EVERY week, it seems like there's something else you have to fork out for at the moment – but packed lunches don't have to be one of them.
Rebecca Wilson, the Sunday Times bestselling author behind the What Mummy Makes Cookbook and What Mummy Makes Meal Planner, has revealed her tips for exciting, affordable lunches for the kids.
And it turns out freezing your sandwiches and tying your fruit together are just a couple of innovative ways to keep costs down.
The mum-of-two has also exclusively shared some of her favourite recipes from her new book, Fast Family Food, with Sun readers.
It seems obvious, but planning is key to keeping costs down.
Rebecca’s top tip is to write a meal plan for your dinners and packed lunches for the week, and you can then make sure you write a shopping list before you head to the supermarket.
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She says: “If you know what you’re packing in those lunch boxes, you won’t spend on impulse buys at the shops when shopping for ingredients.”
One way of saving time and money is cooking more than necessary for dinner.
Rebecca says: “Use the leftovers for your kids' packed lunches the next day.
“For example, cold chicken or veggie nuggets in a wrap are utterly delicious.
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“Or you can heat up leftover pasta in the morning and pop it into a thermos food flask.”
Buy in bulk
Another tip from Rebecca is to buy snacks, like raisins, in bulk and portion them up yourself.
She says: "Big bags of dried fruit can be portioned into a little tight-lock box and will save you lots on individual boxes of raisins."
Stop fruit browning
She also recommends cutting up apples and pears in advance.
Rebecca says: “To store for a long period of time, portioned up without it going brown, slot the cut pieces back together to make the fruit whole again and wrap a band around it to keep the fruit together.
“This stops it discolouring and will be much more appetising for our little ones.”
Freeze sandwiches and snacks
“Sandwiches and wraps can be frozen ahead of time,” explains Rebecca. “So you can buy the ingredients in bulk, then make up a load of sandwiches and freeze them.
“This saves on any bread product waste each day, and also lots of time in your mornings.”
She adds: “To defrost, simply pack into the lunch box frozen and by lunch time it should be defrosted.
“This will also help to keep other items in the lunch box cool too.”
Baked goods, like muffins, can also be frozen.
Rebecca explains: “Freeze in portions then pull out what you need for each lunch box in the morning.
“As it’s already portioned in a small piece, it will defrost by lunch time.”
Make your own yoghurt
Buying flavoured yoghurt can be expensive, so Rebecca recommends making your own by mixing plain Greek or natural yoghurt with blended fruit.
“It’s much healthier and way cheaper,” she says. “Pour into reusable pouches or a leak-proof small tub for your little ones.
“If you’re taking frozen items in the packed lunch box, these yoghurts are perfect stored next to them to keep them cool.”
Make your own everything
Another expensive item in lunch boxes is squash and juice – plus they are often laced with sugar.
Rebecca recommends: “Try adding leftover chunks of cucumber or lemon and putting soft berries into their water bottle for a healthier, fruity drink.
“Quite often, lemon or orange peel will do the trick – both of which are something you would have probably thrown in the bin.”
You can even have a go at making your own Dairylea Lunchables.
Rebecca says: “Pack up crackers, cheese and ham into the lunch box and let them make their own stackers, or make your own fruit and nut bars which are really expensive to buy ready-made.
“There’s lots of recipes in my book, like my nutty carrot bars, which add in some extra veggies too.”
- Fast Family Food by Rebecca Wilson is published by DK on September 15 for £18.99
Fajita No-Boil Pasta Bake
(Serves 2 adults and 3 little ones – takes 1hr 10mins – Freezable)
- 2 low-salt chicken or vegetable stock cubes
- 500g (1lb 2oz) boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs, cut into strips or diced
- 1 red pepper, deseeded and sliced
- 1 yellow pepper, deseeded and sliced
- 2 tsp garlic granules
- 2 heaped tsp smoked paprika
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 350ml (11 ⁄2 cups) milk
- 500g (1lb 2oz) tomato passata (strained tomatoes)
- 240g (23 ⁄4 cups) dried penne pasta
- 120g (41 ⁄2oz) Cheddar cheese, grated freshly ground black pepper
- Guacamole (optional)
- Sour cream (optional)
- Lime wedges (optional)
METHOD: Preheat the oven to 180°C fan (200°C/400°F/Gas 6) and boil the kettle.
Crumble the stock cubes into a measuring jug, then add 100ml (scant 1 ⁄2 cup) of boiling water from the kettle. Stir well, then leave for a minute or so before stirring again to allow the stock cubes to dissolve into a thick paste.
Meanwhile, add the chicken, peppers, garlic granules and all the herbs and spices to a large, high-sided baking dish (approx. 25 x 35cm/10 x 14in).
