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I began my tater tot and pizza-eating years as an elementary school student in 1983. Two years earlier, the government had infamously declared ketchup a vegetable to help school lunch programs meet nutritional requirements amid budget cuts.

Judging by the processed stuff passing for food at many schools today, ketchup is still the star vegetable, despite government programs designed to make lunches healthier.

School lunches are subsidized, so they’re cheap and convenient. Unfortunately, they also tend to be full of salt, sugar, fat and additives.

Sure, the kids love the mystery “Rib-B-Cue” meat and french fries – the same way they love running with scissors, eating ice cream for breakfast and other things we don’t let them do.

Good Lord, I’m not saying buying your kids’ lunches at school makes you a bad parent. (Judging other parents’ decisions makes you a bad parent – and extremely annoying). But if you do opt to send lunches from home instead, consider these tips to pack an inexpensive lunch with nutritional punch.

• Buy a thermos or two. It’s easy to fall into the rut of sending sandwiches and packaged snacks because they are portable and don’t need to be heated.

A good, wide-mouth thermos will allow you to pack hot, healthy soup, chili, pasta, veggie casserole and other homemade meals for as little as 20 cents per serving. It’s also a great way to incorporate cheap, healthy ingredients like beans and brown rice.

To keep food piping hot, heat the thermos first by filling it with boiling water and letting it sit for about an hour before pouring it out and adding the food.

• Choose reusable containers that can be washed out each day instead of disposable plastic zipper bags that need to be bought over and over again.

My sister swears by individual KFC takeout containers (the containers, not the fast food that came inside them!). They don’t leak, even when filled with something like applesauce, and are easier for younger kids to open than plastic peel tops.

• Keep lunch bags simple and reusable. Skip disposable brown paper bags and opt instead for a reusable, insulated bag or lunch box.

Stay away from trendy themes kids might outgrow. A Justin Bieber-emblazoned bag can go from a status symbol to a source of embarrassment in the space of just one short school year.

• Buy a reusable water bottle. Not only is water the healthiest drink, it’s also the cheapest.

Why pay money for sugary sports drinks and juices or even disposable bottled water when you can buy one reusable water bottle that can be filled at home in the morning and at drinking fountains throughout the day?

It’s easier on the wallet and better for your kids and the environment, too.

• Make your own Lunchables. Use a snap-top container and stack neat piles of whole grain crackers, cheese and meat (cut into small, kid-friendly squares) inside.

• Think whole and raw. Fruits, veggies and nuts are easy, healthy and pack a lot of nutritional bang for the buck.

• Consider cheese sandwiches over peanut butter and jelly. They’re just as cheap but more nutritious. Less hassle to make, too!

email: schristmann@buffnews.com, like me on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/DiscountDiva or follow me on Twitter @DiscountDivaSam.

Is $2 for a tray full of less-than-appetizing food a good value?