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How to pack cheap school lunches your kids will actually eat

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For many families, it's now back to school - and half-eaten lunches coming home. As any parent knows, getting back into the lunch-packing routine can be a shock to the system. Here are five of my tips for making lunchboxes more frugal while still appealing to your kids.

1. Ask your kids what they like to eat - and how much

Do you know what your kids actually like to eat? Not all kids like ham and salad sandwiches - some prefer Vegemite. And observing what is uneaten isn't necessarily the best guide. Sometimes your kids are so busy running around with their friends during recess that they forget to eat. Maybe they don't want to 'fess up that they didn't like lunch so ditched it in the bin.

how to save money on school lunches

From chatting with my kids, I've learned that one child loves ham and salami, while the other will only eat Vegemite sandwiches. Knowing this not only saves me a fortune on sandwich meats, but also reduces food waste. An even better strategy is to get them to pack their own lunchboxes (work in progress).

When my kids were younger, they didn't eat much at school and told me they felt pressured if I packed too much. But now that my eldest son is a tween, he is getting hungrier. I find my kids' appetite changes depending on how much sport they are doing or if they are undergoing a growth spurt. I now ask them how hungry they are and how much they want to eat.

2. Bake your own bread

If bread is your go-to lunchbox staple, you can save up to $500 a year by baking your own. And with the help of a bread-maker, it's super easy. My kids love waking up to the smell of home-baked bread and they vie to be the first to eat the bread top.

A typical loaf of bread costs between $1.50 and $4 (more for artisan) and baking your own costs between 50 cents and $1.60 (plus a few cents for electricity). But the big saving comes from reducing mid-week trips to the shops, which saves money on petrol (and possibly parking) as well as impulse buys. Assuming you eat four loaves a week, home-baked could save you between $208 and $499.20 - plus savings on petrol and impulse purposes.

I buy 12.5 kg bags of baker's flour and make my own bread mix, which I store in plastic ice-cream containers. I pop it into the bread-maker after dinner (with some water, yeast and oil or butter) and schedule it for breakfast time.

3. Make muffins in a piemaker

Turn leftovers into tasty lunchbox treats using a piemaker. A piemaker is the perfect size and shape for muffins, and as you don't need to heat up an oven, it's quick and easy. It's also a great way to get your kids involved in cooking.

You can make sweet muffins such as chocolate and apple, or savoury ones such as zucchini or carrot. Use the following for a basic muffin recipe:

2 cups self-raising flour
1 egg
1/4 cup oil
1 cup milk

For sweet muffins add fruit (e.g. stewed or grated apple) and 1/3 cup of sugar. For savoury muffins, add grated vegetables, grated cheese, and salt and pepper.

Cook in the piemaker for around 10 minutes.

4. Choose fresh fruit

Most schools have healthy eating guidelines and fruit breaks. Even if they don't, it's a good idea to pack fruit (or vegetables).

While tinned and processed fruit has its place, it is generally cheaper to buy fresh. Check what is on special in your supermarket and buy in season. Farmers' markets are also a good way to buy local. Try to buy what your kids will actually eat (e.g. my Vegemite-eating child only eats bananas). This time of year, bananas, grapes, and stone fruit are cheap. As we move into autumn, look out for pears and apples.

Most young children prefer to eat smaller pieces of fruit and some companies now market small-sized fruit for kids. Check the unit price, as often it can be cheaper to buy the non-child packaged fruit (hunt for smaller pieces).

And while on fruit, avoid buying too much. We all want our kids to eat fruit, but are they really going to eat three or four pieces a day? Aim instead for one, maybe two, serves of fruit per person per day.

5. Make homemade cool

Anything homemade is generally healthier, more sustainable, and cheaper than store-bought. And you know what is in it.

The problem often is that processed food is marketed to entice kids, and homemade can seem boring in comparison. When packing lunches, you can make food more appealing to little people by using bright coloured containers and putting cool stickers on them. If your little one is a Spiderman fan, for instance, decorate small plastic containers with spiderman stickers and decant a kilogram of homemade or bought yoghurt into them.

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Serina Bird is a proud frugalista who has amassed a million dollars through frugal living. Serina's first book, The Joyful Frugalista, is out now. She blogs at The Joyful Frugalista, and her podcast is available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. Serina is the founder of the The Joyful Business Club.
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