Hey! I have my first question, submitted by none other than the lovely Karen Rani of Troll Baby Graphics. Do you see how she gives and gives? Not only coming up with this rockin’ site design (if I do say so, myself), but then jumping right in with a question like that? I had no idea that was included in the site design fee. Whatta woman!
Anyway, Karen wrote me:
Here’s one for you: Grocery budgets – dude…..snacks for lunches cost SO much….I could go on forever. Healthy food costs way more than crap food and organic is outta control!
Karen does not mess around, people. Karen goes straight for my Achilles heel. *deep breath* This is a subject near and dear to my heart, and it’s taking most of my energy at this moment to refrain from shaking my fist in the air while I answer it.
Let’s set aside, for a moment, my Achilles heel of organic foods not yet being affordable enough for the average family. That’s a complex issue in and of itself, and something that I get all hot and bothered about, and I could go on and on and on and at the end you’d still be all, Um, ooookay then, but, uh, I was kind of hoping you would just say “granola bars.”
So, circumventing the organics debate for the time being, let’s talk produce. Fruits and veggies are obvious choices for healthy snacks. Organic is good, yes; local is even better (again, that’s a whole ‘nother discussion). But you want to talk budget? Buy in season.
It sounds simple because it is. But my kids will only eat grapes! someone shouts from the back. And grapes are $2.89/pound sometimes! Well, yeah. Not only are some fruits going to be prohibitively expensive at certain times of the year, chances are they’re not going to taste all that good, either. Fresh, local produce almost always tastes better than stuff flown in from halfway around the world, if only by the very nature of the stress on the product from being handled and shipped. This is particularly true of delicate fruits, like berries.
My daughter would happily down her weight in strawberries three times a day, if I let her. Not only can we not afford to buy strawberries in the winter, they taste awful then. AWFUL. Why bother?
Here’s how we do it, when it comes to produce: There are certain “snacky” produce items I buy all year round. Baby carrots, celery, and bananas? We always have those on hand. (Bananas break the local and in-season rules, because they are cheap and can be shipped green without resulting in fruit that tastes like styrofoam.) My kids are pretty good about enjoying a bag of raw veggies, particularly if I include a small container of ranch dressing for dipping. Other veggies I’ll pack for that—depending on price/availability—include green beans, peapods, red and green peppers, jicama, and grape tomatoes.
In the fall and winter we eat a lot of apples and pears. In the summer we support the watermelon and berry industries. Any time seedless grapes are $.99/pound, I buy them. Fruit is something where I’m cost-conscious but I consider it a necessity. There’s always something available that I’m willing to buy. And for backup, yes, you’ll always find raisins, craisins, applesauce, and fruit cups in my pantry (purchased on special, natch).
[And don’t bother telling me your kid “doesn’t like” fruits and veggies. I’m the proud parent of the Formerly World’s Pickiest Eater, and that whole child psychology thing about having to present a food 30 times before it’s accepted is completely true. I could probably pay off my mortgage with the money I would’ve saved if I hadn’t spent years packing my son snacks and lunches that went directly into the trash. I never force my kids to eat anything, but I do offer foods over and over (and over and over and over)… and often, they eventually buckle. Isn’t that our job, as parents? To bend and break their little wills? Ahem.]
So that’s fruits and veggies.
There are plenty of other healthy options which probably go on special at your local store with some sort of regularity.
- When the 82-pound bag of individually wrapped string cheeses goes on sale, I buy it.
- I always have whole grain crackers on hand (again, stock up during a sale), and those are good with a slice of cheese, or a smear of cream cheese, or peanut butter (peanut butter is the cheapest of that family of spreads, but if you have a nut-allergic child, try sunflower butter for a palatable substitute).
- Graham crackers come in about forty different shapes and flavors, nowadays, and as long as you recognize and are okay with the fact that really, they’re cookies (in other words, don’t go thinking this is a fabulous healthy option), that’s not a bad choice.
- I giant pink puffy heart Robert’s American Gourmet snacks, and often buy them by the case (on sale, with free shipping). This product line is an awesome example of a healthy approximation of popular junk food (the tings, for example, taste just like cheetos) at an affordable price. Love love LOVE this company.
- I’ll confess to buying processed “bar” snacks, even though I know they’re not the greatest choice, health-wise. In my defense, I do try to make a special pilgrimage to Trader Joe’s every so often, as they carry the versions lowest in fat, sugar, and chemicals likely to pickle the kids’ spleens. We like fruit cereal bars and granola bars. If I can’t get to TJ’s? I wait for a sale at the regular grocery store.
- Remember how I mentioned that you can freeze baked goods? I haven’t baked a regular-sized muffin in eons. I bake dozens upon dozens of mini-muffins and freeze them, and they can be plucked from the freezer two or three at a time and popped into lunchbags (where they’ll be defrosted and ready to eat by snacktime). Overripe bananas (and I dunno about your house, but no matter how many I buy, there are always a few left in the basket, weeping quietly and turning black) render even the healthiest batter base kid-friendly. I use a conventional recipe and substitute quick oats for half the flour, or I use oat bran flour, or I fling off my metaphorical Birkenstocks and let down my imaginary hair and add chocolate chips once in a blue moon. The kids also adore my pumpkin recipe, and have even been known to enjoy the zucchini-carrot version. Listen: You acclimate them to the mini-muffin, and chances are they’ll eat anything baked into that shape. It’s all marketing, baby!
- It’s actually pretty easy to make your own granola, but even if that doesn’t appeal to you, make your own trail mix! Mix a couple of favorite whole-grain cereals (which you bought on sale) with mini-pretzels, your dried fruit(s) of choice, and healthy crackers. This has the additional benefit of sparking family conversation—which as we all know promotes togetherness—via the “But so-and-so’s mom puts M&Ms in hers! No fair!” gambit.
- Eggs. Eggs?? Yes, eggs. Hard-boiled eggs! They’re cheap, they’re nutritionally dense, and I have it on good authority that cracking one on your head makes you very popular amongst the under-10 set.
- Think outside the box. If you (or your kids) like it, pack it! It doesn’t have to be something inherently snackish. My son will eat a sliver of cold pizza… my daughter will down a container of whole wheat couscous (healthy and about $.20/serving). Leftovers make great snacks even if it’s not something you would normally think about for a snack.
A quick word on beverages: Never, ever, ever, EVER buy juice boxes unless they’re on sale. Or if you do, don’t tell me about it. That’s a crime against nature. The best option, of course, is to get your kids excited about water (having a cool sports bottle helps), and the second-best option is to pour juice from a large container into a portable single-serving container. I do hype the water, but I shall now duck the (organic) tomatoes of the environmentalists and say that I never use a thermos or other vessel for packing juice. I’ve just never found one that doesn’t leak, and the only thing worse than sticky juice residue all over a lunchbox is if the kid drinks the juice and then pukes.
Juice boxes/pouches which are nothing more than colored sugar-water are always much cheaper than actual juice. Look… you have to do what works for your family. Personally, I feel that if I’m going to allow my kids the sugar of fruit juice (and there’s a lot of sugar in even all-natural juice), I want it to have a smidge of redeeming nutritional value. I only buy juice boxes that contain actual juice and nothing else. They are more expensive. But they have a pretty good shelf life, so I stock up when they’re on super-special.
I hope that gives you a few ideas, Karen. If not? Well, the whole “there are children in other countries who are STARVING and would be GRATEFUL for that snack!” thing is always a winner.