Healthy Snacks: Make healthier Lunchables for 32% less

The cute kid in the grocery store knew exactly what she wanted when she politely asked, “Mommy, can I have Lunchables for school?”

The mom cringed, and then conceded.

I don’t blame her. Lunchables are easy to buy, easy to serve, and easily keep the kiddlets content. The problem? Lunchables and their copycat brands are expensive. These packaged cheese, cracker, and sausage snack packs are also stuffed full of sodium and trans fat. Not exactly a healthy snack (or lunch) for kids.

So I did the right thing — I bought two Lunchables-type products (Schneiders Lunchmate Stackers and a NO NAME Lunch Box) and put these snack packs through the Squawkfox paces. Yes people, I’m knocking off these packaged products and attempting to make them less costly and more nutritious. Shouldn’t be hard, right?

Lunchables

I bought the ‘healthiest sounding’ snack packs containing turkey, Swiss cheese, whole wheat crackers, and a treat. Both products contain something called process cheese food.

kraft lunchables coupons

I have to ask — WTF is PROCESS CHEESE FOOD? Is that the stuff they feed cheese? I dunno, I guess anything you have to label as FOOD probably isn’t really food. Moving on …

healthy snacks kids

One idea behind Lunchables is they’re easy to buy. Well, shopping for crackers, Swiss cheese, and turkey is pretty darn easy too. Without spending hours searching for the cheapest ingredients, I dashed through my grocer’s aisles and picked items that looked healthy. I surveyed the ingredients, scrutinized the content, and ignored the cost. I’m such a bad money blogger …

Lunchables Knockoff List:

  • Mary’s Organic Crackers (184g): $3.34
  • Blue Menu Swiss Cheese (150g): $4.99
  • PC Chewy Granola Bars (175g): $1.89
  • Brandt Turkey Kolbassa (250g): $3.77

Total Cost: $13.99 for a week’s worth of snacks or school lunches.

Cost played a secondary consideration in this experiment because I wanted to show that healthier food choices are not always the more expensive option. Now re-read that previous sentence. And again.

Snack Attack: You’re saving 32% with healthier food!

I sliced turkey, counted crackers, weighed cheese, and added up the total cost for my squawky approved snack. Can you pick the Squawkfox Lunchables knockoff?

lunch


Yeah, this is a big game of DUH!

snack foods

Bottom Line: Cutting all the trans fat and 400 mg of sodium saves you $0.80 (that’s 32%) for a healthier snacking option.

Despite being cheaper, I ditched the NO NAME Lunch Box since it contained more trans fat and sodium than the Schneiders Lunchmate Stackers. Besides, it looked kinda gross once I removed the packaging.

Add fruits and veggies for the win!

Want to make this snack healthier? Add around $0.50 worth of carrots, snap peas, tomatoes, grapes, strawberries (or whatever), and make this meal more worthy of your growing kid! The real keeners could even use my homemade granola bar recipe to add more tasty goodness.

healthy snacks

Total Cost: Adding around $0.50 worth of fruits and vegetables costs just $2.17 for a Lunchables-type knockoff with zero trans fat, half the sodium, and more nutrition. Plus you’re still saving $0.30 over the brand-name product with the added fruit and veggie goodness.

What about the container?

I know, it’s all about the packaging — that dang container. Your kid’s lunch is only cool enough for school if it’s in a divided lunch box with colorful wrapping. Grumble. Gotcha.

I can’t do anything about the wrapping, but I’m a huge fan of these inexpensive Lock & Lock square containers with trays. Yeah, they have removable dividers perfect for keeping your kiddlet’s food from touching — ’cause touching food is a touchy matter with certain kids.

lunch box

These 3-compartment bento lunch box containers will also get the job done since they’re easy for tiny figures to pry open.

But hey, if your kid really really really wants a Lunchables-style packaged snack then I say go for it, occasionally. OR get the kid in your life to pay for a portion of their non-essential foods from their allowance. Sounds mean, but teaching kids the value of a dollar at a young age could help ward off unhealthy food choices while showing them the true costs in life.

Your Thoughts: What do your kids want in their lunch box?

Your two cents:

  1. Andrew Lewis September 9th, 2011

    Process Cheese Food is basically a combination of multiple cheeses melted together and combined with other dairy (or dried dairy) (milk, cream, etc).

