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Tips to Pack a Nutrient Rich Lunch to Save Pennies

By , SparkPeople Blogger
School bells will soon be ringing all across the country. This means lunchrooms will fill up with hungry children ready for a nutritious break in their day. While you may have prepared to pack a waste-free lunch, are you ready to pack one that is nutrient rich?
Some of the best ways to increase nutrition and decrease waste is to skip pre-packaged, convenience foods that are expensive and offer processed foods that tend to be loaded with sodium and preservatives. If you can include last night's leftovers in a way it can be consumed at a safe food temperature, go for it. Avoid thinking of lunch in terms of a sandwich, chips, and a cookie like what you get in a boxed lunch from the deli. Instead, think balanced meals, whole foods, and creativity. After all, finger foods are usually a hit with the kids and can save on utensils too. You might also want to include a wet washcloth in a container so they can easily wash their hands. Here are some helpful tips to help you create a nutrition rich, penny-wise lunch for children and adults alike.

Start with MyPlate in mind.  Using the new icon as you plan will help you keep key Dietary Guidelines and economically beneficial whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in focus. If you use an eco-friendly container system, you will have an easier time with proper portion sizes as well.
Focus on seasonal fruits and vegetables. Fresh fruits and vegetables in season provide the most flavor and nutrition for the money. Using them in fun new ways can keep lunches interesting while introducing new tastes and textures. Visit a local farmers market to find the best deals. Here are some fall fruits and vegetables to get you started.
  • Acorn and butternut squash and sweet potatoes are easy to peel, cube, steam, and sprinkle with cinnamon for a colorful and easy veggie to enjoy hot or cold.
  • Cut cauliflower into bite size pieces and steam or serve raw with a small amount of ranch dressing for dipping fun.
  • Try a variety of red, yellow, and green apples to vary the taste and texture of these lunchtime classics. Cut them into easy to eat strips or bite size pieces. These are great served with peanut butter or other nut butters for dipping. To prevent them from turning brown by lunchtime simply soak them in a little orange or lemon juice briefly before packing. You can also mix bite size pieces with a dash of cinnamon, a few raisins, and a little vanilla yogurt for a sweet and healthy lunchtime dessert.
  • Fresh figs are sweet and rich in fiber. They are easy to eat plain or fun to stuff with cheese to combine food groups, tastes, and textures.
  • Fresh pears can be cubed or sliced and are especially delicious sprinkled and served with a little nutmeg.
Other fruits and veggies that kids love and make great packing options include:
  • Segmented oranges, Clementine's or tangelos
  • Dried fruits like raisins, cherries or cranberries
  • 100% real fruit leathers and rollups
  • Canned fruits packed in 100% fruit juice instead of syrup
  • Unsweetened applesauce
  • Seedless red and green grapes
  • Raw vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, cucumbers, or pepper strips can go over well if there is also something to dip them in like ranch dressing, salsa, hummus, or guacamole.
  • Fill a thermos with a favorite fruit and vegetable smoothie recipe. Freeze it over night and they can enjoy a slushy by lunchtime.
  • Ants on a log are just plain fun so don't be afraid to send the celery filled with their favorite nut butter and topped with raisins.
  • Mix chopped broccoli or cauliflower with brown rice and shredded cheese for an easy but healthy casserole.
Protein isn't just meat. Protein foods provide important building blocks necessary to build repair, and maintain the various cells of the body. This is especially important in growing children and teens. While lean meat, poultry, and seafood can be a nutritious way to meet protein needs, they aren't always the most cost effective way. Plant sources of protein like nuts, seeds, beans and peas as well as eggs and dairy might be a better fit for your child's preferences as well as you budget. Regardless of preferences, be sure to include at least one serving of protein in every lunch. Here are some mother recommended ideas that might work for you.
  • Hard-boiled eggs peeled and cut in half or a couple deviled eggs made with low-fat mayo provide great high biological value and cost effective proteins.
