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It seems like summer just started but before we know it we’ll be gearing up for back to school!
If you’ve read pretty much any of my posts over the years you know that I am a firm believer that every bit counts. From saving a few pennies to a couple of bucks, it all helps you toward your financial goals, whatever those may be.
That’s why today we are going over cheap school lunch ideas! Now, I know the cost of one lunch may not be much but day after day, week after week, for the entire school year, those expenses really add up! Especially if you have more than one child in school.
It’s an easy expense to tackle so let’s get to it! Our goal is (mostly) healthy lunches that kids will enjoy and with enough variety so they don’t get bored.
Why Pack a Lunch?
Unless your child qualifies for the free or reduced lunch program, buying school lunch is usually going to be more expensive than bringing lunch. While prices vary across the country, the School Nutrition Association states that the average price for school lunch is between $2.50 and $3.00.
This actually seems really low to me, as I feel it cost more than that twenty years ago! (Parents: I would love to know what school lunch costs in your area! Drop a note in the comments below and be sure to include where you live!).
While that seems like a pretty good deal compared to a restaurant lunch, it adds up fast, especially if you are buying lunch for multiple children. You can save a lot of money on school lunches by having your child bring his/her own lunch.
Saving money is the primary reason why I came up with this list of cheap school lunch ideas, but another benefit of packing lunch is that YOU control what’s in it. While there have been efforts recently to improve the nutrition of school lunches, most places still have a long way to go. High levels of sodium and sugar and flavored milks are just some of the pitfalls of school lunches.
And while a la carte options are meant to provide students with greater variety and healthy options, let’s be real here: if given the choice between pizza and french fries or a salad bar, which would you choose? I know what would be on my plate and it wouldn’t be green!
Having your child bring lunch to school eliminates these problems. You choose what goes in it so you are in control of your child’s nutrition, plus you save money. That’s a win-win in my book!
Ditching Convenience Items
Before we get into the lunch ideas, it’s worth talking about how to prepare for frugal lunches. I hate to tell you, but the biggest cost of school lunches are prepackaged convenience items. To save money, you have to ditch the lunchbox ready foods and package your own.
Now, it’s worth reiterating that I ALWAYS advocate for balanced frugality. If you don’t have time to prep your kids’ lunches and it’s causing you stress, stop. Buy the prepackaged foods and find somewhere else to save money. School lunch is not something to stress over!
If it’s hard for you to let go of the convenience items, start with one thing at a time. Here are some simple swaps to get you started:
- Instead of fruit cups, pack whole fruit, berries, or melon chunks
- Rather than yogurt tubes, use regular yogurt cups or buy a 32oz container and portion it out
- Ditch the individual bags of pretzels and chips and just buy a regular size bag and use what you need for each lunch. Pack for the whole week on Sunday night and you’ll not only save money, you’ll also save time!
- Skip the small raisin boxes and buy one large box instead
You get the idea. Go for the larger container and portion it out yourself. It will probably take you about five minutes to prep but will save you a nice chunk of change. Change that can be used to pay down debt, save for vacation, or whatever else your financial goals are.
So assuming you do have a few minutes a week to prep your kids lunches, and you’re ready to ditch the convenience items, you’re going to need containers to pack everything in.
Being an environmentalist, I try to shun disposables wherever possible. But if saving the planet isn’t your primary motivation, you should still opt for reusable containers. Why? To save money.
Let’s consider an example. I did some quick comparison shopping and the best price I could find for resealable sandwich bags was $7.50 for 300, which works out to two cents a bag. Let’s say you use two bags per lunch and that there are 180 school days a year. That’s 360 bags you will need, which will be about $9 just in bags for one child. Multiply that total by how many kids you have to find out what you’re paying just for bags. Bags that will be used once and then tossed in the trash. It will probably shock you!
For a few dollars more, you can buy a set of small containers that you can use year after year. Personally, I prefer Rubbermaid storage containers. They’re durable and come in a variety of sizes. I also like that the lids click together, which keeps my cabinets tidier. But any containers you already have on hand will do.
You can also get bento lunchboxes that come with compartments that you can just put the food in directly. The problem with that for me is that I have to be sure to wash the lunchbox everyday. Knowing me and my schedule, that is not going to happen. The bento boxes are cute, but I prefer the flexibility of individual containers.
Beyond containers, you’re obviously going to need a lunchbox or bag. Try to get something that will last a few years. Geometric prints and favorite colors are good choices. The problem with buying lunchboxes with favorite characters is that kids soon outgrow them and refuse to use them once they have grown out of the show or it’s no longer popular. Avoid this problem by going for a more generic design.
Ice packs are also helpful because they give you more meal options. You can freeze a beverage to keep food cold but, especially if your child has an earlier lunch schedule, it may not be thawed by lunch time. The food may be cold but kiddo is going to be thirsty and cranky!
Depending on what you pack, you may also need a fork or spoon. Again, avoid disposable plastic utensils to save money. No need to buy anything new – whatever you have in your silverware drawer will do!
What’s For Lunch?
So now that you have your containers and your lunchbox, what are you going to put in them? Below is a list of mostly healthy cheap school lunch ideas that will please your kids and not break the bank.
