“Kids like comparing school lunches. Make sure your child’s doesn’t get swapped with our great suggestions. See more school lunch pictures.Jamie Grill/Iconica/Getty Images
For many kids, lunch is the best time of the day. It’s the time to hang out with friends, forget about classes and fill up their bellies. Packing lunch for kids can be a challenge — there’s that delicate balance of finding what’s good for them, what’s cost-effective and what they’ll eat. If you can get two out of three, you’re in pretty good shape!
When you prepare lunch at home you know what foods your kids are eating, ensuring they’re getting both what they like and what’s good for them. But putting together great lunches at home can get expensive if you’re not careful about the ingredients you choose, and it’s too easy to fall into a rut and make the same boring old thing. Not to worry! Whether they tote it in a brown bag, a modern insulated box or a retro Superman pail, these meals will make the cut in the lunchroom without cutting into your budget.
- Pasta Salad
- Tuna Salad Sandwich
- Scrambled Egg Cupcakes
- Tortilla Bites
- Hot Dogs
- Make-Your-Own Pizza
- Taco Salad
- Spaghetti and Meatballs
- Peanut Butter and Jelly
10: Pasta Salad
The great thing about pasta salad is that it has a lot of different textures, colors and flavors that combine to make a delicious one-bowl dish. And it’s really easy to adapt pasta salad to include either what your kid likes to eat, or what you have left over in the fridge. Plus, it’s best served cold, which makes it ideal for a lunch box meal.
Just mix together cooked pasta, steamed or raw veggies like broccoli or bell peppers, fat-free Italian or vinaigrette dressing and some shredded parmesan or crumbled feta. Cold lunchmeats cut into bite-sized pieces — like salami, ham or turkey — make a great addition to this salad. Chickpeas are also a tasty way to add texture and protein.
The best kind of pasta to use is short-cut extruded pasta — the tube, spiral or shell noodles, or other small shapes that are easy to spear with a fork. For a fun meal with lots of texture, pick up a box of mixed pasta that includes a variety of different noodle shapes.
Fruit and veggies are an inexpensive and nutritious, but how do make sure they’ll get eaten? Include some delicious dips. For fruit, try some vanilla yogurt — it’s surprisingly sweet and inexpensive if you buy it in large tubs and divide into smaller containers yourself. Hummus, fat-free ranch dressing and peanut butter go great with vegetables, too.
9: Tuna Salad Sandwich
Tuna’s a lunch staple for a reason — it’s inexpensive, healthy, easy to prepare and tastes great. But it certainly doesn’t have to be boring. Try serving the tuna salad on a croissant, in a wrap or in a pita pocket to steer away from the standard sliced bread. To the salad itself, add chopped celery, pickles, tomatoes or green olives for a little color and flavor.
You can even swap out the traditional mayonnaise for other tasty options, like Greek yogurt or sour cream, which will create entirely new flavor combinations while still holding the salad mixture together. Top off with cucumber or fresh tomato slices for a delicious lunch that’s packed with protein and budget-friendly.
8: Scrambled Egg Cupcakes
Delicious, bite-sized and easy to make are three things that lend themselves well to good school lunches. This meal has all three. They’re like mini quiches, without the crust and made in muffin pans. Egg is the main ingredient, making it an inexpensive fix. And with so many varieties and ingredients you can include — like broccoli, cheese, bacon, ham, sausage, spinach or peppers — it’s easy to please a picky eater. Plus, one batch can be used for several lunches, so you can make up a pan on Sunday and pack them throughout the week.
Just whisk three eggs with a quarter cup (50 ml) of milk and pour into greased muffin cups. Then sprinkle in the other ingredients — cheese, meat, veggies, spices — and bake for 13 minutes at 350 degrees F (180 degrees C).
More Meals from Muffin Tins
Muffin tins are great for making small-portion, ultra-portable meals. Some other great meal-ready muffins you to investigate include ham and cheese muffins, turkey and bacon muffins, cheddar and zucchini muffins, corndog muffins and pizza muffins.
