By Jenny Tschiesche, Founder – www.lunchboxdoctor.com
With the School Food Plan being rolled out in September giving each child in Key Stage 1 (ages 4-7) a free school meal there are questions being raised about siblings and the rest of school kids (age 7 plus). They need to know how to eat a healthy meal too, except theirs will not be free. So how can they learn about healthy lunches that are packed lunches rather than cooked and how can parents make sure that these healthier packed meals are not breaking the bank? We asked Britain’s leading lunchbox expert, the Lunchbox Doctor, to give us her take.
The price of food continues to rise. In fact between 2007 and 2012 the cost of food in Britain rose 32%[i]. For most of us it is unlikely, especially since we have been raising children in these intervening years that our disposable income has risen. So when it comes to producing healthy packed lunchboxes with delicious tasting food that we know our children will love it is hard enough without the added pressure of having to do so on a budget. However, for most of us we are trying to do so because we believe our children need the right foods for sustenance but also their current and long-term health. It has never been a harder task than it is today to produce a great tasting, healthy lunchbox within a budget, not only because of rising food process but also because of confusing marketing messages from food retailers and manufacturers. This article will bring together the most valuable hints and tips that will make this task possible.
Let’s start by looking at the six components of a balanced lunchbox and how each of these components or food groups can be represented at a lower cost:
Ideal low-cost lunchbox elements:
- Carbohydrates –
Make leftover risotto into balls, cover in beaten egg and breadcrumbs then gently sauté in olive oil.
Use old bread to make into croutons for soup or breadcrumbs for covering chicken or fish before baking. These nuggets or fingers work well with low sugar and salt ketchup.
- Protein –
Go to the deli counter and buy the ‘cuts’ the odd shaped pieces that get left and are lower in cost simply because they look less perfect than other pieces.
Use beans, lentils and chickpeas as an addition to a salad, in soups or to make delicious dips.
- Calcium –
Buy large pots of natural yogurt and divide into small reusable pots with a topping of honey, muesli, frozen or fresh fruit.
Budget hummus typically contains less tahini (the expensive ingredient) and more chickpeas (the cheaper ingredient) and yet is no less nutritious.
- Fruit –
Buy local and in season if possible to reduce the loss of nutrients through transporting fruit over long distances but also to reduce expenditure.
Frozen fruit is a cheaper way to enjoy nutrient-rich berries and tropical fruit such as mango all year round. Add to smoothies, use in baking or enjoy with natural yogurt.
- Vegetables –
A large jar of black olives can go a long way. Use on pizzas, fill with cream cheese using an icing bag, serve as part of a salad or whizz into a paste with herbs and olive oil to go onto pasta.
Frozen Mediterranean vegetables such as peppers are sweet and succulent once roasted. Enjoy as they are or added to pasta or rice with some cream cheese stirred in whilst hot.
- A drink –
Good old tap water will suffice in a water bottle that you clean out regularly using hot soapy water.
If you opt for a carton of juice avoid cartons labelled as ‘fruit drink’. Preferably go for fresh fruit juice or juice ‘from concentrate’. Concentrate simply means that the water from the fruit was removed at source for cheaper transportation.
For more details on ways to save money whilst still producing nutritionally balanced lunchboxes read on:
NAVIGATE YOUR SUPERMARKET
Without wanting to sound cynical supermarkets are designed to sell as much to us, the buyers, as possible. The stores are purposely designed in terms of colours, section divides, lighting, and ambience amongst other things to encourage us to part with our money. Although we know this it is easy to get distracted when shopping or attracted to what looks like a great offer or deal, but may not be when the price per 100g or per unit comparison is made. These are the best ways to navigate the supermarket to your advantage:
- Go at the right time of day/week. Near closing time is often a good time and just before the supermarket closes on a Sunday can be a rewarding time to go too. There are often reductions in food-stuffs that can be frozen and used only when needed. For lunchboxes pitta pockets, wraps and bread can easily be bought and frozen. You can easily split these into individual portion sizes before freezing. Some dairy products such as yogurt and butter can also be frozen and used when needed. Fruits such as berries can be frozen and used straight from the freezer, perhaps added to a yogurt or in baking muffins, cakes and flapjacks.
- Go to the reduced section on any shopping trip. Look for anything fresh that can be frozen such as fish or meat. Pick up reduced fruit and vegetables that could be used in baking. Overripe bananas are perfect for banana bread for example, whilst slightly limp carrots will work in vegetable muffins or carrot cake.
- Look above and below eye-level. Often the most expensive items are at eye-level. By looking above or below this line you may well find an almost identical product but for a much better price.