I assumed your child would not have access to a microwave to heat up their lunch. Because of this, I eliminated a lot of options you might see on similar posts. I don’t know about you, but anything with cold melted cheese (like a quesadilla or grilled cheese) just doesn’t sound appetizing to me!
I looked for kid-friendly lunch ideas for school, but just because they’re kid-friendly, doesn’t mean they’re not adult-friendly. Save yourself a boatload of time and energy and make a double batch of these cheap school lunch ideas so you can bring lunch to work as well. After all, bringing your own lunch to work can save you upwards of $2,500 a year!
The ultimate cheap school lunch idea: Sandwiches!
If you grew up in the seventies and eighties, you may not be super jazzed about sandwiches. For us, that meant peanut butter and jelly on white bread. I’m not one to knock the good ole PB&J, but I do remember it getting pretty boring during my elementary school days. Still, PB&J holds a hallowed spot on the list of cheap school lunch ideas. But with most schools going peanut-free, that that isn’t possible anymore.
So what do you do?
A new option that recently crossed my path was chickpea butter. I like chickpeas but it still sounded weird to me. Since my kids don’t have allergies I haven’t tried many peanut butter alternatives, but I got this on the recommendation of a parent of a child that does have nut allergies. She claimed the texture and taste was better than the other nut butters out there.
I was skeptical but hopeful. I purchased a small jar and have to admit I was pretty impressed. Of course it doesn’t taste exactly like peanut butter, but it reminds me of the kind of peanut butter you get in peanut butter meltaways, so not too shabby! What’s better is that my kids love it, and sometimes ask for it over real peanut butter when we’re at home! Even my husband,who has a tendency to turn up his nose to such things admitted that it was pretty good! Chickpea butter has now earned a place on our shelf for school lunches, and sometimes just regular days at home too!
Sandwiches: More than just PB&J
Even the biggest nut butter and jelly fan can get tired of it after awhile. Fortunately, sandwiches have come a long way in the last couple of decades. Now the only limit is your imagination. But we know that most kids aren’t the most adventurous when it comes to their foods. Still there are easy ways to keep from getting stuck in a rut with sandwiches.
- Mix up the bread! Instead of plain wheat or white, try croissants, rolls, bagels, pita, wraps, English muffins, or focaccia
- Try different spreads: skip the mayo or mustard and try ranch dressing, hummus, pesto, sundried tomato spreads, or whatever else you can find in your grocery store. Even changing a jelly to a different fruit can be a refreshing change.
- Add thinly sliced veggies for some extra crunch
- You can even experiment with fruit for a surprising pop of sweetness (for example, ham and honeydew makes for a delish combo!)
- Jazz up your chicken, egg, or tuna salad with some extra fruits or veggies or seasoning. For example, throw some craisins into your chicken salad or add some cumin to your egg salad.
Other cheap school lunch ideas
Even with the variety of sandwiches, sometimes you’re going to want to mix things up. Here are some non-sandwich ideas for cheap school lunches.
- Pasta salad: Get creative and make your own with your favorite veggies, meats, and dressings. If you need some ideas to get started, check out these ideas for inspiration!
- Cheese and crackers
- Soup (just make sure you have a thermos to keep it warm!)
- Pita and hummus
- Cheese and deli meat rollups
- Chicken and veggie kabobs
- Pancakes (my kids would seriously eat pancakes for every meal if I let them!)
- Healthy, filling muffins
- Salad (probably best for the older kids/teens!)
- Quinoa salad
- Corn and black bean salad with tortilla chips (you can tone down the spices if they’re too strong for your littles)
- Hard-boiled eggs
The side dishes
Remember, it’s going to be much cheaper for you to buy larger packages and portion them yourself into reusable containers.
- Fruit (choose in-season options for the best price)
- Raw veggies (carrot sticks, cucumbers, sliced bell peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, celery sticks)
- Goldfish crackers
- Homemade fruit leathers
- These sweet, not-so-unhealthy treats
- Granola bars (homemade will be cheaper!)
- Dry cereal
- Banana chips or other dried fruits (having your own dehydrator makes this much easier and cheaper!)
A note about drinks
Juice boxes and bottles of water are easy to throw in a lunch bag, but they get expensive fast! Instead, buy a couple of good water bottles and fill them with juice, water, or milk. I recommend having a few so you don’t have to wash the container every night.
For younger children, I like Camelbak bottles with flip top straws. The huge advantage to these over other water bottles is that the straw component is completely removable, meaning you can wash the entire bottle easily.
I have tried other brands of cups where the straw wasn’t removable and was horrified to find mold growing in and around the mouthpiece, despite my best efforts at washing them! Those cups quickly found their way to the garbage!
Another nice option is a small mouth nalgene bottle. These are better for slightly older children with better control. They’re BPA free, come in a variety of colors, and are easy to get clean!
Ditch the juice boxes and get a few water bottles and you’ll start noticing the savings in no time!
Happy Kids, Happy Wallet
I hope these cheap school lunch ideas have given you the confidence and inspiration to start packing lunches for your kids. Even cutting out a few convenience items a week, or just switching to a lunch box instead of a brown paper bag will have you saving money. Do what you can, when you can, and you’ll be better off than if you did nothing.
What do you like to pack for your kids lunches? What easy lunch recipes have been winners with your kids? Drop a line in the comment field below, and bon appetit!