How to make healthy, nutritious (and delicious) kids' lunchboxes on a budget

Bonnie Evie Gifford
By Bonnie Evie Gifford,
updated on Sep 26, 2022

How to make healthy, nutritious (and delicious) kids' lunchboxes on a budget

Making a healthy, filling, nutritious lunch your child wants to eat shouldn’t be stressful – or break the bank. We share tips and tricks to help keep costs down while ensuring you’re helping make healthy food choices for your kids

School dinners have always had a bit of a bad reputation. Just try giving it a quick google: Why are school lunches… and you’ll get an autocomplete suggesting ‘so bad’. For many, the lack of variety and memories of past frozen, processed foods from our own childhood lunches make us wary of school dinners. As of April 2022, the average cost of a school dinner has reached £2.60 per day, making them a costly option for many families.

New research has revealed that packed lunches aren’t much better. According to research released by Starling Bank in September, the cost of kids’ packed lunches has increased by an eye-watering 70% since April 2021, from an average £1.40 to £2.37 per day. When you add in the additional time spent preparing lunches, cleaning up, and meal planning, not to mention the often strict school guidelines on what can and cannot be included in your child’s lunch, it can make preparing a daily lunchbox a stressful task.

With worries about the cost of living driving many families to cut back where they can, the rise in the cost of food feels like a double-edged sword. How are you supposed to give your child the best possible diet, without over-spending? The good news is, despite 41% of Brits associating healthy food with unaffordable prices, you can eat healthily for less. With a little bit of planning, getting back to basics, and trying top tips from nutrition experts, you can start making packed lunches a less stressful, more affordable option for the whole family.

What should be in a ‘school-approved’ packed lunch?

Making a packed lunch can be tricky. While the exact rules vary from school to school, many have banned items that were commonly considered as lunchbox staples. For parents with limited time and money, this can make lunches feel like a challenge.

It’s always worth checking with your school directly to ensure which foods are and aren’t allowed. Including banned foods can mean that part of your child’s lunch is confiscated, or they may be required to eat by themselves in another room. This can mean some kids may still feel hungry after lunch, as well as missing out on valuable time socialising with friends outside of the classroom.

Commonly banned foods can include:

  • chocolate or sweets
  • high-sugar yoghurts
  • crisps
  • anything containing nuts
  • cake or biscuits
  • fizzy drinks or squash
  • foods high in processed sugars
  • processed, packaged meat products (sausage rolls, store-bought pies or pasties)

Food also needs to be able to last until lunchtime without needing refrigeration and should be edible without the need for reheating.

But what is allowed in your child’s lunchbox? Schools often recommend:

  • at least one portion of fruit
  • at least one portion of vegetables
  • meat, fish or non-dairy protein (eg. peanut butter, chickpeas, hummus, falafel)
  • oily fish occasionally
  • starchy food (eg. bread, pasta, couscous, potatoes, rice, noodles)
  • dairy (eg. cheese, yoghurt, fromage frais)
  • Water, low fat milk, or up to 150ml of fruit/vegetable juice

Juggling all of those different requirements can feel overwhelming at first. Over time, it can become frustrating - especially if it feels like you’re having to resort to the same thing day after day, leading to some picky eaters sending home food or coming home hungry. But once you’ve got the hang of a few quick, lasting staples, and try a few different tricks to help cut back on costs without sacrificing nutrition, you can start to feel more confident in trying a variety of different lunch box offerings.

Why healthy eating for kids matters
Encouraging kids to eat a balanced, nutritious diet can help to set them up for a lifetime of healthier eating habits. Getting enough vitamins and minerals is vital in helping them grow and develop, as well as fueling them to feel more energised, motivated, and ready to learn.
The more kids learn about healthy eating now, the healthier their choices should become as they reach adulthood, and start to have more control over what and when they eat.

For kids, eating healthily means having a varied diet, developing a healthy relationship with food, and having appropriate portion sizes. Find out more about how you can support your child with healthy eating with Nutritionist Resource.

Back to basics: How do you make an affordable, healthy lunch box for kids?

Here are some quick and easy tips to help make preparing lunch for your kids (and yourself) less stressful and more affordable.

Meal planning (for ALL meals) - Planning ahead for all of your family’s meals can help keep overall costs down, while taking the stress out of prep the night before. Meal planning can help you to avoid impulse purchases and cut down on multiple costly top-up shops. Nutritionist Resource shares specific tips on planning, preparing, and packing for your child’s lunchtime.

Shop around - If you’re near more than one supermarket, shop around to compare prices. Many big supermarkets offer different ‘loss leaders’ - meaning they have deals or regular prices on certain items they know they are selling at a loss, but that the deal is good enough to attract customers (and hopefully get them to spend more on other high-profit items).

Common staples like bread, milk, and eggs are often loss leaders for multiple supermarkets. Adverts for particular deals on brand name items, seasonal meats or produce, or non-grocery deals on toiletries or electronics can all be used as ways to get you in and spending.

If you live somewhere which offers an actual market one or more days a week, this can be a great opportunity to get good deals on seasonal produce that is often fresher and locally sourced than what the supermarkets have to offer. Shopping local isn’t always more expensive – especially if you go towards the end of trading hours, when sellers are looking to take as little home with them as possible.  

