Pack School Lunches On A Shoestring Budget

School Lunches

Back-to-school season is upon us!

In recent weeks we’ve talked about how to save cash on your child’s pencils, notebooks and other supplies, and we also covered a few strategies for staying within your budget for school clothing. These costs can certainly pile up, but for the most part they are one-time expenses that you only have to worry about at the very beginning of the school year.

One budget item that will follow you and your child throughout the school year, though, is lunch. Whether you send your child to school to buy meals in the cafeteria or pack something for them from home, that daily cost adds up quickly. We spoke with a handful of savings and food experts to gather advice on packing healthy lunches for your kids without breaking the bank.

Switch to reusable containers

“Purchase reusable lunch containers instead of using disposable plastic bags,” recommends Gina Lincicum of “Also use thermoses or steel bottles for drinks instead of juice boxes. Besides being environmentally friendly, one can save a lot of money avoiding disposables.”

Make your own snack packs

“Package your own individual-sized snacks, fruits, etc. from larger cans, bags and boxes,” Lincicum says. “Instead of buying fruit cups, for example, I purchase less expensive larger cans and portion them out into [containers]. The same works for pretzels, Goldfish crackers and other foods that cost much more per volume when individually-wrapped.”

Use leftovers

“My kids enjoy pasta salads made with leftover meats and veggies from weeknight dinners, green salads topped with leftovers, and more,” says Lincicum. So consider cooking more of some of the nutritious dishes that you know your child will enjoy and consider packing those leftovers for lunch.

Buy in bulk

“Buying items at stores like CostCo can help you save by purchasing a larger amount of what you’ll need,” says Jon Lal of And as noted above, you can then portion them out for easy and affordable packed lunches.

Think outside the bread

“Sandwiches don’t have to be on bread. Sometimes other items like English muffins go on a mega-sale like ‘buy one get two free’ — making them hard to pass up as a smart buy,” says Lal. “Purchase them on sale and then use them instead of bread for lunch sandwiches.”

In addition, don’t forget about one popular sandwich chain’s Unwich® wraps, which use lettuce as wraps for gourmet sandwiches.

Shop for versatile grains

“Choose foods that can be served at multiple meals to avoid repetitive, boring lunches,” recommends Erica Grundin of Western Dairy Association. “Whole wheat bagels with cream cheese or English muffin sandwiches make great breakfast choices that can be bagel sandwiches or mini pizzas at lunchtime. Plus, when your family is eating these breads for both breakfast and lunch, they are less likely to mold on the counter.”

Choose nutrient dense foods

“Choose nutrients and cost,” says Grundin. “Low-fat yogurt both in bulk quart containers and individual cups costs about $.50 per cup and provides a good source of protein, calcium and vitamin D needed for a growing child. Low-fat string cheese or in-season fruits and vegetables are nutrient-dense and affordable in individual servings.”

From packaging to versatile ingredients, school lunch is an easy place to tighten up your family budget throughout the year. Stay tuned over the next couple weeks for as we cover more ways to keep costs down as you and your family prepare for the coming school year.

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