  2. Kerry September 9th, 2011

    If the ingredients and method need to be legislated, I don’t want to eat it. :)

  3. Melissa September 9th, 2011

    This is awesome! ANd also, the granola bars are WAY more expensive than the mini chocolate bars, so it’s amazing that even with that you kept the cost so low. I bet if you replaced it with a homemade granola bar/muffin/cookie, the unit cost would drop to practically nothing.

    I’m an adult, but I totally want to make my own lunchables now!

  4. Eric Mesa September 9th, 2011

    I’ll definitely be taking that to heart with my kids. I loved the idea of lunchables as a kid, but as an adult I’ve discovered how much of the stuff I loved as a kid is so bad for you. I don’t want to make my kid that weird one who only eats bean sprouts or something, but I do want them to be healthier – so this is a great alternative. Love it!

  5. Dave MacLeod September 9th, 2011

    Mmmmm, Process Cheese Food, sounds so…. Industrial. .

  6. rob September 9th, 2011

    You can cut the price of the granola bar by replacing it with trail mix and get about the same stuff. Personally I would just go with smoked almonds instead of the granola bar. Almonds are very good for you and the flavored ones are delicious.

  7. Brian September 9th, 2011

    “Processed cheese food” also has to do with actual cheese content (must be 51% actual cheese), versus “Processed Cheese Product”, which has lower percentages of actual cheese, and mostly contains milk protein concentrate. Personally, I’ll go for “cheese”, containing 100% actual cheese, thanks.

  8. Jules September 9th, 2011

    I think you’re forgetting one critical cost, though: replacing the plastic container! I pack my boyfriend’s lunches for him, and I’ve had to replace the plastic tubs, some of them twice, in the six months that I’ve been back at home. Admittedly, it’s still small beans compared to the cost of a prepackaged lunch (at least, if you’re not buying Tupperware), but it’s probably a bigger temptation to buy Lunchables than is appreciated.

  9. Stephen September 9th, 2011

    @Kerry: The ingredients and methods of “real” varieties pf cheese like cheddar, swiss, muenster, what have you, are also legally regulated. As are dairy products and medicines. By governmental organizations (in the USA, the FDA and USDA). It’s how we know that a package we put in our grocery carts that is labeled as “cheddar cheese” *actually* contains what we humans know and love to be cheddar cheese, and not something else. It’s supposedly for our own protection from all of those evil dairy farmers with an agenda.

    Besides, if you think our North American policies are weird, think about France: they have 452 varieties of official government-regulated cheeses. In that case, when you have a food product as a national export and trade good, it’s especially important to have a regulatory system in place in order to have quality standards.

    So when you really think about it, the process that enables the production of “process food cheese” (which I sincerely agree with you is a true scourge of humanity) also guarantees that we have healthy, high-quality “real” cheeses to turn to. While legalization of things like cheese (and seeming imposters) can seem like an insidious idea, it’s not all bad! :-)

  10. trav September 9th, 2011

    for a while last summer, my kids relished “daddy lunchables” on our saturdays at home while mommy worked. i just took deli slices and either rolled and sliced them or just cut them into quarters, and stacked up some sliced cheese and cut it, then arrayed that out across a plate with some crackers.

  11. brian September 9th, 2011

    Just buy a few lunchables and reuse the container using glad press’n seal to cover it!

  12. stephljones September 9th, 2011

    Processed cheese food is really just cheese…i has just gone through a process to make it smoother, easier to melt and pour. For the slices the melted cheese is poured out in a thin layer, then cut and wrapped into convenient plastic.

    There is nothing wrong with processed cheese food…it really is still just cheese.

    I am surprised at the ignorance of this writer and some of the commenters…this is not hard information to get, and is relatively common knowledge.

  13. evert September 9th, 2011

    “Processed cheese is often criticized for its possible health effects (associated with chemical preservatives, artificial colors/flavors, and trans-fats), inferior taste, and small range of flavors, which is far narrower than the range for unprocessed cheeses and normally very mild.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Processed_cheese
    Took me about 12 seconds to gain that knowledge. Furthermore, being individually packaged, it creates quite the waste of plastic.

  14. HealthNutMostofTheTime September 10th, 2011

    Bento boxes are a great solution to the sectioned lunchables and can fit all those nutritious food you want. They can be tailored to children too!

