Mo’ Money: Making Lunch with What You’ve Got

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post, I think it’s high time I started illustrating the point that if you can figure out how to creatively invent and re-invent in the kitchen, not only does the whole Getting Everybody Fed thing work out pretty handily, but the budget benefits as well.  Yep, I’m a geek, and all the meal planning effort and kitchen insanity (seriously, how many of you can picture yourselves at the stove at 11 p.m., whipping up a batch of homemade pumpkin pudding?) require a serious commitment.  But on the flip side of that, there’s the fact that having a plan and combining that plan with a little ingenuity means you can really feed your family very, very well, for less money than you might think.

For one thing, I know a lot of people who buy things each week specifically for their kids’ lunches.  They hit the deli counter for the meat, then go and get the right packaged options to toss in alongside the sandwich: the yogurt tubes, the granola bars, the fruit cups, the Capri Sun juice pouches.  Or they buy a huge box of frozen chicken nuggets and cook those up every night.  Or whatever other variation you can think of.  I don’t often buy things specifically with the kids’ lunches in mind, believe it or not; what I do first is consider whether or not I can MacGyver up something good for them just using whatever we’ll have kicking around in the form of dinner leftovers or stray fruits and veggies.

I mean, obviously, there are some go-to items that I keep around just in case.  Organic yogurt, for P.  Sunflower butter, for desperation nights when there’s just not a great entree option or not much time and I want to slap together a hypoallergenic PB and banana sandwich.  Sugar-free organic applesauce cups, for the times when I don’t have homemade applesauce on hand (L. eats applesauce every single day with his lunch, so we go through lots of it, both the homemade and store-bought versions).  Other than that, though, I simply make sure to buy extra vegetables at the market and to rely on a well-stocked pantry of pastas, rice, different flours and baking supplies, and a fridge full of eggs, cheese, and milk.  You can do a lot with staples if you think outside the box a bit.

Here’s how it manifests, using this week’s meal plan as an example:

Sunday, 10/31: Sunday Roast Chicken, couscous, butternut squash with apples, and for our “extra choices,” kale chips and homemade applesauce.
The chicken and applesauce became lunches for both boys, J., and I on Monday.  On Tuesday, L. asked for chicken again, which was packed alongside the leftover couscous and squash.  I rounded out his lunch with applesauce and sliced oranges.  For P., I dug into the pantry staples to make his favorite sunflower-banana sandwich; again, he had applesauce, leftover squash, and a yogurt.  There was still almost a whole chicken left, which is tonight’s chicken pot pie dinner.
Monday: Spitfire shrimp, quesadillas, mixed greens, guacamole, orange slices
J. and I polished off the leftover shrimp, quesadillas, and guacamole for Tuesday’s lunch.  The leftover orange slices went into L.’s lunchbox.  Then I used the tortillas and cheese left in the fridge to do a lunchbox makeover of…
Tuesday: Slow cooker — Mom’s spaghetti bolognese, homemade veggie bread, salad
When I got home from rehearsal at 10:30 last night, it was lunchbox ingenuity time.  I made stuffed pizza quesadillas with the bolognese sauce and shredded mozzarella and provolone inside the leftover tortillas.  We still had applesauce, of course, so the kids both got some of that, as well as an additional fruit choice — banana for P., oranges for L.  And I did a veggie/dessert combo by raiding the pantry and fridge for staples.  Canned pumpkin, eggs, milk, maple syrup, and spices make a great quick pudding.  Despite what you might think, it took me under 20 minutes to put all of this together, and while I haven’t added up the cost, it’s got to be pretty minimal — imagine the added expense if I’d had to buy deli meat, fruit snacks, and the like for the kids’ lunches, rather than just re-purposing whatever was on hand.
Wednesday: Chicken pot pie with pumpkin crust, fruit platter (and since I now know what I have kicking around in terms of extra produce, etc., probably some roasted sweet potatoes, too).
I’ll make the crust in biscuit form, which will not only be quicker but will mean we’ll have some extra biscuits to use in lunches or freeze.  The pot pie will yield lunch for me tomorrow, and still probably leave enough for somebody on Friday’s fend night; J. and the kids are meeting some visiting family members tomorrow for lunch, so packing for school isn’t an issue, but I’ll save the sweet potatoes for Friday’s lunchboxes!
Thursday: Meatloaf with tomato-bacon relish, cheesy noodles, roasted veggies (which will probably include broccoli, based on my farmer’s market haul)
Leftover meatloaf will make great sandwiches for everyone on Friday, and between the sweet potatoes and broccoli, there should be plenty to choose from in the way of lunchbox vegetables.  There’s also still pumpkin pudding in the fridge, along with the requisite applesauce, yogurt, sliced fruit, and a pantry full of dried fruit and other good take-alongs. 