Back to the stock in the jug, add the milk and stir to dissolve the stock paste before pouring this liquid into the baking dish. Stir well, then add the tomato passata, the pasta and half of the grated cheese.
Stir again – as the dish is quite full it may be useful to use two wooden spoons to lift the ingredients and help mix them together until they are well combined.
Ensure all the ingredients are submerged under the liquid, then cover the dish tightly with foil. Place on the middle shelf of the preheated oven and forget about it for 40 minutes – it will bubble away and cook on its own.
After 40 minutes, carefully check the pasta. If it’s soft, remove the foil and give it all a good stir. If it’s not, then re-cover and cook for a while longer. Top with the remaining grated cheese and a little black pepper.
Turn the oven temperature up to 200°C fan (220°C/425°F/Gas 7) and place the uncovered dish back in the oven. Bake for a further 10–15 minutes, until the cheese has melted and the top of the pasta bake is beginning to char.
Serve with guacamole, sour cream, lime wedges and a sprinkle of salt for the adults. For little taste testers, cut the chicken into finger strips or blend up baby’s portion with a little milk or water.
Leftovers will keep for up to 2-3 days, tightly covered, in the fridge.
Add a splash of water over the pasta and bake, uncovered, at 180°C fan (200°C/400°F/ Gas 6) for around 15 minutes until piping hot throughout.
You can also freeze leftovers for up to 3 months – add more water as above and bake from frozen for around 20–25 minutes until fully defrosted and piping hot throughout. Stir halfway to help it along.
Lamb and Tomato Hot Pot
(Serves 2 adults and 3 kids – Takes 1hr10mins – Freezable)
- 500g (1lb 2oz) lean minced (ground) lamb
- 1 brown onion
- 3 large carrots
- 2 low-salt beef or chicken stock cubes
- 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- 2 tbsp tomato purée (paste)
- 2 tsp garlic paste
- 2 tbsp cornflour (cornstarch)
- 500g (1lb 2oz) passata (strained tomatoes)
- 2 tsp dried mixed herbs
- 3–4 large all-rounder potatoes, washed
- 2 tsp garlic-infused oil, plus extra if needed
METHOD: Preheat the oven to 180°C fan (200°C/400°F/Gas 6) and put the kettle on to boil.
Place a large casserole pot on the hob over a high heat to heat up. Add the lamb mince and let it cook for 1 minute without touching while you dice the onion. Now, break up the mince using a wooden spoon and add the onion, stirring it in. If your mince is very lean and looks like it is sticking, then add a drizzle of garlic oil.
Let the meat cook while you peel the carrots and cut them into chunks. Turn your attention back to the pot and crumble in the stock cubes, add the Worcestershire sauce, tomato purée, garlic paste and cornflour.
Cook, stirring, for 1 minute, then add the chopped carrots, passata and mixed herbs. Stir well, then top the pot up with boiling water out of the kettle to reach about 1–2cm (1 ⁄2–3 ⁄4in) over everything.
The amount of water you need really depends on the size of your pot, so play it by ear. Try not to add too much water, though, as the potatoes on top will sink down below the sauce once baked, which is not a bad thing taste-wise, but it won’t look as pretty.
Stir well and allow it to bubble while you slice the potatoes into 0.5cm (1 ⁄4in) thick rounds – don’t worry about peeling them to save time.
Scrape the bottom of the pot with your wooden spoon to loosen any stuck-on bits, then take the pot off the heat to add the potatoes. Layer the sliced potatoes over the top of the pot carefully, as the sauce will be hot.
Try to overlap them a little to give a pretty design, then drizzle over a little garlic oil to help the potatoes crisp up. If you’re using a narrow, deep pot, your potatoes may sink into the sauce, so in this case just add an extra layer or two of sliced potatoes on top.
Pop the dish in the preheated oven, uncovered, for 1 hour to bake. Allow to stand for 5 minutes before serving, and take care as it will be really hot! If there’s a little bit of lamb fat sitting on the top of the potatoes or around the edge of the pot, use a spoon to gently skim this away before serving.
Serve as is, with a little veg on the side – Savoy cabbage works perfectly
Leftovers will keep for up to 2 days in the fridge. Reheat in a hot oven for approx. 15–20 minutes or in a microwave on HIGH for a few minutes or until piping hot. You can also freeze cooled leftovers in an airtight container, defrosting them thoroughly before reheating as above.