7: Tortilla Bites
Layer your kids’ favorite ingredients on a tortilla, roll it up and slice it into bite-sizes pieces. Spreadable ingredients work well — salsa, mashed beans, cheese, hummus, or even cranberry sauce (after Thanksgiving you can use up leftovers like cranberry sauce and turkey). Other things that roll well are flat ingredients like lunchmeats and sliced cheeses — try a ham and cheese wrap spread with mustard. There’s no need to bulk these up into burrito-sized wraps; the small, tight rolls with just a thin layer of ingredients are flavor-filled and easy to eat, kind of like finger sandwiches but more fun.
6: Hot Dogs
“If you put two hot dogs in boiling water in your child’s thermos, they will be cooked by lunchtime.Digital Vision/Thinkstock
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a kid that doesn’t jump at the chance to eat a hot dog, but they aren’t meant to be eaten cold and most kids won’t have a way to cook or heat them once they get to school. Not to worry! You can send hot dogs to school without them arriving cold and hard. Boil some water and fill a thermos. Then toss a couple hot dogs into the thermos and pack it in your child’s lunch. By lunchtime the dogs will be cooked and warm. Just include the bun and any condiments your child likes and you’ve got a ballpark-style meal on the go.
5: Make-Your-Own Pizza
Is there anything kids love more than making a mess and being creative? There are plenty of pre-packaged, assemble-your-own lunch options out there in stores, but why spend money on those when you can easily put together your own? Kids still get the fun of creating their own meal, but the price point is kinder on the wallet.
Naan, tortilla or pita make a great makeshift pizza crust. Just include some tomato sauce in a spill-proof container, shredded cheese, pepperoni and your children’s other favorite pizza toppings. They’ll have fun creating their own pizza at the lunch table, and you’ll feel better not having given in to expensive pre-packaged lunches.
Other "Build-Your-Own" Ideas Kids Love
If your kids like the build-your-own lunch theme, try packing all of the ingredients for a sandwich or wrap and letting them create their own meal. They can eat everything separately or make a sandwich the way they want. You can substitute crackers for bread too.
4: Taco Salad
Ground beef cooked up with taco seasoning (or your own combination of spices) is a great, low-cost ingredient for a meal. Just put it in a spill-proof container with some lettuce, shredded cheese, and tomatoes, and include a small bag of tortilla chips on the side. (You don’t want to combine the chips with the meat until it’s time to eat, otherwise they’ll get soggy.) Canned corn and black beans are also great additions to this salad — they fit with the Tex-Mex theme, but the beans add protein and the corn provides essential vitamins and nutrients. Top with salsa or sour cream for added flavor.
3: Spaghetti and Meatballs
Spaghetti and meatballs are great for dinnertime, but this meal staple is also a handy and inexpensive lunch option. Ground beef and pasta both carry low prices, and together create a filling meal that kids love. While you can serve it cold and it’ll taste delicious, you can also store the spaghetti sauce and in a thermos to keep it warm until lunchtime. Then they can just pour it over the noodles and meatballs for a hot home-cooked meal right in the cafeteria. And if you cut the meatballs and the noodles up ahead of time into bite-size pieces, it will be easier (and less messy) to eat.
Single-serving Snacks…Worth the Price?
There’s a huge market out there for single serving, pre-packaged snacks, but are they worth the price? Not really. Even with the healthiest single-serving snack foods you’re paying for the convenience of having the food portioned out for you. You’ll find significant cost savings by buying in bulk and creating your own smaller portions with reusable containers and bags.
Kids will love this twist on an ordinary sandwich, and it’s a great way to use up last night’s leftover meat and veggies. Alternate bite-sized pieces of meat with veggies and squares of bread on skewers. Your kids will have fun eating the pieces individually or in combination, and it’s infinitely more interesting than just piling everything on a sandwich. Just make sure to include a sauce for dipping!
