10 Frugal School Lunch Tips

Herb Chicken and Potatoes LunchBots Quad Bento by sheri chen on Flickr
No, this cute LunchBot isn’t mine. It’s a creative commons image called “Herb Chicken and Potatoes LunchBots Quad Bento” by sheri chen on Flickr. I have never made anything this cute in my life.

I have yet to meet a parent who enjoys preparing school lunches. While there is a nurturing beauty to the idea that you are sending your kid off to enjoy their day with the very best nutrition and flavour that a parent’s hands can lovingly create . . . the tedium of it tends to creep in pretty quickly around mid-September.

There are also the sandwiches coming back with one bite out of the corner (“I didn’t have time to finish it!”); the organic apple sauce you thought was being eaten, only to find out it has been traded every day for a Froot-by-the-foot; and the blessing/curse of the weekly pizza day (Yay! Don’t have to send a sandwich! Boo–still have to prepare everything else . . .).

I just have to say: we need a nutritious school lunch program!

But I digress.

In doing my final prep before the first day of school, I’ve been scouring the hivemind for money saving school lunch ideas. I found a few cute recipes, but surprisingly not a whole lot of brilliant strategies for saving big-time on school lunches. But even without a list of 50 or even 20 amazing ways of saving money on lunch, I think the following list could certainly help keep costs down on what could otherwise be the most expensive meal of the day.

Here are the best of the suggestions I’ve found so far:

  1. Instead of buying pre-packaged food, buy in bulk and divide into your own smaller containers. CHECK! This year I vow to make my own yogurt cups using mason jars, and finally put to use the reusable pouches I bought a couple years ago for applesauce.
  2. Make it yourself: it’s cheaper to make bread, granola bars, hummus, and even crackers. CHECK! With the extra time I have coming up, I can spend more time DIYing my kids’ lunch menu. In fact, I just made a batch of granola bars (though with 3/4 cups of honey, I’m not sure how much cheaper they actually are).
  3. Opting for less expensive protein options, like sunflower and sesame seeds, hummus, lentil soup and eggs. CHECK! I am currently investigating seed-based recipes to incorporate protein into home-baked treats, and plan to focus also on sending frugal soups for lunch.
  4. Break up with disposable packaging. CHECK! Plastic zipper baggies may seem cheap, but the price adds up over the long run, and the plastic waste is awful to think about. While our purchase of Lunchbots for the whole family was not cheap, these stainless steel containers have lasted through three school (and work) years so far, and show no signs of slowing down.**this is not an affiliate link. I really love these boxes, and also the store I’ve linked to. I don’t profit in any way from clicks or sales from this link.** Additionally, I have started sending mason jars, which are inexpensive, dishwasher-safe, microwavable, and endlessly reusable. I also sometimes use very inexpensive waxed paper for wrapping sandwiches when I forget to wash our reusable sandwich bags. (Sandwiches don’t cram well into mason jars.)
  5. No more juice. CHECK! When the kids first started school I sent them juice every day. I don’t know why, I just thought that was the “normal” thing, which was weird because we hardly ever buy juice for home. Well, it was a real revelation when the school hosted a “Water Bottle Challenge” where kids were rewarded with a reusable water bottle after packing only water for 30 days. Once they went without juice for a month, I never looked back! Tap water is healthy, frugal and so much better for the environment.
  6. Bringing leftovers for lunch. NOT SURE. We actually love to eat leftovers for supper, and it saves so much time in the kitchen, which helps especially on the nights I work. It seems like a waste to send all the yummy leftovers for lunches. I am also not sure about the cost savings: a sandwich on homemade bread is probably cheaper than a serving from dinner. However, I’m willing to consider this and calculate the savings on a few of our supper favourites.
  7. Baked potatoes. WOW! This is a revelation for me! My kids LOVE baked potatoes, and actually just like to eat them plain with butter. I could cook them overnight and have them ready to pack in the morning. Wrapped in foil and then insulated in a cloth napkin, or even inside a thermos, I think my kids would really like this frugal lunch option.
  8. Soup for lunch. CHECK! I’m on a soup mission this year! More to come on this one.
  9. Cut waste. CHECK! There is nothing worse than going to wash out the kid’s lunch boxes and finding a load of uneaten food. Even worse if this happens on Sunday night, and things have started to ferment or turn blue & fuzzy . . . been there! My strategies for reducing waste include: explaining to the kids about eating the most perishable food first, and saving anything that will keep until later; not sending too much food, though finding the perfect amount can seem like a magic trick; giving them anything uneaten from their lunches before any other after-school snack options; serving a “lunchbot side dish” with their supper if they don’t finish their fruit & veggies; and maybe most important, sending food they actually like and will eat!
  10. Vegemite sandwiches . . . Um?? Just no.

I actually couldn’t find 10 really good ideas, even after much internet searching. If I find another one I’ll update this post, but for now you’ve got 9 really good ideas, and I’ll finish with a couple more bonus points.

A couple of bonus suggestions:

  • stay away from cheap plastic reusables. It seems like a lot of blog posts about saving money on school lunches are just trying to get you to buy a lot of new products through their affiliate links. Try using mason jars, or consider investing in some high quality stainless steel–LABEL THEM WELL! ALL THE PARTS! They could last forever.
  • kids don’t get a lot of time to eat (either that or they spend all of it talking to their friends), so making things really easy to eat is very important.
  •  instead of buying freezer packs, freeze kids’ water bottles to keep lunches chilled

What we won’t be skimping on this year:

  • fresh fruits and veggies. In our “quad” lunchbot, we send a selection of four different fruits and veggies. We rotate through cucumber slices, apple slices, carrot sticks, cherry tomatoes, grapes, a peeled and quartered kiwi, orange slices, cherries in season, and sometimes as a treat, mango or ground cherries, or something else small or cut up into nice pieces. We try to keep a “lunchbot first” rule for eating lunch, or sometimes I end up putting the leftovers in an after- school smoothie for the kids. While we aren’t skimping on these servings, I always figure they will help save money in the long run by contributing to the kids’ health.
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