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Your guide to saving on school lunches

Summary

Want to give your child the most nutrition for your buck – along with a meal they’ll actually eat? Here are several strategies for adding flavor and appeal to lunches without spending more time or money.

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Call it the lunch box blues.

A month or so after school starts, lunch box boredom begins. For children, it means getting the same couple of sandwiches day after day. For parents, it means constantly finding the time (and money) to make healthy lunches their kids will eat.

On top of that, most middle- and upper income families spend about $3.02 per person per meal, according to 2017 figures from Feeding America. That’s roughly $544 annually going into each child’s lunch bag.

And while some parents feel lunchtime excitement comes with a higher price tag, that’s not necessarily the case.

Want to give them the most nutrition for your buck – along with a meal that your child, tween or teen will actually eat? From skipping individually packaged foods to reimagining items from last night’s dinner, there are a few smart strategies that parents, food pros, and nutritionists are using to add flavor and appeal to lunches without spending more time or money.

Think of it as your cheat-sheet for beating the lunch box blues – and saving along the way.

1. Skip individually packaged foods.

For many items, a larger size and less packaging means a better price, says Morford.

If you belong to a warehouse club (like BJ’s Wholesale Club, Costco Wholesale, and Sam’s Club), bulk buys on less perishable food items and non-perishables (like lunch bags), can be another way to cut costs.

Buy family-size options and put them into individual containers as you use them. Quinn recommends a kid-powered assembly line on weekends or the night before to get it done.

Not only does it give you time to talk with children about food, but it’s yet another way to involve them in their own meal prep.

Money-saving strategy:

Grab loyalty rewards. Buying those lunch box supplies can also be a good time to layer on extra rewards, deals and discounts. So don’t be afraid to combine store loyalty rewards, store loyalty discounts and credit card rewards.

Some grocers also offer fuel points, rewards, or targeted coupons when you join their loyalty programs, says Miller. “For me, if my store knows my buying patterns and wants to give me coupons for it – I’m fine with it.”

Miller’s price cutting strategy: She layers her store’s fuel points and targeted coupons with her Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express’s 3 percent cashback at U.S. supermarkets (up to $6,000 annually, then 1 percent).

2. Get creative with leftovers.

When searching for lunch ideas, “I would look to dinner the night before,” says Quinn.

One favorite: rice balls. When Quinn’s making a pot of sticky rice for dinner, she’ll make a little extra. The next morning, she slices up the previous main course, chops in a couple vegetables (like carrots and scallions), and rolls the mixture in the cold sticky rice to form balls. Not only is the finger food kid-friendly, but three or four balls make a good lunchtime protein.

From quinoa to noodles, a lot of dinners (or dinner ingredients), can be re-purposed as part of a healthy, fun lunch.

Making pasta? Save some of cooked noodles. Miller likes to toss them with balsamic vinegar, olive oil and parmesan for a cold pasta salad. Or just add a favorite vinaigrette dressing.
Soup, chili or rice-and-beans for supper? Reheat it the next morning to include with lunch.

3. Invest in a lunchbox that makes your job easier.

From multiple compartment boxes to bags designed to keep food cool, there are a lot of good options to keep your child’s food hot or cold all day.

Miller likes the soft-sided, insulated lunch carriers that go into the freezer overnight.

Quinn prefers a box that provides a series of small compartments. “A lot of mainstream makers are now making clever lunch boxes,” she adds. Or you can also use several small containers.

Multiple compartments also help parents visualize a collection of small snacks, which can be more appealing to some children.

Instead of a sack lunch, your child opens “a treasure box of goodies,” Morford says. A typical lunch could have crackers, swirls of turkey, a bundle of grapes and some carrots. And, a good thermos “can be really handy” for soups, stews and chilis, Morford adds.

Money-saving strategy:

Pay for your school lunch supplies with a rewards card and use the bonus rewards. And since those bonus categories change, that can mean periodically revamping your wallet.

Two examples: Chase Freedom and Discover It Cash Back both offer 5 percent rewards on up to $1,500 in quarterly purchases following quarterly activation. In 2019, Discover included grocery stores from January through March, while Chase earmarked the category for April through June.

Discover is also giving 5 percent rewards at Target, Walmart.com and Amazon.com from October through December. And Chase did the same with warehouse clubs from October through December of 2018.

While $75 over three months isn’t a ton, it could pay for some school clothes or a new backpack.

4. Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.

Not only is it more appealing, but it’s also healthier. While many offices have break rooms, your child’s lunch will spend the morning in an unrefrigerated locker, backpack or desk. So it pays to be careful.

A couple of pro tips:

  • For sandwiches, freeze the bread first, says Quinn. When lunch time rolls around, that sandwich will be thawed and moist.
  • Freeze juice boxes or milk cartons. They’ll thaw by lunch, but in the interim they’ll keep the lunch bag or box cooler. You can also pick up reusable “cold packs” to do the same thing.
  • If you’re packing hot items into a thermos, reheat them that morning on the stove – which tends to get foods hotter than microwaving, Morford says. Then fill the thermos first with hot water, says Morford. Discard the water, pour in the hot food and screw the lid on tight.

5. Think in terms of appetizers or finger foods.

For some kids, a big serving of one item seems like too much to handle. But smaller portions of a few different things tempts their appetites and adds variety. Not to mention saving money on food that gets eaten instead of pitched into the trash.

