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
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.