With so many packaged options out there, making good packed lunches may feel daunting (Alamy/PA)
11 October 2022

Should I stop paying for school dinners? How to make cheap – and nutritional – packed lunches

11 October 2022

As the cost-of-living crisis continues, with winter around the corner and energy bills soaring, parents may be having to make tough decisions as food shortages and high costs hit school kitchens.

According to recent research, 91% of the 99 school meal providers polled by Laca The School Food People across England and Wales said they are experiencing food shortages, with staples like bread, fish, cheese, pasta and potatoes affected.

According to the survey, some caterers have experienced 50% price increases since May, and 28% are now using more processed foods to cope with rising costs.

The survey found that 52.2% expect the quality of school meals to continue getting worse over the coming weeks and months.

“A well-planned and healthy lunchbox can be a great way to save on the cost of school meals, and to give kids something nutritious and delicious to support their learning,” says Dr Simon Steenson, nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation (nutrition.org.uk).

“But we all know that coming up with healthy and affordable ideas week in, week out, is no easy task.”

Prep for the week ahead

Although time may be tight, planning in advance can be a real money saver, and ensure the food you are giving your children is healthy.

Steenson says: “Giving yourself some routine time once a week to meal prep can make it easier to have healthy options that can be stored in the fridge, and then eaten cold during the week. This can save time and give kids and everyone else in the house a tasty lunch. Good options include a pasta, rice or a couscous salad. Try throwing in some extra fresh, frozen or canned veg to boost the fibre content, and help everyone towards their five a day.”

Start with starch

“The basis of the lunchbox meal should be a starchy food such as rice, pasta, bread, couscous, wraps, pitta, potatoes or chapatti,” says Steenson.

“Choose wholegrain varieties like wholemeal bread or brown pasta to have more fibre and a wider range of nutrients. Wholegrains also tend to release their energy more slowly – perfect for fuelling children for a busy afternoon at school.”

Plenty of protein

“Protein is important for growth throughout childhood, so try including a variety of protein foods in their packed lunch. Canned beans, peas and lentils can work great as part of a salad, rice or pasta dish, and can be cheap, convenient store cupboard essentials. If your child eats fish, then canned fish – especially oily ones like salmon or mackerel – can be a great sandwich filler,” says Steenson.

Snack hacks

Many schools require parents to provide snacks too.

“Snacking can make an important contribution to nutrient intakes, especially for younger children. Prepare and portion out a variety of healthier options in advance to store in the fridge, like carrot, celery or cucumber sticks, or a sliced apple, banana, or a handful of cherry tomatoes or grapes. Go for a variety of colours and eat the rainbow,” says Steenson.

While it might take a bit more work, buying whole veg and chopping it up yourself tends to be cheaper than pre-sliced versions you get in a packet.

Healthy hydration

Sometimes drinks can be the most unhealthy part of a lunchbox, but that doesn’t mean you should skip them entirely.

“Packing a drink is important, as children can get dehydrated more easily than adults. Healthy, pocket-friendly options include semi-skimmed milk or water – you can try flavouring water with a slice of cucumber, orange, or another fruit/veg your child likes,” suggests Steenson.

“Smoothies and juices can provide vitamins and minerals, but also contain acids and sugars that are bad for teeth – try to limit these to a maximum of one small glass a day, and dilute with water to make them go further.”

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