We all want our kids to have the right tools to feel great and perform well in school. Lunch always comes into this conversation. Now, I’ve spoken to parents who are convinced their kids will flunk out of school and spend their adult lives roaming the streets with a shopping cart filled with recyclables if they don’t eat salmon twice a week. Um, yokay. On the other end of the spectrum are parents who generously spring for a handful of Slim Jims and tell their kids to make them last the week. This article is targeted to those parents somewhere in the middle.
A nutritious school lunch can cost up to $3 per day, which never seems like much. After all, it’s the same cost as your coffee on the way to work, so what’s the big deal? Pick up a calculator, and you’ll find out. With the average school year nearing 200 days, that’s about $600 per year, per child. Two kids in school means you’re shelling out $1200 per year, an average mortgage payment for many Americans. With an alarming number of Americans (millions of households) falling short on the mortgage payment at least once a year, it’s food for thought…pun intended.
A nutritious lunch doesn’t have to mean big bucks, nor does it have to be prepared by someone named “Wilma” standing behind a steam table with plastic gloves and a hairnet. With some simple strategies, you can prepare frugal, fabulous, fit lunches your kid will love. First things first. There are some basic elements to a decent school lunch. First stop, protein. If you want your child’s brain to operate at peak performance, protein is top priority. Luckily, opportunities are everywhere to get kid-friendly protein on the menu for much less than you’d think. If you have any lunch-friendly dinner leftovers available (ham, chicken, sliced roast beef, or meaty soups, casseroles & high-protein pasta) pack a few ounces into a Tupperware container. If that’s not available on a regular basis, check out your local discount gourmet grocery for cans (better yet, packets) of tuna, salmon, chicken, etc. Regularly $1-$2 at the retail grocery, I’ve seen these items 3/$1 or 2/$1 at the discount grocery. If you’re not familiar with my deep affection to discount groceries, you soon will be. It has slashed our household food budget 70% while increasing quality dramatically, and it will be an enormous help in cutting your lunch costs. Find a fabulous one near you, and keep fixated on it as one might a Titanic lifeboat, for it truly is a (financial) lifesaver. With that simple rule in play, the high-quality protein in your child’s lunch should cost no more than $0.50.
Next in the lunchbox - produce. If your kids are anything like 99.99% of other kids on the planet, the chances of getting them to eat vegetables in a lunchroom environment are laughably low. Let’s work with fruit, organic preferred. Stick to a guideline where you spend no more than $1/pound on fruit. Yes, it can be done. Apples, oranges, bananas, peaches and more are often priced perfectly, especially in the summer months. A standard 4-ounce piece of fruit will cost $0.25. In the winter months, when fruit is more expensive, there are still great options. Between my discount grocery, which regularly offers organic applesauce cups for $0.25 each (regularly $1 each), or cans of pineapple, fruit salad, etc., which I’ve found for as low as $0.05 each, you can ensure your child gets some produce in his lunch for no more than $0.25. Not bad.
Snacks – Pretzels, chips, perhaps a bit of chocolate, these items are available by the truckload at your local discount grocery, and regularly as low as 10/$1. Load up and throw one or two in their lunchbag each day. After a tough morning of Spanish with a trigonometry pop-quiz chaser, a snack with crunch is downright therapeutic.
Beverage – behold, water. It does a student’s brain good, and it’s a heck of a lot better than a soda, juice, or anything else in the $1 each vending machine. If they’d rather be dragged behind a truck than drink from the water fountain, get a water bottle & refill it at home. Et voila, cool status is still intact.
With the easy strategies outlined above, you can provide your child with a fabulous, brain-friendly lunch for $1/day, creating savings of $2/day or about $400/year. Two kids in school? You’re now keeping $800 more of your own money, a nice financial cushion when the mortgage/tax/utility bills come due. In this day and age, most teenagers are aware money is tight; I have yet to hear of a kid really arguing with the idea of helping his/her household save some serious coin. However, if the kids balk at the idea of bringing lunch from home, I have an iron-clad solution with guaranteed happiness on both sides: a cut of the savings. Cooperate together on lunches, and your house is gaining $400/year. Offer them $100, payable at the end of the year. I can’t imagine a kid who would refuse it.
Kristen Hagopian is a 40-something wife & mother of two who eliminated the need for a second income by saving over $50,000 a year with the proven frugal strategies found in her book. After spewing frugal ideas to friends & family for years, they finally convinced her to “shut up & write a book already!”.
The book is available at www.BrilliantFrugalLiving.com