Money & Career

8 secrets to budget-friendly school lunches

Author: Canadian Living

Money & Career

8 secrets to budget-friendly school lunches

If you give your kids cash for the school cafeteria every day, it quickly adds up -- and you have no idea if they're blowing the lot on fries and pop. Top Chef Canada winner and single dad Dale MacKay packs healthy lunches for his 10-year-old son, Ayden. Here are the Vancouverite’s tips on saving money and making sure your kids eat right.

1. Team up on prep
Get children involved in their own lunch-box prep. "Ayden really loves to chop stuff," says MacKay. "I have to watch him, but I let him do his own raw vegetables in the morning." If kids feel more invested in the meal they bring to school, they're more likely to eat it -- and less likely to come home and raid the fridge or beg for snacks before supper.

2. Teach the vitamin A, B, Cs
"I show Ayden everything that's in the lunchbox before he heads off to school," says MacKay. "I explain why he needs to eat this and that, and the importance of eating all his veggies." Talking about nutrition and its impact on things like energy and focus works especially well with older children. Clued-in kids are more likely to clean out their lunchbox, and they’re also establishing healthy notions around food.

3. Go veggie
MacKay remembers his distaste as a kid for buttery meat sandwiches that had been sitting in his locker all morning. Not only does sandwich meat fare poorly out of the fridge, it's a relatively expensive protein. These days, Canada's Top Chef sticks to tasty vegetarian sandwiches for his son; a favourite is falafel with yoghurt, cucumber, cumin and coriander on focaccia. Bonus: the main ingredient here -- chickpeas -- can be bought ready-to-use in a big can for less than a toonie.

4. Think bright
"My son is a picky eater, so it's a big challenge getting him to eat certain lunches," confides MacKay. Baby carrots and cucumber sticks with dips such as hummus and tzatziki are colourful and appealing to kids. To save money, make the dips at home. For hummus, blend chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and cumin. To make tzatziki, mix grated cucumber, crushed garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper into plain yogurt.

Page 1 of 2 - Keep reading for four more tips5. Do the work
When there's fun to be had in the schoolyard, many kids don't have the patience for a long lunch. "If I just put an orange in Ayden's lunchbox, he won't take the time to peel it," says MacKay. The chef’s trick: peel and segment or chop fruit and send it to school in a small container. 

6. Go for grains
"Get your kids eating cold salads made with nutritious whole grains such as quinoa or bulgur wheat. Super grains are super cheap!" says MacKay. Ayden likes bulgur wheat cooked couscous-style. His dad throws in chopped cilantro or parsley and olive oil, plus a few golden raisins for sweetness. 

7. Shop like a Top Chef
MacKay prefers buying fresh, local ingredients to get more nutritional bang for his buck. "Go to the farmer's market and buy in bulk," he suggests. The chef also pays attention to what's on sale in the grocery store. "You can make things in large batches and freeze them." 

8. Pack smart
A hidden cost when it comes to school lunches is packaging—especially when expensive items go astray. MacKay has his kid kitted out with a reusable lunch bag and washable containers, which is better for the pocket and the planet. Rather than pay extra for juice boxes, he fills a Thermos with chilled apple or grape juice. "And we have a deal going," he says. "If Ayden doesn't bring home his lunch bag, he can't get his lunchbox treat -- a little piece of chocolate or a small bag of chips -- the next day." 

Talking, prepping and even grocery shopping together are all great ways to get your kids appreciating the value -- in dollars and nutrients -- of their packed lunch. Just bear in mind that to keep things cheap and cheerful, you also need to keep them simple. "I'm not packing chef meals for Ayden," says MacKay. "All kids really want at school is something easy to eat."

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8 secrets to budget-friendly school lunches

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