Some great lunchtime kebab flavor combinations include chicken with apple slices, grapes and bread, along with yogurt sauce for dipping; ham, pineapple and Colby Jack cheese; and turkey, cherry tomatoes and bacon with ranch dressing. Because kebab skewers have pointed ends, this meal is best suited for older kids. For safety, you can use scissors to cut off the pointy ends of the wooden skewers before assembling.
1: Peanut Butter and Jelly
“For one twist on the standard PB&J, try using a bagel or English muffin instead of bread.Hemera/Thinkstock
Yes, we know — PB&J is nothing new and exciting when it comes to kids’ lunches. But here are some new takes on an old favorite that you may not have thought of before.
For instance, did you know can prepare a whole loaf of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at one time and freeze them until you’re ready to use them? They’ll keep wonderfully in individual baggies, and will thaw in your kids’ lunchboxes by the time they’re ready to eat. Out of bread? Try PB&J on a wrap, rolled or folded up like a quesadilla, or spread the toppings on a bagel.
And even though there are only three ingredients in this sandwich, it’s easy to swap them out to create new flavor combinations. For example, peanut butter and honey are great together on a sandwich, as are peanut butter and banana slices; jelly and cream cheese; and peanut butter, cream cheese and crushed pineapple.
Lots More Information
- 10 Tips for Sneaking Healthy Ingredients Into Your Kids’ Favorite Meals
- 10 Best Snacks for Kids
- 10 Healthiest School Lunch Plans
- 5 Worst School Lunch Menu Items
- 5 Great Cheap Meals for Large Families
- Canadian Family. "15 School Lunch Ideas They’ll Love." July 13, 2009. (Nov. 2, 2011). http://www.canadianfamily.ca/slideshows/15-school-lunch-ideas-theyll-love/15-school-lunch-ideas-theyll-love_77741/
- Cheap Cooking. "Save Money by Packing Lunches for School and Work." (Nov. 2, 2011). http://www.cheapcooking.com/articles/healthy-school-lunch-ideas.htm
- Healthy Kids Snacks. "Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich Recipe." (Nov. 9, 2011). http://www.healthy-kids-snacks.com/recipes/peanut-butter-jelly
- Hutton, Lindsay. "Back-to-School Savings: Cheap and Health Lunch Ideas." FamilyEducation. (Nov. 1, 2011). http://recipes.familyeducation.com/slideshow/quick-and-easy-meals/63744.html?page=1&detoured=1
- Just the Facts Baby. "Healthy Lunchbox Ideas." Dec. 21, 2010. (Nov. 10, 2011). http://www.justthefactsbaby.com/baby/article/healthy-lunchbox-ideas/155
- McCormick. "Ham and Cheese Tortilla Bites." (Nov. 9, 2011). http://www.mccormick.com/Recipes/Appetizers-Snacks/Ham-and-Cheese-Tortilla-Bites.aspx
- Moms Living Debt Free. "Brown Bag School Lunch Ideas." (Nov. 8, 2011). http://www.moms-living-debt-free.com/brown-bag-school-lunch-ideas.html
- New Day Northwest. "Nutritious and Inexpensive School Lunch Ideas." King 5, March 22, 2011. (Nov. 7, 2011). http://www.king5.com/new-day-northwest/Nutritious–inexpensive-school-lunches-118411819.html
- Real Simple. "21 Back-to-School Lunches Kids Will Love." (Nov. 8, 2011). http://www.realsimple.com/food-recipes/recipe-collections-favorites/back-school-lunches-kids-love-00000000038732/index.html
- School Family. "5 Sack Lunches Kids Love." (Nov. 2, 2011). http://www.schoolfamily.com/school-family-articles/article/735-5-sack-lunches-kids-love
- Wootan, Margo. "Healthy School Snacks." Center for Science in the Public Interest. (Nov. 10, 2011). http://www.cspinet.org/nutritionpolicy/healthy_school_snacks.html
- Zelman, Kathleen M., MPH, RD, LD. "Cheap and Healthy Brown Bag Lunch Ideas (for Grownups)." WebMD. (Nov. 9, 2011). http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/cheap-and-healthy-brown-bag-lunch-ideas-for-grownups