If your kids are in school, chance are you spend a fair amount of time wracking your brain to come up with healthy and affordable brown bag lunch ideas.
One quick search on Pinterest is enough to knock your self-esteem down several pegs. You and your kids are probably both ready for a break from PB&J, but who has the time or energy to replicate photos of dinosaur-shaped sandwiches and handmade California rolls in artistically arranged boxes?
Fortunately, it’s totally doable to whip up a variety of healthy meals on a budget. Let’s take a look at some creative ways to spice up your kids’ lunch routine.
Should You Pack Your Kids’ Lunches?
Most families are pressed for time in the mornings, and putting together one or more lunches every day is just another chore to finish before you can head out the door. Faced with this daunting prospect, you might be wondering, “Is it even worth it to pack a lunch every day?”
There are two points to consider in answering this question: whether or not your kids’ school offers healthy options and how much those options cost.
Most schools still rely on heavily processed foods for the majority of their lunch options. Fresh foods have a short shelf life, and cooking large meals from scratch is more time-consuming than simply heating up frozen lasagna and french fries. Although there have been efforts to make healthier options mandatory, such as requiring more whole grains, school lunches still aren’t perfect.
However, in many cases, packed lunches might not be much better. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that packed lunches were of a lower nutritional quality than school lunches. Specifically, “energy, fat, saturated fat, sugar, vitamin C, and iron were significantly higher whereas protein, sodium, fiber, vitamin A, and calcium were significantly lower for packed lunches than school lunches.”
There is one important caveat to this study: researchers only examined the nutritional content in school and packed lunches. They did not analyze how much children ate of either option. There’s a good chance that, although school lunches are healthier, some kids might be eating less of them because they don’t like what’s being served. That’s one major advantage to packing a lunch; you can tailor food to fit your child’s likes and dislikes, upping the odds that they’ll eat a decent meal.
A study published in JAMA Pediatrics came to the same conclusion: home-packed lunches had more calories, were higher in sodium, and had fewer fruits and vegetables than school lunches. This study looked at both what was served or packed and what children typically ate and found that most of the time, milk and dessert were the highest “food groups” consumed with home-packed lunches.
The JAMA Pediatrics study also found that school lunches tended to include more vegetables. Younger children who brought a lunch had 0.07 cups of vegetables and ate 0.05 cups, on average. School lunches typically offered 0.75 cups of vegetables.
Although research has determined that packed lunches generally fall short compared to school lunches, a few smart choices can make a big difference when it comes to nutritional value.
- Avoid Convenience Foods. Foods like bagged chips and pre-made granola bars can be loaded with fat and sugar. Instead, include homemade, low-sugar treats.
- Get Your Kids Involved in the Lunch-Making Process. Let them choose which vegetables and fruits they want for the week. They’ll feel more empowered and excited about what they’re eating, which will increase the odds that they’ll actually eat what you pack.
- Use a Thermos. If your kids are old enough to handle a thermos, consider packing a veggie-rich smoothie or homemade soup. There are many recipes for quick and easy smoothies if you’re pressed for time — and who isn’t at 7am?
- Be Flexible. You can make things easier on yourself by staying flexible and doing a mix of packed and school lunches each week. Check the menu in advance to decide which days you want to make lunch and which days your kids will enjoy eating at school.
- Avoid Sugary Drinks. Instead, pack water, milk, or reduced-sugar juice.
- Watch Portion Sizes. Make sure you’re serving the correct portion sizes for your children. Visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) website ChooseMyPlate.gov for correct measurements.
Nutrition is an important factor in deciding whether to pack your kids’ lunches, but so is cost. According to US News & World Report, five billion school lunches were served in 2014, and 72% of those were eaten by children who qualified for free or reduced-priced lunches. If your child qualifies for a free or reduced-price lunch, there’s no question that it’s worthwhile to take advantage of the school lunch program.
US News & World Report also looked at analysis by the Fairfax County Public School system in Virginia. According to this research, a home-packed lunch including a turkey sandwich, an apple, and carrots with dip cost $3.80 from the grocery store and $2.90 at school.
Whether or not you pack lunch for your kids is a highly individual choice that depends on your financial situation and how much time you have in the mornings. Know that it is possible to pack to healthy, affordable lunches if you decide that’s the best choice for your family.
Finding the Best Lunchbox
Before we dive into lunch ideas, let’s first take a look at the food container your kids are carrying to school every day. This could be anything from a brown paper or canvas bag to an insulated cooler tote or Disney-themed plastic lunchbox. Parents have a ton of choices when it comes to lunchboxes, and a popular option worth considering is the bento box, which contains several compartments of varying sizes.
Kids enjoy bento boxes because they love things that are divided into little sections. Both of my sons will eat almost anything I put into a bento box because it just looks neat, and they’re fascinated by each food having its own little space. They won’t touch broccoli on a plate, but if it’s in a bento box, it’s instantly transformed into something magical.
