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.

Some lessons from the cottage

We’ve been back for a bit over a week. The clothes are washed and put away–no smells of camp fire remaining. The suntans are still there, and to some extent so is the deep sense of rhythm and calm that set in somewhere during the middle of the second week. While I was there I had this realization: simplicity! Simplicity is a beautiful thing.

Here are a few aspects of simple cottage living I decided to take home with me:

Lesson One: We don’t need a lot to have a good time. We packed for the long weekend and stayed for a month. We had six books, a box of crayons and some paper and a small bag of toys. We had about 3 to 4 outfits each (though some of us spent more time naked than creating dirty laundry). What we did have were sticks, pine cones, sand and water. Plus some wonderful family members who spent a lot of time with the kids!

Bringing it home: Knowing how few clothes we got away with removes any pressure to amass a large wardrobe for myself or the kids for the fall. It also gives me courage to further limit the amount of toys that are accessible at any given time. The kids do just fine with a limited supply, and the fewer there are out, the easier it is to tidy.

Lesson Two: We don’t need screens. One month, no videos, very limited email and web access. Even limited phone access. We really thrived in this low tech bubble!

Bringing it home: Knowing how well we did without videos or internet access helps with reducing our screen time at home–both mine and the kids’!

Lesson Three: Mother Nature has it all. Trees were castles and fairy houses. Sand was cakes and pies. Sticks were people and crutches. We even found a piece of drift wood that looked very much like a circa-1980s car phone.

Bringing it home: While I have read and believed that unstructured natural play areas are the best for kids, this experience really proved it for me. So we’ll be seeking out the corners of nature that are available to us in the city, at least as long as it’s not too cold to ride the bike! I’m also making sure we have lots of sticks, pine cones and sand around at home.

Lesson Four: We don’t need to do a lot to have a good time. We had a rich environment at our home base to explore, so we didn’t push ourselves to go out and do a bunch of stuff while we were on Manitoulin Island. We had a handful of outings scattered over the whole month. It never felt boring, it just felt relaxed and calm.

Bringing it home: With the beginning of homeschooling this fall, I am going to keep our routine here simple. There will be a hole created by friends going /going back to school, and other friends leaving town, but we don’t need to rush to fill in that hole with a lot of activities and playdates. We can hang out and explore our own back yard–both literal and figurative.

So, while we can’t live at the cottage all year round (darn!), we can try to bring the essence of the place back with us. And when it gets all stressful, as I know it will, I will try to remember breathing the forest air, and somehow come back to this feeling of peace.

The Rhythm of Days/Slowing the Pace

I’ve been reading the wonderful Waldorf homeschooling blog, The Parenting Passageway recently, and at the same time reading Sleepless in America: Is Your Child Misbehaving or Missing Sleep. Both resources (not to mention my beloved Flylady) are telling me the same thing: find your rhythm and get your waking, eating, outside time, playing and housework on a schedule.

I’ve never been good at keeping a schedule. For some reason, even though I do some things ritualistically every day, I almost always do them in a slightly different order. These resources say that setting a schedule is even more essential and beneficial for someone like me who resists it. It sounds sortof counterintuitive, though when I look at the benefits, I can see the point.

The book also highlights many benefits of maintaining a regular schedule and thereby setting the body’s clock to know when to sleep, when to wake, when to eat and so on. When a kid’s body clock is “set”, they are more likely to fall asleep easily, stay relaxed and focused throughout the day.

So we’re giving this a try. Right now we’re in observation mode to see what rhythm out days already have, though I’m finding that simply by recording what we’re doing, I’m already nudging us toward a better schedule.

Two major changes are that we’ve stopped preschool, which is allowing us to make the second change work: having both kids nap at the same time. So far my girl (who is now “officially four”) has napped two days in a row. After a year and a half of not napping. Now, this could be because she has a cold, but I’m hoping we can use the cold to help set her body clock so she keeps napping even after her cold is all better.

In any case, a frugal change: replacing preschool with sleep! From what I’ve read, it might even grow her brain more than a structured activity!

As a part of figuring out our rhythm, we’ve been keeping our days much calmer and more home based. I’m seeing the benefits already. Fewer meltdowns, more happy minutes of the kids playing quietly together, and as a bonus, I’m feeling more relaxed.

So, this is officially day 1 of 40 days of our family rhythm project. What rhythms guide your days?

It’s SPRING!!!

By which I mean, I HAVE A BACKYARD AGAIN!!!

Today was a horrible terrible day for the beginning of it. We woke up tired. Our neighbourhood playgroup was full when we got there. I decided to run some errands, and chaos ensued. I will spare you the details mostly because I am starting to have concerns about my blood pressure; I don’t want to re-live anything through the re-telling!

The afternoon didn’t go much better. My little guy only slept for less than an hour, and I was soooooo grumpy, I basically had no ability to be a normal person around my kids. Which always turns them into wild animals.

But! Around 3 pm, I was still fighting the urge to collapse in a heap, so I got a few toys together in a bag and we headed outside to the little side yard of our apartment building.

There isn’t much back there: just a lawn, a hexagonal picnic table, some poorly tended plants, trees, and fences on all sides. But today it was paradise. Not a patch of snow in sight, and the whole thing was in full warm afternoon sun. Instantly we breathed a collective sigh of relief and got down to the business of playing outside.

My little guy toddled around and amused himself while my daughter created whatever crazy worlds 4-year-olds like to live in. While they played, I went around picking up the pieces of garbage that get swept in from the sidewalk and the adjacent parking lot, my daughter helping me when she felt like it.

While I worked, I couldn’t help coming up with some plans for the space so we can use it better. Never mind that we used the space quite ideally this afternoon. No, we need PROJECTS! At the very least I’d like to try growing a few salad greens, and maybe plant a rhubarb plant. Though I’m sure once I do that we’ll decide to move.

The thing is, once the leaves come in on the trees, the yard is mostly shaded, so I’m not sure what will grow. So if you have any ideas for yummy shade-loving plants that would grow in Ottawa (zone 5), please let me know!

Also, if you have suggestions for frugal gardening, of course I’m all ears.

Monday mindfulness: Breathe

This is a guest post by Brie at Capital Mom. It was posted on her blog on January 17th, 2011, but I wanted to re-post it here as it captures so perfectly the challenge and process of parenting, and living, mindfully.


Find the sensations and breathe into them says the teacher at the front of the room.

I do. With my left leg stretched out behind me and my right leg bent under my chest I lean forward as far as I can until my forehead is inches from the floor. The muscles in my right hip stretch and pull. I can feel the sensations. I breathe.


Move away from pain. If it hurts, stop doing it. But if it’s a sensation, then stay there and keep breathing.

I used to confuse pain and sensations. I would stay in pain, refusing to stop in case it made me seem like a failure. I would let the hurt I felt grow until I hurt even more. I would avoid sensations, convinced that I wasn’t strong enough to endure them and so I wouldn’t even bother. Not understanding that sensations, the good ones and the bad ones, always end on their own.

Pain will hurt you and keep on hurting you. The only relief is to stop. To move out of the pose. Away form the person. Leave the situation.

Sensations will challenge you. They will make you question what you are capable of. They will show you how strong you really are.


Sensations are feelings. Your thoughts are sensations. Let yourslef feel them and then let them go.

As I lie flat on the floor in savasana I allow my body to relax. My bones sink heavily to the ground and my muscles soften onto my mat. But the sensations are still there. Whirling and twirling through my mind. Just like they do when I watch the kids fight over a stuffed animal. Just like when the girl won’t listen to me when I ask her to pick up the book she threw to the floor. Just like when the boy crosses his arms in response to my request that he come eat lunch.

And so I breathe. Into all the sensations.


Brie is the mom of a 4 year old daughter “the girl” and 2 old son “the boy”. You can read her blog at Capital Mom.

Thanks to Brie! Now go over there and give her some props!

Week in Review–no-spend week #3

It’s now three weeks down in my no-spend month, and this week was the best so far. I don’t think I cheated once this week, except for a bus ride back from the Experimental Farm where we went for the sheep shearing festival yesterday. I have a membership so we didn’t have to pay admission.

I’m really enjoying this no-spend month, and I’m almost tempted to keep it up for the summer. I might have to get a haircut at some point, and we will be doing some travelling at some point, but other than those little things, I’m feeling good about the no spending.

One great thing is that weekends haven’t been about shopping. Too often I’ll make some grand plans for a bus expedition out to Canadian Tire on a Saturday afternoon because I can’t make it there during the week. That takes up my whole day, and nothing gets done. This weekend we spent two whole days together as a family, going to the Nature Museum on Saturday (and beating the crowds with our membership card!) and the farm on Sunday. Then today I organized a corner of our dining room that’s been needing attention–a major accomplishment!

Of course tomorrow I’ll have to do a big-ish grocery shop, but I’m happy to confirm that one of the fringe benefits of not buying anything apart from groceries is that I’ve been able to spend a lot more weekend time with the fam. And that, my friends, is priceless!