Back to school means back to lunch preparation for parents around the country. It’s a challenge that many parents take on, but often struggle to keep healthy.

While it’s easy to toss in convenient snacks, it’s not going to do much in the way of keeping their little bodies healthy and developing well. One pediatrician wants parents to know that sending kids to school with healthy lunches each day doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive. In fact, she’s on a mission to help teach parents how to pack healthy school lunches on a budget.

School lunches may not seem significant in a child’s life, but when you add up that they are eating them five days per week it’s quite a lot of their calorie consumption,” says Dr. Nimali Fernando, a Fredericksburg, Virginia-based pediatrician who founded The Doctor Yum Project. “Teaching them healthy lunch habits from a young age will give them the tools to build lifelong healthy habits.”

Of concern for many pediatricians is the fact that most children are simply not eating enough healthy foods to begin with. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report earlier this year which stated that only 12 percent of adults meet the daily recommended fruit intake, and only 9 percent reach the daily vegetable intake. They went on to say that most U.S. children do not meet national recommendations for daily fruit and vegetable servings. Add to it the fact they report that 14 percent of preschool aged children are considered obese, and it’s a recipe for health disaster.

Here are tips from Dr. Yum for packing healthy school lunches on a budget:

  • Plan lunches for the week. Every weekend, sit down and make a list of what healthy lunches you will make throughout the week. Dr. Yum’s Menu Planner can help you plan lunches, dinners, breakfasts and snacks and then gives you a shopping list for the week that is even sorted by department.
  • Buy in bulk. Skip buying individually packaged items like snacks. They are often much more expensive that way. Buy items in bulk, such as at Costco, and use reusable containers to put the items in.
  • Keep it healthy by opting for things like dried fruit, trail mix, unsweetened applesauce, etc.
  • Use leftovers. Plan your dinner meals so that you can make extra and then put some aside for lunch the next day. The Dr. Yum Menu Planner is terrific for this, too.
  • Make from scratch. When we buy items, such as muffins, premade at the store, they often have ingredients in them that we would never find in our pantry. Take it old school by going back to making your own items from scratch. Preparing a batch of healthy muffins, for example, and then putting them in the freezer will help you save money and have healthy options on hand at all times.
  • Skip the sugary drinks. Buying sugary drinks is not only expensive, but it puts too much sugar into your child’s diet. Opt for sending them with a reusable container filled with water or unsweetened tea.
  • Take a twist on old favorites. Most kids like a traditional PBJ, but you can add some twists by making peanut butter and sliced banana sandwiches, using a whole wheat tortilla, or putting peanut butter and jelly into a whole wheat tortilla and grilling it like a quesadilla. Each variation makes it a bit different, but very few different ingredients are used, keeping it easy and affordable.
  • Think smoothies. Packing a smoothie like Dr. Yum’s Green Dragon Smoothie once a week is a great way to get kids nutrition, serve them something they like, and make lunch preparation easy. Keep bags of frozen fruits and veggies (like spinach and kale) on hand and whip together a smoothie to put in their thermos. Smoothies are not just for breakfast.

“Get your kids involved in helping to make healthy lunches this year, which will teach them healthy habits and make them more likely to actually eat what you pack together” added Heidi DiEugenio, director of the Doctor Yum Project. “Once you decide you want to serve healthy and affordable lunches, you just need to stick with the commitment and make it happen. It will become a healthy habit for the whole family.”