Make the switch - We all have our favourite brands, whether it’s always opting for Heinz or treating ourselves to a nicer chocolate bar. But did you know switching from brand names to supermarkets own can save you up to £520 a year? Save the Student found you can save around a third of your weekly food budget by shifting down the brand tiers, moving from premium or manufacturers down to own-brand or value product ranges.

If you struggle to spot these cheaper brands whilst out shopping, look down low as supermarkets tend to keep the more expensive brands at eye level to make them easier to find. Switching to online shopping or click and collect costs a little more in delivery or pick and pack fees, but can help you to keep a tighter reign on your overall spending.

Buy in bulk - Comparing the cost of items per gram rather than per tin or packet takes longer, but can help make larger savings. Buying cupboard staples in bulk when they are on offer can help save in the long run, but doesn’t work for everyone. Consider if you have the space to store everything at home comfortably and safely, without making your kitchen harder to use.

Switch out processed for fresh, tinned or homemade - Fruit rollups and breakfast bars have long been favourite lunchbox treats for kids and teens. While they can often have a longer shelf life, they can also be pricy snacks. Switching these out for fresh or tinned fruit can be a healthier and cheaper option. Find out more about how you can make fresh fruit into bite-sized, fun lunchbox options.

If crisps have been banned from your school’s lunchboxes, try making plain homemade popcorn, picking up store-brand rice cakes, or even baking your own crispy chickpeas at home. Chickpeas can be made sweet or savoury, to create a healthy, satisfying and tasty lunchbox side dish.

Batch cooking - This isn’t just for dinners! Batch cooking can be a great way of saving time and money in the long run. It does take a little extra time to get started, and you will need the wiggle room in your budget to bulk-buy the initial ingredients, but this can save you time and money in the long run. Once you get into the hang of things, it’s possible to prepare ahead a whole month’s worth of dinners, lunches, and even breakfasts in just one afternoon.

Nutritionist resource shares simple batch bake lunches you can keep warm in a thermos or eat chilled, as well as batch bake snacks you can make and freeze or keep in your cupboard for lunches for the whole family.

Batch baking and freezing can also be a great way of giving kids the variety they want, without risking wastage. Freezing different simple carb options like bagels, pittas, wraps, wholemeal or multigrain breads means you can defrost a portion or two at a time. Batch cooking and freezing cookies, brownies, flapjacks, or even fruit skewers can also allow you to more cheaply make family favourite treats, then let kids choose which one they want the night before to allow it to defrost in time for lunch the next day.    

Frustrated with food waste? - If you’re finding your little one’s lunchbox keeps coming back with uneaten food, it can feel frustrating. Getting them involved in picking and/or preparing their own lunch can be a great way of making new foods feel less scary, and giving them a sense of control over what they are eating. ‘Fun’ meals like homemade lunchables (crackers or pittas with cheese, meat, hummus, and dipping veggies) or DIY wraps can also add a familiar yet fun element to lunch that doesn’t break the rules. Plus, it can be a tasty option for the whole family.

Lunchbox recipes to get you started

Memorable mains

  • Mini-picnic - picnic favourites can make for tasty everyday lunches. Nutritionist Resource shares their top vegan sausage roll recipe, along with a tasty super slaw that makes a great dinner side and leftover lunch addition. Or if you’re feeling a little more adventurous, try their healthier scotch egg recipe.
  • Lunchbox classics - Better Health healthier families have put together nine simple, complete lunchbox ideas for quick, easy, healthy lunches for hungry little tummies.
  • Easy flatbread pizza - who doesn’t love pizza? This healthier alternative looks and tastes just like pizza, without the hassle of making your own dough. Get kids involved to choose and make their favourite toppings. Plus, you can freeze your flatbread and make these in just five minutes the night before.
  • Kid-friendly pasta salad - an easy lunchbox filler you can use for dinner or lunch, cold pasta can make a great change from sandwiches and wraps.

Tasty alternatives to crisps

  • Healthy homemade veggie or fruit crisps - baked not fried, these colourful crisp alternatives are tasty and easily customisable. Try your hand at apple, carrot, kale, or even beetroot homemade crisps, flavoured with store cupboard essentials like garlic powder, paprika, or cayenne pepper.
  • Crunchy baked chickpeas - cheap and easy to make, all you need is a tin of chickpeas and seasoning you already have in your cupboard. Creating a satisfying crunch, you can flavour these with a wide variety of different spices, or even switch out chickpeas for broad beans if you prefer.

Delicious desserts

  • Chocolate and chickpea trail mix - with none of the unnecessary salt and sugar found in many store-brand and ready-made trail mixes, this recipe is nut-free, packed with protein, and super easy to prepare - all while tasting great. It’s also really simple to substitute in your child’s favourite fruits or preferred type of chocolate.
  • Batch baked flapjacks - made using dates, banana, and tahini, these easy-to-make flapjacks can make 12 portions that both keep your energy levels up and are freezable.

Need some more lunch box ideas for the whole family? Nutritionist Resource shares nutritionist-approved lunch box ideas to help you get started.

Making a healthy, cheap lunch that your child will actually eat every day can feel like a challenge - but it is worth it. Over time, you will start to feel more confident in cooking healthy alternatives that are both affordable and family favourites.

If you’re just getting started, remember: you don’t need expensive lunch boxes, bentos, or accessories. Using ice packs or insulated bags can be helpful to keep things fresher for longer. Worried about portion sizes? Read this helpful article from Nutritionist Resource on how much you should feed your child at different ages.

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