Back To School: How to Use Budget-Friendly Meal Planning to Teach Your Kids About Money

Tired of packing lunches for your kids? Get them to do it as they learn about health, food waste, the environment, and money.


September 6, 2019

The start of the school year is upon us, which means it’s back to busy mornings and rushing your kids out the door before they miss the school bus. It’s also back to packing your kids lunches. Maybe on their first day back you wake up early to pack them a cute, Pinterest-perfect lunchbox: you use cookie cutters to give them “fun” cheese slices, cut off the crusts of their sandwiches how they like it, and give them a special start-of-the-school-year sweet treat. But what do you do tomorrow? 

Maybe, nothing! Kids can start joining in on lunch-packing prep in elementary school. And it doesn’t have to be a drag. Instead of adding it to a list of chores, treat it like a privilege. Tell them “5-year-olds get to pack their lunches” and turn it into a grownup activity they can be proud of getting access to. It’s key to get them to feel a sense of responsibility, and they’ll pay better attention to the task. They will also start to be better positioned to absorb discussions around food waste, helping the environment, budgeting, and meal planning. (If you think your kids are too young to take full responsibility for packing their school lunches, try getting them to help out with one task, or do some prep at the beginning of the week—anything to provide entry to these conversations.)

Lunch prep is a great opportunity for experiential learning. First, have discussions about how to plan lunches in a money-smart way. Then, implement your plan together. And finally, discuss how it went. Some key points to cover:

Meal planning is essential.

Establish a goal—a healthy meal with sufficient serving sizes and nutritional balance. You can even come up with a formula, like protein + veggies + starch! But you shouldn’t prepare too much, or they’ll waste it. If balancing a complete meal is too complex, start off by having them help calculate something simple, like how many slices of bread they’ll need for a week’s worth of sandwiches for the family. Make a grocery list together. 

Go grocery shopping together.

If they gravitate toward single-serving packages of cookies or those mini-packs of rainbow carrots with dip, explain that it’ll be cheaper to buy the ingredients then make single-serving packages at home. This works particularly well with snacks you can buy in bulk. If they want a treat like cookies, explain that you can only use what’s left in the budget after paying for the healthy, core ingredients from the meal planning exercise. You have to take responsibility for healthy choices before indulging!

Use visuals, like different sized containers to teach portion size.

Show them how much of each ingredient to use—say, one scoop of mayonnaise on a sandwich, or half an apple’s worth of apple slices—and explain how food use is part of budgeting. You don’t want to run out too quick! You can use different sized spoons, bowls, or baggies to remind kids how much of each ingredient ought to be included. You can always refer back to the meal plan you made together.

Whenever possible, go green.

Food prep is a great opportunity to teach kids about how thinking about the environment is often the smarter choice—financially. Utilize reusable bags, Tupperware, and beeswax paper instead of Ziplocs, plastic wrap or tin foil, and, of course, lunch boxes. You can turn this into a math problem—how long will it take for a reusable baggie to outlast a bag of single-use plastic bags? Here are some resources to get you started

Teach them to turn leftovers into yummy lunches.

This is a great way to reduce food waste and stretch the food budget a little extra. Of course, bringing leftovers for lunch doesn’t have to be a backup plan. You can expand this to teaching them how to cook extra dinner, planning ahead for lunches. If they complain about leftovers, start off with a compromise to warm them to the idea: choose something that is only half-prepared, and then finish preparing it the next morning for lunch. You can turn dinner’s roast chicken with grilled vegetables into chicken/veggie tacos with salsa for lunch. This helps food feel fresh and different. (If you’re stuck on how to use any particular ingredient, these three lists might help.) 

Make them end-of-week mystery lunches.

You might have less to work with as your next grocery trip approaches, so send them to school with odds and ends leftover from the previous shopping trip. The end of a bag of baby carrots may seem boring or “gross” to a kid, so reframe it as an exciting surprise they can look forward to on Fridays. Then they can adopt this philosophy and start doing it themselves. This conversation may prevent a lot of whining, while also stretching your grocery budget a bit further. 

At the end of the week, reflect on how you did.

Compare last week’s grocery list and meal plan with what’s left in the fridge. Did you over- or under- estimate any aspects of meal planning? Did food expire before you could use it? What would they change about next week—and importantly, how will this affect the budget? This is also a good opportunity to go broad and think about food-related issues like the global food crisis, malnutrition amongst kids living below the poverty line, and how food waste is bad not only for our wallets, but for our planet. 

Involving your kids in lunch prep is a hands on activity you can do together. Always make sure to have conversations about what you’re doing and why it’s important from a money perspective. Your kid may even have a knack for cooking—who knows? You may even be raising the next (money-smart) Master Chef. 

Article by Katie Simon

Katie Simon Katie Simon is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Business Insider, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. She earned a BA in creative writing and marketing at New York University and an MA in nonfiction writing at University of East Anglia in England. She is from Boston, MA.

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