Frugal Tips for School Lunches

With the typical school lunch costing up to $3 per meal, many parents have opted to prepare lunches from home for their child. Every parent wants their child to enjoy a nutritious and tasty lunch each afternoon at school. But it can be challenging to serve up a packed lunch that is nutritionally sound and not too expensive. Luckily, there are many options available when it comes to packing a frugal lunch that is well-balanced and tasty. 

Recycle dinner leftovers for a great lunch

Everyone in the family enjoyed the fried chicken that you served up for last night’s dinner, and it can easily be enjoyed as the next afternoon’s lunch. But don’t toss another chicken leg into your child’s lunchbox; use the leftover chicken to make something slightly different. For example, chicken can be ground up into small pieces and made into a delicious chicken salad by adding a little mayonnaise. Spread the chicken salad onto bread or onto a tortilla for a tasty lunch treat. 

Go with the grain

Another great suggestion for that leftover chicken is to cut the chicken into smaller pieces and then add it to cooked rice or pasta. You can serve this easily in your child’s thermos container where it will stay warm until lunchtime. This meal makes good economical sense. Grains such as pasta and rice are inexpensive, can be purchased in bulk and they have long shelf lives. Any leftover meat such as poultry, pork or beef can be paired up with rice or pasta to make for a hearty lunch that will keep your child fueled up until dinnertime.

Add some egg-citement

Hard boiled eggs are an inexpensive and healthy food that can easily be added to your child’s lunch. You simply cannot beat the nutritional power and protein that is packed inside that lovely, white eggshell! At around 15 cents per egg, a large hard boiled egg provides 13 essential nutrients, over 6 grams of protein and is just 72 calories. Eggs can also be used for egg-salad sandwiches, providing an inexpensive and satisfying meal. With great versatility and little expense, it’s no wonder this food is known as, “the incredible edible egg!”

Not your mother’s peanut butter and jelly

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are a low-cost food that is packed in school lunchboxes every day. It is true that the cost of preparing this sandwich is just pennies per lunch, but the same old PB and J can get a bit boring. How about dressing up the typical peanut butter and jelly sandwich with banana slices, or raisins? Other alternatives include sprinkling some chocolate chips on top of the peanut butter or adding some miniature marshmallows. Your child may even enjoy a layer of dried cereal spread on top of the peanut butter for a crunchy sandwich treat. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are an inexpensive food choice, yet can become a bit predictable as the school year progresses.  Add some interesting accompaniments to this favorite sandwich and make it a lunch that will keep your child interested.

Don’t purchase individually bagged snacks

Sure, it’s convenient to toss an individual bag of chips or cookies into your child’s lunchbox, but families are paying a high price for that convenience. A larger, economy sized bag of chips can be separated into sandwich bags for less than half the cost of the prepackaged, individual portions. Purchase snacks that your child enjoys and then assign him the task of placing the snacks into smaller sandwich bags. You will then have a supply of convenient snacks available to toss into the lunchbox each morning.

Purchase seasonal produce

Your child loves strawberries, but it does not make sense to purchase them out of season when they are almost $5 a pint. However, purchasing fresh produce always makes good nutritional sense. Look for fruits and vegetables that are in season or on sale. Bananas are an inexpensive fruit to add to your child’s lunch. Not only are bananas completely portable, requiring no special packaging, they are packed with healthy nutrients such as potassium and fiber, and their cost seems to remain steady throughout the year. How appealing is that?

Bake in bulk

The next time you bake a batch of your favorite cookies, consider doubling the ingredients and bake a batch to freeze.  After your extra batch of cookies has cooled, place a couple of cookies into a sandwich bag, then twist-tie the bag securely. Repeat this process until the extra batch of cookies is completely bagged, and then place the individual bags into the freezer. You’ve just created a convenient and low-cost dessert that is available to pack within your child’s lunch any day of the school year. You can do the same idea with muffins, cupcakes or brownies.  By baking desserts from scratch in bulk quantities, you will know exactly what ingredients your child is consuming and also save money by not purchasing the more expensive prepackaged foods.

Skip the juice boxes

Not only do prepackaged juice boxes contain a lot of added sugar, they are expensive and many times the unused portion gets tossed into the garbage can. Juice boxes and pre-bagged juice drinks can be a waste. To save money and eliminate waste, consider using a container such as an empty water bottle (or thermos) and pack your child’s drink. This will allow you to purchase drinks (such as juice) in family size portions, and then divvy up a lunch-sized portion each day for your child to bring to school.  Diluting the juice with a little bit of water will cut down on its overpowering sweetness and stretch the servings even further. The same idea can be applied to other drinks that your child enjoys such as fruit punch, apple juice or lemonade.

Use reusables

Not only can empty water bottles be used to pack convenient and inexpensive drinks for your child’s lunch, small plastic containers make sensible reusable storage places for sandwiches, snacks and other lunch fare. Don’t purchase plastic utensils unless you plan on washing and reusing them.  It makes good sense to include regular flatware such as forks or spoons that can be washed at home. Save money by packing your child’s lunch in reusable containers that will last all year through. 

Whether you recycle leftovers, add some excitement with eggs, or keep the desserts a sweet treat by baking in bulk, there are many ways to keep your child’s lunch stocked with good choices that are inexpensive. As you experiment with different lunch ideas, make note of your child’s favorite requests. Your child will be happy, and your wallet will thank you, too!