Pack a tasty, cheap lunch

August 28, 2009|By ALICIA NOTARIANNI

To pack or to buy? As a child, the answer was simple.

It all boiled down to Aggie's barf-burger gravy over mice and P.U.ed tomatoes.

Such were the names I dreamed up for the garlicky concoctions of my school's brawny cafeteria cook. In actuality, the dishes in question were hamburger gravy over rice and stewed tomatoes.

The food slopped onto shiny peach-colored trays sliding along the stainless steel counter did not appeal to me. In fact, it elevated my boxed lunch to a source of pride and gratification.

I would scrupulously remove my chipped-ham sandwich, handful of potato chips, Swiss cake roll and thermos of chocolate milk from my metal Holly Hobbie lunch box. I was quietly pleased to be set apart from the sorry saps around me who sat poking with bent silverware at runny rations.


What blew my mind was that my two older brothers would not only ask to buy this stuff, but they'd pay extra for what they called "a double" of it.

Today, my children's preferences lie somewhere between the extremes. They enjoy packed lunches and, on occasion, like to buy a school lunch.

While the cost of each is roughly the same, I generally like my kids to pack just so I know that what they are eating on a daily basis is healthful. I'd rather pack a fresh piece of fruit than have them eating a syrupy, preserved one. Or have them eat a slice of turkey with low-fat cheese rather than deep-fried breaded chicken nuggets.

I am not, however, the lunch grinch. I'm all for a treat, as long as I know the bulk of it is good stuff for a growing body. After all, if you don't throw in a goodie here or there, a child will barter for a Twinkie with the kid in the next seat.

Main course for protein

So what's inexpensive and appealing for the packed lunch?

I would be remiss to ignore that many parents are going for prepackaged lunches like Oscar Mayer Lunchables. While they have become popular due to their convenience and novelty, with a little imagination, a home-packed lunch can be more nutritious and just as fun.

For the main course, sandwiches are a standby for a reason. They're cheap, easy and tasty. I send my kids to school with whole-grain bread filled with a slice of meat, tuna, cheese, peanut butter or hummus. Last night's meat - roast beef, turkey and the like - works well, too.

Save on bread by buying the store brand. Or check out a bread outlet for name-brand bread, pitas and wraps. You'll find a wide selection, and items are often priced at about half the grocery-store price. There are several outlets in the Hagerstown area. Some have better deals than others.

Or, instead of a sandwich, try other fortified entreés. Spread ricotta cheese over a low-fat cold cut, roll it up and stick a toothpick in it. You can slice it into bite sizes, or leave it like a roll. Toss some beans, hard-boiled eggs or sunflower seeds - all inexpensive sources of protein - into a salad. Throw together a hearty trail mix. Or pack up some cheese and crackers. String cheese is fun and can be found on sale for less than $3.50 per pound.

Side dishes for nutrition

As for veggies, celery and carrot sticks are good. But consider the abundance of low-cost options. Take advantage of weekly grocery store sales on produce. Snap peas, cherry tomatoes, cucumber slices and baby sweet corn keep things interesting.

Same goes for fruits. Apples and bananas are solid options, but look for sales on berries, peaches, oranges, plums, melons and star fruit for sweet lunchtime treats.

Or consider dried fruits, like apricots, dates, raisins, pineapples and bananas. Some area stores have impressive bulk food sections where you can stock up on these goodies for significantly less than their prepackaged counterparts.

When it comes to drinks, avoid flash, sugar and fizz. If your child is packaging conscious, buy a reusable water bottle with a favorite character and fill it up. If your kids prefer a fruit juice, freeze cartons of juice and stick them - still frozen - in the lunch bag. They'll defrost in time for lunch and help keep the rest of the lunch cool.

Treats for fun

On to the goodies! Yogurt tubes make a yummy dessert. Like carton drinks, they can be frozen and will defrost in time for lunch. Coupons frequently run in the Sunday paper for name-brand varieties. At a store that doubles the coupon value, you can pick up a box of eight tubes for less than a dollar.

And, oh, why not? Clip a coupon and pick up a bag of bite-size candy bars on sale. Throw one in the lunch bag. It'll put a smile on a student's face and give Lunchables a run for their money.

Alicia Notarianni is a reporter and feature writer for The Herald-Mail. Her e-mail address is

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