As a kid, one of my favorite lunches to take to school was the Lunchable. The fact that my lunch could be stacked on a cracker and it WASN’T a sandwich made me the cool kid for like, 20 minutes.
We moved often in my elementary years and sandwiches were the norm, so my “cool kid” moments were few and far between. Unfortunately for my social status, about the time my family settled in Texas was about the time I outgrew Lunchables. Still, I cherished those moments when they did come, because really, who doesn’t like cheese and crackers?
I remember Lunchables being very simple back then: Crackers, meat and cheese. There were no drinks, no desserts and definitely no smoothies.
Now Kraft has five different lines of Lunchables for a total of 45 flavor combinations, all with one common underlying theme: Extremely processed ingredients.
Have you ever read the ingredients on a Lunchable? If not, no problem. I’ll spare you the gory details and summarize if for you:
- It’s really, really long.
- You can’t pronounce most of the ingredients.
- You won’t find most them in your kitchen (or the grocery store, for that matter).
- There’s a 95% chance every item in the package has either high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated oils – the two biggest additives you should be concerned about in terms of real food.
Now that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be concerned about other additives too, because there are PLENTY to choose from on the back of those little yellow boxes. Carrageenan, sodium nitrite, soy lecithin, MSG (in more than one form), annatto and three different types of artificial sugar should be enough to get your brain juices flowing, and your blood pumping too if you hate additives as much as I do.
So in addition to offering healthier, homemade options for soft pretzels and hot pockets, I’m offering a real food version of lunchables too. As of today, you should be fully armed to get your kids through a full week of school without having to rely on convenience foods for either lunch or after school snacks.
The fact that you can do it all without spending a lot of time, or a lot of money, is a nice little bonus too.
Healthy Homemade Lunchables
Coming up with a healthy homemade lunchable is not rocket science. I mean, if Kraft can put crackers, meat and cheese together in a box and call it lunch, why can’t we? The key is to simply choose better ingredients.
Homemade lunchables are incredibly easy to put together and in fact, we’ve been eating them for several years now. Recognize “snacky lunch” on the monthly meal plans?
Here’s the simple formula we use:
(1) starch + (2) protein + (2) fruit/vegetable + (1) drink
As to what you want the starch to be or what type of protein is packed, the sky is the limit! The easiest (and cheapest) way is to simply pack whatever you happen to have in the fridge, and that’s also a great way to use up leftovers. But of course, don’t let what’s in the fridge, or not in the fridge, hinder your!
If you’re stuck on what to pack, these ideas can help. (They’re based loosely on what Lunchable currently offers, so if you need to, feel free to use that little tid-bit to help you to convince your kids “it’s the same only better.”)
- crackers/pretzels + ham + Swiss + mustard
- crackers/pretzels + turkey + cheddar + mustard
- pita + pepperoni + mozzarella + pizza sauce
- crackers/pretzels + pepperoni + mozzarella + pizza sauce
- mini-bun + chicken nugget + ketchup
- chips/pretzels/crackers + chicken nugget + BBQ sauce
- mini-bun + hot dog + mustard/ketchup
- chips/pretzels/crackers + hot dog + mustard/ketchup
- tortilla + hot dog + mustard/ketchup
- tortilla + sliced chicken nugget + shredded cheddar + salsa
I also polled fellow real foodie moms on their tried and true, kid-approved real food recipes, in case you’re needing more “what in the world should I pack” inspiration:
Starch (choose 1)
- homemade whole grain crackers
- 1/2 homemade granola bar (grain-free recipe)
- mini homemade pitas
- homemade pretzels
- homemade mini-buns
- corn chips (organic or non-GMO)*
- tortillas, corn or flour or gluten-free
- homemade spaghetti-o’s
- DIY ritz crackers
- homemade cheez-it cracker
Protein (choose 2)
- homemade chicken nuggets (counts as starch and protein, plus another recipe here)