  15. Marcia @Frugal Healthy Simple September 10th, 2011

    My kid likes the school lunch, but we haven’t started him on it since he switched to a new school (kindergarten). The old school lunch was free and was homemade and very healthy. I haven’t had the chance to check out the new school.

    He wants to make sure I don’t send too much food, so these days, it’s a 1/2 sandwich on whole wheat with either 1/2 to a cup of fruit or veggies.

  16. Brenda Williams September 10th, 2011

    Wonderful post! I agree with you. I am not a fan of lunchables and like products. My grandson thinks they are great, so we now only get them as a special “treat” and not for a meal.

  17. Pam September 10th, 2011

    I am in total agreement with your post. It often does end up being cheaper to choose healthy alternatives rather than buying prepackaged foods. And, way more importantly, you are what you eat. Junk in junk out. If you eat healthy your body will thank you for it.

  18. Robbin September 10th, 2011

    I don’t have kids, but like the post. When I need a portable lunch, I usually bring a healthy combo of whatever I have in the fridge in little baggies, but the bento box is even better. But it occurred to me that kids may not remember to bring the container home, so here’s thought. Give them some fixed amount of change (maybe the net savings on each lunch if you want to get technical) and add it to their allowance. Or better yet, just call it a recycling bonus.

  19. Kevin September 10th, 2011

    The real convenience value of the commercial Lunchables is the ability to trash the container after use. Otherwise, what’s the difference between this and keeping your snacks in a small lunchbox that you have to keep up with, tote back home and wash out again each day??

  20. Diane September 10th, 2011

    My grand kids like the lunchables, but I worry about the nitrates too. I thank you for doing this comparison with healthier and maybe cheaper alternatives.

  21. Brenton September 10th, 2011

    I’m just wondering why you have the fat content as the demonstration of health. It seems that a lot of people, (dieters, fitness experts, and nutritionists, even) are working on the assumption that fat = unhealthy. Perhaps because excess fat ON a person is healthy, it’s easy to assume that consuming fat is unhealthy. Or maybe it’s because some unhealthy foods are high in fat, say, red meat, etc. But just because a burger and fries is high in fat and unhealthy doesn’t mean that fresh avocado, raw nuts, or olive oil, which are all high in fat, are bad for me too.

    Basically, I’m wondering if you’ve thought about your assumptions regarding fat, or if you’re just going along with what you’ve heard uncritically, and using a figure that will instantly convince people regardless of whether it’s an accurate gauge of healthfullness.

  22. Martin Johnson September 10th, 2011

    @Brenton: there’s actually good fats and bad fats.
    The fats that Kerry mentions are not the total contents of fats, only the TRANS fats. Remember that term. Out of all the fats, it’s the Trans Fats that are the real bad guys. They clog your arteries, even in small amounts, they’re bad for you regardless of whether you are overweight or not.

    As for “fresh avocado, raw nuts, or olive oil” – zero trans fats there! You may also want to check out some kinds of fish, they contain omega-3 fats, which are actually really healthy.

  23. Stef September 10th, 2011

    I think it should read: Possessed Cheese. Healthier and Cheaper is obtained by taking time to prepare your snacks. Simple things like mixed nuts (bought in large portion) in baggies or fruits require almost no preparation and can prevent you from “visiting” the vending machine when hunger strikes.

  24. Jane Passant September 12th, 2011

    Part of parenting is tough love and this includes packing healthy lunches for our kids. My 4 didn’t really appreciate it back in grade school, but now realize they had the mom who loved them enough to take the extra time, not just gave into the trend of the time! I made it more fun, by giving them the choice of healthy snacks and always a fruit or veggie that they picked from a special shelf and packed themselves. Fruits and veggies were referred to as “treats” and this sort of lunch was a “party tray” which I’m sure helped. My daughter was surprised when she started to study Environmental Studies how environmentally friendly we were….as I pointed out, it is usually more cost effective too! Start teaching the value of a dollar at a very young age and it will pay off in the long run!

  25. Kirstin September 12th, 2011

    I have a cute little lock & lock style 3 compartment snack box which is purple and the clear lid has a quirky animal design. This was from Paperchase (UK) also you could decorate a plain box with childs favourite stickers or they could draw on the outside with coloured permanent markers. The same principle applies to those 1 serving packs of Houmous and crudites- they are healthyy but not very ecomomical or ecological.

  26. Mary September 12th, 2011

    I love this idea. My children are allergic to preservatives and can not eat the name brand ones. I can cut up ham or chicken or tuna. One of the ways I can save on the container is to watch for them on sale and then use coupons. In our town the ziplock containers that are divided are on sale and with coupon I paid .25 for three containers. I am going to stock up so I have some extra just incase they get tossed out at lunch time. Thanks again for the idea. They will be so excited to have a “lunchable” style treat.

  27. Tapestry September 12th, 2011

    Honestly people can be so snobby especially
    people that have all the time in the world, to
    criticize in blogs or time to make
    a ‘healthy version’ of whatever you hate this week!

    Velveeta is a processed cheese, it melts better and thicker than real cheese so its used in things like mac and cheese and nachos.
    If you ever needed a cheese to melt fast that’s the stuff and it doesn’t coddle in the microwave like regular cheese, its easy to cook with and my guy has loved
    Velveeta since was a kid. He also loved Spam and
    I know people that scream about that stuff too.

    Point is kids will eat what they want and most cannot
    stand swiss cheese, too many holes, too grainy, too
    bland plus unless you cannot make your own throwaway
    containers you might as well figure the kids are not going to remember to bring them home and you will have to have one for each lunch.
    I see no savings, besides kids don’t eat those things every day its a treat just like cookies and candy, they do they get tired of them in a weeks time.
    Back to sandwiches and soup!

  28. Susie September 13th, 2011

    Now, could you please write a guide on how I can reproduce a Pizza Lunchables for cheaper/healthier? I would never have to consider what to eat for lunch again ;P

  29. Barbara September 14th, 2011

    I used to make these for my middle son for lunches in the early 90′s. Cut some ham & cheese place in a baggie add a baggie of crackers, some fruit or carrots, maybe a cookie, etc. Voila a throw away Lunchable :)

  30. Kasimir September 15th, 2011

    Watch out for the preschool nut police. Due to allergy concerns you often have to omit the nutty snacks.

  31. Sarah L October 13th, 2011

    Great idea, Kerry! But where on earth did you find mary’s crackers for such an inexpensive price?

  32. Kerry October 13th, 2011

    Sarah, Costco sells Mary’s Crackers for a frugal price.

  33. Sarah L October 14th, 2011

    Thanks, Kerry! I’ll look into it!

  34. Shantell March 8th, 2012

    Kerry, what do you suggest for other types of snacks when your school/day care is nut free? My kids looooove trail mix and granola bars but I can’t send those with them. Darn, no PB&J either.

  35. Reality March 15th, 2012

    Really Tapestry?
    You came on this (healthy food)blog, read it & the comments and left that comment and who is snobby?

    1. All the time in the world -
    If your childrens health is not worth a little extra of your time what is worthy of your time?
    (you found the time to read all this & leave the lengthiest comment – so far)

    2.Yes a “healthy version” -
    some of us realize that you are what you eat. My children are healthy because they eat healthy.
    It really isn’t about snobbery or hate – but health.

    3. The process that makes Velveeta & processed cheeses so easy to melt & such is what makes them unhealthy.

    4. Children will eat what they want – really?
    Who’s the parent?
    Sure I allow my children to choose between good, healthy choices, but I believe in teaching them to make good choices that will stick with them the rest of their lives. I buy their food, I pack their lunches – if they don’t like it, they can wait for the next meal.

    5. As for not remembering to bring them home – again – as the parent – teach them. My kids have no problem with that, because they know what is expected of them.”

  36. Ashley April 24th, 2012

    Love the pic with the cut out cheese shapes. Looks lovely ;)

  37. Bailey May 11th, 2012

    @Brenton has a very valid point.

    I laugh at the frequency of the misconception that fat in food = fat in bodies. Its almost as funny to me as the people that honestly believe that egg yolk raises cholesterol. Jeez.
    Our bodies to not take in fat and then store it as such, in our thighs and in our arteries. When we take in fats, our stomachs and intestines have to break it down, turn it into a sugar, then turn it into the fat we have on our bodies. Same with trans fats as well. That process takes a substantial ammount of time and energy and usually we don’t end up converting it all before it is expelled.
    Its sugars (carbohydrates to be exact) that cause excess weight gain and all of those other bad problems.
    The government just wants you to believe the notion that food fat is bad so that consumers end up buying low-fat and zero-fat alternatives, which in turn cost more, and are filled with wheat and sugar fillers to make them tast better.

