Healthy school lunches don’t have to be hard. Here are some easy budget lunch box ideas that are healthy, and tasty and some tips for easy lunch box packing
Social media can give the impression that healthy lunchboxes have to be a gastronomical masterpiece filled with weird and expensive health foods cut into cutesy shapes.
If you have the time, energy and creative flair then go for it.
But if you’re mornings are more like mine -bleary-eyed and rushed – then you’re not going to want complicated lunchboxes.
Public admission: I want to keep things real here. I’m a big fan of the 80/20 rule. 80% healthy food and 20% not so healthy. I don’t aim for perfect; I aim for balance. My kids go to school with crimpy chicken crackers and other items that a healthy guru might frown on, alongside their salad wrap and fruit.
It’s ok not to be perfect.
5 Tips for packing a healthy budget lunch box
Packing a budget lunch box is just as much about strategy as it is about the food that goes in it. Early mornings can be as easy as throwing a few packets in the lunch box (without actually throwing packets in the lunchbox) with a little bit of pre-planning and preparation (a very, very little bit, I promise!).
Here are five tips that help make packing lunch boxes easier:
1. Keep it simple.
Keep lunches simple by writing down a selection of ideas that you know your children will like and rotate those ideas.
For example, in a 10-week term, you might start with ham and salad wraps in week one, egg and lettuce sandwiches in week two, tuna pasta in week three, chicken and slaw rolls in week four and salad sandwiches in week five. Then repeat the rotation. That’s enough variety without making it too much work for you.
To each lunch add a piece or two of seasonal fruit and a healthy snack like DIY cheese and crackers.
2. Plan ahead.
Just like it’s a good idea to meal plan dinners, it’s also efficient to give thought to what you’re going to pack in the kid’s lunchboxes for the week ahead.
3. Shop for the week.
Once you’ve planned the week’s lunches, make sure you have all the ingredients on hand to avoid early morning lunchbox emergencies.
4. Spend 10 minutes prepping on Sunday afternoon.
If you’re children eat leftovers, then your lunchbox packing will be super easy. Just cook a little extra dinner and put it aside to grab in the morning.
But if like my children, they don’t (yet) eat leftovers, it can be helpful to spend 10 minutes on Sunday washing lettuce leaves, cutting fruit, cheese, carrots etc., hard boiling eggs, portioning out crackers or yoghurt or whipping up a quick batch of muffins.
If you prefer, you can also make the week’s sandwiches ahead of time too.
This doesn’t have to take up a lot of time, but it does make school mornings a lot easier.
5. Keep some backup supplies in the pantry.
It’s a good idea to keep an emergency stash of food for weeks when you don’t get to the supermarket, you’re ill, tired or don’t want to even think about packing a lunch box (we’ve all been there!).
Some backup supplies might include:
- brown rice crackers or other wholemeal crackers of choice
- tinned fruit
- dried fruit
- long life custard
- peanut butter (if allowed at school) or vegemite
Buy in bulk and portion
Single serve foods and multi-packs tend to be more expensive than bulk packs, and they are more wasteful as far as packaging!
Compared to home-baked foods, they are also more expensive and less healthy although they are convenient when you’re busy and we buy store-bought crackers and other convenience foods.
To make your own cheese and crackers, buy cream cheese in bulk and serve it in a small container along with bulk bought crackers like wholemeal rice crackers. Alternatively, cut a few slices of cheese off a block.
For yoghurt tubs, it’s cheaper and healthier to buy plain yoghurt in bulk and portion it into containers with fruit and a little flavouring like vanilla or a touch of honey.
If you want to save even more, it’s very easy and convenient to make the Easiyo yoghurt.
Just about anything that you can buy in multi-packs can be purchased in larger packs and portioned out to save money and reduce waste.
Cheap lunch box ideas
Here are some frugal school lunch ideas.
Leftover Ideas for the Lunch Box
Leftovers are our frugal friend.
A quick and easy frugal lunch begins at dinner and breakfast if you plan to have leftovers.
I have to admit, my kids don’t eat leftovers. A friend of mine is from India, and her kids have leftover dahl or vegetable curry with rice every day. I have lunchbox envy! But my point is that children will eat what they get used to from a young age.
Most leftover food tastes fine if eaten cold (I haven’t eaten hot leftovers since the kids were born) and therefore are perfect for inclusion in a frugal lunchbox.
Ideal leftovers for the lunchbox include:
- Roast meat (rather than deli lunch meat) either on a sandwich, tossed through a salad or as part of a ‘grazing selection’. Slow cooking a roast is an easy way to make multiple dinners and lunches at the same time!
