread almond butter, crumble bacon and drizzle honey onto wrap.
  3. Peel and place the banana on the edge of the wrap and roll. Gently press the banana as you roll to help flatten.
  4. Cut the wrap into four easy-to-eat portions.

Per serving: Calories 332, Fat 12.4g, Carbs 43.6g, Protein 16g

 

Pasta salad

Makes: 6 • Prep time: 20 minutes

Ingredients

1 lb. spiral pasta

1 bell pepper, finely chopped

2 cups cherry tomatoes, sliced

6 Tbsp. light Italian dressing

2 pieces of string cheese, chopped

10 slices turkey pepperoni, chopped

Directions

  1. In a pot of boiling water, cook pasta until tender, approximately 10 minutes. Rinse under cool water then drain.
  2. In a large bowl, combine pasta, bell pepper, tomatoes, dressing, cheese and pepperoni.
  3. Toss and refrigerate overnight.

Per serving: Calories 264, Fat 4.8g, Carbs 43g, Protein 13g

 

Bento box options

Refreshing box

1 cup bow tie pasta with cut, raw vegetables like broccoli and carrots

1 cup raw spinach with 2 Tbsp. light dressing

¾ cup cut melon

2 fig cookies

 

Sandwich box

Almond butter and banana sandwich on whole-wheat bread, cut into quarters

10 baby carrots

1 plum

¼ cup whole-grain crackers

 

Pretzel skewers box

4 slices of deli meat (ham, turkey, etc.) and a slice of cheese rolled and cut. Skewer with pretzel sticks.

½ cup mandarin oranges

½ cup nuts

1 container of fat-free, sugar-free pudding

 

Finger food box

2 pieces of string cheese

1 cup of whole-wheat crackers

1 cup broccoli or cauliflower cut into quarters

½ cup blueberries

2 fig cookies

 

Fiesta box

1 cup of bean salad

½ cup cubed melon

1 cup of whole-grain tortilla chips with 2 Tbsp. salsa

8 cubes of reduced-fat cheese