The school year is starting, and if you already finished your back-to-school shopping you probably thought the hard part was over. That is, until you remember the daily question you ask yourself all school year: What to pack for school lunches? Luckily, this doesn't need to be a struggle, and with a little planning and preparation, your kids will be singing your praises -- and your wallet won't suffer.
Make a list. The first step is to write a shopping list. It might be helpful to keep this separate from your other grocery items, and segment it by each item you need to include in a lunchbox, which varies depending on your family's dietary needs. A balanced lunch will a source of protein, grain, fruit and/or vegetable and dairy. To keep your kids from getting bored, change the lunchtime menu often and add a few different options for each category. This can be made even easier by planning your purchases around the weekly specials at your grocery store.
Check sales first. Before heading to the store each week, look online to see what's on sale. Many stores offer their weekly circulars online or on their mobile app. You can also find sales listed on a coupon and deals site. Build your lunch shopping list to include the best deals -- but be careful to only purchase food you know your children will likely eat (even if it's on sale, if it doesn't get eaten it's a waste of food and money).
Keep in mind a few low-cost, but nutritionally valuable foods: eggs (hard-boiled works well in a packed lunch), peanut butter, tuna, frozen fruit and vegetables, and beans.
Buy in bulk. As you shop, avoid food in convenience or snack-size packaging. You end up spending extra because of the packaging when you can get the same food for less in bulk and divide it into your own reusable containers. For example, instead of buying snack packs of carrots and individual containers of ranch dressing, opt for the cheaper, full-size carrots and a bottle of ranch dressing that's on sale.
Stock up on reusable containers. There are a few items you will want to buy that are not only environmentally friendly, but will save you money on paper and plastic goods. Invest in a good quality, insulated lunchbox, as well as washable, reusable containers, resealable snack bags and utensils. One item you can skip purchasing is an ice pack -- instead, freeze filled water bottles, and pack them in the morning before school. They will keep the meal cold and thaw by lunchtime.
Prep bulk purchases. After you finish your planning and shopping, it's time for a small amount of preparation that will make the rest of your week a cinch in the busy weekday mornings before school. Take the bulk items that you purchased and section them out. Cut up veggies and fruit, and store them in airtight containers in the fridge. Pour snack items such as cookies, crackers or chips into the reusable bags, and throw everything together in a basket for easy access when packing. Puddings and Jell-O poured into individual containers are other cheap, easy items to make in bulk that can last all week.
Cook on Sundays. Aside from snack prep, you can meal prep as well -- and even get a head start on the week's dinners. Cooking multiple batches on Sunday, and freezing smaller servings for later in the week works well for easy dinners. Then if there is meat left over from dinner, you can easily make sandwiches or wraps the next morning for lunches. If meal prep isn't your style (or you just don't get to it), even peanut butter and jelly can be prepared ahead and stored in the freezer, then put into a lunchbox to be enjoyed by midday.
Combining these tips with the deals at your local grocery store can eliminate the stress and panic often experienced in the morning of a school day, cut back on your spending and leave more time for all the other activities brought on by a busy school year.
Jon Lal is the founder and CEO of coupons and cash back website BeFrugal.com, which saves shoppers an average of $27 per order thanks to coupons plus an average of 7 percent cash back at more than 4,000 stores.
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