- Be familiar with the terminology used on the labels. Words like ‘finest’ or ‘extra special’ imply quality but they may be made in a very similar way to other products that simply carry a more basic label. Meanwhile ‘Value’, ‘Basic’ or ‘Saver’ will not necessarily mean that they are made any differently and may be cheaper to buy. Pasta and rice for example can be a lot cheaper in a budget brand and no less nutritious. Similarly tinned goods such as tomatoes and fruit are just as good and often a lot cheaper. Be aware of economy processed foods though. They often contain more sugar and salt than other brands.
- Look at price per 100g or per product unit. This allows you to make direct comparisons in price. Don’t always assume that the larger sized packets mean better value per unit. Often they do not.
- Allow time to shop. This gives you time to make informed decisions rather than rushing in and picking up your usual brands or familiar products.
- Leave children at home if possible. It is a lot easier to concentrate and make off-list decisions without any interference or distraction.
The second tip is, where possible, to use local shops. If you are lucky enough to have them locally then use your greengrocer, fishmonger, and butcher or food market. You don’t pay for all the packaging that ends up in the bin and you’ll often be surprised at what you get for your money. An added advantage is that you can see what you are paying for because you can touch and feel the product without having to peer through some plastic covering. Once you are a regular and build up a rapport with the shopkeeper it is likely that they will make recommendations to help you save money or throw in a freebie or two just for being a good customer.
AVOID FOOD WASTAGE
The third piece of advice is to avoid food wastage. Evening meal surplus can often make great packed lunches the following day. Cooked new potatoes, rice, or pasta can be a great basis for a salad for lunch. All you need do is add a sauce or topping such as natural yogurt, cream cheese, an oil such as olive oil, a vinegar such as balsamic or apple cider vinegar and some vegetables like peas, sweetcorn, tomatoes or olives and you have at least two of the six components of the balanced lunchbox. Soup is perfect heated up and sent to school in small flask with some bread and cheese. Vegetable soups are another opportunity to incorporate vegetables into your child’s lunchbox. They are incredibly cheap and simple to make. Here‘s a basic vegetable soup recipe:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 stick celery, sliced
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
550g (4oz) fresh vegetables, peeled and diced
1 medium potato, peeled and diced
½ stock cube
900ml (30 fl oz) water
Salt and pepper
- Heat a large saucepan with the oil in
- Fry the onion, garlic and celery until soft but not brown
- Add the vegetables and cook until mildly soft
- Add the diced potato
- Add the stock cube and water
- Simmer for 15 -20 minutes. Check the vegetables are all cooked
- Whizz in a blender until smooth
- Season to taste
- Pop in the Thermos for your child to take to school
BUY IN BULK
The fourth element to preparing the healthy but budget lunchbox is to buy in bulk. What I mean by this is to buy in a larger size then divide up the food into individual portions. This can save an astonishing amount of money.
- Cheese is a great example of how this can work. Buy a large chunk or block of cheese then chop into portions for use. Again no packaging means you can often save a huge amount of money.
- Yogurt – decant a larger pot into securely fastened smaller pots. This means that a natural yogurt can be used as the basis of a varied lunchbox component. Add muesli, granola, fruit puree, frozen fruits, fresh fruit, dried fruit or even cereals to give a different flavour and texture to natural yogurt portions.
- Crisps – we all hear how unhealthy crisps are but why deny something if your kids will just go crazy for them later in life. They could be allowed some crisps, within reason i.e. ready salted, baked, root vegetable crisps or perhaps tortilla’s decanted into smaller bags so they get a much smaller portion but they at least feel ‘normal’.
The fifth tip is to use reusable pots. We spend a lot on disposable food coverings such as cling film and foil. In fact if we ditch the cling film and foil we can replace it with containers with lids that can be reused. These are great for kids taking foods to school, especially as we have discussed above where they may be taking a portion of yogurt and granola to school. Another way to save money is to ensure that left-overs in the fridge are covered by simply placing a plate over the top rather than using expensive cling film each time.
MAKE YOUR OWN
Finally one of the best ways to save money when preparing healthy packed lunches on a budget is to make your own.
- Bread – although it can take a little time it is a rewarding activity which you can do with the kids. It does work out cheaper at no more than 60p per loaf to home-make bread versus up to £2.00 for a shop-bought loaf. Bread-machines or kneading machines that do some of the work for you make this task even quicker.
- Cakes, muffins and biscuits are not only cheaper but much better for the children in the knowledge that you and only you put the ingredient in their baked goods and you know what all the ingredients are. How often do you find baked goods in shops with labels that contain ingredients you have never heard of? Our children aren’t chemistry experiments.
- Fruit salad – You can pay a huge amount of money for pre-prepared fruit. I do buy these from time-to-time, generally when they are reduced, for convenience reasons. However they can be made for a lot less money. A pineapple, some banana and a few kiwi fruit can go a long way. Remember to add a little lemon juice to stop the fruit from oxidising (going brown).