Another benefit of a bento box is that it forces you to add more variety to your kids’ lunches. You have to think of something to fill each section, which increases the chance that you’ll start getting creative and throw some fruits or veggies in there.
You can find divided lunch containers at most large grocery stores, and there are plenty of affordable bento boxes at Amazon. It’s worth it to spend a bit more to get one that’s leak-proof; Bentgo Kids is one of my favorites.
Healthy & Affordable School Lunch Ideas
Sometimes, all you need is a little inspiration when it comes to lunch prep. Most of the ideas below are customizable, and it’s easy to mix and match ingredients and sides based on what your children love to eat (and what they refuse to touch).
Keep in mind that it’s often worthwhile to purchase organic fruits and vegetables when you can. While organic items often cost more, there are plenty of ways to buy organic on a budget.
1. Quesadillas With Fresh Fruit
Most kids love quesadillas, and they’re a great option for a healthy and affordable lunch. They’re also quick to make in the morning and taste just as good cold as they do hot.
- One flour tortilla
- Shredded chicken (I make the most of leftovers by using rotisserie chicken from the night before)
- Shredded cheese
- Place tortilla on a non-stick pan over medium heat.
- Add shredded cheese, chicken, and avocado to one side of the tortilla.
- Let most of the cheese melt, then fold over the tortilla, pressing the two halves together. Flip the tortilla and let the other side get a bit crispy before you take it off the heat.
- Fresh fruit
- Grape tomatoes with ranch dressing
Tip: You can also add some refried beans or black beans to the quesadilla to increase fiber and protein content.
2. Peanut Butter & Bacon Wrap
Yes, you read that right. I’m about to combine peanut butter, bacon, and bananas into a holy trinity that your kids will be happy to eat several days in a row.
- One whole-wheat wrap
- Peanut butter
- Chopped, cooked bacon
- Sliced bananas
- Smear the whole-wheat wrap with peanut butter, then sprinkle it lightly with bacon pieces.
- Drizzle a very thin layer of honey and then add several slices of banana.
- Roll it up and slice.
- Red grapes
- Carrot sticks and dipping sauce, such as ranch dressing
Tip: You don’t need a lot of bacon or honey for this wrap. Both have strong flavors and plenty of calories, so you only need a bit to make an impact.
3. Not-Quite-a-Sandwich Roll-Ups
Sure, this is almost a sandwich, but your kids won’t realize it because it has no bread. It’s also easy to sneak a few greens into the middle.
- Turkey or roast beef lunch meat
- Sliced Swiss cheese or a cheese stick
- Mayo or avocado (optional)
- If you choose to include mayo or avocado, spread it directly on the turkey or roast beef.
- Add a thin layer of spinach, then put the sliced cheese or cheese stick on top.
- Roll everything up, and you’re good to go.
- Apple slices
- Whole-grain crackers
- Salted edamame
Tip: To switch things up, make sandwich kabobs instead of roll-ups. If you have younger children, use bamboo sticks, which have rounded ends, rather than toothpicks. For kabobs, it will be easier to use cubed cheese rather than sliced. Add grape tomatoes, romaine lettuce, and baby dill pickles to liven things up.
4. Hummus & Veggies
Kids love to dip things, which is why the marriage of hummus and veggies is perfect for school lunches.
- Grape tomatoes, celery sticks, baby carrots, sliced cucumbers
- A large dollop of hummus
- Assemble ingredients in separate containers in your kid’s lunchbox (this is when a bento box is ideal).
- A whole-wheat pita or crackers
- A protein, such as leftover rotisserie chicken, cubed turkey, or a hard-boiled egg (if you have any on hand, throw in a tiny salt-and-pepper packet left over from last week’s takeout to use on the egg)
- Tiny pickles
- Pineapple or watermelon chunks
- Blue corn chips and extra hummus for dipping
Tip: This lunch is perfect for mornings when you’re running late. I keep pre-sliced veggies in the refrigerator (buy them and slice them the weekend before) for mornings when we just don’t have it together. You can also turn this into a sandwich with a whole-grain pita pocket; simply smear the inside with hummus and add spinach, cucumbers, and other veggies your kids like.
From most kids’ perspectives, you can’t go wrong with mini-pizzas. Ever.
- A halved whole-grain English muffin or whole-wheat bagel
- Pizza sauce
- Shredded mozzarella
- Keep each ingredient separate, and let your child assemble their own pizza at lunch.
- Leftover meatballs with extra sauce for dipping
- Sliced pears
- Sugar snap peas
6. Breakfast for Lunch
There are plenty of healthy breakfast ideas that are easy to turn into lunches, especially if you make extra on the weekend.
- A small banana, sweet potato pancakes, or slices of leftover quiche
- Leftover bacon or sausage
- Greek yogurt or Go-Gurt
- Sliced fruit
- This is another “finger food” lunch that kids love. No assembly is required; simply pack up the ingredients for your child to eat as they please.