  38. Brooke May 31st, 2012

    What about pizza Lunchables? I stock up on that kind (and that kind only) every time they’re on sale. Kerry, I’d love to see your frugal/healthy ideas for remaking those!

  39. Ryan May 31st, 2012

    This is such a cool idea. We’re having our first child in a few months so this is something to keep on my radar. The big draw to these things is their convenience. But, by taking a little time as you have to prepare the real versions of these foods, we can save money AND have a healthier meal.

  40. Vanessa June 1st, 2012

    I only let the kids get Lunchables once in a while or when we are driving somewhere since we don’t eat fast food. But I can NOT get them to EAT a mama-made lunchable. It is really annoying. Doesn’t matter how much better it is for them or how much cheaper if they won’t eat it. Anyone wanna trade kids? :)

  41. Michele June 3rd, 2012

    @Reality
    Do you eat things that you don’t like? I would never pack things for my kids that I know they don’t like, just as I would not cook something for myself that I don’t like. Kids should be able to make choices too. Just because “I buy the food and I pack the lunches” doesn’t mean I don’t ask for their input

  42. Meredith June 27th, 2012

    Amazing Kerry. Just discovered your blog and somewhat addicted.
    I would make these “lunchables” for my lunch.
    I also like the idea of having kids use part of their allowance for the treats in their lunch, its a great money lesson.

  43. Connie Solidad August 14th, 2012

    I’ve got to try this! I love that it’s so economical, but also that it makes sense and it’s customizable! If your kids prefer Swiss, give them Swiss! If they want extra carrots, they get extra carrots! I’m going to start doing this for my husband and myself as an afternoon snack. Thanks a ton!

  44. Jennifer August 20th, 2012

    I started doing this for my son a couple years ago off and on. Now we do it all the time. I actually make little “buckets” of cheese, ham or turkey (from the deli), and crackers. Then in the mornings, all I do is grab all these little containers. They fit nicely into his lunchbox, with an ice packs and other snacks. His lunch is varied but usually much healthier than what the school serves and I know he’s eating because he chooses his healthy items. :-)

  45. Anne September 6th, 2012

    We have been making home-made lunchables since 2004 when my daughter discovered them; we purchased some ‘baby’ plastic containers – they were sold in the baby section of a baby specialty store and some drugstore (in the baby section); it’s one plate with three sections; each section has its own lid. My kids have never lost them or left them at school.

    I use them for their lunches every day, whether for a ‘lunchable’-type lunch, or a regular lunch: 1/2 sandwich; hard cheese cubes; vegetables. I also cut thin slices of our ‘real’ meat such as chicken, pork loin or roast beef to make sandwiches. If the vegetable selection at home isn’t great, I’ll put fruit instead.

    They also get two snacks for school: one fruit, the other one will be a pre-packaged yogourt or a home made muffin (sometimes with a little dish of jam and a plastic knife).

    I am a teacher, and too often I see things that the kids bring that do not even look like food: fruit strings/gummies/twists; processed cheese flavoured crackers; fruit-flavored punch; bread stickes with processed cheese dip. I saw a child eat a donuts for snack every day for months, with a hot dog for lunch. The child is overweight and disruptive in class… too much preservatives and sugar? just a guess here.

  46. Terri September 21st, 2012

    I just love this idea! They didn’t have these when my kids were younger. I don’t and won’t pay $1.58 for a lunchable. To me its not even a snack. I work at walmart and a mother bought 12 of the cheese pizzas for her child. That was $18.96 :/
    For the initial investment of the containers is so well worth this! You can make up a week in advance for your kids. They take out when going to school. Heck you could put stickers etc on the containers. You can even put slices of pepperoni in there with cheese and crackers :) Thank you for sharing

  47. DianeMargaret August 13th, 2013

    I make our daughter “lunchables” all the time!
    We just usually have everything on hand anyway!
    Since we homeschool, I don’t have to worry about packaging it up but…occasionally she wants it all separated, “like on TV”.
    When she decides it needs to be that way…I stick everything in cupcake liners and she’s usually happy with that! :)
    It never really occurred to me but we usually DO add “extras” like fruit, nuts, fruit gummys, and YES, sometimes even candy (like M & M’s or Sixlets, if we have them).
    She won’t eat veggies with them though…as the “real” ones have no veggies in site! LOL

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