Fuel Up Your Kids -- Frugally

By Caroline Reno Wilder on 24 November 2009 2 comments

From cardboard pastries and sugar-laden cereals to full-of-fat nuggets and greasy pizza, it's no wonder that as many as one in three kids in the U.S. are considered obese. Fueling up with fat, sodium, and sweet stuff is no way to cruise through the day. The good news is that, despite the sluggish economy, you can provide low-fat and low-cost breakfast options and cheapskate lunches that pack a nutritional punch.

Jump Startin' the Day

While simple carbs may offer a quick pick-me-up, it's the more complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and calcium-rich foods that will help sustain kids throughout the school day. Best of all, whipping up nutritious breakfast options is heart-healthy and wallet friendly. Besides, isn't it better to bond with your kids at the kitchen table versus the drive-through of your local fast-food joint?

Try these flash-fast morning meals that can be made in minutes and for less than a buck:

  • Oatmeal mixed with fresh fruit and skim milk
  • Whole-grain tortilla with peanut butter and sliced bananas
  • Scrambled eggs with spinach and reduced-fat cheese
  • Fruit smoothie made from low-fat plain yogurt, frozen fruit, and 100-percent fruit juice
  • Whole-grain bagel sandwich filled with scrambled eggs and turkey bacon or lean ham.

If you have more time...

  • whip up a batch of oat bran muffins with an antioxidant boost of blueberries, or
  • make a frittata with reduced-fat cheese and loads of veggies.

Lunches With Lasting Power

It's no surprise that many kids will opt for burgers, fries, and pizza in the school cafeteria while nixing the fruits and vegetables. Packing lunch, however, gives you more control over the nutritional content of your child's meal and your budget. According to the School Nutrition Association, the average price for a lunch bought at a public school for '08-'09 was $2.08. And depending on the length of the school year, that translates to $300-$400 a year, per child. I don't know about you, but I could think of much better ways to spend that money on my family.

Some suggestions that will leave your kids satisfied until that after-school refrigerator raid:

  • Forgo pricey pre-packaged kid lunches and pack lean turkey or ham (choose nitrite-free) and reduced fat cheese (cut into shapes using cookies cutters). Add whole grain crackers and a piece of fruit and you've got lunch. Kids will have fun making this one, too.
  • Whole-grain pita filled with lean cuts of turkey, ham or roast beef, mustard, lettuce, and tomato
  • Peanut butter and sliced banana sandwich on whole-grain bread
  • Whole-grain pita filled with hummus and veggies such as cucumbers and shredded carrots
  • Multi-grain bagel filled with reduced fat cream cheese.

Round out your child's healthy lunch with smart snacks and sides. Some good choices include string cheese, cups of unsweetened applesauce, baby carrots and hummus or low-fat Ranch dressing, whole grain crackers, and raisins. To keep your costs down even more, buy in bulk and consider store brands over name brands. Often, the ingredients and taste are identical.

Be Green on the Lunch Scene

Saving money on school lunches extends beyond food. By investing in a reusable lunch tote and stainless thermos, for example, you can watch your budget and help the environment in the process. According to the EPA, the United States consumes more than 380 billion plastic bags, sacks, and wraps every year.

Reusable lunch sacks, sandwich containers, and stainless water bottles can be used over and over, cutting down on landfill waste and regular paper and plastic purchases.

Getting the Kids on Board

If your kids have grown accustomed to making less than optimal choices at breakfast or lunch, it's never too late to change course and create healthier eating habits. Enlist their help in packing lunches and let them choose from several healthy selections each day. Lastly, give them a simple economics lesson and show them just how much your family can save when you pack each day. Perhaps even set aside the money you would have spent on school lunches and use it for something the entire family can enjoy.

This is a guest post by Caroline Reno Wilder, a freelance writer and SAHM who enjoys perusing thrift shops.

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Guest's picture

Caroline, thanks for these tips. My kids are teens now, but they've come to narrow their food choices to a very small number of foods.

One of the big plusses of your suggestions is that they're intresting and FUN to prepare. That's an important piece of the nutrition puzzle with kids--getting them interested. Selling them on health benefits is a complete waste of time because it sounds to close to what they're taught in school.

We're going to try a couple of these and get the kids involved in the preparation. That seems to make them like what they eat even more.

Guest's picture

One of my kids has severe ADHD and is able to keep her medication dosage around 15% lower than otherwise needed by avoiding the carbo-salt-fat laden school lunches and packing our own. She has to get 12-15 grams of protein (usually a combination of animal, dairy and vegetable proteins) at each meal, while most school lunches fall far short. We pack 3 oz of cooked leftover or deli meat (such as ham, chicken, etc), a second protein such as a cheese stick, 8 oz milk in one of those nice little Rubbermaid reusable juicebox style containers, and a 1/2 cup container of sliced fresh fruit such as apples or oranges. We pack the same meals for the other kids now, too, and have noticed an improvement in their concentration even though they don't have ADHD.