When it comes to making children a packed lunch, most of us are full of good intentions.
But sometimes just how healthy their lunchboxes end up being boils down to how much time we have in the morning and what’s left in the fridge.
Throw in a cost of living crisis and many parents might struggle to know how to feed their children on a budget.
Although the government has increased spending to provide free meals for the youngest school-age children, families with older kids are required to pay for the option of hot school dinners, causing many to send children to school with more cost-effective packed lunches.
But many are left scratching their heads about how to put together cheap, yet healthy meals for the family.
"With the cost of living crisis and the price of food on the rise it is becoming more challenging for parents and care givers to provide reasonably priced yet healthy packed lunches," explains nutritionist Jenna Hope, founder of the Food Safety Mum.
"Healthy eating is often deemed to be more expensive than ultra-processed foods which are typically higher in sugars, salt and fat.
"However, preparation and smart tips can help to save you money whilst providing your children with nutrient-dense school lunches."
Easy ways to save money on packed lunches...
Batch cook and freeze
Cooking in bulk is a great, cost-effective way to ensure children get a nutritious lunch without having to fork out on expensive school dinners.
"Preparing large quantities of healthy meals in advance and freezing the excess ensures you have lunches on hand for the week and saves money in the long run," says Brean Horne, personal finance expert at NerdWallet.
Meals that are great for batch-cooking at the weekend to be used throughout the following week include cold pasta and rice salads, quiche, homemade chicken nuggets, fish goujons and frittatas or Spanish omelettes.
Make leftovers last
Using leftovers from meals that children enjoy for their lunches throughout the week will help save time and money on additional lunch ingredients.
"Try bulking out the initial evening meals with extra veggies to make the dish as cost-effective as possible," suggests Horne. "And portion out lunches in Tupperware for the fridge as you serve up meals to avoid being tempted by the possibility of a second helping."
Make sure you use the leftovers within the next day or two to avoid them going to waste, or freeze them to be used at a later date.
Switch shop-bought for homemade
To avoid wasting money on over-priced products, Horne suggests trying to make as many meals from scratch at home.
"For example, making a batch of homemade hummus using a supermarket tin of chickpeas for kids to dip their favourite veggies and breadsticks into is far more cost-effective than buying the pre-made supermarket pots," he adds. "You can also freeze dips to be used at a later date and reduce further waste."
Horne also suggests avoiding buying pre-made and processed snacks or juice cartons and instead making healthier options at home.
"Examples of healthy homemade snacks include fruit skewers, oat-based cookies or biscuits, cheese straws, cheese crackers, egg muffins and banana bread," he adds.
Opt for cous cous
While cous-cous is a similar price to rice, according to Hope it requires far less energy to cook it, therefore making it more cost-effective.
"It’s also higher in protein than rice and can therefore keep your little one fuller for longer too. Try adding in some frozen peas for some extra nutrition too."
Make use of budget stores
Many budget stores such as Lakeland and Aldi are handy for picking up things like lunch containers and water bottles, which are great value for money and ensure your child's food stays fresh and protected.
"Try and opt for insulated containers that will keep lunches and drinks cool throughout the school day," adds Horne.
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Add in egg muffin treats
Eggs can be a very nutritious but affordable staple to add to a child's diet.
"Switch out ultra-processed cakes and muffins for egg muffins," suggests Hope. "Simply whisk up some eggs in a bowl (add any frozen fruits or vegetables), pour them into muffin cases and bake for around 10 minutes. These make for a perfect quick and easy addition to a packed lunch."
Try frozen fruit instead of fresh sometimes
According to Horne, frozen fruit is a more budget-friendly way to ensure your child is getting their five-a-day as it will last a lot longer than fresh fruit.
"Frozen fruit is also a great way to ensure lunches remain cool throughout the day as by the time lunchtime comes, their frozen mango, pineapple or strawberries will be ready to go," he adds.
Shop smart at supermarket sales
Stock up on your child’s favourite snacks when a local supermarket has a deal on them.
"It helps if the snacks can be frozen to avoid waste and they can also be used as a treat every once in a while," Horne says.
Make it part of your weekly routine to create a lunchtime meal plan with your kids, suggests Horne.
"Getting them involved in what they will be eating at school can be really engaging and useful," he says. "You could let them decide which snacks or fruit they want for the week while you choose the main meal, based on what you’re planning to batch-cook that week."
Try plant-based proteins
Plant-based proteins such as beans, pulses and legumes can be a cheaper way to incorporate good quality protein and fibre into your children’s diet, according to Hope.
"Where possible, bulk-buying dried beans and pulses and cooking them in batch is the most affordable way of preparing these foods," she explains."Try adding these to mince dishes to bulk them out or stirring them into soup for a nutritious and cheaper lunch."
Switch chicken or tuna for canned sardines
Canned sardines can be a more affordable way to incorporate omega-3 into the diet.
"Omega-3 plays an important role in supporting cognitive function, hormone production and joint health," explains Hope. "Sardines can also a source of protein and healthy fats too. Sardines can be added to pasta or cous cous for a nutritious lunch."
Remember oats aren't just for breakfast
High-sugar cereals can be expensive, but oats remain a more affordable option.
"One bag of oats goes much further than a box of cereal too," adds Hope. "Oats are rich in fibre to help support a beneficial gut microbiome and can keep your child fuller for longer throughout the morning or afternoon."
If you don’t have time to cook porridge for breakfast, Hope suggests trying overnight oats which will also help to save on energy as they require no cooking.
"Overnight oats can be a great lunch option for your children as they’re eaten cold, they’re nutritious and they’re super filling too," she adds.