Cheap and freezy: how to plan ahead for school lunches

Help make the morning rush less stressful with these delicious lunchbox fillers you can prep in advance, freeze, then grab!

Mornings can be a mad scramble for families with school-aged kids, as you rush to get them – and yourself – ready on time. “No matter how organised you are, something always goes awry, whether a child sleeps in or you can’t find the right uniform, so having lunch taken care of is one less stress,” says Natasha Murray, accredited practising dietitian, spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia and mum to Luana, nine, Bethanie, four, and Freyja, two. 

“If you know you’ve got several options ready in the freezer, you can pull them out the night before to defrost in the fridge, then all you need to do is pop them in a lunchbox and you’re set.” As well as saving time, you’re helping ensure your child has a nutritious lunch, without having to resort to canteen or convenience foods. 

Here are five freezer-friendly lunchbox fillers your kids will (hopefully) love:

As simple as blitzing a few pantry ingredients (like oats, dried apricots and shredded coconut) in the food processor then rolling them into balls, snack balls can be a healthy treat. 
“Just make sure they don’t contain copious amounts of sweetening products like honey or dates,” advises Murray. “I recommend including lots of seeds, like pumpkin, sesame and sunflower seeds, which are also good if your school has a nut-free policy.”
 
2.  Filo pastry triangles
More exciting than the regular sandwich triangle, a filo or puff pastry triangle can be filled with savoury ingredients like spinach and feta or tuna and corn. 
They’re also a handy way to put a new spin on leftovers, like leftover mince or roast vegetables (which you can mash and add to the triangles). “A lot of schools don’t have the capacity to heat up food, so you just need to make sure your kids don’t mind eating that particular food cold,” notes Murray.
 
3.  Sweet or savoury muffins
All you need is 15 minutes or less to prepare a basic muffin mix, whether it’s steaming apples, mashing some bananas, or grating vegetables for a savoury version.  “Whatever ingredients I need to use up will dictate what I make, and that way I know what’s gone into the muffins, I can cut down the added sugar and use wholemeal flour to boost the fibre content,” says Murray. “One or two mini muffins is a great snack for recess, and you can do slightly bigger savoury ones as something more substantial for lunch.”
 
4.  Mini quiches  
“Making these is as easy as lining little cake or muffin tins with some ham or bread as the quiche shell, then adding in your egg mixture or even just cracking an egg straight in,” suggests Murray. “You can also add some tomato and asparagus, tuna and corn or grated zucchini and carrot and that way you’ve got protein from the egg and up to one-and-a-half serves of vegetables.” 
 
5.  Fruit smoothies
Depending how early you take it out of the freezer to defrost, a smoothie can be something for kids to drink at lunchtime, or a healthy icypole. “You can’t go wrong with banana, berries, low-fat milk, a few dollops of yoghurt and even some oats,” says Murray. “Personally I like tinned peaches and strawberries.” She advises sticking with a fruit base, and avoiding toppings or other sweetened flavourings. 

Other tips for time strapped parents

Have a weekly prep session                                                                         Set aside a few hours on the weekend (or on a weekday or evening if that works better for you) to batch cook several lunchbox fillers at once. Stick them in the freezer and then just pull them out as needed. 

Set up a lunchbox co-op
“My group of mum friends have a regular get-together where we’ll each cook up a lot of one item, then we swap so everyone has a bit of everyone else’s food, and the kids get dietary variety,” says Murray.
 
Get your kids involved
Older kids can help with food preparation, for instance cracking and whisking eggs. Cooking is a fun activity to enjoy together, and it teaches kids about healthy food preparation.

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