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Feature Articles: Food, Fitness and Children


24 tips for packing a healthy, affordable lunch

Damaris Karanja, Nutrition and Health Education Specialist, St. Louis County, University of Missouri Extension


Nutritious lunch packed in reusable containersYou probably go to great lengths during the school year to ensure your child has the right equipment — pens, notebooks, clothing — to make it through the day. Proper nutrition is also a key ingredient for school success because it fuels brain cells and gives your child the energy and nutrients he or she needs for optimal learning. Packing your child’s lunch lets you know exactly what he or she is eating. Follow these tips and not only will you save money, you will also pack a nutritious lunch that your child will enjoy.


Save money


  1. Invest in a good container. Choose an insulated bag and freezer packs to keep food at a safe temperature.
  2. Use washable and reusable containers. Avoid using plastic sandwich baggies. Buy containers in a variety of sizes to fit your lunchbox needs.
  3. Buy in bulk. Avoid single-serve packaging. You save money when you buy food in bulk and pack it yourself into single servings. Buy a large container of yogurt or pudding and use 4-ounce containers to pack your own. Buy a block of cheese and cut it into cubes or shred it. Buy crackers in boxes, rather than individual packages.
  4. Make your own. Look beyond lunch meat. Slice your own meat or grilled chicken breast and cut it into strips or cubes. Avoid prepackaged lunches since they are high-priced.
  5. Send in leftovers. Invest in a good insulated food container to keep food warm. Homemade soup is always a good option.
  6. Buy what is on sale and use coupons. Get whatever is on sale each week and work it into a menu. Use fruits and vegetables that are in season.
  7. Buy store-brand food and compare unit prices.
  8. Look high and low — bargains are usually on the top or bottom shelves, not at eye level.
  9. Plan ahead and have a list when you go to the store. The more time you spend in a store, the more money you spend.


Make it nutritious


  1. Pack a rainbow! Provide a variety of options — the more color, the more nutrients.
  2. A healthy lunch should contain foods from each of the five food groups: carbohydrates, protein, dairy, fruits and vegetables. Choose whole-grain products like bread, tortillas, pita bread, bagels or whole-grain crackers. These are more nutritious; have more fiber, vitamins and minerals; and keep blood sugar steady for optimal learning.
  3. Select protein foods wisely. Use lean meat like chicken or turkey breast, hard-boiled eggs, tuna packed in water, beans or peanut butter. Protein in every meal helps keep blood sugar steady.
  4. Buy fruits and vegetables that are in season and serve them creatively. Examples include baby carrots with yogurt dip or other cut vegetables with low-fat dip or hummus.
  5. Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy products like yogurt, milk and cheese. These are great calcium and protein sources.
  6. For side items, rethink that bag of chips. Instead, choose carrots sticks, celery sticks with peanut butter and raisins, apple slices with peanut butter, fruit salad, whole fruit, raisins or pretzels.
  7. For dessert, think beyond the cookie. Try whole-grain graham crackers, ginger snaps, raisins, unsweetened applesauce, homemade muffins or fresh fruit.
  8. Choose a beverage that hydrates, like water, or choose low-fat or fat-free milk for additional protein, calcium and vitamin D. Avoid drinks with calories and no nutrients.


Make it fun


  1. Add some fun touches to the meal. The traditional peanut butter and jelly sandwich can become pretty boring. Get a couple of cookie cutters and have kids cut the sandwich into different shapes.
  2. Include the kids in the preparation process and give them choices. Take them along when grocery shopping. Let them pick one new fruit or vegetable each week that they would like to try. Let them help pack their lunch.
  3. Think beyond bread when making sandwiches. Think whole-grain bagels, whole-grain pita wraps and whole-wheat tortillas. A good alternative is a whole-wheat pita pocket with hummus, shredded vegetables and grilled chicken strips.
  4. Pack a variety of options to keep a child’s interest. Avoid packing the same lunch every day — this prevents kids from getting bored.
  5. Vary the preparation. Try grilled or baked, chopped or grated, plain or with a dip.
  6. Practice good nutrition yourself. Children learn by association — you need to be a role model. Discuss with them the benefits of healthy eating.
  7. Don’t get discouraged if your child rejects a food on first taste. It can take 15 to 20 tries before a child gets used to a new food.


A nutritious lunch does not have to be boring or cost you a fortune. Making small changes can save you money. Try one or two tips each week and soon you should see some relief in your grocery bills. Remember that well-nourished children have a greater chance of success at school because they have the fuel and the energy they need to play and learn.


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Last update: Friday, August 04, 2017