  • For those without any allergen concerns, experimenting with different types of nut butters can help keep the peanut butter and jelly (spreadable fruit is even better!) sandwich from becoming boring.
  • Homemade dried fruit and nut mixes using a variety of nuts like peanuts, cashews, almonds, as well as sunflower seeds can be great options for those that don't have allergen concerns. Add in a few chocolate chips to the mix and you will have kids asking for more. Nuts can also be added to low-fat yogurt or sunflower seeds added to cottage cheese, which provide a protein rich entrée that doesn't include meat.
  • Try tuna, egg, or chicken salad made with low fat mayo or yogurt in a whole-wheat pita pocket instead of bread. Shred some carrots, zucchini, or cucumber and mix in to extend the meat a little and provide an additional serving or vegetable at the same time.
  • For the more adventurous, hummus and black bean dip, provide fiber rich protein options. They are great in a sandwich or pita, on top of whole-grain crackers or as a vegetable dip.
Daily calcium doesn't have to just come from milk. Calcium is important for strong bones and teeth as well as for muscles contraction, blood clotting and nerve function. The more active we get our children to be the more strain on growing bones and risk of scrapes and cuts. A steady intake of calcium is important for growing and active bodies. While calcium naturally occurs in milk, cheese, and yogurt, many other foods are fortified with it as well. An easy way to ensure a serving of calcium is to either provide money for your child to buy milk or include it in their lunch. If drinking milk or fortified soy milk isn't an option, consider one of these instead.
  • String cheese,  cubes of cheese, or a shredded cheese filled pita pocket as an entrée 
  • Cottage cheese or vanilla yogurt with fruit or nuts
  • Yogurt in a fruit smoothie or slushy
  • While sending soup will require a good thermos to keep it hot, tomato or cream soup made with milk can be a great way to get a serving especially for those that will not drink milk as a beverage.
  • Oatmeal doesn't just have to be for breakfast and provides another hot option for a cold winter day and another opportunity to hide the milk in delicious goodness. Add some cinnamon, dried fruits and nuts and you will have them asking for more.
  • Calcium fortified 100% juice makes a good beverage option.
  • A half-cup serving of pudding made with low-fat milk can be a nutritious treat at the end of the meal.
  • Canned salmon or fortified tofu for sandwich spreads.
Go for whole grains whenever possible. Contrary to what some may think, white potatoes are not evil and carbohydrates are not the enemy. Carbohydrates supply the muscles, brain, and central nervous system with the energy necessary for our children to be active and productive. When they are provided from complex sources instead of simple sources, we see results that are more positive from children. Instead of throwing in convenient processed snack packs, chips or cookies into the lunch bag, consider some of these more cost effective, nutrient rich options.
  • Kids love white bread but instead of that white foamy stuff, offer them white whole wheat  or whole-grain white bread instead. If they don't prefer the crusts, use cookie cutters to make fun shapes of their favorite sandwich.
  • Mix air-popped popcorn with spices like cinnamon and nutmeg or parmesan cheese and pepper for a sensational whole grain and crunchy snack. Don't be afraid to experiment with different seasoning combinations to help kids find their favorite.
  • Brown rice cakes provide a crunchy option on their own or can be topped with a favorite nut butter and fruit spread or hummus or cream cheese spread.
  • Whole grain crackers for tuna, egg, or salmon salad or with sliced cheese.
  • Homemade soft pretzel or muffin made with whole-wheat flour.
  • Homemade granola bars or granola mix to add to yogurt, cottage cheese, or pudding.
  • A whole grain pancake or whole-wheat tortilla make great wrap options for a slice of Canadian bacon, a sausage link, cheese stick or tofu chunks.
  • A homemade oatmeal raisin cookie made with whole-wheat flour provides a fiber rich sweet whole grain dessert for the end of a meal.
  • Whole-wheat pretzels make great crunchy alternatives to chips. Be sure you select those that list whole-wheat flour as a primary ingredient.
What are your family favorite lunch ideas? Are there new lunch ideas you are going to try this year?