- Fried rice (or turn leftover rice into rice pudding)
- Leftover Fritters
- Tuna patties
- Leftover cooked vegetables (can be tossed with pasta, ‘dressed’ as a salad or used as dippers). Don’t forget mashed potato or sweet potato; these can be eaten as cold mash or turned into fritters or bubble and squeak.
- salad (green, potato, pasta or coleslaw salad, for example)
- quiche or frittata
- Pancakes (we always have a little leftover batter from Sunday morning pancakes to make mini-pancakes for morning tea during the week)
- Leftover oatmeal (cold porridge – renamed Bircher muesli). Dress it up with plenty of fresh fruit and seeds or nuts if allowed)
- Leftover soup or stew. Keep warm in a thermos. This is a great option for older kids.
Lunchbox Snack Ideas: Fresh Fruit and Veggies
Fresh fruit and vegetables are easy and nutritious.
It’s important to pre-cut fruit and vegetables, especially for little kids. Children are more likely to eat it if you cut everything into bite-sized portions,
Choose vegetables you know your child will eat: carrots, capsicum, cucumber cherry tomatoes celery and snow peas all work well.
Make them more appealing by serving them will a dip. Hummus or cream cheese are popular choices.
Lunchbox Snack Ideas: Home baked goodies and other ideas
Make baking a fun learning experience by baking with the kids. That way, you can enjoy family time and prepare for the week ahead at the same time.
Many muffins, slice and bread (like banana bread) can be frozen, so you can freeze it in portions, ready for the lunchbox each morning.
Other ideas include:
- trail mix
- popcorn (homemade or store bought)
- crackers (homemade or store bought)
- tinned beans
- nuts (if allowed)
- apple turnovers
- homemade smoothies
- Baked vegetable crisps
Sandwiches – making great lunches since the middle ages
Sandwiches are convenient, easy, portable, inexpensive and taste good.
Make sandwiches healthy and filling by using the best quality bread you can afford and add some protein. Sourdough and wraps are great options.
Spread them with real butter or avocado or mayo and your child’s favourite filling. I love to get ideas from cafes and sandwich shops, but some of our frugal favourites include:
- lettuce, cheese, grated carrot and ham
- egg lettuce and mayo
- tuna lettuce and mayo
- grated carrot, cream cheese and sultana
- chicken and coleslaw
- tomato, avocado and cheese (put the tomato on later or dry it with a paper towel or use Roma tomatoes to avoid the bread going soggy – this also makes a nice grilled toast)
- leftovers (bolognese sauce makes a nice sandwich)
Non-sandwich budget lunchbox ideas
What if your child doesn’t like sandwiches?
There are a lot of cheap alternatives (see leftovers above for ideas!). Besides leftovers, my favourite is the ‘grazing selection’, kind of like a ploughman’s lunch but without the pickled onion!
Here are some ideas:
- Hard-boiled eggs. If you boil a few while cooking dinner on Sunday night, then you will have some on hand and ready to go for lunches.
- Pizza scrolls.
- Mini Quiches.
- Rice paper rolls. Use leftovers for speedy production. Serve with a dipping sauce.
- Pasta salad or rice salad.
- Cheese. Cut it into slices, cubes or sticks and serve with vegetables, fruit (cheese and dried fruit are nice) or with some crackers.
- If you have cream cheese, you can make your own dips or spreads.
- Pre-made dips for dipping vegetable sticks or crackers in. Hummus is a favourite.
- Crackers, crispbread or crostini sticks are handy to keep in the pantry.
- Tinned tuna is a good source of protein and also useful to keep in the pantry.
- For fresh fruit and vegetables, pre-cut it and keep it in airtight containers in the fridge, for easy lunchbox packing in the morning.
- Portion out bulk foods like yoghurt or dip into small containers at the beginning of the week. That way you can just grab and pack them in the morning.
- And for the drink bottle, water is the most frugal option, and it’s the most healthy to boot.
Lunches don’t need to cost a fortune. The great thing is that frugal lunchbox options are also healthy and environmentally friendly options as well.
What are your tips for packing lunch boxes?
Melissa Goodwin is a writer and the creator of Frugal and Thriving who has a passion for living frugally and encouraging people to thrive on any budget. The blog is nine years old and is almost like her eldest baby. Prior to being a blogger and mum (but not a mummy blogger), she worked as an accountant doing other people’s budgets, books and tax.