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How to save big money on lunches
With the school year underway, lunches that are inexpensive and offer some variety have become a daily need again. I've proven time and again that buying school lunch (or any lunch out) is much more expensive than making it yourself but sometimes you're just tapped out on ideas. Before you slap together another PB and J, read on to see how to save big money on lunches… and also have very healthy options.
Shop and prepare seasonal produce
Fall's produce bounty overflows with fruits and vegetables that are in season during September, October, and into November. Produce that is in season – and thus, less expensive – during Fall includes:
Fruits: apples, pumpkins, grapes, varieties of pears, some cherries, pineapples, key limes, cranberries, persimmons, and passion fruit.
Vegetables: endive, multiple varieties of squash, some peppers, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, garlic, broccoli, cauliflower, numerous varieties of lettuces and greens, turnips, corn, and Brussels sprouts.
Nuts and seeds: sunflower seeds (kernels) and walnuts
Of course, this is only a partial list. There are dozens more varieties. Plus, you always have produce selections that are available year-round, like bananas, olives, onions, potatoes, coconuts, bell peppers, and lemons.
With such a wide variety of produce available, homemade lunches can be both less expensive and healthier than the go-to prepackaged choices. Varying degrees of prep work and cooking are involved but a lot of produce can, and should, be eaten raw.
Much of how to make produce work for lunches is all in the packaging it up and making eating easy. Cut or dice up produce into bite-sized pieces. If including things like veggie dip or nut butter, invest in small 2-ounce containers with lids. Use containers with compartments (like a Bento box) or even plastic baggies to keep parts of the lunch separated. Use the container lid as a small plate or include one. And don't forget to have a way to eat it all by remembering to pack utensils.
Above all, begin to look at the sum of food, rather than needing the individual components to “make” something. It's okay to have lunch be a small collection of favorites, such as some sliced chicken breast, served with a few pieces of raw veggies with dip, and some grapes with a few walnuts. Items don't have to make the standard lunch sandwich. And you don't need a sugary treat if you add sweet fruits.
Along with seasonal produce, you do have some “in season” meat options as well. Sale prices will be found during Fall on several varieties of fish and shellfish (such as crab), cuts of beef, and poultry (such as turkey). When prices are low, consider these for lunch offerings, rather than just thinking of them for dinner.
Use your slow cooker and oven
Once you have your produce and (optional) meats, get your slow cooker or oven going to make large batches of delicious items that reheat well. If you set aside time to cook one day a week, you can make an entire week's worth of lunches all at the same time. Just allow everything to cool properly after cooking, portion into labeled containers, and stack them up to grab each morning. Done.
The bottom line is savings
Pound for pound, or piece for piece, fresh foods beat packaged foods for volume and value nearly every time. For example, grapes are currently around $1.69 (or less) per pound but a pound of potato chips is $3.18. An ear of corn is 34 cents (or less) but a snack-pack of animal crackers is 50 cents.
We compared a typical school lunch consisting of 5 whole grain chicken nuggets, one roll, a scoop of canned or frozen corn, and a few fresh veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, and baby carrots, served with strawberries or strawberry dessert, and milk. This lunch would cost a (non-supplemented) average of $2.55.
Bring the same thing from home – and only spend around $1.50. That means you'd save at least $1 per lunch, per person – or 42%. Add that up for a month… and then the whole school year for your family!
[Estimate breakdown: nuggets – 49 cents; roll – 7 cents; corn (fresh) – 17 cents; fresh veggies – 38 cents; some fresh strawberries (or strawberry dessert like gelatin) – 20 cents; and milk – 19 cents.]