Nutritious and cheap packed lunch ideas for kids

Image of a healthy packed lunch. (Getty Images)
A new report has found healthier packed lunches cost 45% more on average. (Getty Images)

Parents are having to fork out more money to provide nutritious packed lunches for their children with new research finding healthier meals are on average 45% more expensive to put together.

The Food Foundation charity revealed that a lunch time meal, which included wholemeal bread and fruit cost way more than less nutritious versions with chocolate spread and crisps.

Items for a less nutritious packed lunch were cheaper overall at five major supermarkets, with the charity arguing that this demonstrates the barriers parents face when trying to feed their children a good diet.

Unhealthy lunches for the research were made up of white bread with chocolate spread instead of wholemeal with cheese, flavoured yogurt rather than a plain, unsweetened version and snacks such as crisps as opposed to the four portions of fruit and vegetables incorporated into the healthy lunch.

The Food Foundation re-issued it's call for the Government to extend Free School Meals (FSM) to ensure the most deprived children are “not priced” of a nutritious lunch.

All children at state schools in England are entitled to free school lunches in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2, but other pupils are not entitled to FSM unless their family is in receipt of benefits.

Currently, families who claim Universal Credit (UC) are only eligible for FSM if their family’s post-tax earnings are less than £7,400 a year.

Mum and daughter packing lunch. (Getty Images)
Parents are having to fork out more money for healthier lunches for their children. (Getty Images)

The charity is also urging retailers to offer a lunchbox meal deal on healthier items – such as breads that are 50:50 wheat, snackable fruit and vegetables, and single portion unsweetened yogurt pots – to allow parents to “easily buy items to make up a week of healthy lunch boxes”.

Shona Goudie, policy and advocacy manager at The Food Foundation, says: “No-one should be priced out of being able to provide healthy food for their children and retailers need to do more to support families to afford the food they need.”

For parents wanting to provide nutritionally balanced yet reasonably priced packed lunch for their children Paula Hallam, registered children's dietitian at Plant Based Health Professionals, first suggests shopping round to compare prices.

"For example, Tesco supermarket website states that their own brand wholemeal and white bread are (almost) the same price - 74p vs 75p, so this makes the healthier option easy to choose," she explains.

"And don't be afraid of buying own brand, over branded options. Wonky vegetables can save money too. Also, some supermarkets now offer free fruit for children, which are great additions to their packed lunch."

School boy with his packed lunch. (Getty Images)
Fresh fruit and wholemeal bread is costing parents more. (Getty Images)

Make a leftover lunch

For inexpensive and nutritious packed lunches leftovers are an absolute win-win.

"For example, a lentil and tomato soup or bolognese pasta or tofu fried rice or mushroom risotto are all lunches that my girls have taken to school recently," Hallam adds.

She also suggests adding leftovers to a wrap or pitta bread works. "For example leftover chilli or Mexican black beans added to a wrap/pitta makes a delicious lunch. And these are all affordable ingredients that go far.

The key, shey says, is to cook extra whenever you are making a meal. "Typically when I am making a bolognese or chilli or soup, I will make a few extra portions for lunch, so I don't then have to buy extra food."

If you want your children's lunch to be warm, switch up their lunchbox for a food flask to keep pastas, soups and leftovers hot til lunchtime.

Opt for foods in their whole state

More processing can add to the cost. "Processed, packaged foods are often the problem (even if they are perceived as ‘healthy’ or otherwise), and this is due to the amount of processes they go through in terms of production, packaging, and fancy advertising and marketing campaigns in a bid to try and convince you to buy," Emma Thornton, nutritionist from Avogel explains. "Real foods, as close to nature don’t need many of these additional steps."

Rather than opting for chopped vegetables, Thornton suggests going back to the wholefood so you can ‘process it’ yourself for free.

Healthy packed lunch. (Getty Images)
There are some healthy yet reasonably priced packed lunches for children. (Getty Images)

Eat local and in season

To keep the cost of healthy lunches down Thornton recommends trying to opt for locally grown foods and working with the seasons to help minimise the reliance on more expensive imports.

Get a pack lunch plan

And plan for the week ahead so you can reuse fresh ingredients throughout different meals, rather than risking creating any food waste.

"I like to make a list of my favourite meal options so I can always find a way to use up certain leftover ingredients," Thornton adds.

Buy in bulk

Whilst buying in bulk can seem more expensive initially, Thornton says it will save you money over time. "Look at the cost per kg on prices to ensure you are getting the best deal," she advises. "Remember, frozen vegetables, for example, are super nutritious and often a cheaper alternative to fresh off the shelf."

Try wholegrain pasta salads

Clinical nutritionist, Rimas Geiga, advises mixing in a variety of vegetables, some lean protein like chickpeas or grilled chicken, and a simple dressing made from olive oil and lemon juice. "These salads can be made in bulk and served cold, ensuring convenience and nutrition," he adds.

Homemade snack packs

Instead of buying pre-packaged snacks, prepare your own. "Cut vegetables like carrots and celery sticks and pair them with homemade hummus," suggests Geiga. "Include some cheese cubes and wholegrain crackers. This not only reduces costs but also ensures higher nutritional quality.

Prep fruit and yogurt parfaits

Geiga suggests buying large tubs of plain yogurt and mixing them with fresh or frozen fruit. "Top with a sprinkle of granola for added texture.," he adds. "This is more economical than buying individual yogurt pots and allows for control over sugar content.

Get the kids involved

This will help to encourage healthy eating habits and make lunch more appealing to them. "By adopting these strategies, parents can provide healthy, balanced meals without overspending," Geiga adds.

Additional reporting PA.