Back to school budget friendly food

As children return to school over the coming days, CAROLINE HENNESSY shares some tips and advice on breakfasts, lunches and snacks to see you through the academic year
Back to school budget friendly food

Cepta Mahon of Cookalicious.

THE results of the annual Barnardos’ Back to School survey were stark: for 2022, the majority of parents are worried about covering back to school costs.

With constant increases in the cost of living, there will be few households in Ireland unscathed this autumn. But between paying for uniforms and books and folders, one area you really shouldn’t have to skimp on is food.

The easiest way to save money is by planning ahead. Before the holidays end - while everyone is still relatively chilled out - sit down with the children and make lists of their favourite breakfasts, lunches and after-school snacks.

If you have a whiteboard in the kitchen, divide it into the days of the week and work out a plan with the kids.

No whiteboard? Just use a big sheet of paper for planning purposes, sticking it up on the wall so that everyone can see it.

This is the time to explain that no, there cannot be pasta every day, and yes, everyone has to eat a decent breakfast.

If children feel they’re part of the decision-making process, they’re more likely to go along with what has been decided. It also helps them realise the reasoning behind things like a grab-and-go breakfast being necessary on a Tuesday because you have a recurring early meeting.

That said, do explain that nothing is set in stone and things can, and will, change. Managing expectations at this stage can help things work smoothly down the track.

Journalist, broadcaster and author Caroline Hennessy.
Journalist, broadcaster and author Caroline Hennessy.

With the menu up on the wall, make your shopping list - and save money by sticking to it. If you go shopping without a plan, it’s too easy to get suckered into buying pre-packaged lunchbox snacks and mini packs of after-school treats, but you’ll regret it when you watch the total add up.

Cooking teacher Cepta Mahon runs the Cookalicious cooking school from her home in Galway, offering popular live online cookalong classes for kids and adults. Last year she added a lunchbox class to her roster because she was constantly being asked for “help, ideas and inspiration” for school lunches.

“Parents want the pain taken out of school lunchboxes by not having to think too much about it, but they still want to feed their kids nutritious wholesome food that keeps them fuelled and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg,” says Mahon.

With three children herself, aged from 11 to 16, she understands why parents find the whole idea of school lunches so intimidating.

“Quite simply, it’s the daily pressure to come up with something healthy that your child will actually eat and, because it’s daily, it seems to loom over parents.

“Kids will often question mom on why they get cucumber rounds in their lunchbox while ‘Johnny always has treats’. They don’t understand that we are trying to keep them healthy and give them every chance by feeding them nutritious food - unless we explain it to them.”

My two girls have - virtually - attended several of Mahon’s online classes and courses and enjoy her fun style of teaching as well as learning how and what they are doing in the kitchen. This summer’s teens and tweens course gave us several recipes for lunchbox inspiration and, judging by the feedback she received from last year’s lunchbox class, Mahon will be cooking up a storm again this September.

Parents told her “they loved having a bunch of reliable go-to recipes to include on their family’s lunch rotation. When they see I’m a mom too, sharing what I do for my family, they can relate to it and they trust my guidance. They love how I make it look easy and doable and it gives them the confidence that they can do it too.”

Despite being armed with all kinds of tips and tricks, it’s important to remember that lunchboxes are just one food element. Make sure that children have a good breakfast and the option of a nutritious snack when they come home and it all evens out over the course of the day.

“Like everything in life, it’s all about balance so be practical,” says Mahon.

She has a realistic perspective on the situation: “It’s a long way to next June so keep it simple - that way you’ll avoid the lunchbox wars with your kids and steer clear of lunchbox burnout!”

Keep an eye on for Mahon’s lunchbox class along with her other courses.

Keep costs low:

Plan meals.

Make lists.

Buy own brand.

Avoid waste.

Eat leftovers.

Oatmeal porridge with banana, blueberries and honey. Picture: Stock
Oatmeal porridge with banana, blueberries and honey. Picture: Stock


Monday: Porridge - for Mahon, it’s this all the way: “Porridge is my go-to winner - it’s highly nutritious, inexpensive, Irish (yes!), and can be kept as simple as you like or jazzed up depending on what’s hanging out in the cupboards or fridge.

“Do it on the stovetop or in the microwave, either way, it’s easy for the kids to make it themselves, and empowering!

“Make it with water or milk (any type) and top it with banana and seeds, or nut butter, or fruit and berries of choice.”

Tuesday: Breakfast muffins - bake a batch of savoury muffins, loaded with lots of cheese, bacon and spinach, and freeze for chaotic mornings when everyone needs a breakfast that’s easy to grab and go.

Wednesday: Overnight oats - if Mahon is not cooking her oats, she’s soaking them, recommending that you “serve them chilled, overnight oats style.”

This is the kind of breakfast that is especially good for the warmer back-to-school weather and, like porridge, can be topped with toasted seeds, nuts and fruit.

Thursday: Toast and cheese - hot buttered toast, cold slices of cheese. Repeat as necessary.

