PUBLISHED: 4:00 PM on Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Packing healthy lunches on a budget

School is starting and it's time to pack lunches again. While it may be easy to purchase a prepackaged meal to send with your child, this may not be the best choice for families looking to provide nutritious meals on a budget. These packaged lunches are expensive and are often high in fats and sodium. Additionally, they contain little, if any, fruits and vegetables. For example, a Turkey and Cheddar Cracker lunch package costs between $3 and $3.50. This meal includes crackers, processed cheddar cheese, cured turkey, Skittles and a cherry flavored juice drink. This lunch package provides no vegetables or dietary fiber and the juice drink is largely sugar. Also, it contains high amounts of fat, cholesterol and sodium. (See example of nutrition label below. These values are based on a 2000 calorie per day diet.) A similar lunch of a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread, baby carrots, raisins, vanilla yogurt and 100 percent apple juice can be prepared for as little as $2.

When packing lunches it is important to keep in mind that children's caloric needs vary based on age, sex and activity levels. The following chart provides daily dietary guidelines for children who are moderately active (about one hour per day). To determine your child's specific needs please visit

Here are some ideas to send your child to school with a nutritious lunch and keep within your food budget at the same time:

• Make your own lunch packages and pack them in paper bags or lunch boxes. Try a turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread, baby carrots, raisins, vanilla yogurt and 100 percent apple juice. This lunch includes whole grains, fruits, and vegetables and is much lower in fats, sodium and sugars.

• Buy baby carrots, broccoli, dried fruits, and crackers in large packages and put in smaller containers or bags. For someone eating 2000 calories per day, a serving of baby carrots is approximately 14 carrots.

• Include as many of the five food groups as possible. Use whole grain breads, pitas or tortillas and fill them with lots of vegetables and tuna or turkey.

• Make soups or stews and refrigerate or freeze individual servings to pack in a lunch box.

• Prepare fruits and vegetables ahead of time by washing and cutting them so they are quick and easy to pack.

• Prepare lunches while making dinner the night before. Cook extra meats or vegetables to be used the next day.

• Invite family members into the kitchen to help assemble their own lunches. This is a great time to spend time together and learn about cooking, food safety and healthy eating.

• Roast a whole chicken or turkey and use it for several meals. Promptly freeze any that will not be used within a few days. This is less expensive and healthier than processed deli meals.

• Fill a small thermos with 100 percent fruit juice or water rather than spending extra money on individually-sized juices or bottled waters.

• Fresh or dried fruit and low-fat yogurt make a great dessert alternative to cookies or candy. Be aware that many fruit flavored yogurts are high in sugar. To avoid unnecessary sugar, consider purchasing plain or vanilla yogurts and adding fruit to them.

A lunch package can cost as much as $3.50. For $2.00 or less you can send your child to school with a homemade nutritious lunch and save $7.50 per week on your child's lunches. With a bit of practice you'll easily keep within your food budget and ensure your child is eating a healthy, balanced lunch without a lot of extra effort. Next time you're tempted to reach for a pre-packaged lunch at the grocery store, try a few of these tips instead.

Helen Idzorek is the Nutrition Educator for the UAF Cooperative Extension Service, Juneau District.