Originally published: September 2022
With back-to-school season in full swing, making school lunches is back on the agenda. With a little planning and creativity, packing school lunches can be a lot less daunting and can even help your family save money (a welcomed benefit if you have growing teens at home). Lunches that include whole grain foods, vegetables and fruits, and protein foods provide the nutrients and energy needed for teens to grow and develop while also supporting their learning and engagement at school. Here are some ideas and tips to help make preparing lunches easier and more affordable.
Meal plan for success
Taking the time to plan meals for the week can take the guesswork out of what to make for meals, including lunches. Here are some tips for successful meal planning:
- Get your teen involved in meal planning. For example, use dinner time to brainstorm meal ideas or to build a grocery list together. Involving teens in the meal planning process teaches them life skills such as budgeting, organizing, reading and preparing recipes and writing a grocery list.
- Plan for leftovers. Increasing dinner servings so that there are leftovers for lunch is a great way to simplify school lunch prep the next day.
- Save your meal plan to use again. Once you have a few weeks of meal plans ready, you can use them in rotation or look back at them for ideas for future weeks.
Make a plan for ‘eating out’. Talk to your teen about when they will buy a school lunch from the cafeteria, canteen or off campus and make a plan together. Discuss how often they will buy food from the cafeteria or other food vendors, and talk with them about how to make nutritious food choices from the menu. Talk about considerations for buying food from convenience stores where options may be limited.
Meal prep to stay ahead of the game
- Teach your teen how to bake from scratch. Having prepared snacks on hand, such as wholegrain muffins, bannock or granola makes it easy to put a lunch together. Freezing large batches of baking can provide grab-and-go snacks for a few months at time. Teens can help choose and bake recipes that they will enjoy. For recipe ideas go to Inspiring Healthy Eating.
- Get your teen to help prep fresh vegetables and fruit ahead of time. Having ready-to-eat produce on hand makes it easy for teens grab food when putting their lunch together on their own.
- Repurpose food. If you have vegetables that need to be used up, bring them together to create soup, chili or stir-fry that you can freeze and use for lunches in the future.
Talk with your teen about how using a meal plan to build your grocery list ensures you don’t forget what you need and makes you less likely to buy things impulsively.
Win at grocery shopping
Once you have a meal plan and a grocery list, grocery shopping becomes a lot more efficient. Being prepared helps reduce the chance of buying food that doesn’t get eaten. Less food waste helps save money while also reducing the impact on the environment. Here are a few tips for grocery shopping:
- Shop the sales together. Ask your teen to help you use flyers, coupons and apps and plan lunches based on items that are priced well.
- Consider shopping for a mix of fresh, frozen and canned produce. Frozen or canned (packed in water or juice) vegetables and fruit are a great alternative and are equally nutritious and often less expensive than fresh options.
- Tackle grocery shopping as a team. Grocery shopping is a great opportunity to engage your teen in how to read food labels. Understanding % daily value, ingredient lists and nutrition claims can help them make informed food choices when they buy food on or off campus.
Pack lunches like a pro
With meal planning and preparation under your belt, putting it all together is a breeze! Here are some tips to help your teen pack up school lunches:
- Use reusable containers, like water bottles, containers, and food wraps. Using these items in place of single use alternatives is an environmentally friendly option that also reduces costs in the long term. Make sure you choose containers that your kids can open on their own. It helps them access their food and also builds their independence and confidence.
- Use an insulated lunch bag and containers. Keeping foods at the right temperature (hot or cold) is important to keep food safe to eat. For tips on keeping hot food hot and cold food, check out Keeping school lunches safe.
Lean into community resources
If you don’t have enough food for school lunches, it’s okay to reach out for help. There are often programs and services available to ensure teens have access to breakfast, lunch, and snacks at school. Schools may also have options to assist with other school related costs. You can call Alberta 211 or reach out to your school principal or teacher for information on programs and supports at school or in your local area.
For more tips, go to:
- Create a healthy grocery list
- Meal planning template
- Tips for making lunch
- Tips to spend less money on food