Editor's note: This article was originally published on Live Like You Are Rich. It has been republished here with permission.
Bagel hot dog
Popcorn chicken and fries
Nachos with beef
French toast sticks with chicken sausage
These are actual lunches our local grade school is serving this month. As appetizing as they might sound … (or not), they sure don't seem very healthy. And my kids probably wouldn't eat much of it anyway. A friend of mine told me she always had her kids buy school lunch until she found out they were throwing a good portion of it away every day because they didn't like it. That's just hard earned money going into the school trash can everyday.
Our grade school lunch costs $2 per day and middle and high school lunch cost $3.25 per day. If you have three children eating school lunches you would be paying an average of about $8.50 per day. That is $42.50 per week and just over $1,500 per school year.
In general, according to the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs), children ages four to 13 need 1,400 to 2,000 calories per day, and children ages 14 to 18 need 2,000 to 2,400 calories per day. A study that compared elementary school lunches across the country found that the average elementary meal is over 664 calories and junior high and high school meals contain 700 to 850 (not including al a carte items that most students add). They also note that many children snack on other treats in school for parties, food that might be given out as a reward such as candy, food purchased from the a la carte line, drink and candy machines etc. All these calories add up!
I'm not suggesting that you count your kids calories. I just use the numbers to gain perspective. If my daughter eats school lunch and consumes all of it (not including other school treats) she has already eaten almost half the calories and often the majority of fat, saturated fat, and sodium that she needs in a day. For one meal to constitute half the total calories of a day, breakfast, snacks and dinner must be very low calorie, very low fat, and very low sodium meals to balance out her lunch.
However, I understand that school lunch is a necessity for some. I know schools try very hard to serve hundreds of thousands of children. But for health reasons and financial reasons, I have chosen to pack my children's school lunches. Further, school lunches are perhaps the one place where many at-risk-kids get a nutritionally dense meal. In these cases, school lunches are very beneficial to them.
The lunches I make from home are much cheaper – less than a dollar per lunch, much lower in calories yet more filling – and much, much, healthier. Here are a few ideas on making inexpensive, healthy lunches.
1. Give your child a whole sandwich
Even if they don't eat all of it, that is better than them feeling hungry instead of focusing on their schoolwork. My first grade daughter only wanted me to pack her half of a sandwich so I complied at first. But then I noticed she was coming home starving every day. I started packing her whole sandwiches and we don't have that problem anymore and she eats the whole thing every day.
2. Pack a fruit and a vegetable with instructions that they are to be eaten before the snacks.
My children often come home with their snacks half eaten but the fruits and veggies are gone.
3. Instruct children not to throw anything away – not even the baggies
Just pack everything back up in lunch box and bring it home. That way you can see what was eaten, re-use uneaten non-perishables, and re-use clean baggies (pretzels, crackers, etc.)
4. Buy containers that can be re-used time after time
We have a sandwich container which saves lots of baggies. Tupperware containers are very useful to pack different things in.
5. Buy in bulk and re-use small containers
I bought some snack-size raisin boxes and then just refill them with my bulk-size bag of raisins.
6. Send water as a drink
We all need to drink more water and water is the cheapest and healthiest option for your children. I just wash and re-use the water bottles.
7. Don't send sugary snacks every day
I often choose pretzels, granola bars, crackers, etc., for a snack because they are more filling and kids get plenty of sugar as it is.
8. Change it up often
Kids need variety. Sometimes I pack whole-wheat pancakes instead of a sandwich, or juice instead of water, or applesauce instead of the apple. There are so many different healthy options available there is no reason to be boring. And don't forget the "I love you" note once in a while. Have fun with your kids and enjoy helping them be healthy!
Remember, if you had three kids, you could save over $1,000 per year just by packing their lunches instead of having them buy school lunch. But most importantly, they will be eating foods that you choose and that are healthier for them!
Karen Jensen is married to her best friend, Jacob, and stays at home with their three darling kids, Rebekah (7), Jeffery (6), and Jace (2). Ever since she was young, Karen had a knack for finances. Throughout her childhood she often started up little money-making ventures that kept her and her younger siblings busy. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business Management. After graduation she moved to Nevada where she successfully turned a financially failing company into a profitable business. She also started up and ran other businesses until she had her first baby at age thirty. At that time she sold her business and quit her full time job in order to stay at home. Karen loves to write and has recently co-authored a book entitled Living a Rich Life as a Stay-at-Home Mom. She loves sports, especially water-skiing and biking. Her husband, Jacob, works in the construction field and together they have remodeled several homes. Her pride and joy in life is her family.