- “fried” chicken strips
- grilled chicken slices (or leftover whole roasted chicken)
- shredded cheese
- sliced cheese
- nuts (sprouted)
- ham (organic/nitrate-free)*
- turkey (organic/nitrate-free)* (make your own)
- pepperoni (organic/nitrate-free)*
- hot dogs (organic/nitrate-free)*
- homemade nut butter
- sweet hummus – chocolate chip cookie dough, cake batter, or chocolate
- beans (whole or as a dip) (make ahead in the Instant Pot or slow cooker)
Fruits & Veggies (choose 2)
- orange slices
- carrot sticks
- cherry tomatoes
- kale chips
- sweet potato chips
- homemade potato chips
Dip/Condiments (optional, choose 1-2)
- homemade ketchup (plus two more recipes)
- homemade BBQ sauce
- easiest homemade pizza sauce
- mustard (homemade recipe)
- homemade salsa
- homemade guacamole (and a simpler version)
- hot sauce
- homemade ranch dressing (dairy-free option)
- homemade caesar dressing
- DIY sun pickles
- homemade fruit leather
- homemade doritos
- kombucha jello
- immune boosting jell-o
- homemade pudding cups
- dark chocolate
- homemade fruit snacks
- chocolate hummus
- homemade oreo’s
Drink (choose 1)
- plain water
- flavored water
- homemade kombucha (try these flavors too: strawberry lemonade, hibiscus and rose hips, grapefruit ginger)
- healthy homemade lemonade
* If organic, non-GMO or nitrate-free items are not in the grocery budget, simply buy the best you can afford.
The easiest way to pack homemade lunchables is in a divided container like this one. Note that while it’s BPA-free, it’s not leak-proof, so you’ll want to pack liquid items in a separate container.
These silicone muffin cups are a simple way to separate items that don’t need lids, like crackers, slices of cheese or cuts of meat. They’re flexible and can easily fit into nearly any container you already own too. They double as – you guessed it – muffin cups, but I’ve also used them as a molds for lotion bars and homemade fudge.
The reusable bags you see in the photos are Lunchskins. I love using those for packed lunches instead of baggies! Right now you can get a set for $3 with MightyFix. A monthly subscription that makes the baby steps to sustainable living so simple. Read more about it HERE.
Remember though, that you don’t need special equipment or storage in order to pack a healthy, frugal lunch. The most affordable route is always to use whatever you have on hand.
Just make a mental note to add these to the Christmas and birthday wish lists this year.
The cost of homemade lunchables will vary considerably, depending on how much you make from scratch and any compromises you make. I firmly believe though that homemade lunchables could easily be made for less than $1. Here’s a breakdown of a simple real food lunchabe that I know my kids would easily devour:
- 1/4 batch of homemade whole grain crackers (8¢)
- 2 ounces of sliced cheese (40¢)
- 2 ounces (approx 2 slices) of leftover roasted chicken (18¢)
- 1 Tbsp homemade BBQ sauce for dipping (5¢)
- small piece of seasonal fruit + water (20¢)
Total Cost of Healthy Homemade Lunchable = $0.91
Compare that to the $3+ that a single package of turkey and American cheese (which isn’t even really cheese, by the way) costs at the store!
More Recipe Tips
They key to keeping real food lunchables affordable is by packing food you already accounted for in the grocery budget, like leftover chicken or fruit or items made homemade from scratch. Offer more of the frugal items (like bananas for just 20¢) and less of the higher end items.
Also, find creative ways to serve the not-so-pretty-yet-very-frugal items like beans. Kid-friendly hummus (like this pizza variety) with lots of dippers is a great place to start, and the extra affordability of beans means you can splurge a bit on blueberries or other fun seasonal fruit.
Of course, don’t forget to pack a drink too! Water or kombucha from home is free, but you can add frozen strawberries or flavored ice cubes for a fun treat.
For more school lunch ideas, check out “The Healthy Lunchbox” – it’s one of the best eBooks I’ve read on healthy lunches, including back to school!
Homemade lunchables are a fun way to pack lunch or dinner, and we’re actually packing a grown-up version for dinner tonight: proscuitto with brie, sourdough & grapes.