- A hard-boiled egg
7. Chicken Salad With Greek Yogurt
Many weekends, I’ll make a big batch of chicken salad using Greek yogurt along with mayonnaise. There’s less fat and more protein when you use Greek yogurt, and this is one good way out of many to use leftover rotisserie chicken to save time and money.
This recipe contains tarragon, which my kids love, but some don’t. If you’re unsure if your kids will like tarragon, you can leave it out.
- 2 cups skinless, shredded chicken
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1/3 cup thinly sliced celery
- 1/4 cup Greek yogurt
- 1 cup sliced red grapes
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 3 tablespoons of chopped fresh tarragon or 2 tablespoons dried tarragon (optional)
- Add all ingredients to a large bowl and mix well.
- Use whole-grain bread to make sandwiches or crackers for a finger-food-style lunch.
- Lettuce and sliced tomatoes
- Apple slices
- Broccoli with ranch dipping sauce
Tip: Feel free to play with the amounts of mayonnaise and Greek yogurt. I often add less mayo and more Greek yogurt to reduce fat and calories further.
8. Cream Cheese Sandwich
One of the best things about a cream cheese sandwich is that it’s so good, kids usually won’t notice if you throw in some vegetables. Another bonus is that cream cheese tastes great on many different types of bread, so try different combinations. You never know what your kids will end up loving.
- Bread (whole-grain, rye, pumpernickel, or sourdough)
- Regular or light cream cheese
- Sliced vegetables, such as cucumbers, tomatoes, or grated carrots
- Sliced salami or turkey and pickles
- Fresh herbs, such as mint or dill
- You can make any number of combinations here. A classic combo is cream cheese with sliced cucumber and fresh mint. Another is cream cheese with salami or turkey and pickles. Experiment with different ingredients to find the combination that your kids like best.
- Sliced fresh fruit
- Purple carrot slices
- Dark chocolate (a treat that’s a healthy superfood, if your kids will eat it)
9. Pasta With Pesto
Most kids love pasta, so this is an obvious choice. Pasta is affordable, can be used in a ton of different ways, and is healthy, especially if you buy fiber-enriched or veggie pasta.
- Whole-grain or veggie pasta
- Boil pasta the night before and store in the refrigerator.
- The next morning, toss with pesto.
- A side salad with croutons and grape tomatoes with a small container of dressing
- Cubed watermelon or cantaloupe
- String cheese
Tip: Keep in mind that most jarred pasta sauce is loaded with sugar. If your kids love tomato sauce on their pasta, try to make your own on the weekend. Most pasta sauces freeze well, so make a large batch and pop it in the freezer to make weekday meals easier.
Easy Lunch Prep Using the Bin System
Deciding what to pack every day for lunch can quickly turn into a battle with your kids. One way around this is to let them assemble their lunches themselves. However, this takes some prep work to ensure they put together a balanced, healthy lunch on their own.
An easy way to let them build their own lunches is to use bins. Fill each bin with a different type of food and store any bins with perishable items in the refrigerator until it’s time to assemble lunch each morning.
- Bin 1: Dairy, such as yogurt pouches, cheese cubes, or cheese sticks
- Bin 2: Protein, such as salami slices, shredded chicken, cubed turkey, nuts, or hard-boiled eggs
- Bin 3: Veggies, such as grape tomatoes, carrot sticks, edamame, or sliced cucumbers
- Bin 4: Fruit, such as individual containers of applesauce, mixed fruit, or sliced fresh fruit like strawberries or pineapple (if you pre-slice apples, soak them in pineapple juice for 10 minutes so they stay fresh longer)
- Bin 5: Grains, such as crackers or pita bread
- Bin 6: Sweet Treats, such as fruit leather, dark chocolate, homemade muffins, or homemade granola bars
You can stock all your bins over the weekend for the upcoming week. Using the bin system is great because once the bins are stocked, your work is (mostly) done. All you have to do is make sure your children choose one item from each bin and that they don’t double-dip from Bin 6.
The bin system is also a good way to take advantage of weekly sales at the grocery store.
Tip: You can also make meat sandwiches ahead of time and freeze them. By lunchtime, they will have thawed and will be ready to eat. If you decide to throw in a sandwich, eliminate a selection from Bin 2 from their morning choices.
Getting kids to eat a healthy lunch, whether bought at school or brought from home, is a struggle most parents have to contend with on a regular basis. My two boys are no different; I’m constantly looking for ways to cut down on their sugar and get them to eat more vegetables.
One of the best methods I’ve found to get more veggies into their diet is smoothies. We’ll use unsweetened almond milk, frozen bananas, fresh spinach, vanilla whey powder for protein, a pinch of sea salt, and a bit of vanilla extract. They’re delicious, and my kids drink them right up. You could make your own veggie-packed smoothies and put them in a thermos for a lunchtime treat. Adding a protein powder and skipping the sugar is an easy way to boost nutrition and keep them full for the rest of the day.
Do you pack lunch for your kids? If so, what do you pack that’s healthy and affordable — and that your kids will actually eat?