By Candice Choi, AP Personal Finance Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — TV cooking guru Rachael Ray knows the secret to making cheap, healthful lunches your kids will like.
"Give them ownership by involving them in the process," Ray said." It's an opportunity to let the kids be the boss."
When grocery shopping, for example, ask them to pick out the fruits, vegetables or whole grain breads they like best. Let them pick a treat, too, so it doesn't seem like a chore. Or ask them to choose and make a recipe for a pasta or tuna salad they'd like to try.
By soliciting their help, any changes will feel like empowered choices, rather than sacrifices.
Once you've got the kids on board, Ray and Melissa d'Arabian, winner of this season's The Next Food Network Star, say it should be easy making lunch nutritious, affordable and appealing.
That's the Holy Grail many parents are shooting for this school year, as the recession pushes them to save wherever they can.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, American families on average spend 12.5% of their budgets on groceries. In separate interviews with The Associated Press, Ray and d'Arabian offer ways to make that slice of your spending go farther.
THE ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS
Peanut butter — cheap, nutritious and a kid favorite — is now banned in some schools because of the prevalence of allergies.
But plenty of other protein sources are ideal for brown bagging.
Canned tuna in water and hummus, the Middle Eastern staple dish made of garbanzo beans, are healthful, versatile and have long shelf lives.
"You can make them have an Italian, Asian or Middle Eastern flavor," Ray said.
The same is true for beans, although certain varieties work better for school lunches than others, said d'Arabian, who hosts "Ten Dollar Dinners" on The Food Network.
For instance, canned white beans can get mushy quickly, while some dry beans need to be soaked and are time-consuming to prepare.
Lentils are a good "beginner" bean since they don't need to be soaked, d'Arabian said. They're also small and can be mixed into recipes more easily if your kids are fussy.
That doesn't mean you need to banish deli meats and cheeses from your child's diet altogether. But stock up whenever there's a sale, since meats and cheeses can be frozen for a few months.
Remember to mark the date you bought them so you're not guessing whether they're still OK to eat.
Kids love to eat white bread, but it's not the healthiest choice. To wean them off slowly, Ray suggests making sandwiches with the top slice white and the bottom slice wheat.
Whole grain breads and pastas are so ubiquitous that it shouldn't put a dent in your budget to make the switch.
Most kids "simply won't know the difference," Ray said.
Another way to keep lunch interesting without too much effort is taking a base recipe, then changing it up throughout the week.
For example, d'Arabian sometimes makes a big batch of couscous on the weekend. Then as the week progresses, she stirs in different beans, vegetables, raisins or spices.
When buying fruits and vegetables, let the produce department be your guide. If something is on sale, it's usually because it's in season, d'Arabian said.
Bring the kids along when you go grocery shopping, too. It's a chance to expose them to different options.
Engage them by letting them pick the ones they want to try. With younger children, make it a game by having them pick something that's red, green or yellow.
If your kids don't like the taste of raw vegetables, try blanching or steaming them. You can do this in a microwave to speed up prep time in the morning.
Of course, pairing sliced vegetables with dips such as Ranch dressing doesn't hurt either.
If your kids are resistant, try pureeing the vegetable and incorporating them into favorites like quesadillas or macaroni and cheese.
"You can make a version of any food a kid loves and make it healthier," Ray said.
Packaged snacks and convenience foods are one of the fastest ways to break your grocery budget. Parents find them convenient, and often think kids will revolt if they're taken away.
But if you can shake the habit, you might find kids aren't as attached to them as you think.
To cut costs even further, buy cheap reusable plastic containers rather than going through baggies. They offer the added benefit of preventing chips or cookies from being crushed.
You'll also be able to control portions, instead of relying on 100-calorie packs that can get pricey.
Another way to make snacks more nutritious is heading to the bulk section, where you scoop however much of something you want. This is where you'll find healthier versions of kid favorites, such as yogurt-covered pretzels, fig bars or carob-covered raisins.
Just don't go overboard buying in bulk — make sure your family can finish whatever tub of goodies you get. Certain snacks, like pretzels, can get stale.
A little something extra
Giving some thought into how you present food can help keep your kids interested in eating better.
This can be as easy as cutting up a spinach wrap filled with turkey and cheese to look like a California roll. Or you can use granola, dried fruit and fruit roll ups to make "candy sushi."
"There are a lot of little things you can do to make things fun," Ray said.
Lastly, consider including a note with your kids lunch.
"It costs me nothing and it makes them feel loved," d'Arabian said.
The gesture can boost kids' spirits, especially if they're younger and not yet comfortable being away from home.
D'Arabian's notes to her children are short and sweet — that she loves them, or to have fun at ballet.
"It's certainly the cheapest thing I put into my kids' lunch box," said d'Arabian, who has four daughters.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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