Friday: Pancakes - speed up the process by baking one large pancake in the oven. Rukmini Iyer has a brilliant recipe for a breakfast pancake with berries and lemon butter in The Quick Roasting Tin (2019, Square Peg), which, incidentally, has lots of brilliant one-pan ideas for all kinds of meal times.


  • A lunchbox, according to the HSE Healthy Lunchbox leaflet, should contain:
  • A portion of vegetables / salad or fruit.
  • A portion of meat or meat alternatives eg eggs, fish, beans and pulses.
  • A portion of wholemeal breads or cereals.
  • A portion of dairy, eg milk, yogurt, cheese.

Some cheap and healthy lunches:

Monday: Leftovers - the start of the week is often a good opportunity to use up Sunday lunch leftovers: think chicken drumsticks just as they are, thinly sliced cold roast beef tucked between a couple of slices of wholemeal bread, or slices of turkey breast stuffed into wholemeal pita pockets with crunchy lettuce.

Tuesday: Pasta - Mahon’s kids are big fans of lunchbox pasta. Sometimes she cooks a pot of plain pasta, tosses it with olive oil and then adds different “bits and bobs to it as the week goes on to create different lunch boxes. Lovely combinations that kids like are chicken and pesto or tuna and sweetcorn or ham and pineapple or butter and parmesan or bacon bits and peas or olives, peppers and corn.”

Wednesday: Sausage rolls - something that children are happy to make, and to eat. Ring the changes by grating apple, onion, carrot or courgette into the sausage filling, spreading the pastry with a layer of mustard or relish before filling, or crumbling some black pudding into the mix. Make ahead to freeze uncooked and bake from frozen (adding 7-10 minutes extra baking time) or freeze cooked, to defrost in a lunchbox.

Thursday: Rice paper rolls - this might just be the easiest way of getting children to eat lots of crunchy vegetables. Find rice paper wrappers at most supermarkets or Asian food shops, dip each one in water to soften and then fill with lettuce, rice vermicelli noodles, thinly sliced peppers, carrots and cucumber. Add cooked shrimp, chicken or tofu for extra protein. Fold and roll tightly. Pack a small tub of sweet chilli sauce for dipping. These will dry out if made too far in advance but can be covered loosely with damp kitchen town for lunchbox packing.

Friday: Hummus and vegetables - don’t forget the old favourites. A selection of crunchy vegetable sticks - carrot, cucumber, celery, radish - works well with a small tub of hummus and some pretzels or crackers.

Cheap and healthy after-school snacks 

Monday: Snack boards - it’s all in the name and doesn’t an after-school snack board sound so much better than plain cheese and crackers? Make it extra nutritious and colourful by cutting fruit and veg into bite sized pieces to serve alongside some slices or chunks of cheese and a couple of different crackers. Fancy? It’s all in the way you serve it up!

Tuesday: Cookies - the rule in our house is if they make it, they can eat it. Weekend baking with kids pays dividends during the week when a tin of cookies is set aside for snacks. The United Nations of Cookies by Jess Murphy and Eoin Cluskey (Blasta Books, 2022) is an essential guide to great international cookies with Irish influences.

A smoothie is a great snack after school.
A smoothie is a great snack after school.

Wednesday: Smoothie bowls - much loved on TikTok, a smoothie spooned from a bowl rather than sipped from a glass is obviously a very different offering to what I’ve been making for the girls all along. These bowls of fruit and yogurt got a big thumbs up in our house after the girls made them during one of Mahon’s online summer camps. Make the smoothie base by blending frozen berries and bananas with yogurt, pouring it into bowls and topping with a variety of fresh fruit. Make ahead and store in the freezer for warm autumn days.

Thursday: Go nuts - Mahon likes to include protein-rich nuts and nut butter in a snack.

 “I’m a big fan of having a small handful of raw unsalted nuts or rice cakes and crackers with some nut butter as an after-school snack. Most schools don't allow nuts or nut butter because of allergies but kids love the stuff and it's full of protein so it's perfect as a snack after school to fuel them until dinnertime.” 

Read the labels and avoid nut butters with added sugar and palm oil.

Friday: Waffled quesadillas - do you have an old waffle iron languishing in the cupboard? Put it to good use by repurposing it to make quesadillas with wholewheat tortillas and grated cheese. Don’t fill too much or this gets messy.

Things to remember:

● Lunches don’t need to be Instagramable.

● Stick with reusable lunchboxes and water bottles. Less environmental waste is often also easier on your pocket.

● If you buy something new for lunchtime packing, make sure that kids can use it with ease.

● Label everything. It’s expensive having to replace bits and pieces halfway through the year.

● Go bento box-style by adding your own little boxes to their lunchboxes. It doesn’t have to cost much - a friend washed out all her old Play-Doh tubs and uses them for packing everything from slices of cucumber to crackers.

● Get the kids to make as much of the lunch as possible, choosing from parent-approved options. Everyone’s a winner in this situation.

● If they don’t eat it, don’t stress.

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