8 secrets to budget-friendly school lunches

Packing a lunch that's easy on the wallet isn't just about shopping habits -- you have to make sure it gets eaten, too. Follow these tips from a chef on prepping kid-friendly fare.

By Valerie Howes

Ways to save on bagged 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.

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