Healthy, Affordable School Lunch: Advice for Busy Parents from a Registered Dietitian and Mom.
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Close up photo of a person's hands assembling a healthy lunch.

It can be tough pulling together daily school lunches for picky eaters. As a mother of four and a registered dietitian, I know this struggle well.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that from 2017-2020, 19.7% of people in America aged 2-19 had obesity. The rates are even higher among Hispanic (26.2%) and non-Hispanic Black (24.8%) children.

Obesity can lead to serious, life-long conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and certain cancers. While some children have obesity because of medical or genetic factors, childhood obesity is usually caused by kids eating more calories than their bodies use as fuel. Large portions, ultra-processed foods, and an inactive lifestyle have led to a crisis of childhood obesity in America. 

Together, we can do something about it – one lunchbox at a time. 

Filling our kids’ lunches with healthy food they’ll actually eat—without breaking the meal budget—might feel like a tall task. But I have great news. You really can do it, without spending your whole night crafting Instagram-worthy lunches! 

And I have some tips that can help. Let’s dig in.

Involve your kids in picking and packing foods.

It’s a simple tip, but one that can make the difference between “Yuck!” and “Yum!” at lunchtime. Now, letting kids choose doesn’t mean they can put whatever they want into your grocery cart. But offering this-or-that healthy choices with the occasional treat can motivate even the pickiest eater to eat well at lunch.

Take your kids along to the store and make finding healthier choices an adventure. You might be surprised to learn they haven’t been eating those raisins you’ve been packing for years! 

Invite your kids to the counter when it’s time to make lunch. Involving children in choosing and preparing their meals encourages them to learn about healthy food choices, and helps parents know that what’s going in the box is something their child will eat. 

Related reading: Is Your Diet SAD? See How Going Mediterranean Supports Heart Health.

Healthy eating on a budget: Yes, you can!

Parents, hear this: You can eat healthier within your budget. If I had a dollar for every time a parent told me “I want to eat healthy food, but we can’t afford it” I’d have enough to hire a chef to cook my family’s meals.

First, you might need to switch where you shop. Natural or organic food stores are trendy but can get expensive quickly. There are other options where you can get healthy, whole foods at a fraction of the price of many other stores.

Eating healthy on a budget isn’t just about where you shop, it’s about how you think. For instance, let’s say a 12-pack of soda costs $8. It contains 1,800 calories. You can get a 24-pack (twice as much!) of bottled water for that less. Calories? Zero. 

Or pick up zero-calorie, sugar-free flavor packets at the discount store. Sugar substitutes aren’t a health food, but drinking a small amount instead of soda, juice, or sports drink is a much healthier choice.

When it comes to healthy shopping, remember that preference plays a role in perception. Your kids may prefer Doritos over bananas, but that doesn’t mean bananas are more expensive – especially when you consider how long that bag of chips lasts once the kids get their hands on it! 

Related reading: 3 Reasons to Think Twice Before Ditching Non-Sugar Sweeteners.

Budget-friendly DIY meals.

You can save a lot of money by buying healthy foods in bulk. My kids love to recreate Lunchables by picking up meat, cheese, crackers, and other fun bits from the store. We use the ingredients all week to create fun meals my kids can assemble themselves at lunch. Buying in bulk and sending your kids with reasonable portions of treats like potato chips can help control their intake, too.

Or pick up a travel thermos and send them to school with a hot lunch. Heat up leftovers from last night’s dinner, pop them in the thermos in the morning, and they’ll still be hot at lunchtime.

Looks count: Presentation goes a long way.

While tastes vary from person to person and culture to culture, one way to help your kids eat a healthier diet is to make lunch exciting and fun. There are a lot of time-consuming recipe ideas out there, filling up your social media feed with cute things you’ll never try because they take all night. Here are a few quick ideas that can spice up lunch without consuming your whole day.

Use a cookie cutter for a super easy way to shake up sandwiches. A heart- or star-shaped turkey on wheat is much more fun than a boring old square! 

Kabobs are a big hit in our house. Pick up some reusable skewers and easy, healthy lunches will never be the same! Instead of throwing an apple or banana in their lunch, cut up (or buy) chunks of mixed fruit and impale them on the sword of healthy eating. They’ll love it.

You can do the same thing with sandwiches. Slide chunks of the individual ingredients onto the skewer: bread, meat, cheese, veggies, repeat. Skewer one item at a time, with a berry or a piece of their favorite fruit in between, and voila! 

Wraps are another healthy, easy choice. Use a whole-wheat tortilla instead of bread to make a messy sandwich easier to control. Keep it in one piece or slice it like sushi for a fun change.

Need a hand? We’re here to help.

MedStar Health is committed to helping parents and kids achieve happy, healthy lifestyles, and often that starts with nutrition. 

My colleagues and I work with families to stay on top of their nutritional needs and build healthy habits that can last a lifetime. Whether you need a hand building the food pyramid or you have more specific dietary goals like eating well with diabetes, get in touch—we’re happy to help.

Is healthy eating a challenge for you or your kids? We can help.

Click below to schedule an appointment with a pediatrician or to learn more about our nutrition counseling services.


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