“I like to do a lot of small things,” says Miller, who packs both breakfast and lunch for her two high school runners.

The menu changes constantly, but popular options include nibbles like yogurt with a swirl of jam or Nutella, grapes, cereal, cinnamon bread, dried fruit, apple sauce, cheese, olives, pickles, pretzels, and pepperoni.

And you can’t go wrong with smaller portions of a few different things, “tapas style,” she says. Her aim: “A variety of fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese and carbs.

Another option: Pack individual components, along with wraps or bread. “Then they can build whatever they want,” Miller says.

Money-saving strategy:

Investigate food store app deals. Store apps can offer additional discounts. Check out the ones for the markets where you regularly buy school lunch supplies and fixings. One example: Target’s Cartwheel, which gives users an extra 5 to 50 percent off select items.

Miller estimates she saves an extra 5 to 10 percent off per trip – no searching or clipping necessary. “You get hidden deals without having to scroll through 500 coupons,” she says.

And don’t forget rebate apps, which return cash for purchases you’ve already made. One example: Ibotta which rebates 50 cents to several dollars each on a variety of food and lunch related items.

6. Think tastes and textures.

A mix of salty and sweet is appealing, says Quinn. So are different textures, like creamy yogurt with crunchy apple slices.

Want your kid to eat cucumbers? “It could be as simple as how you cut it,” she finds. One tip: Take a minute to take out the seeds and slice them into spears.

Dips and nut butters are another way to add flavor, interest and nutrition. One option: fill a small container with hummus, then include pita chips or a favorite vegetable (like carrot sticks, celery sticks or cucumbers). “It’s a kid-friendly dip,” says Quinn.

You can even use nut butters or coconut oil as sandwich spreads instead of mayo, says Quinn. “It creates a little pizzazz.”

Sauces can add a kick, too. One favorite: Teriyaki. Slice some of last night’s chicken or beef into strips and pack a container of teriyaki sauce, says Quinn.

Other condiments that add flavor and spice to lunchtime goodies: Sesame seeds, mustard, or ranch dressing.

7. It pays to know your audience. And everyone has preferences when it comes to food.

“I have one kid who just would not eat a sandwich,” says Lucinda Scala Quinn, author of Mad Hungry: Sunday Suppers and Mad Hungry: Game Day Food.

Want to get some new ideas for sandwich alternatives? “I always looked internationally,” she says.

Some suggestions: Roll whatever you’d put in a sandwich into a wrap, says Quinn. Or make rice balls from last night’s dinner leftovers and sticky rice.

Another approach: skewers. Morford intersperses chunks of bread with cherry tomatoes, mozzarella “and maybe a basil leaf,” she says. Or put their favorite sandwich fixings on a bagel, Morford says.

Give students some options on their lunch box and their food, says Quinn. “Once they’re involved and you’ve asked them to make a choice, they’re invested.”

When you shop for food, ask “what are one or two things you want to try in your lunchbox this week?” says Morford. And find ways to include those choices in their lunches.

Have kids bring home whatever’s left, stead of pitching it, says Robin Miller, nutritionist and author of The Robin Takes 5 Cookbook for Busy Families. That way, you know which lunch box items are a hit – and which aren’t.

Money-saving strategy:

If you’re buying groceries and school lunch staples anyway, you might as well get something for it. Here are a couple of cards with good rewards at the grocery store:

  • The Blue Cash Preferred from American Express will pay 6 percent back on up to $6,000 worth of purchases at U.S. supermarkets every year (then 1 percent). Even with a $95 annual fee, you could still come out $265 ahead. Plus, if you spend $1,000 in the first three months, you get a $250 statement credit.
  • Don’t want to pay an annual fee? Citi Double Cash pays 1 percent when you buy and another 1 percent when you pay your balance – for a 2 percent cash-back total. Buy that same $6,000 in groceries, and you’d save $120 annually.
  • Amazon Prime member? The Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature card returns 5 percent on purchases at Whole Foods and Amazon. No annual fee, but the mandatory Prime membership costs $59 to $119 annually. Net savings for that same $6,000 in groceries: $181 to $241.

You can also use rewards to cut costs of what goes into that lunch box. Either cash in points for statement credits (and use the money you save toward groceries), or trade points for food-store gift cards.

8. Look to their friends for clues.

While Quinn’s son normally hated lentil soup, he raved about the kind a friend’s mom made. Turns out, it was a simpler recipe – pretty much lentils, carrots and water.

Quinn adopted the recipe, “and he’s loved it ever since.”

Another fun food for lunch: chickpeas. They’re inexpensive, packed with protein and can be eaten hot (in soups and stews) or cold (whole or ground into dips or spreads).

They’re also the “gateway bean,” when it comes to getting kids to appreciate healthy fare, says Quinn. Throw in a little celery, lemon juice, salt, pepper or some dill — and you’ve got a yummy snack.

Money-saving strategy:

Take advantage of sale days for stocking up on family food and lunch box goodies. Some grocers offer sales on certain days of the week – hoping to get more traffic during off days, says Miller. And these might change, depending on the time of year.

“I always look out for that,” she says. “And I get at least 10 and probably 15 percent off.”

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