Panko Wings and Crispy Spuds
(Serves 2 adults and 2 little ones – Takes 40 minutes – Freezable)
- 1kg (2lb 4oz) chicken wings
- 1 tbsp garlic-infused oil finely grated zest and juice of 2 unwaxed lemons
- 4 tsp garlic granules OR 2 large garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 tsp dried mixed herbs approx. 60g (11 ⁄3 cups) panko breadcrumbs*
- garlic-infused oil spray
- freshly ground black pepper
- approx. 300-400g (101 ⁄2–14oz) new potatoes, washed
- 1 tbsp garlic-infused oil
METHOD: Preheat the oven to 200°C fan (220°C/425°F/Gas 7) and line a very large baking tray with non-stick foil. (If you don’t have a baking tray big enough to fit the wings and spuds on together, you can use 2 smaller trays instead).
Add the chicken wings to a large bowl or a sealable food bag (or leave them in the packet they came in to save washing up), then add the garlic oil, lemon zest and juice, the garlic granules or fresh garlic, dried herbs and a good grinding of black pepper and mix well.
Now, add 5 heaped tablespoons of the panko breadcrumbs to the wings and toss to coat them in the marinade – the breadcrumbs will soften and soak up the marinade, don’t worry, this is good.
Scatter the wings onto one half of the prepared baking tray and space them evenly apart so they don’t overlap. Ensure each wing is skin-side up. If there are any clumps of marinade-soaked breadcrumbs left behind, spoon them out and place a little on any wings that look a little bare.
Now sprinkle an extra tablespoon of panko breadcrumbs onto each wing, adding a little less for smaller wings or a touch more for any large wings.
Squirt about 4 sprays of garlic-infused oil spray onto each wing, the breadcrumbs will soak up some of the oil, which will help them crisp up. If you don’t have a spray bottle, just try to evenly sprinkle and drizzle a little garlic oil over each wing instead.
For the crispy spuds, thinly slice the new potatoes with a knife, approx 0.5cm (1 ⁄4in) in thickness. Scatter the potato slices over the other half of the baking tray (or a second tray, if needed).
Drizzle with the garlic oil, then place everything (wings and potatoes) in the preheated oven and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the breadcrumbs on the wings are golden and the chicken is cooked through.
Use a firm fish slice to scoop each wing up off the foil. P.S. Those crispy bits stuck on the tray are the best bit! Serve with the crispy spuds and salad. Remove the meat and skin from the wings for little taste testers if you like.
If you can, keep a couple of wings for tomorrow – they are delicious cold. Leftovers will keep for up 2 days in the fridge, or freeze for up to 3 months. Defrost, then reheat in the oven for 5–10 minutes until piping hot throughout.
(Serves 40 crackers – Takes 18-20 mins – Freezable)
- 160g (scant 11 ⁄4 cups) plain (all-purpose) flour, plus extra for dusting
- 85g (1 ⁄3 cup) chilled unsalted butter, cubed
- 100g (31 ⁄2oz) Cheddar cheese, grated
- 2 tsp dried porcini mushroom powder (optional)
- 2 tsp dried mixed herbs
- 2 tbsp tomato purée (paste)
- 1 medium egg
METHOD: Preheat the oven to 190°C fan (210°C/415°F/Gas 6–7).
Add the flour and butter to a food processor and whizz until the mixture forms the texture of breadcrumbs. Add the cheese, dried porcini mushroom powder, if using, and dried herbs. Pulse until the ingredients are combined. Now add the tomato purée and egg, then whizz until the dough clumps together in the food processor.
Tip the ball of dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and tear it in two. Coat one of the pieces of dough in a little flour from the work surface, then use a rolling pin to quickly roll it out as thinly as you can. A thickness of around 3–4mm (1 ⁄8in) is fine – there is no need to be too neat as they will still turn out delicious.
Next, using a sharp knife, cut the dough into chunky strips. I’d suggest approx. 3cm (11 ⁄4in) wide and 5–6cm (2–21 ⁄2in) long, but really any shape you like works. You can spend longer using cookie cutters to shape the crackers into pretty designs if you wish.
Space the crackers out on a large, non-stick baking tray, ensuring that they do not touch. If you have time or can be bothered, prick each cracker with a fork a few times to stop the crackers from puffing up too much.
I like to bake half when I make this recipe and freeze the rest of the dough for another day, so at this point you can either put the other half of dough in the freezer or roll it out and place the second lot of crackers on a second baking tray.
Bake in the preheated oven for 8–10 minutes until the crackers have darkened and puffed up a touch. Allow to stand on the tray for a minute or so to slightly firm up, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Your kitchen will smell like a pizzeria, which is such an added bonus!
These crackers will keep for up to a week in an airtight container, or you can freeze the raw dough for up to 3 months. Defrost thoroughly, then roll out and bake as shown in method.
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