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WANT2BTRIM 5/16/2021
Thanks Report
1CRAZYDOG 10/18/2020
Thanks for some great lunch ideas! Report
GEORGE815 10/3/2020
Thanks Report
A lot of great ideas for adult snacking, too! Report
Some great suggestions to change my lunch menu around. Report
Good article. Poor choice of a photo. Whole grain bread would be more appropriate for the photo with this article. Report
great ideas thanks Report
This is SO helpful, thank you so much! I don't have kids but I am a BUSY (and broke) nursing student. I plan on printing this article and keeping it in my kitchen when I need ideas! Report
MLEWKOSK, about the fish: people with fish allergies usually are not as likely to react to airborne proteins as people with peanut and nut allergies - same for touch. I suspect that is why you still see fish on school menus. It's just not as risky.

Regular pretzels are also much more healthy than chips (and are even lower in fat than many kinds of crackers). You don't have to go whole wheat! Report
Great ideas. Thanks. Report
Great tips! Report
I clicked on your link for White Whole Wheat Bread and there was none shown there. What is up with that??? Report
i took a look at the breakfast and lunch menu for the first day of school...breakfast pizza and then pepperoni pizza for lunch. the other days weren't much better. luckily my daughter loves fruits and veggies. i have already planned on sending carrots, celery, cauliflower, cucumber and whatever else she likes. along with grapes, apples, oranges and strawberries. whole wheat/grain bread is not an issue and she loves peanut butter. lean thin sliced sandwich meats and low fat cheese. oh, and LIGHT ranch for her veggies. I am blessed to have children that don't mind, even enjoy, the healthier choices. she understands that it is important. when she asks for an extra cookie, i tell her one is enough because to much is unhealthy. "OK" is all she says. she is five and i am so very proud of her!! the younger two are also just as impressive!! a three and two year old asking for yogurt, carrots, some more of that "yummy bread" (whole grain). oh and water? they will drink their weight in it!!! SO BLESSED!!! Report
If you are looking for creative ways for picky eaters try googling images for "bentos" I love the portion size for my kids as well as myself. The containers are reusable and fun and are made from leftovers alot of the time. Report
I like to make zucchini bread (with wheat flour), Blueberry muffins, carrot muffins, pumpkin muffins, its the only way I can get some decent things in my 7 year old. Report
As my sister, Sparker ANIAIMER said in her blog this morning, "It’s a cut throat cafeteria and I have to make their nutritious lunches competitive." Report
This is a wonderful little article. I know it is written for parents with small ones, but being a college student & diabetics I don't see why these suggestions couldn't work for child & parent alike. I will definitely be trying some of these myself.

Thanks for the article! Report
I am amazed at how many websites list fish on the kids' lunch menu. What about those kids with fish allergies? When I was in public school, I was NEVER allowed to bring both peanut butter and any type of fish to school for lunch. I love tuna though.. Report
It makes me very happy to hear about parents that encourage their kids to eat healthy. I work in the school lunch department and it just hurts me sometimes to see all the wonderful healthy food we serve the students (secondary) in the trash cans. I wish more parents were on board with teaching children about healthy choices. The children will be so glad their parents cared when they are older and are without health problems because they chose to eat good foods. Report
I am alway's open to knew and healthy llunch ideas Report
My daughter loves fruit and vegetables. So, for lunch in the sandwich Tupperware I put 4 type of slice fruits and veggies. IE: slice cucumbers, peppers, grapes, strawberries and in a smaller Tupperware I put a few tbsp of dressing so she can dip. Her favorite is ranch. When she comes home and wants a snack I offer yogurt, string cheese and her and my favorite my homemade smoothies. Now my son is another story he usual gets peanut butter sandwiches or yogurt with an granola bar for lunch. Report
Thanks for the great tips! I always struggle to get my son to try different foods and your article contains some fun ideas. Report
This article is greatly appreciated at this time of year:) My daughter & I have decided on 1 hot lunch a week of her choice. The rest will be a healthy home lunch! Thank you SP!! Report