Now, my math may be faulty, but follow the twisted logic if you can:
If you (“you” henceforth meaning not you, the reader, but generic American Family X) pack your kids a sandwich of deli meat and cheese on supermarket bread each day, along with a fruit cup, granola bar, and yogurt tube, I’m loosely estimating that you’ll spend about $23.50 at the grocery store for all of those items for the week (based on a pound each of meat and cheese — yes, you’ll probably have some cheese leftover, but you’ll make grilled cheese sandwiches on the weekend with that).  That’s going by what those items tend to cost at our big supermarket.

That’s $23.50 in addition to whatever you bought for dinner.

Let’s assume that you cook very, very carefully, and you always have exactly the right amount of food to feed a family of four at dinnertime, plus two perfect adult portions of leftovers for lunch (because you’re thrifty and you understand you should eat leftovers rather than buying lunch out).  If you’re that good with your amounts every single time, then I need lessons from you.  But anyway, let’s assume that you’re spending about $2.50 per person per serving (which appears, from a quick internet research session, to be the average for a reasonably frugal shopper).  That means that for 28 dinner portions and 14 lunch portions throughout the week, your grocery bill comes out to $105.

Plus $23.50 for the kids’ lunchboxes.

And we haven’t addressed snacks, drinks, or breakfast yet.  Or what the kids eat for lunch on the weekends — sure, I’ll grant you the grilled cheese gratis, but you’ll be out of granola bars, fruit cups, and yogurt tubes for two kids if all you spent is $23.50, because I only figured in one box of each.  As a matter of fact, you ran out of those two days ago.  So your total, without full lunches for the kids on the weekend, or drinks, or snacks, or breakfasts, is already $128.50.  Man, eating is EXPENSIVE in this country.

In our house, as discussed yesterday, we probably spend more than the average on our per-serving cost for meals.  We’re probably in the $3-4 range most of the time.  So let’s assume $4.  Let’s be really pricey.

So if the full-on chicken dinner cost us $4 per serving, and we got 9 servings from it, that’s $36.
The full-on shrimp dinner?  $24.
The full-on bolognese dinner, at $4 per serving, comes out to $24.  Plus about another $1 for the quantity of sauce only that went into the quesadillas.  $25.
The pot pie dinner will be about 6 servings.  Another $24 for that.
The meatloaf dinner, full-on, ought to come out to about 6 servings.  $24.  Then there’ll be some extras for sandwiches, fend night, what have you.  Say 4 additional uses, at about $2 a pop.
That math — which is pretty generous, because there’s no way every single meal of ours comes in at $4 per portion, or that every one of the average family’s is only $2.50 — brings our total to $141.  Add in about $5 for the homemade applesauce, the occasional yogurt cup or scoop of sunflower butter, and the use of the pantry staples, and we’re only spending $17.50 more than you are for higher quality food (because there’s no way your $2.50 is buying the grass-fed beef we used for the bolognese, or the locally grown produce).

Is $17.50 a lot?  Probably, if you project it out over the course of weeks and months.  But is it as much as you would think we’d be spending to eat the kind of chi-chi “health fanatic” food we invest in?  I’d bet it’s not.  And I’d be willing to bet that we’re wasting less, too, than the average family, by reinventing our leftovers.  We get better at controlling the waste every day.

Thus ends, at least for the moment, my discussion of finances, but even though I’m no math major, it seems to me that even in the most basic sense, this is affordable.  And I can tell you with certainty that the $146/week figure I magicked up is probably close to what we do spend, overall — meaning that somehow I’m managing to sneak those snacks, drinks, etc. into the equation.  Some weeks, it’s higher; some weeks, it’s less.  But I’m confident that the more I try to make this work, the better I’ll get at it, and the lower the bills will get.  At least until the boys get a bit bigger.  In which case, those “servings” are going to get a lot larger.  I may need a second job.

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