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Back-to-school: How to make cheaper, healthier Lunchables at home

A few crackers, processed meat, sliced cheese, and a candy bar. Your kids love Lunchables but at nearly $4 a pop, are you better off making a cheaper and healthier alternative at home?.
A few crackers, processed meat, sliced cheese, and a candy bar. Your kids love Lunchables but at nearly $4 a pop, are you better off making a cheaper and healthier alternative at home?. Photo courtesy Wendy Copley

A few crackers, processed meat, sliced cheese, and a candy bar. Your kids love Lunchables but at nearly $4 a pop, are you better off making a cheaper and healthier alternative at home?

Experts say they’re easy to pull together, and parents can control how much sugar, fat and salt goes into their kids’ lunchboxes.

“I have never bought one these [Lunchables] for my kids but they’d go crazy for them because they’re marketed as so much fun,” said Susan Watson, a Winnipeg-based registered dietitian.

READ MORE: 7 kid-friendly, easy-to-make, dietitian-approved breakfast recipes

When Wendy Copley’s son started preschool, she and her little one picked out a lunch box that came with compartments. With that in tow, she easily make Lunchables-like bento box meals.

The cookbook author said presentation is what’s key to Lunchables’ appeal.

“Realistically you’re packing leftovers most days. It’s how you arrange the food in the box that’s visually appealing – instead of dumping them in a plastic container, I’d arrange them more carefully so that when I sat down for lunch, it was something I would look forward to,” she explained.

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Her older son, a picky eater, is more likely to eat his lunch when it’s put together like Lunchables, she said.

Watson and Copley share their tips on making your own Lunchables 2.0.

Watson said parents should zero in on the ingredients list and nutrition facts panel of these popular lunches.

“It’s a long list of processed ingredients, there’s highly processed bread product, the chicken nuggets are like what you’d get at a fast food restaurant with fillers added to it,” she told Global News.

READ MORE: 7 kid-friendly, easy-to-make, dietitian-approved lunch recipes

The pizza option has 590 milligrams of sodium – 25 per cent of your recommended daily intake, for example.

The chicken mini-burgers are housed in a white bun with no fibre.

Watson also took issue with a sugary snack in every lunch while there’s also a food group that’s obviously missing: fruits and vegetables.

“I don’t know if a parent is throwing [fresh fruit or vegetables] in their kids’ lunch but if they’re not, this is all protein and carbohydrates,” she said.

Take a look at Everyday Bento author Wendy Copley’s homemade lunches for her kids (Photos courtesy Wendolonia):

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How to make your own healthy, cheaper Lunchables

Both Copley and Watson rely on working with what was served the night before when they’re making their kids’ lunches.

Use whole food

Instead of white crackers, processed deli meat and cheese, Watson said she uses “higher quality” ingredients.

She’d swap out the crackers for whole grain bread, tortillas or crackers that are high in fibre. Copley uses whole grain pastas.

For protein, she uses what was made at dinnertime, such as chicken breast, roast beef, beans or chickpeas.

READ MORE: In a rush? Here’s what to eat for breakfast in the morning

“I do throw in a turkey pepperoni or something that’s a bit more processed but it’s a treat and isn’t the main protein component. That’s what makes the sodium content go up,” she warned.

Add fruit and veggies

Once you have your protein and carb components picked out, make sure you add a serving of fruit and a serving of vegetables, Copley said.

“My kids are open to most kinds of fruit but things that have a big nutritional punch are berries, peaches and mangoes or oranges and apple slices,” she advised.

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READ MORE: Trying to lose weight? 10 tasty foods you’ll like and can eat guilt-free

Add raw vegetables like cucumbers, red and green bell peppers, carrots, or snap peas, too.

Invest in a good Tupperware

Equipment helps to get the job done. A lunchbox with compartments can make sure you can include dry components, such as tortilla and granola, with wet ingredients, like watermelon or yogurt.

READ MORE: 5 ways you’re sabotaging your ‘healthy’ lunchtime sandwich

If you don’t have a lunchbox with separate sections, you can rely on silicone cupcake holders that are meant for baking but can hold fruit or hummus in your Tupperware.

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I get asked a lot of times about alternative protein sources for kids for lunches (other than processed deli meat). The fact that you can't pack nuts makes it even harder to find good options. Some of my favourite ‘Go-To’ ideas are bean and legumes (I know you might think it is weird), but my kids love snacking on chickpeas and they are packed with protein and fibre. I buy the no-salt canned chick peas for a very easy to pack protein source for lunches. Give it a try! . . . . #mealprepsunday #mealplanning #healthychoice #healthyeating #tasty #whatadietitianeats #instacollage #instafood #dietitian #nutrition #nutritious #goodeats #kidsfood #kidslunchbox #kidslunchboxideas #healthykids #yumbox #rdchat #dietitiansofinstagram #dietitianapproved

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Get creative

The Lunchables rely on colour – red salami, yellow cheese, and white crackers, paired with a package of Fuzzy Peach candies. Do the same by working with a handful of colours.

You can also up the ante by using cookie cutters for your bread and tortillas, Copley said.

If you’re in a rush, Watson just cuts squares or triangles.

READ MORE: This food will make you feel fuller if you’re trying to lose weight

Copley also uses a paring knife to cut shapes or ice cream scooper to make melon balls. Sometimes, she’ll make mini kabobs with the vegetables and meat, too.

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Making fruit and veggies bite sized goes a long way: kids are more likely to eat an apple if it’s cut into pieces or into little shapes.

Take your time

Watson and Copley swear they pull together their kids’ lunches within five to 10 minutes. It took practice though.

Now, Watson has a list of items that her kids love in their lunches. Copley said it’s all about mixing things up so they aren’t eating the same routine meal every day.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca