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.

I LOVE my Bullet! NutriBullet by Magic Bullet Product Review

Two years ago I got a part-time job at an educational toy store to help out our single-income living. It was a great! I got a good discount on toys for both my kids and my nieces, and some extra cash to spend on others on my Christmas list. I really enjoyed the job, but I found myself getting really hungry while I was at work. I think this was because I was so accustomed to grazing all day (ah, the life of the homeschooling mom!).

I wasn’t sure what to do about this until another friend who worked in retail told me about making smoothies for herself, and then sipping on them through the day. Brilliant! I was an instant convert. The smoothies were quick, delicious and healthy, and kept the hunger pangs at bay. I even bought a “new” (second-hand) blender off Kijiji for $10 to replace my old broken one.

I started making a smoothie before my shift, and keeping it within reach so I could “graze” without having to wipe crumbs off my face or risk chewing in a customer’s ear.

This worked really well, until the day my “new” blender started smoking from the effort of chewing up some particularly lovely local kale. I was devastated! How could I get my smoothie fix with a broken blender?!

My panic did not last long, as I resolved to replace my second-hand blender with a new model that would be faster, more powerful, and much more expensive. Good thing I had my little job!

img_1699I started researching my options. I quickly realized that I could go really high-end with a Vitamix or a Blendtec, spending a boat-load of money, but getting the absolute Cadillac of blenders. Unfortunately I didn’t have a boat-load of money, especially not to spend on a blender.

On the other end of the spectrum I saw personal blenders for as low as $20 for some models. I have had bad experiences with extremely low-priced small appliances like this, so these ones didn’t even make it to the discussion.

Somewhere in the middle was the NutriBullet.

vintage-blender-loveI knew my Mother-in-Law had bought a NutriBullet about a year ago, so I called her for her impression.

I asked her the key question everyone should ask before buying a new gadget: (i.e. there are reasons why there are ALWAYS ice cream makers, bread machines and, ahem, George Foreman grills at the second-hand store . . . and some of them may have been mine)

“Do you actually still use this thing?”

After a year, her answer was still YES! She told me she was still making smoothies on a near-daily basis.

This boded well (I think I used my bread maker, ice cream maker and grill steady for maybe three months before they started languishing in the cupboard. Well, except the ice cream maker . . . which I used once . . . )

Once I had her thumbs-up, I felt even more confident about the mostly 5-star ratings on Amazon.ca and CanadianTire.ca. There were a few reviewers who had concerns about the unit leaking, so I asked my Mother-In-Law about that as well. She told me it had leaked once or twice, but once she had started keeping the liquid level below the “Max” line, it had not leaked again.

This agreed with advice I read online, so I determined that the leaking issue was in fact a non-issue for me.

nutribulletBy this time, I had done a lot of research. I was getting thirsty for a smoothie. I had decided to buy a Nutribullet. And, because it’s me, I wanted it *right away*. I also wanted to make sure I would have no problems returning it just in case the leaking non-issue turned out to actually BE an issue after all.

So I headed out to Canadian Tire (Canadian Tire money safe in its dedicated pocket in my wallet), and I bought the Nutribullet 900.

My review of the Nutribullet 900

kaleSo, if you read the title of the review, you already know the answer: I LOVE MY NUTRIBULLET!

I love having green smoothies every day. They help me stay full until lunch . . . well, at least elevenses.

I love knowing that whatever else I consume throughout the day, I have already had at least 3-4 servings of fruit & veggies to start the day off.

I love having a way to consume kefir without gagging.

I love unlocking healthy fats from chia and flax seeds, and using coconut oil to release fat-soluble minerals from the blended up veggies.

If you catch me on a really *good* day I might try to convince you that green smoothies will save the world.

I got mine at least 6 months ago, and I still use it every day. It’s not hard to keep the fridge & freezer stocked with smoothie ingredients like bananas, strawberries, kale, chia, flax and kefir, and if I run out, there are innumerable delicious recipes out there (including in this local Sudbury-written cookbook, Greens 24/7 by Jessica Nadel). In fact, I even grew a mini smoothie-garden this summer, featuring kale and strawberries!

I will confess that mine HAS leaked a couple of times. But each time it has been because I overfilled it. Luckily, clean-up is not hard: there is a drainage hole that leads down to the base, which I have made sure to gently flush out so it won’t get clogged with smoothie gunk.

If I had one complaint, it would be the bulky packaging and the unnecessary redundant advertising “recipe books”. TWO hard-bound books trying to convince me of the health benefits, in French and English? Really? When I’ve *already* bought the thing? PLUS two soft-cover books that seem to be just shorter versions of the hard-covers? A simple slim pamphlet would have sufficed.

But I can forgive them, because, as I already said, I LOVE my Bullet!

I’ve included my Amazon.ca affiliate links in this post, so please, if YOU have a boat-load of money to spend on a blender, please do so through my link! I would be eternally grateful 😀